Strawberry dresses, feline videobombs, and ancient language come to life: this is Shakespeare, pandemic-style.
As an actor who was cast in a dream role two weeks before the world shut down, I’ve, like many others, pivoted to online performance—whatever that may mean. Thus far I’ve participated in three digital productions, cleaning my laptop between rehearsals and run-throughs, while trying to keep my cat off camera with varying degrees of success. Three months ago, I learned about Sofa Shakespeare, which features no rehearsals, cast members from all over the world, and a unique way to broadcast the Bard with as many people, pets, and puppets as possible.
It goes like this: Sofa Shakespeare creator Julia Giolzetti puts a call on Facebook for a work she’s painstakingly cut into one-minute segments. Anyone who fills out the Google Doc is accepted and recites a minute-long passage in the work; any overflow are designated alternates should others not submit on time—which according to Giolzetti, happens a lot. Once they receive their text, actors have approximately one week to submit their video-recorded segment, which often involves more than one character. They must stick with the assigned cut but can deliver it any way they like.
“If you’re afraid of [performing] Shakespeare, this might be the perfect thing,” Giolzetti said. “You can put a stuffed animal in front of a camera and read the lines off script. There’s no right or wrong way… except filming in portrait instead of landscape!” Once Giolzetti has every video (which can involve chasing down stragglers and reassigning roles if necessary), she edits them together and posts the completed production on the project’s YouTube channel. You can watch the most recent, January’s Comedy of Errors, now. Next up: Hamlet.
Since its first production of Romeo and Juliet last spring, Sofa Shakespeare has had over 1,500 individual submissions from 26 countries, with anywhere from 100 to 220 actors in each production. Sofa Shakespeare’s YouTube channel has over 20,000 views. Other than English, the Bard’s words are spoken in 13 different languages, including Klingon and Tutelo-Saponi, a rarely recorded Native American tribal language. The November production of Othello featured an entirely BIPOC cast “to highlight the need for diversity and representation in Shakespeare performance,” Giolzetti said.
Though early submissions primarily came from trained actors, Sofa Shakespeare now boasts cast members the same age as Giolzetti’s three-year-old daughter, Rosalind. “I didn’t really think it was going to be a family-friendly project, but obviously there are a lot of people who are stuck at home, and a lot more actors who are parents now,” Giolzetti said. “There are really young kids doing amazing stuff!”
Like me, Giolzetti booked a prized gig moments before the pandemic. “I had just gotten cast in Beau Jeste, my first lead,” said the San Diego-based actor and teaching artist. “We had one rehearsal.” Her school touring company had also just added an actor to its Macbeth. “It was March 15,” Giolzetti recalled. “I looked around and said, ‘We’re not going to do this show, are we’?” As venues closed, she realized, “I had a lot of momentum and energy stored up, and nowhere to put it.”
Not long after, Giolzetti was scrolling through Facebook when she found a post about a crowdsourced musical. Though the show never happened because of copyright issues, Giolzetti was inspired by the format, in which “everyone was going to sign up for a scene or song,” she said. “I asked my friends, ‘Would you guys do this with Shakespeare?’”
Though Giolzetti had, in her words, “no social media following” and a lack of experience with video editing, her Shakespeare résumé is extensive. Since her first show as a preteen, Giolzetti has performed the Bard everywhere from California classrooms to Istanbul, Turkey. After graduating from NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, Giolzetti spent several more years in New York, mostly performing Shakespeare. “It just kind of happened that way,” she said.
For Sofa Shakespeare, Giolzetti draws upon her life mission: “rejecting and challenging everyone’s beliefs that Shakespeare has become too difficult.” In her career, this has included everything from performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream to first-graders to acting in the New York production of Drunk Shakespeare, in which one professional performer attempts to enact an entire play after taking five shots of whiskey. She is also part of an all-female company called Accidental Shakespeare, which incorporates props provided by the audience; Giolzetti noted that practice “influenced what Sofa Shakespeare became.”
Speaking of props, Sofa Shakespeareans use many: from T-Rex suits for Romeo and Juliet to tiny squirrel puppets playing Prospero’s rivals in The Tempest. Pets make oft-credited cameos. When I was cast in my first Sofa Shakespeare, as jaded wife Adriana in The Comedy of Errors, I sported my most extensive pandemic purchase—the Lirika Matoshi “strawberry dress”—while gesturing with an antique wine goblet passed down from my grandmother and filled with watermelon LaCroix. As Horatio in this February’s Hamlet, I described the first appearances of the ghost from under my bed, with my stuffed Grogu (otherwise known as baby Yoda) taking on the title role.
Giolzetti encourages silliness and embraces imperfection, even “when people mess up and start over… it’s all part of it.” Though challenges include a high attrition rate and “trying to figure out how much follow up I should do for my sanity’s sake,” Giolzetti emphasized that the rewards are plentiful. And while she’ll be putting the project on hiatus—her second child is due in April—she’s open to giving personal favorites like Richard III and As You Like It the Sofa Shakespeare treatment.
Whether this happens “with or without my direct involvement,” she said, Giolzetti hopes to continue the project’s collaborative, can-do energy. “This isn’t for me to win awards,” she said. “It’s for us to accomplish something. It’s for you to do something.” And the spirit of the Bard is never far from her mind: “Shakespeare can bring joy when you don’t take it seriously. I don’t think Shakespeare ever took himself that seriously.”