OSF & chill: Breaking the Bard’s ‘Cymbeline’ into an episodic presentation

Carolina Vargas as Guiderius in a scene from Episode 7 of O! Digital Stage's 10-episode production "The Cymbeline Project."
November 6, 2022

First three episodes of digital 10-part ‘The Cymbeline Project’ dropped Thursday

By Lee Juillerat for Ashland.news

It’s an idea turned reality.

Nataki Garrett, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, remembers hearing a friend mention that Shakespeare’s seldom-produced play “Cymbeline,” seemed like one that could be broken down into episodes.

“That’s a really great idea,” Garrett remembers thinking. “Then I couldn’t shake it. I read it again and it felt episodic.”

Nataki Garrett

She talked about the concept with Scarlett Kim, OSF’s artistic director and director of innovation and strategy, who echoed and, eventually, expanded Garrett’s thoughts.

“She put together a really great proposal,” says Garrett.

The result is “The Cymbeline Project,” which breaks the play into 10 digital episodes that began Thursday, Nov. 3, with episodes 1-3.  Episodes 4-6 will be available beginning Thursday, Nov. 10, with 7-8 offered Nov. 17 and the two final episodes, 9-10, available Dec. 2. The entire series is available through December for $15.

Scarlett Kim

It’s something new for the festival. Garrett stresses that most plays don’t lend themselves to be done as episodes or give audiences the opportunity to create alternative endings. As she says of presenting “Cymbeline” in episodes, “It’s not a gimmick, it’s an offering.”

“The Cymbeline Project” is an idea turned reality, in part, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced OSF and other live theater groups to shut down and find alternative ways of creating productions. As Garrett explains, “We’re experiencing a recovery period after the pandemic.”

“’Cymbeline’ as an episodic play was a one-time idea,” she says, noting, “This is the one Shakespeare play that lends itself (to episodes). ‘Cymbeline’ is open-ended — it’s a comedy and a tragedy at the same time … I don’t think I would do an episodic ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

Caro Zeller as Imogen in a scene from Episode 3 of O! Digital Stage’s 10-episode production “The Cymbeline Project.”

She also believes that, historically, “Cymbeline” has had different versions, something she says that “gives us access to choice.

“During Shakespeare’s time it was a series of expeditions into new editions. There was a lot of adaption and exploration in Shakespeare’s plays,” Garrett says.

Garrett says the idea that plays are “static” and only performed in a specific style is incorrect. She notes that plays, including Edward Albee’s classic, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” have been revised. In the case of “Virginia Wolff,” the original version was revised in 2005 by a modified script that eliminated seven pages from the original text and changed events in other portions of the play.

It’s Garrett’s hope “The Cymbeline Project” will help create new audiences, explaining, “What we’re trying to do is connect with an audience that already exists,” including people “who love performances in the digital sphere” and those who prefer live theater.

“My hope is it’s an intersection audience,” Garrett says. “This engagement is about accessibility.”

Garrett believes that by creating new audiences, those people will also want to experience live theater.

“Technology is an access point. It drives people back to the theater,” she says.

While several factors have resulted in sharp declines in OSF attendance, she notes live theater attendance dipped nationally. Broadway productions averaged only about 41% of capacity while the OSF rate was 46%, even with sharply reduced ticket prices.

A scene from Episode 9 of O! Digital Stage’s 10-episode production “The Cymbeline Project.”

Garrett also noted the festival is a major factor in the Ashland and Rogue Valley economy. While hoping attendance will bounce back, she says changing trends were seen this year. This past season, for example, there was an increase in individuals buying a single ticket for a single play. Many of those people, she says, attended a play as part of a longer stay that also included whitewater rafting, wine tasting tours, mountain biking and other outdoor activities.

While some playgoers have lamented the absence of long-time favorite actors, Garrett says many found acting jobs elsewhere and notes many often are part-time Ashland-area residents.

“They’re not the ones I’m most concerned about,” Garrett says.

A scene from Episode 10 of O! Digital Stage’s 10-episode production “The Cymbeline Project.”

Instead, she believes the impact is greater for people involved in producing plays, such as costumers, box office staff and technicians, emphasizing, “They actually live here. They’re embedded in the community. I feel like we’re an interdependent community.”

“The Cymbeline Project,” however, was less costly to produce than a full-scale stage play because segments were filmed where the actors live.

“This is born out of necessity at the time,” Garrett says. “We didn’t have to fly people or house people here. We did it because we were in the middle of a pandemic, when the actors couldn’t be here.”

“The Cymbeline Project” is an experiment Garrett and others hope viewers will find innovating, exciting and visually invigorating.

For more about “The Cymbeline Project,” visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival website at osfashland.org.

Email freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net.

A scene from Episode 8 of O! Digital Stage’s 10-episode production “The Cymbeline Project.”

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