Zounds! Fresno-based group becomes an online Shakespeare powerhouse

If William Shakespeare is somehow lounging in that Green Room in the Sky, peering down every so often and keeping tabs on his body of work, I like to think that absolutely nothing would faze him these days. Sharks and Jets duking it out in “West Side Story”? No worries. Julia Stiles in “10 Things I Hate About You”? Utterly charming. Casting “As You Like It” with a company of non-gender-binary actors? Intriguing. Setting “Titus Andronicus” on the third moon of Mars? Sure, it’s a bit out of his universe of experiences, but why not?

Pictured above: Renee Newlove might stage her Shakespeare performances online, but the planning is analog. Here she charts out the characters so she can keep track of actors.

I imagine he’d have that same genial attitude about the Zounds! Bardatine Readers Society, an online theater collective that turned the coronavirus quarantine into a cutting-edge experiment in virtual performance.

Under the leadership of Renee Newlove and Jeremy Hitch, the Facebook group has become a theatrical powerhouse, The June 10 performance of “Macbeth” is the group’s 30th, a number that puts even the most ambitious repertory companies around the world to shame.

I featured Newlove, Hitch and local actor Michael Brandon Fidalgo on a recent episode of “Fresno Famoso” a couple of weeks ago:


In the interview clip, they tell us more about the group, and Fidalgo gives a reprise of one of the monologues he performed as the title character in “Richard III.” (It’s a great moment.) Here’s a rundown:

The origins: In March, Newlove and Hitch did a Zoom read of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” are dead. They started thinking about other plays they could do online. Newlove posted on Facebook asking if local actors would be interested in doing a Shakespeare play to celebrate the Bard’s birthday on April 23. “After 88 comments, we knew this thing had legs,” she says

The preparation: Newlove handles the casting. It isn’t as easy as you might think. Some Shakespeare plays have nearly 50 characters. She charts out each play in terms of intersecting characters and devises a way to double-up and triple-up roles. Actors often bring snippets of costumes to help differentiate the characters.

The frequency: The group has been producing an astounding three performances a week (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) in a Zoom setting. “We’re crazy,” Hitch says.

The actors: Many of Fresno’s best known acting names have participated, including Brad Myers, Randall Kohlruss, Karan Johnson, Marc Gonzalez, Brian Rhea, Casey Ballard, Jay Parks, Julie Lucido, Bridget Martin and more. They’ve been joined by actors from Southern California, the East Coast, Alaska and Washington state. Casting is gender-blind and colorblind.

The dedication: Let’s put it this way. The Zounds! Bartadine Readers Society performs Shakespeare’s plays unabridged. (Which means that some of them clock in at more than four hours.)

The process: Every Wednesday, the next week’s readings are posted. If you’re interested in reading a role or just being an audience member, ask to join the Facebook group. You’ll get access to Zoom login information.

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The schedule: June 12: “Henry VI part 3”; June 15: “Twelfth Night” (12 readers); June 17, “Anthony & Cleopatra” (17 readers); and June 19, “Henry VIII” (15 readers).

The payoff: There are many benefits. Instead of sitting there passively absorbing what the digital world has to offer, these actors are participating in a shared experience. They’re also exposing themselves to unfamiliar Shakespeare plays and keeping up their acting chops. And it’s amazing how much intensity and emotion can be conveyed through Zoom.

“There are moments that draw us to tears and moments that make us laugh until we cry,” Newlove says. “It’s really an amazing community that’s been built, and we would love everybody to join.”

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Melinda Ballard

    Boomer Zoomers…you will be amazed and rightly bowled-over by the talents so freely shared by this group. Ah that I could retrace the years and be cutting my teeth(?) in their zoom frames.
    Thank you, good and honest Donald, for recognizing and validating the ongoing efforts of this cast of ever changing characters.
    Beetle-headed, flap-eared knaves be they not.


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