Students performing in the Oxford Street Players 2019 production of "Macbeth"
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, several social media memes famously quipped that William Shakespeare wrote “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” and “Antony and Cleopatra” while he was in lockdown during a 17th century plague.
As our Oxford Street Players (OSP), Lesley’s Shakespearean theater company, presents its “Twelve Nights of Shakespeare” 25th anniversary celebration this month, it’s clear that they’ve drawn more than a little inspiration from the Bard himself.
With theaters from Broadway and beyond gone dark since March of 2020, OSP founding director Dr. Anne Pluto had some decisions to make as to how to mark this momentous occasion. She started brainstorming almost a year in advance.
“We didn't know if it was going to happen,” she says. “Kim Lowe, our humanities department chair, and I started talking over the summer about what we wanted to do with the anniversary coming up. We realized the OSP course could run in the spring and I thought let’s do twelve nights [of events] and ‘Twelfth Night’ as the play.”
The slate of programming – a combination of live and recorded events – highlights 25 seasons of community, including accomplishments, joys, lifelong friendships, and more than one OSP marriage.
"Over the past eight years that I have taught English, literature, and drama at Lesley, many of my students have been part of OSP productions, and their experiences have truly enhanced their understanding of and appreciation for the works of Shakespeare," says MFA in Creative Writing faculty and Shakespeare scholar Cheryl Eagan-Donovan.
Theater of the mind transcends space and time
Since its inception in 1993, the OSP has always been an interdisciplinary community featuring undergraduate and graduate students from across the university. With the coronavirus keeping live performances off the stage and on the screen, Pluto knew that digital film would play a much larger role. She also questioned whether or not a Zoom production was the answer and ultimately decided to go in a different direction inspired by her own theatrical history.
“When I was in high school back in Brooklyn, NY, before it was cool to live there, there was this radio program called ‘What’s in the News’ hosted by WNYE, the NYC 5 Boroughs radio station,” she recalls. “I went to audition in the tenth grade and I was cast, so every couple of weeks we’d go in and we’d get a script for these historic plays for the school system so kids could hear characters from New York’s past. And it was so fun so I thought, let’s just do this as a radio play.”
After the first read-through of “Twelfth Night,” with the OSP cast and her own experience in radio drama, Pluto started to put the pieces in place.
“I sent notices out to film professors last fall asking if any film students might be interested,” she says, noting that several VFX and animation students came forward to help with the recording and editing process. “We’re using [Adobe] Premier to create films and edit video and audio. I tease the students like I live in the sixteenth century so the fact that I can record on Zoom is amazing.”
Sophomore english and secondary education major Julianna Martins recalls the unique Zoom rehearsal process.
"So much of the experience was really incredible," says Martins. "I mean putting a group of people together for hours multiple times a week can only create the most humorous of chaos.
"We managed to create a close and safe friendship through sharing and supporting each other through our vulnerabilities in performance and opinions. I think it’s extra special because we all got to take part in this important milestone for OSP and do it in a really different way through Zoom. And it all speaks to the bond that we built while being miles apart."
Getting the troupe back together
With upwards of 500 OSP alumni, from actors to designers to stage crew, Pluto reached out to her former students to see who might be interested in sharing their experiences through a virtual reunion and alumni interviews.
She put out the call on social media to every alum she knew.
“So there is going to be a video recording of all these different voices from over the years," says Pluto.
The lasting legacy of the OSP holds special meaning for the Lesley community.
“I think the OSP has been able to last for the past 25 years because of the wonderful sense of community and growth that each production brings,” says “Twelfth Night” production manager and creative writing major Aalia Babar ’22. “Dr. Pluto has such an amazing heart and is very passionate about OSP and it shines through to everyone from the cast to the crew.”
The power of theater and community
Even without a stage for now, OSP is bringing people together as it has for a quarter of a century by inviting community into the group no matter the level of experience.
“Theater is all about saying we’re going to fix it. The door is open and everybody is welcome. I’ll find a spot for them,” says Pluto. “To be here after so many seasons and so many years – this is my 34th year at Lesley – the dominos fell into place for me here, too. I always wanted to have a theater.”
Pluto’s passion for performance transcends physical space, finding a path forward for the group and showing her students how the show can go on.
“Everyone is connecting and learning through one of the most universal writers of a century: Shakespeare,” says Babar. “Above all, theater is a family and a place where we, myself included, have met and connected with amazing and talented people.”
With a combination of live and virtual events this month, OSP invites the Lesley community to share in the power of the performing arts. From interviews to reunions and Zoom parties all culminating in the radio play recording of “Twelfth Night,” audience members are invited to choose what works for them over the span of two weeks.
"[Shakespeare] is often dismissed as part of the old guard establishment, but in fact his plays and poems are based on respect for all, transcending race, religion, gender, and sexuality," she says.
"This is what inspired me to study Shakespeare as undergrad, then to produce and direct a feature length film about the authorship, "Nothing Is Truer than Truth," focused on the writer Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
With what promises to be a lively conversation rounding out a robust week of events, Pluto notes the significance of the opening and closing dates.
“I looked at the calendar and thought April 12 is the birthday of Edward De Vere, who I believe is Shakespeare, and then, April 23, the day the play goes up, is the birthday of William Shakespeare,” Pluto explains. “Does it get any better than that?”