If one quote summed up the events of 2020, it would be "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." From the COVID-19 pandemic to the 24/7 coverage of the 2020 Presidential and state elections, Americans turned to entertainment to avoid the negative headlines. Unfortunately, all theaters and their productions in North Carolina–including those on UNC Charlotte's campus–were shut down due to COVID-19. However, Andrew Hartley took matters into his own hands by turning a theater production into a podcast that combined Shakespeare and the events of 2020.
Andrew Hartley has been teaching Renaissance history and Shakespearean theater at UNC Charlotte since 2005. In March 2020, Hartley was gearing up for a study abroad course in London and produce a play with Chris Berry when the shutdown occurred. While the shutdown forced Hartley to teach his regular classes on Zoom and cancel his annual spring lecture, it did not end the play that he was working on with Berry.
Berry and Hartley called their play the "Corona Caesar." The play was sent in during Julius Caesar's reign in Ancient Roman mixed with the current state of American society; the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Presidential election and civil unrest. When they originally pitched the "Corona Caesar," it was going to be a live play. But due to the pandemic, Berry and Hartley had to come with a different approach to produce and release the play. Eventually, the duo settled on turning the play into a podcast and would do the rehearsals on Zoom; however, rehearsing for a play on Zoom was a huge difference from doing them in person. Hartley had previously discussed "Corona Caesar" in an interview last fall but revisited the production here for our "One Year Later" series.
"Everyone had to find the quietest places for rehearsal and recordings in their dorm rooms or wherever they were," says Hartley. At no point were we all in the same room. We weren't doing costumes, props, sets and stuff; we were all using the same equipment. It forced the actors and us as a production team to think about voice work, focus on how the actors used their voices because in this show, that is all they had. You cannot gesture, rely on costumes or anything like that for a joke, it is all about looks."
The theater department used Clean Feed, a live audio application, to edit the sound from the Zoom sessions. Hartley would sit down with the program engineers and listen to the takes multiple times before choosing the best parts from the Zoom chat; this would often require an actor to come back to re-record their part if the sound was too low or muted. Once they choose the best part from the Zoom sessions, Hartley and company would layer the sound to give the impression that the actors are in Ancient Roman instead of their rooms. The sound effects were sampled into the podcast after the actors had done their vocal work.
Hartley wants listeners to learn from "Corona Caesar" because Shakespeare's language is still powerful, evocative, and serves a purpose in 2020 as it did in the 15th century.
"What makes Shakespeare great and why we are still reading about him today because he is flexible," says Hartley. He can talk about the things we care about in the twenty-first century in North Carolina, with all of our issues, ideas and interests."
Berry and Hartley released five episodes of the "Corona Caesar." The first episode, "Unrest," was released on November 14 based on the public reaction to the COVID-19 shutdown and the 2020 Presidential election. "Conspiracy," "Assassination," "Aftermath" and "Consequence" were released between November 16 and 22. All five episodes are available on SoundCloud for free.