Since 1983, the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, also known as SF Shakes, has been making Shakespeare performances accessible to community members in the Bay Area and offering programs like free Shakespeare plays in the park and summer camps for children. In an interview with The Daily Californian, SF Shakes’ education program manager Anne Yumi Kobori described the organization’s ethos.
“We believe in providing a lot of free services around the arts and granting access to people, regardless to their identity and affiliation. So for a lot of people, especially for a lot of children, we’re sort of the first point of access to Shakespeare,” Kobori said.
Now, as times are changing and the effects of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, are being felt worldwide, performing arts organizations like SF Shakes are demonstrating their resilience and adapting to the struggles that they face in these unprecedented times.
For Kobori, SF Shakes has been a part of her life for many years.
When asked how she first came into contact with the organization, she said, “I participated in two of their summer camps when I was young … it sort of helped shape my love of theater.”
Like the performers and artists that she works with in SF Shakes’ educational programs, Kobori herself was largely introduced to Shakespeare through the organization, and her experience has taught her a lot about the nature of performing Shakespeare.
One of the most important elements of performing Shakespeare for Kobori is being outdoors, something that has been instrumental for her as both a performer and a teaching artist.
“I definitely really enjoyed getting to perform outdoors. … I think that has definitely sort of helped me understand Shakespeare as something that should be performed, not necessarily to a large audience, but definitely in a very big way, in that it’s not grandiose but very emotion-packed and exciting,” Kobori said.
In terms of the summer camp programs coming up this June, Kobori explained, “One thing that we’re working on for our summer camps is we’re moving at least all of the June camps totally online.”
According to Kobori, these camps will be structured in the same way as they usually are to create a sense of consistency and routine. Although outdoor summer camps are being put on hold for now, Kobori looks forward to a time when such activities can resume.
Kobori also spoke about plans for the upcoming free Shakespeare in the Park production of “King Lear.”
“I know that for the free Shakespeare in the Park, we are still going forward with the ‘King Lear’ production, and we have sort of a tiered plan of how to share that with audiences,” Kobori explained. “So, it could involve … a Zoom live show. But, ideally, it would be something where all the actors can actually get together in the same room.”
Shakespeare in the Park is one of the most beloved theater programs in Northern California, and SF Shakes brings productions to locations like Pleasanton, Cupertino, Redwood City and San Francisco.
The primary form of rehearsals for ongoing productions has been over Zoom conferencing, and fortunately, according to Kobori, this has been going well.
Kobori explained: “One of the things we’ve done is for our Upstart Crows, which is a teen program that we hold on Saturdays — they perform a play together. For that program, we transitioned to fully online Zoom rehearsals, so they’re still rehearsing the play — they’re just all in their own homes and they’re on the computer, and we’ve actually been able to hold the rehearsals fairly successfully with them, and they will be having a Zoom performance on Saturday.”
Regardless of the changes that occur, Kobori is thankful for what SF Shakes has brought her.
“(What’s been rewarding) is the opportunity to connect with many different artists in the Bay Area,” Kobori said. “I feel like I really have a wide network of actors, directors, writers, producers in the Bay Area, and it really does feel like there are many people I could contact.”
Additionally, Kobori feels that the new technological parameters have given performers and artists new ways to work on their techniques and hone their skills.
“More emphasis is being made on the way they’re speaking and sort of that headshot view of a person,” Kobori stated, although she noted that full-body exercises and warmups are still being implemented for groups like the Upstart Crows.
Through their work, SF Shakespeare Festival and other theater organizations are proving that the performing arts can still survive and remain strong even during times like these. Now more than ever, theater is providing comfort, support and entertainment to performers and audiences alike while expanding past the conventional boundaries of performance.
This article is part of a series in which local artists and art organizations discuss how closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak are impacting them.