Forsooth: COVID-19 brings Shakespeare to Vermont backyards

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Jena Necrason, of the Vermont Shakespeare Festival, performs "Shakespeare," in a backyard, Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. The idea for the program, known as "Shakespeare to You," or "Bard to Your Yard," was conceived as a way to keep live theater alive at a time when many social activities are being postponed or canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

BURLINGTON, Vt. – 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.