It was the early days of April 2020 when my partner and I received an email from a longtime collaborator who runs a successful Los Angeles theater company.
“Would you and Michael like to participate in an online reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare’s 456th birthday?”
In case you’re like, “…wait, what?,” during Covid, theater actors gathered on Zoom to read plays. Patrons could order a ticket from a theater website, receive a private link, and then tune in from the comfort of their quarantine.
“Nobody will be watching this,” our friend wrote. “It won’t be recorded. It won’t be live. It’s just going to be an internal thing. For fun.”
“Oh, cool. Sounds great,” I emailed back. “Who else is doing it?”
Our friend copied and pasted the names of the other actors, as if casually posting a drama club cast list.
“Lyle Lovett – Singer; Tony Shalhoub – Egeus; William Shatner – Oberon; Christina Applegate – Titania; Martin Short – Puck; Rita Wilson – Hippolyta; Michael McKean – Theseus; Tom Hanks – Nick Bottom; Lily Rabe – Helena; Marin Hinkle – Hermia; Hamish Linklater – Demetrius; Michael Urie – Lysander; Ryan Spahn – Francis Flute.”
“Wait, WHAT? Nobody will see this?”
“That’s right. Nobody,” our friend reiterated. “We’re doing this for the love of Shakespeare. For the love of each other.”
Love for each other? LOL. I didn’t know a single one of these very, very, very famous people.
“We definitely want to participate,” I wrote.
Elevator pitch of Midsummer: Theseus (Michael McKean) and Hippolyta (Rita Wilson) are planning their wedding when Egeus (Tony Shalhoub) arrives with his daughter, Hermia (Marin Hinkle), and two dudes, Lysander and Demetrius (Michael Urie and Hamish Linklater). Egeus wants Hermia to marry Demetrius, but Hermia loves Lysander.
Demetrius is a tricky one, though, because he was recently super gaga over Hermia’s friend, Helena (Lily Rabe). In the forest, Bottom (Tom Hanks) and Flute (me) discuss a play they wanna perform in which they’ll be star-crossed lovers. (Me and Hanks will be star-crossed lovers. LOVERS! Take that, Dead Eyes Podcast.) Meanwhile, Oberon is fighting with his wife, Titania (Christina Applegate), so he sends Puck (Martin Short) to retrieve a magical juice that causes people to fall in love at first sight.
Okay, so it’s the big day. Michael and I spent the afternoon basically not talking. Privately looking at our lines. So we didn’t look foolish. But, TBH, this didn’t seem real. I’m like a New York theater actor who had a handful of TV credits, and this reading was gonna have a two-time Oscar winner, the star of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and Captain Kirk in it. How do you prepare?
Seven o’clock rolled around. Michael and I dialed in. I clutched my pearls. STFU. That entire cast list actually showed up. Nobody bailed. Some were even early.
“Thank you for coming. This should be fun. Let’s start, whenever everyone’s ready,” our director friend said.
And it began… First off, my man Tom Hanks was prepared AF. He had props, a blow horn, and a radio-host mic. He was like a disc jockey or something. He appeared to be sitting in a private office. Occasionally, he’d call out to Rita Wilson, his wife, who was in the next room, “Babe! You’re still muted!” Rita lovingly rolled her eyes, “Thanks, honey!” They were charming, playful, and so very, very, very into this. Both of them. Hanks, especially. He made faces, did voices, and just had a ball.
Christina Applegate was sitting in front of her fireplace in a living room, labeled on Zoom as “Hospitality Green Room.” She had on a beige beret and was more serious than I’d imagined, except when a rogue child popped on screen and yanked at her camera. Regardless, she was so into this, too.
In order to play Puck, Martin Short put his computer onto a super high shelf. You know, so he’d appear small. He sorta squatted below it and did, in fact, look micro. William Shatner sat on the floor in front of a couch. He was reading off his iPad and never looked at his computer’s camera, which was on a table 15 feet away from him. Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe (married IRL) sat side by side. Occasionally, they’d move around, as if they’d staged some scenes.
The entire cast — including myself and Michael — were going for broke, really acting our faces off, like we were performing for our parents in the Spring musical.
As the reading ended, Lyle Lovett sang us out with “Stand By Your Man.” However, Shatner joined Lovett and, because of Zoom’s voice settings, Shatner overtook the microphone and the final song became more of an a cappella solo for Shatner. Lovett laughed and couldn’t care less. He was simply happy to be there. To be asked. We all were.
“This was organized for Tom and Rita,” Christina Applegate piped in. “We were so worried when you had Covid. We wanted to do something special. For you.”
We all smiled. They thanked us. It was generous. I was floored. Everybody had agreed to this before knowing why. Whatever was going on in their lives, with their Covids, people gave up their nights — for free — to read a play with panache that nobody ever saw.
Because we’re actors. We’re weirdos. We’re storytellers. We’re clowns. We’re artists. We’re outcasts. Audience or not, we’re performers. During the darkest of times, actors lean on each other. And I guess, whether you have two Emmys or none, simply being asked to participate is worth giving it your all.
As we logged off, Shalhoub asked Hanks, “Who did you love the most in this reading?” Tom leaned into his microphone and, without irony, mumbled, “Ryan.”
Ryan Spahn is an actor and playwright who lives in New York. He is a regular contributor to Metro Weekly. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanspahn.