Weekly Shakespeare Zoom reading group provides connection during pandemic

May 18, 2021 — When the pandemic shut down his local repertory theatre, Todd Brown ’90 was looking for ways to pass quarantine time with his daughter, Gwenyth.

They had a mutual interest in the works of William Shakespeare, so getting together with other Grinnell alumni and theatre friends for readings via Zoom seemed like a worthwhile next step. He had little idea that a year later more than 200 people would have taken part in the online readings of all 37 Shakespeare plays.

The members of the group "Two Households of Fair Corona" hold up teddy bears in a group shot taken from the zoom meeting.
Members of the Two Households in Fair Corona reading group hold up bears during a Zoom session. William Shakespeare wrote few stage directions, but his most famous from The Winter’s Tale reads “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Thus, the group held up their teddy bears and let out a roar.

“I totally love how it grew and blossomed and morphed into a trans-national thing,” Brown says. “I started with Grinnellians, and now I notice that local Southern Illinois people are Facebook friends with Grinnellians all over the country. It's been a fun bridge among different sub-sects of my life.”

Beginning in April 2020, the first play they undertook was As You Like It. Since then, almost every weekend has yielded another reading; they have read some plays more than once along with others in which Shakespeare’s authorship is in dispute.

However, the term “reading” doesn’t fully cover the scope of the experience. Actors sometimes find costumes and props around their homes or set up different Zoom backgrounds. People join via invitation to the Facebook group – playfully called Two Households in Fair Corona – where early in the week an event invite announces the upcoming play.

For many participants, Two Households in Fair Corona” is a welcome release for emotions spurred by the pandemic. Kathryn “Kat” DiFoxfire Wilson ’93 is an administrator or “Norn” (a veiled reference to Shakespeare’s Wyrd Sisters) for the Facebook group. Wilson was involved with theatre before, but mostly behind-the-scenes. “I wasn’t much of an actor then,” she says.

But now, she’s hooked. She likes exploring roles that differ from her own personality. “I’m a really nice person, but it can be fun to play the one who does the stabbing,” she explains referring to Shakespeare’s tragedies. She’s also played characters that hit closer to home. In King John, her character’s son falls to his death.

“In June of 2020, there was no vaccine in sight, and I worried about my own child,” Wilson says. “Fear and tragedy felt so real, and I put all of that into my character.”

After a play is chosen and participants RSVP, the director for that week assigns the roles along with some background about the play. The group is low-key, emphasizing fun over skill, with no pressure to have one’s part prepared, Wilson says. As the months have progressed, more than 200 individuals have collectively joined the group, several rarely missing a week.

Ray Haile ’04 is a regular participant who hadn’t acted since Grinnell. Upon joining Two Households in Fair Corona, Ray discovered how much they missed the stage. “I found that I needed to act bigger on Zoom,” Ray explains. “On stage you pick up on all the subtleties, but on a screen, I needed to do more ‘overacting’ to get others to engage more with my character.”

Haile lives alone, which made quarantine incredibly difficult, and the Facebook group provided a missing connection. “It’s been a lifeline for me. I’m trans non-binary and only ever played women roles before.” Haile now plays a wide spectrum of roles, providing the validation missed during a pandemic when they can’t be around friends. “I like how inclusive it is. If someone RSVPs they will get a part. If there is a role with many lines, the director may split it between two or more participants.”

Grinnellians involved have noticed how the relevance of Shakespeare’s characters to present day is sometimes uncanny.

The chat feature of Zoom fills up during a reading as participants discuss themes including racism, misogyny, and homophobia that repeatedly surface in Shakespeare’s writing. As Wilson puts it, “We can debate the degree to which Merchant of Venice promotes or combats anti-Semitism, or explore the concept of masculinity in Coriolanus, or simply ask ‘What the heck is going on in this scene?’”

The administrators preview each play to provide content warnings so individuals can determine if they wish to participate. They also survey the group to decide upcoming plays.

While they have reached the end of the Shakespeare canon, they still revisit his plays, since new people continue to join. But they have also expanded their repertoire to include original plays by members of the group as well as a few other playwrights such as Oscar Wilde. No matter what they read, there is no question the show will go on. They have discovered as Haile puts it, “an itch that needed to be scratched.”

—by Melanie Drake ’92

For your information:

Visit the Two Households in Fair Corona Facebook group to request an invite to join the group. Each week, group members can mark themselves as “Going” for a speaking part or “Maybe” if they just want to watch.

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