LMU turns students pro by bringing The Bard’s work to life in Westchester and Playa Vista
By Christina Campodonico
New York’s Central Park has its storied Shakespeare in the Park. Griffith Park here in L.A. has its Free Shakespeare Festival. And in West L.A., Tom Hanks is currently playing Falstaff under the stars in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ “Henry IV,” nestled in the Japanese Garden of the VA campus until July 1.
Now Westchester and Playa Vista have their own al fresco Shakespeare event: Loyola Marymount University’s Shakespeare on the Bluff. The free outdoor theater festival kicks off this weekend with a three-night run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at LMU’s Lawton Plaza on Friday and Saturday and at Playa Vista’s Concert Park on Sunday. All three performances are free, as well as an invitation to LMU’s adjacent communities to experience what happens in the theater department throughout the year.
“To do an outdoor Shakespeare on the Bluff festival, if you will, is a dream come true,” says Bryant Keith Alexander, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts, which houses LMU’s theater program. “Because we are not only able to engage in the joy of performance — of public performance of Shakespeare — but also to sort of bleed the borders, if you will, between campus and community. …This is another way in which the university is building bonds and relationships.”
This bridge between the campus and its neighbors is the brainchild of LMU Theater Arts Professor and Chair Kevin Wetmore, who also serves as artistic director for Shakespeare on the Bluff and its company of students, faculty, alumni and professional actors putting on “Midsummer” this weekend and, later in July, “Othello.”
Wetmore’s not only excited about playing Othello’s nemesis Iago July 27 to 29, but also establishing a free, outdoor Shakespeare festival on the Westside that he hopes will become an annual event and serve as a training ground for L.A.’s up-and-coming theater professionals.
“We’re looking to the future and one of the things we tell students is, ‘You’re kind of on the ground floor, so as this grows and develops, we’re hoping that you then become the alumni, who come back and work with students in 2025,’” he says, noting that Shakespeare on the Bluff is already in the works for next year and that everyone in the cast except the professional actors are volunteering their time. The students aren’t receiving course credit, but they’re gaining perhaps something even more valuable — experience.
“It definitely feels like one of my first more professional projects,” says LMU rising senior and Theater Arts major Olivia Twiford, who plays Puck in “Midsummer.” “This really feels more like we’re putting on a production. We have less rehearsal time, and we are still able to keep our day jobs and rehearse, so I feel like it’s preparing me for the outside world once I graduate.”
Rising junior Olivia Oreskovich appreciates the opportunity to work with professional actors, especially.
“Lynn [Favin, who plays Titania in ‘Midsummer’] is one of our professional actors and she has just been fantastic,” says Oreskovich, who plays Titania’s dopey, donkey-headed love interest Nick Bottom. “She came to our rehearsals, fully memorized like she was supposed to be and ready to jump into the scenes. … It’s constantly keeping me on my feet. I’m making sure that I’m as prepared as I need to be for every single rehearsal.”
The admiration is mutual on the pro side as well — especially for Favin, who’s been acting professionally for almost a decade now and starred as Ophelia in a national tour of “Hamlet” before joining this production of “Midsummer.”
“I’m very impressed with them,” she says. “Working with them has been very humbling. They’re way far beyond where I was at that age. … Light years beyond.”
Wetmore says bringing in pros to work with students “raises everyone’s game,” while having faculty rehearse with students during the summer brings down some of the more traditional classroom hierarchies that exist between students and professors during the school year, creating a more true-to-life rehearsal experience for everyone involved.
“The discoveries that you make in the rehearsal room, where it is no longer a teacher-student dynamic but merely a group of people at different stages in their careers creating together, is really exciting,” he says. “And the results, I think, will be seen onstage on the LMU campus and down in Playa Vista.”
LMU and Playa Vista’s outdoor settings also give opportunities for students to stretch their acting abilities and learn how to quickly adapt to unconventional theater spaces, like moving from the tiered steps of Lawton Plaza to the flatter, more garden-like Concert Park in the space of two brief rehearsals.
“They really have to work with their voices,” observes “Midsummer” director and LMU theater arts faculty member Nenad “Neno” Pervan. “They have to project. They have to practice their diction. The space is a lot wider. They learn how to conquer the space, and they learn how to relate to each other.”
For audiences, the only deterrent to seeing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on LMU’s bluffs may be the more-often-than-not wintry feeling of the Westside’s summer nights. But to that, Wetmore says bring a blanket and bundle up; the backdrop will more than make up for it.
“The sun sets at 8:10. The play starts at eight o’clock,” he says. “I mean, we couldn’t have asked God for better planning.”
Shakespeare on the Bluff’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” happens at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (June 29 and 30) at LMU’s Lawton Plaza (1 LMU Dr.) and at 7 p.m. Sunday (July 1) at Playa Vista’s Concert Park, (13020 Pacific Promenade). “Othello” happens at 8 p.m. June 27 and 28 at LMU’s Lawton Plaza and 7 p.m. July 29 at Playa Vista’s Central Park Bandshell (12405 E. Waterfront Drive). Tickets are free. Visit cfa.lmu.edu for more info.