On an idyllic summer evening not far from the shore of Lake Champlain, the immortal words of William Shakespeare float from a lush backyard, professionally performed -- for an audience of six.
Jena Necrason of the Vermont Shakespeare Festival throws herself into the role of Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” lamenting the vagaries of the heart. Her husband John Nagle follows, performing Jaques’ famous soliloquy from “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”
Shakespeare came to this audience — a Burlington couple, their son and three of his middle-school aged friends who took a break from bicycling — through a program established after COVID-19 forced the festival to cancel its summer season.
So far Necrason, Nagle and about a dozen other actors have performed about 30 times, sometimes in backyards (safely socially distanced from their audiences), via Zoom or even on the phone. It’s free of charge.
“Instead of having to retreat and say ‘well, we have to wait, there’s nothing we can do right now except things that are virtual or online,’ we wanted to find a way to actually continue to play live,” Necrason said after the recent Burlington performance. “Theater is always an ignition point for conversation, dialogue, connection, joy, problem solving and hope.”
Originally, the festival had planned to present “The Merry Wives of Windsor” as its summer 2020 production. The actors were preparing for rehearsals, the performances had been scheduled and the venues chosen. But then, the virus swept across the world.
Festival officials pushed “Merry Wives” to 2021, but they wanted to find a way to give to the community, especially in uncertain times. Their solution: Shakespeare to You, also known as Bard to Your Yard.
“The idea is just a single person going up to a yard and ringing the doorbell, wearing a mask, stepping back, at least 6-feet apart, delivering a live Shakespeare monologue or sonnet as a way of connecting in a real, face-to-face, live way,” Nagle said.
To order up a performance, aspiring audiences go to the Vermont Shakespeare website and choose from among a dozen Shakespeare selections. They might choose Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, or the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” (“But soft, what light from yonder window breaks”) or Cassius’ lines in “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.”
A friend ordered up the performance for Jen and Jean Andre DeBedout, which they held in the backyard of their Burlington home. They watched from the deck as Necrason and Nagle gave their brief performances; the actors don’t wear costumes aside from the Elizabethan ruffs on their necks.
“I loved the way that it was performed, I loved the pieces that they picked, actually,” said Jean Andre DeBedout. “It expressed a little bit of the humor of Shakespeare as well as some of the serious notes that you get in there as well.”
Timothy Billings, an English professor and Shakespeare expert at Middlebury College, said the program was reminiscent of how early performers of Shakespeare would travel throughout England when the plague was hitting London.
“Obviously it’s very different in all sorts of ways, but I like that there’s this, kind of, historical echo of what happened in (Shakespeare’s) own time,” Billings said.