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Oh my Bard: Kern Shakespeare Festival shakes things up

It’s a brave new world for the Kern Shakespeare Festival at Bakersfield College. The annual event continues with a unique spin on two of the Bard’s classics as well as a third contemporary production, all of which will be presented virtually starting Thursday.

Since 1985, the festival, founded by professor Randy Messick, has presented two Shakespeare productions every fall at Bakersfield College. So for Brian Sivesind, associate professor at BC and the festival's artistic director, he wasn't going to let the pandemic crush their creativity.

"For me, there was never a consideration to not do the festival," he wrote in an email. "I knew we would figure something out, and I had a slew of options ranging from socially distanced audiences and live performers with masks to having people record sound from their homes with mics that we would deliver to their doorstep. So I knew we would do something for sure."

Once the college approved allowances for hybrid lab classes — the plays are “Acting Lab” classes — Sivesind and his team started planning how to record shows on campus for eventual virtual distribution.

Also new this year is the festival's creative expansion. In addition to two Shakespeare plays — "The Comedy of Errors" and "The Tempest" — the festival will include a third show, "Bootycandy," selected to make the festival more inclusive. Going forward, the event will also highlight a play written by a person of color.

"We are fighting for equality and racial justice in this country," Sivesind wrote. "Equity in the arts is important. There have been discussions in the local theater community about whether we are doing all we can to support equity and use our privilege to raise opportunities for others."

Acknowledging his own privilege as a college professor who can choose what plays to produce each year, he said it was vital to broaden the festival's reach.

"I think it’s important to use my position of power to do all I can to amplify the voices of people of color, and this felt like the best way to do it. I’m excited about where it will take us, and I’m only sorry that this first year won’t actually be live onstage."

Tevin Joslen, who directed "Bootycandy," said he was thrilled to be part of these changes. He and Sivesind have often discussed race and casting and equity in the theater, and the instructor thought he was a good fit as director.

After discussing what shows would be manageable to present in a COVID-19-affected world, Joslen recommended a play by Robert O’Hara, which was packaged with another of the playwright's work, "Bootycandy," a provocative collection of sketches about a man's experiences growing up Black and gay.

"From the first scene it felt special and by the end it had answered most of our questions for us," Joslen wrote in an email. "The dialogue is very poetic, some scenes even being written in verse, which gave us our connection to Shakespeare. And although it’s written from a black experience, the show is more about sexuality and perspective, so we weren’t talking exclusively about racism (which can be frustrating for actors of color, when the only shows they are cast in tackle the 'n' word)."

Based on the show's abstract quality, Joslen decided to stage it as an illustrated radio play, with each scene drawn by a different artist using a different style. Joslen said one of his actors described it as an "adult Reading Rainbow" with voices performing the play along with storybook-like visuals.

"This allowed me to provide the visual style necessary for the show without risking the health/comfortability of my actors," he wrote.

The festival's other two plays will also offer unique presentations. This weekend's "Comedy," directed by Bob Kempf, is a silent film set in the 1918 flu pandemic. Thanks to the setting, the all-female cast wear masks for the entire show, which has been shortened to about an hour, allowing a real-life safety measure.

Full of slapstick and mistaken identity, the show centers on two sets of identical twins who were accidentally separated at birth.

Kempf rehearsed with his performers via Zoom but when the play was filmed, spread out over different days, he said they all learned they need to up the ante.

"Once they got there at the house we filmed at, they got into it. They realized they needed to be a little more wacky and crazy because their faces were covered the entire time. It was unusual but they did a good job."

While Sivesind credits his wife, Ellie, for the silent movie take on "Errors," it was time with his son that inspired his spin on "The Tempest," which will be available Nov. 5-7.

"The idea for 'The Tempest' came to me while my son was watching those really stupid videos on YouTube where they have figures just sitting there but they add voiceovers and a story," he wrote. "Then I saw his pirate ship with little figures and so I started playing with them. And that was it."

"Tempest" actors recorded their lines and for the past few weeks Sivesind and theater technician Kevin Ganger have been filming Lego figurines to tell the story of a remote island that is a scene of romance, betrayal, political intrigue and magic."

"It’s going to be spectacular," Sivesind said.

The artistic director said he hopes people immerse themselves in the plays, which he feels stand out as their own pieces of art, created with hard work and consideration for the safety of all of those involved.

"I figured if we were gonna do this festival, we should do something special. I think we’ve pulled that off, and I hope people will agree."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.