COVID leads Asolo Repertory Theatre to bring school tour to outdoor public parks

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
From left, Ptah Garvin, Paige Klopfenstein, Charlotte Foster, and Merri Rashoyan in a scene from the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s school touring version of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

For the last decade, Asolo Repertory Theatre has been bringing Shakespeare to public school cafeterias, gyms and classrooms across the state, introducing thousands of students each year to short and contemporary versions of classic tragedies and comedies that fit with their teachers’ lesson plans.

Because of COVID-19 precautions, Asolo Rep’s school touring program BardWired can’t go into the schools for this year’s 45-minute version of the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.” Teachers and their students are instead being encouraged to attend a number of public outdoor performances being presented throughout the area.

“The tour usually goes to about 50 schools around the state,” said Sara Brunow, the Muriel O’Neil Education and Engagement Director. “We pivoted and focused this year on outdoor venues.”

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The performances are free, and they will be more widely available for the general public who, in the past, only was invited to a few performances during the fall tour.

The theater also is providing educational materials for teachers to use while working on lessons related to the play.

“We have a full curriculum designed to be either for classroom use or home use,” Brunow said. “It’s more of a program guide, and we’re sending information to all our teachers.” 

The cast of the Asolo Rep BardWired production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” a school tour program designed to be presented to community groups in outdoor parks.

Asolo Rep also is setting up what Brunow calls “curated conversations” with actors connecting with students in their classrooms via Zoom to talk about the play and their characters.

Director Gaby Rodriguez, who also adapted “Much Ado,” recently did one of the Zoom chats and said she was impressed with the questions.

“The students had been studying ‘Much Ado’ because they were getting ready to do their own production of it, and their questions were deep into the text,” she said.

Third-year students in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory annually star in the touring productions before they become members of the winter repertory acting company.

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Rodriguez, who previously adapted several other Shakespeare plays, said turning a three-hour work into a 45-minute story “means that you’re essentially building it from the ground up.”

The play, which is traditionally set in Messina, is usually about two sets of lovers. The relationship of Claudio and Hero, whose relationship is tested by the villain, Don John, while the tempestuous pairing of Claudio’s friend Benedick and Hero’s cousin Beatrice usually creates comedic and romantic explosions.

Rodriguez can’t tell the entire story, and she has focused her version on community and the scouts, the bumbling neighborhood watch group led by the comically full-of-himself Dogberry.

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“When I first read ‘Much Ado,’ the first thing that jumped at me was the watch, and how the watch could save everybody if people would listen to them, and if people listened, then none of the crazy stuff would happen,” Rodriguez said. “I’m looking at it from the kids’ point of view and seeing things from the outside and everything that the adults do. They often feel ignored.”

Focus on community

She knew the production would be presented in a variety of communities around the Sarasota area, and Rodriguez wanted her version to be accessible.

“Shakespeare is for everybody. I wanted people to see themselves and part of their community in the show. After two years of COVID, we need community and togetherness and approach it with love. That was the main part of the production. Everything else was picking the things that were important and figuring out how to do it fast.”

Brunow said the show is appropriate for all ages. “We had young people in the audience, and they got it and loved it. It makes you feel the community is coming together, and that’s not always true of Shakespeare.”

Even with limited time and a slightly different focus, Rodriguez said “all the key scenes that people may recognize are in there. They’re more integrated into the whole story than you would in a three-hour version.”

Nydira Adams as Beatrice and Giovanni Rincon as Benedick in the Asolo Rep BardWired production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

She describes Nydira Adams as Beatrice and Giovanni Rincon as Benedick as “still a pretty big part of the show. They’re fun. They’re two fantastic actors and they bring down the house. It’s about the playfulness in each other.”

She said this production heightens the contrasts between Benedick and Beatrice and Emily Bohn as Hero and Daniel Ajak as Claudio. Bohn also plays Don John, and Ptah Garvin appears as Dogberry.

Audience members who haven’t had much chance to be sitting in front of live actors during the pandemic are a major element of the production

“We do a lot of audience interaction moments from the very first scene,” Rodriguez said. “That’s been a big part of the idea, knowing they’re in it and knowing they’re following who is who and what is happening.”

Brunow said the whole program revolves around the question “why do we study Shakespeare.” The goal of BardWired is “making these stories that are so very human resonate with everybody in different ways. How do we make it work in 2021? It was written 500 years ago, so how does it work for students of today, for communities of today.”

Where to see ‘Much Ado’

2 and 6 p.m. Oct. 16 and 2 p.m. Oct. 17 at The Nest at Robinson Preserve, 840 99th St., Northwest Bradenton

5:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at Easterseals of Southwest Florida Happiness House, 350 Braden Ave., Bradenton

10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Oct. 30 at G.T. Bray Park Amphitheatre, 2811 51st St., West, Bradenton

5:30 p.m. Nov. 1, at Hermitage Artist Retreat, 6660 Manasota Key Rd., Englewood

4 p.m. Nov. 2 at North Sarasota Library, 2801 Newtown Blvd., Sarasota

11 a.m. Nov. 4 at the William H. Jervey Jr. Venice Public Library, 300 Nokomis Ave., S., Venice.

Performances are free. For more information

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