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Shakespeare in cyberspace: New London-based Flock Theatre does readings of The Bard's plays online, and the public is invited

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On Monday night, the melodious dialogue of Shakespeare floated through cyberspace, as people gathered on Zoom to read Act Two of “Timon of Athens.”

This is one of the ways that New London-based Flock Theatre has devised to work within the "new normal,” as coronavirus keeps folks at home. It’s bringing theater fans together online, if not in person.

Flock is holding weeknight readings of lesser-known Shakespeare plays online — 45 minutes to an hour of “Henry VIII” last week and an act of “Timon of Athens” each night this week. It is open to the public, and starts at 6 p.m.

People can join in and read, or they can listen or watch. To do any of that, folks should visit the Flock website or Flock Makerspace Facebook at 5:45 p.m. to get the Zoom link.

Flock Executive Director Derron Wood said they started the readings in part to see if a group of like-minded people would want to gather online and do something to get their minds off what’s going on in the world for a bit.

“It’s been interesting because a lot of people have been joining from all over the country,” he said.

In fact, one person who worked with Flock years ago and now lives in England set her alarm so she could read with the group online.

On Monday, Tom Metcalf joined the readings from his home in California, where he moved in 1997. Metcalf had acted with Flock when he lived in Connecticut and has remained good friends with Wood. Metcalf had a successful run of stage work as a performer in L.A. Then, everything came to a standstill with COVID-related closures.

“I have performed in almost half of Shakespeare's canon, and I have missed it. To be able to ‘perform’ with one of the people I respect, admire and love the best in the world is a gift. It's like the prodigal returning home,” he said.

Raise a hand to read

At 5:45 p.m. Monday, people’s images started popping up on Zoom, ending up with 18 participants in all. Victor Chiburis, Flock’s assistant artistic director, read a brief description of what had happened in the first act of “Timon of Athens,” getting everyone up to speed before diving into the second act.

Wood explained the way things would work. He would ask for volunteers to take on roles that were coming up, and those who wanted to read would raise their hands. At one point, for instance, Wood said, “I need a first lord and a second lord." Hands went up. “OK, Elizabeth and Ben,” he said. And off they want, reciting The Bard’s words.

Wood had warned at the beginning that this was informal and could be a little rough, since it was a cold reading for everybody. But it went surprisingly smoothly, with the readers (most of whom have been in Flock productions) mellifluously performing the poetic lines of Shakespeare. The only hitch seemed to be in the pronunciation of some of the more complicated names.

A rehearsal for the rehearsal

Wood said these readings have also allowed Flock to check out the viability of using a virtual platform for rehearsals of future productions. The theater group is hoping to start virtual rehearsals for its planned version of “Jane Eyre.” Originally, the piece was supposed to go up in New London’s Shaw Mansion in mid-April. In-person rehearsals had started when coronavirus concerns put a stop to that. So now the group is hoping to go online.

“Hopefully, if there's a break and we’re allowed to do, say, an outdoor performance, where people can still be a safe distance, we’ll already have shows ready to go. It would be a matter of a much shorter live rehearsal for them. And if not, we will present it online — a Zoom audience or something like that,” Wood said.

Christie Williams, a member of the “Jane Eyre” cast, took part in Monday’s reading. He said that theater is a collaborative art form, and when people collaborate, a natural community develops.

“Given how isolated most of us are from our friends and families and the world by this plague, coming together to read Shakespeare in this way renews that community. So many of the people reading last night I've worked with in plays along the way with Flock,” he said.

A MakerSpace for the performing arts

The readings are also connected to a TRIP grant that Flock was awarded to start a MakerSpace for the performing arts. Wood, who was recently awarded the Connecticut Arts Hero Award by the Connecticut Office of the Arts, said that, of all the MakerSpaces he has come across, he had never seen one for the performing arts. Flock partnered with the Thames Club and Dev's on State for the grant to make it happen.

That MakerSpace was going to be held in various spaces in the Thames Club and Dev's restaurant in New London, but the COVID-related closures necessitated a change in plans. So Flock started it online via Zoom and is planning to focus on things like playwriting, music and poetry that can be done online.

“We are trying to connect Connecticut theater directors, actors, playwrights, musicians, spoken word artists, and other performers to share resources with each other and develop work as part of an online community,” says Flock artistic associate Noah Todd, who was one of nine recipients of an Emerging Artist recognition grant from the Connecticut Office of the Arts as part of the Artist Fellowship program.

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