Saving the Earth needs all hands on deck, including Shakespeare’s

A performance of “Troilus and Cressida” during the Yosemite Shakes at Yoseminte National Park in 2017.
A performance of “Troilus and Cressida” during the Yosemite Shakes at Yoseminte National Park in 2017.

This year in Yosemite National Park, ladybugs were mating in January and snowstorms came in March. On our screens, we see pictures of dolphins and birds killed by the human trash dumped into oceans and streams. Native Americans from around the country risk their safety to protect their water supplies and sacred lands.

Can Shakespeare address these issues?

Shakespeare in Yosemite’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is an attempt to answer yes to that question.

In a pattern replicated throughout the world, local indigenous peoples including Southern Sierra Miwuk and Paiute – who for more than 7,000 years cultivated and made sacred the valley we now call Yosemite – were pushed out of their lands, primarily by white settlers and profiteers.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, the art and writing of naturalists, painters and photographers helped activate public interest in protecting Yosemite and other lands from further degradation.

In setting and performing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Yosemite, we are joining this tradition of using art to speak on behalf of the natural world.

Our production theatricalizes Yosemite as a way to tell a wider story about the whole planet. It’s a story about humans, plants and animals living in harmony for eons; about the recent and violent exploitation of natural resources, and about the women and men who work to protect these resources from further pillaging, and who need our help.

In writing “Dream,” Shakespeare recycled classic myth and English folklore into a new plot about love, desire and the transformative effects of nature and art. All human and non-human life is here: working people, rich kids, fairies and sprites, potent flowers, a donkey, a dog and (in our production) a bear cub.

The play is so weird, so dream-like that it can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. Our production is site-specific and time-sensitive. This play is about being in Yosemite National Park, in late April 2018.

Our pair of lovers leave a fancy wedding party in the valley and flee into the back country. Our “Mechanicals” (i.e., working people) earn their various livings in the park. Our fairies take the names of Yosemite flora and fauna, and their wings are made of recycled trash so that they speak to both the long history of humans living in concert with nature and the more recent history of humans exploiting nature.

Shakespeare was alive to these issues in his time. He lived through the “little ice age,” felt the volatility of the seasons and saw the first major waves of deforestation taking place across England. When the fairy queen Titania laments the ways in which the seasons are out of whack, we get an uncanny sense of Shakespeare’s age speaking to our own across the centuries.

Most importantly, perhaps, our “Dream” is a piece of theater, and theater is cooperative and collaborative. Only by working together – all humans with regard for each other and for the Earth’s animals and plants – can we safeguard our planet and ourselves.

In reminding us of the preciousness and wonders of things greater than ourselves, beautiful places like Yosemite and extraordinary art like Shakespeare’s plays encourage us to be kinder to each other. This has been proven true by UC Berkeley psychologists who have studied the way the brain reacts when it encounters awe prompted by nature, art and feats of impressive skill or virtue.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a play about transformation, about going into the woods and coming out a different, better person. Art and nature have been transforming humans into better, more cooperative beings for centuries; with the help of us all, long may that continue.

We invite everyone to experience the transformative effects of art and nature through our free performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presented in Yosemite Valley on Earth Day weekend, April 20-22.

Katherine Steele Brokaw is an associate professor of English at UC Merced, and Paul Prescott, associate professor of English at University of Warwick, UK, are co-directing Shakespeare in Yosemite.

Shakespeare in Yosemite

Information: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be presented April 18 at the Wallace-Dutra amphitheater at UC Merced and five times April 21-22 in Yosemite National Park. Admission is free. Details: www.ucmerced.edu/Shakespeare.

Transportation: YARTS is offering free rides to Yosemite Valley, April 21-22; details and schedule at https://yarts.com.