Riverside Theatre dives into Shakespeare’s sonnets (all 154 of them) for National Poetry Month

Still from Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘Sonnets for an Old Century,’ available for streaming from April 16 at 7:30 p.m. through April 25. — courtesy of Riverside Theatre

In April, in the month of poetry
A theater raises praises to a bard

The offering a simple symmetry
Disarming to the ardent avant-garde

Since 1996, the U.S. has recognized April as National Poetry Month, a celebration organized by the Academy of American Poets. Here in the first U.S. UNESCO City of Literature, that certainly does not go unnoticed.

This year, Riverside Theatre, a decades-old institution in the community, is embracing the poetic side of theatricality with the Sonnet Project, a month-long exploration of the classic form and celebration of William Shakespeare, one of the world’s most renowned sonnet poets (in addition to writing some plays, I guess), whose birthday is generally fêted on April 23.

Events kicked off on April 5 with the first of a series of 20 virtual performances of Shakespeare’s sonnets. They’ll be recited by actors and poets in a variety of languages (reflecting the diversity of languages spoken in Johnson County) and released one every weekday on Riverside’s Facebook page. On April 16, the theater opens its stream of José Rivera’s Sonnets for an Old Century, a patchwork play stringing together vignettes from 23 fantastic performers, under the direction of Producing Artistic Director Adam Knight.

The month tumbles on with writing workshops in conjunction with Iowa City Poetry and Prompt Press, a marathon reading of all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets on the 23rd (which will also be livestreamed) and a free outdoor screening of the 1999 classic Taming of the Shrew update, 10 Things I Hate About You. There will also be a sonnet writing contest for youth grades 7-12, a poetry-inspired picnic hamper “Party with a Purpose” that is tragically already sold out, a Sonnet Garden continuing throughout the spring in partnership with Public Space One and their ongoing garden installation and more.

Of tragedy, old Shakespeare well could sing
And comedy and his’try and romance

But some might argue that the poem’s the thing
That spun the willing world into a trance

The sonnet is a strict form of poetry with a strict definition, excellent for patterning your wayward thoughts and breaking through writer’s block. There are two primary versions — one named for the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch and the other named for Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare maintained Petrarch’s basic building blocks (all sonnets are 14 lines; they frequently express romantic love) but implemented a more modern rhyme scheme and (with only rare exceptions) utilized a meter that appeared in many of his plays as well: iambic pentameter.

For the non-nerds reading, an iamb is a heartbeat, the ba-BUM that drives the racing flow of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, leaving actors and audiences breathless. Its use in love poetry is classic and inevitable, almost torturous when implemented well. (Pentameter just means five of those units together.)

José Rivera’s Sonnets for an Old Century utilizes the form in a way that doesn’t necessarily hearken back to love, but perhaps that highlights the heartbeat even more poignantly. In a style that has drawn comparisons to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Rivera’s Sonnets walk a thin line between this life and the next, sometimes interpreted as the characters reading their own eulogies.

Eastern Iowa performers have been busily recording these vignettes individually over the past weeks, with the wonderful Rob Merritt at the helm for filming and editing. The format lends itself well to necessary pandemic restrictions, with just one actor, director and a few tech crew needed in the room at any given time.

The choice of a show with so many players was intentional on Riverside’s part, if a break from their standard fare. Knight told me in a recent interview that it’s important to him to involve as many of the performers in the area as possible in the work that the company produces.

“What it means to be a professional artist in this community is always expanding,” he said.

Revisiting the freshness of spring air
Inspires poetry in any age

Fresh-vaccinated, nothing can compare
To how the fresh spring feels from on a stage

The highlight of the Sonnet Project for many, certainly, will be the April 23 marathon reading. Scheduled for the Weatherdance Fountain Stage on the Ped Mall, the event will offer a chance for theater artists and audiences to indulge something that has been denied to many for over a year now: the opportunity to gather and share words. The event will be livestreamed as well, for those who are unable to attend or who are still uncomfortable gathering.

This experience, as well as the collaboration with Iowa City Poetry and Prompt Press on the Free Generative Writing Workshops and really, all of the programming for this month, are a proof of concept for Knight’s vision of a theater that reaches beyond itself.

“One of the things I’ve been excited about since I’ve gotten to Riverside is surprising people,” Knight said, referencing productions like Men in Boats and Feast. that pushed the boundaries of how Riverside’s former Gilbert Street space could be used. But more than that, he said, “I love the idea of expanding the experience beyond what’s in the theater.”

Part of the reason he was so thrilled with Neumann Monson Architects’ ideas and proposals for Riverside’s new home in the Crescent Block Building is, he said, that “this space gives us the opportunity to program more.”

As he and the rest of Riverside’s core team collaborated with Neumann Monson to refine and expand those ideas, “The biggest thing I cared about was that it was a flexible space,” he said.

With a dedicated elevator and first-floor entrance, the space will offer improved accessibility for both audiences and artists, also feeding Knight’s goal of expanding professional opportunities for the community.

But pandemic aside, it will be months before the space is performance-ready, and in the meantime, as the past year has shown us, you can’t keep artists from making — or facilitating — art.

Amidst a world of clamor and unrest
The theater magnifies our very best

Riverside’s youth programming has been a core facet of the larger community for years. Will Power, their regular Shakespeare outreach to schools, went virtual this year with a series of videos featuring the versatile and engaging Crystal Marie Stewart. Episode 10 centers on (you guessed it) sonnets, giving some framework for one core aspect of the Sonnet Project: the Youth Sonnet Contest.

Writers in grades 7-12 have until April 23 to submit their original sonnet on the prompt of reflections on the past year (or hopes for the future). Two winners will be chosen — one 7th or 8th grade poet and one high schooler — and announced on April 30. Students can get some extra practice at the Free Youth Generative Sonnet Writing Workshop on April 11, led by Lisa Roberts of Iowa City Poetry and Jenny Colville of Prompt Press.

The Sonnet Project offers a beautiful cross-disciplinary consideration of a form that, perhaps more than any other, serves as a link between theater and the more formally literary arts. From page to stage, it promises to be a delight.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the recently revised opening and run dates for Sonnets for an Old Century.

Genevieve Trainor never could choose between theater and poetry — and feels most comfortable in any circumstance where such a choice is rendered moot. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 293.

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