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Iowa City's Riverside Theatre moving Shakespeare from park to virtual stage

Adam Knight, Riverside Theatre's producing artistic director, stands the grounds where he had hoped to stage Shakespeare
Adam Knight, Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director, stands the grounds where he had hoped to stage Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” this summer. But with COVID-19 cases spiking in Johnson County, the in-person production is being postponed until next summer on the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park. A free, one-time-only reading will be livestreamed Aug. 9, “to provide viewers with a little Shakespeare this summer,” Knight said. (Mary Jane Claassen)
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To be or not to be staging free Shakespeare in the Park this summer? That is the question that has been vexing Riverside Theatre in Iowa City since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down its season in mid-March.

Producing Artistic Director Adam Knight and his colleagues kept moving back the date for mounting “The Winter’s Tale” on the Festival Stage in Lower City Park — originally slated for June 12 to 28 — holding onto the hope that the community could gather outdoors by August.

But with coronavirus numbers on the rise locally, the difficult cancellation decision had to be made.

“We had a good cry, and then we did the right thing,” Knight said. “We were holding on as long as we could, but it became clear that we couldn’t ask our artists and audiences to gather in a time when scientists and our mayor are telling us it’s not OK.

“It was the right thing, but it was hard. We all say, ‘The show must go on,’ and to push it back was difficult. The thing that made it easier and the thing that made it a positive, was committing to doing two shows next summer.

“We’re not talking about shutting down something and something going away forever — that loss of plays or productions,” he stressed. “It made us realize that next season is the time to be more ambitious.”

He’s hoping to reassemble the same cast to perform “The Winter’s Tale” and another Shakespearean tale next summer, like Riverside Theatre used to do.

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Reviving that tradition is especially important in celebrating the professional theater troupe’s 40th anniversary next year, he said.

“It gives me something to be really excited about, and it’s nice to give that to our audiences. That’s something to look forward to,” Knight said.

Online realm

But audiences won’t have to wait through the winter to get a taste of “The Winter’s Tale.” Riverside Theatre is offering an online reading of the play at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9, expected to run under two hours. Even though it’s free, audience members will need to register to receive the link for this one-night-only offering. Watch for details at Riversidetheatre.org

“That’s a way to provide a little Shakespeare this summer, in lieu of a full production,” Knight said. “It’s not a replacement. It’s a way to give a little something to the community and to provide actors with a chance to do these roles that they’ve been excited about all summer.”

And while the show was decided upon before the pandemic sent people sheltering in place, he said the timing is right to see Shakespeare’s 1623 play filled with drama and redemption.

“It’s a tale about a tyrant who does a bad thing that curses his land,” Knight said. “But then ultimately, it’s a play about forgiveness and how time can heal.

“For me it already felt like the right play. Now it feels even more of that, because time is that thing we don’t have patience for right now. We keep wondering when will this (end), and in the play, 15 years pass until this kind of curse is lifted,” he said.

“This story of healing is very important to me right now.”

Wherefore art thou?

Riverside Theatre shows will be popping up in unexpected places during its 40th anniversary season, as the troupe bade farewell to its 30-year home on North Gilbert Street at the end of June. As Riverside searches for a new home, Knight and company are taking dramatic leaps of faith to continue offering their artistry in new locations.

Building on the lessons being learned in staging the recent “Thirty Days of Shakespeare” online monologues, as well as “The Winter’s Tale,” Riverside will offer a virtual series this fall.

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“Stories in Quarantine” features four full productions of contemporary plays, beginning with Patrick Du Laney in “Buyer and Cellar” from Sept. 11 to 20. The series continues Oct. 8 to 18 with a coproduction with PURE Theatre of Charleston, S.C., featuring guest artist Joy Vandervort-Cobb in “No Child ...” Katy Hahn steps into the spotlight in “Grounded” from Oct. 16 to 25, and the series will wrap Nov. 13 to 22 with Riverside co-founder Jody Hovland in “Midnight Your Time.”

“Riverside is trying to embrace the limitations of this medium and bring our audiences something unique,” Knight said. “This isn’t going to be people reading from a script. This is going to be actors who are fully rehearsed performing these plays, but instead of the stage being Gilbert Street or the Festival, the stage is the screen. Making that the medium and embracing it provides a lot of opportunities for storytelling.

“We’ve chosen these plays specifically with people’s computers in mind — a new way of watching things online,” he said. “It’s not like a filmed play — it’s a fully realized event.”

Riverside also will team up with Mirrorbox Theatre in Cedar Rapids for three Zoom readings in the fall, and is bringing back the “Walking the Wire” solo works showcase in October.

In December, Riverside is hoping to present an in-person revival of “A Christmas Carol,” presented in a venue large enough to allow for social distancing. It will feature Tim Budd and Tara McGovern, directed by Riverside co-founder Ron Clark.

Knight is excited to involve Hovland and Clark in the 40th anniversary season, spotlighting the couple who retired from their Riverside leadership roles on Aug. 1, 2015.

“It was really important to me to welcome them back in,” Knight said, “to acknowledge them as artists and to acknowledge them as artists who have created this organization that has lived beyond their tenure and hopefully will live beyond mine. ...

“None of this would be here without their work and vision.”

Knight also is scouting out sites around Iowa City for a spring season of in-person productions, including “Skeleton Crew” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at sites to be determined, and “The Flick” at FilmScene on The Ped Mall.

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“The fall, for us, is about embracing this moment, and rather than shuttering our doors, finding ways to continue our mission,” Knight said. “Our mission doesn’t stop even though our building is closed. We have an obligation as a cultural organization to find new ways to tell stories and to find new ways for people to gather.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you watch

• What: Free online reading of Shakespeare’s “The Winter Tale”

• By: Riverside Theatre, Iowa City

• When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9

• Where: Registration and viewing details to come at riversidetheatre.org

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