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Year In Review 2020: The First Annual New York Shakespeare Awards

By Rodney Hakim, of New York Shakespeare; January 1, 2021

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At midnight last night, we left behind the year 2020, one of the most memorable years in recent history. Memorable, not necessarily for the best reasons, but most obviously, for the way in which the world was transformed by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic, and the ensuing lockdowns, closures, cancellations, and restrictions that have come in its wake, completely transformed the world at large, but more specifically, the world of New York Shakespeare.

Live theatrical performances of Shakespeare and the Classics in New York, once almost ubiquitous, especially in the Summer season, all but disappeared, as limits on public gatherings all but rendered the traditional sense of theater into something of a bygone era. The many Shakespeare groups around town, small and large, new and old, largely transitioned into the virtual realms of Zoom, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.


Within that transition from real, in-person performances to mediated, virtual performances, there was a great deal of creativity and innovation, and there were a great number of outstanding presentations of the works of Shakespeare. The limitations of physical proximity and geography were removed, and suddenly, the audience longing for presentations of Shakespeare were treated to not only an outpouring of exciting performances, discussions, and classes from New York based artists, but also from their counterparts in many far flung locations around the world, all available on one’s mobile device, tablet, or computer.

Also removed were limitations on time. In the past, scheduling limitations would only permit me to attend a handful of theatrical performances or film screenings per month. Now, with the transition to the virtual spaces of Zoom, YouTube, and the like, I had the opportunity to watch dozens upon dozens of performances, at all hours of the day and night, on pretty much any device I was using at that time. While nothing can ever replace the personal interaction and electricity of live theater or other public presentations of Shakespeare, the fact that one can consume so many works of the Bard at any time, on demand, is a kind of liberating and offers an exciting silver lining to it all.

Of those many, many, many Shakespeare presentations that I was able to consume online, there were so many that were good. Any not just good, like, mediocre good. I mean REALLY, REALLY GOOD. Not long into the process of watching so much of this content, I joined the virtual fray, myself, and had the opportunity to interact with many of its makers.


I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing many of the stand-outs in the New York Shakespeare world, both as part of my internet talk show, New York Shakespeare Live! which live streams on Instagram, IGTV and beyond, as well as on the Fourth Folio Shakespeare series, which appears on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

In these discussions, which are all available in our interview archives on Instagram, on IGTV, and on YouTube, we get behind the scenes with the makers of these many amazing Shakespeare productions, learn about the challenges of producing and performing Shakespeare in the COVID-19 era, discover new faces on the scene, reconnect with old colleagues, and much more.

In this article below, we review some of the most outstanding and memorable of the many wonderful performances and presentations from the year 2020. Note that this discussion is limited to the presentations of the COVID-19 era, as anything before the lockdowns of mid-March feels like it belongs in a different category, altogether, and would be comparing Shakespearean apples to oranges.

Here then, are the nominees and recipients of the First Annual New York Shakespeare Year End Awards!


The Year End New York Shakespeare Awards are broken down by category, and represent the most outstanding Shakespeare that I came across in 2020 since the onset of the coronavirus era lockdowns. There may be some groups whose work I missed, but of those whose work I saw, this is what I consider to be the creme de la creme of it all.

We discussed our Year in Review 2020 last night via a brief live chat, and addressed some of the vagaries and difficulties in categorizing the works presented in 2020 according to the traditional guidelines we previously held on to. This live chat took place last night on New Year’s Eve, on Instagram Live, and the video from it is available at the link below:

For more of our past New York Shakespeare Live! interviews, our Fourth Folio Shakespeare episodes, and other content, visit our Instagram page at the address below

Without any further ado, let’s move on to the First Annual New York Shakespeare Year In Review and Awards!


Shakespeare Classes, Workshops, and Acting Lessons

There are schools that are dedicated to the academic teaching of Shakespeare, and there are other schools that are dedicated to the performative aspect of Shakespeare. Within the realm of the New York Shakespeare scene, many of the theater groups either began offering new teaching initiatives focused on helping actors with monologues, scene work, and more, or went online and expanded their existing programs. Here is the best of what I found in this category.

  • Soho Shakespeare: This relatively new group of Harvard MFA theater artists began offering Shakespeare 101, 201, 301, and other acting courses, with many of the introductory courses being free. High quality offerings from very capable artists.
  • The Shakespeare Forum: This uptown group has been offering Shakespeare Workouts for years, given for free at least once a week, and has moved their many class offerings online, with expanded offerings in the realms of clowning, verse, monologues, and more.
  • Red Bull Theater: This renowned theater group, which has long focused on boundary pushing performances of Shakespeare and the Classics, periodically offers day long Shakespeare Acting Intensives taught by some of the top actors on the scene.
  • William Downes Verse and Text Coach: The head of the theater group Classics On the Rocks regularly offers Shakespeare acting classes that emphasize First Folio techniques, and delve into the intricacies of the verse and the text.
  • THE AWARD GOES TO: The Shakespeare Forum. Husband and wife team, Tyler Moss and Sybille Bruun have been at the helm of this group for over eleven years, and are so inclusive and so caring of the countless performers that come to them, that their classes are breeding ground for some of the most sought after Shakespeare actors in town. A hint as to their reach? Their Facebook group is one of the most popular ones I’ve come across, with over 9,000 dedicated members. Try at least one free Shakespeare Workout to see what the buzz is all about.

Shakespeare Audio Performances and Podcasts

In this year of working and staying at home, one of the realms in which there was a lot of advancement was in the area of Audio Focused Shakespeare. This meant entirely different things to different people, as some groups focused their efforts on performances of Shakespeare’s plays via audio based Radio Plays, whereas others focused their attention on Podcasts and other audio based programs discussing Shakespeare. Here is the roundup of these offerings.

  • Shakespeare At: This group helmed by Sean Hagerty, a Shakespeare veteran who for many years was the resident Shakespeare instructor at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse, presented two free Radio Play performances of Shakespeare, Richard II and The Tempest. These were strong classical presentations, employing many New York based Shakespeare performers, as other renowned performers from around the world.
  • The Public Theater: Perhaps the most well known Shakespeare Festival in New York, if not the world, is the Shakespeare In The Park summer series presented by The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. This year, the Delacorte sat empty because of the coronavirus situation, and the Public moved its programming into an audio only Radio Play format, in coordination with WNYC. They presented a free version of Richard II, which coincidentally came out at the same time as the one from Shakespeare At, and which featured a diverse and in some cases gender reversed cast of up and coming performers.
  • Classic Stage Company: CSC, a leading company in New York presenting Shakespeare and the Classics, presented a lot of audio content in the form of their Classic Conversations with luminaries in the world of New York theater, as well as their CSC Podcast. While there was an added visual component to many of these interviews, I primarily encountered the audio format.
  • Red Bull Theater: Jesse Berger and the Red Bull Theater, who have long presented edgy Shakespeare and Classical productions in New York City, expanded their content with their RemarkaBULL Podversations, an interview series chatting with some of the finest classical actors in New York and beyond. This series also had a visual component, but was mainly focused on the audio.
  • Hamlet To Hamilton: This podcast from Emily C.A. Snyder and Turn To Flesh Productions focuses primarily on verse drama, but also spends plenty of time diving headlong into Shakespeare and the Classics, with an emphasis on guiding the listener through the intricacies of Shakespeare’s verse.
  • Botanical Shakespeare: This effort from New York based Shakespearean Gerit Quealy is actually a multi-platform exploration of Shakespeare vis a vis the flora the is found in his works and in the Elizabethan era in which he wrote. I include it in the podcast category primarily because that’s the format in which I experienced it, but not necessarily the format which it is limited to.
  • OTHERS: This category is deceptively difficult to put together, as there are so many great podcasts and other audio performances, such as the To Be Or Not To Be Podcast from Andrew Smith, That Shakespeare Life from Cassidy Cash, Shakespeare Unlimited from the Folger Shakespeare, and even That Is The Question Podcast from the New York based Hamlet Isn’t Dead, amongst others. I disqualified all of these other podcasts, though, as they are either not based in New York, or were recorded prior to the 2020 coronavirus time period.
  • THE AWARD GOES TO: The Public Theater. The Public’s Richard II was not only one of the highest profile Shakespeare presentations of the COVID era, but it also pushed the envelope of the classic text with a modern spin that connected deeply to the contemporaneous moment of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare’s sonnets got a lot of play during the coronavirus era, with several groups basing their complete focus on the Bard’s short form poems. Here are the groups whose efforts caught my attention the most, and the one amongst them whose work left the greatest impression on me.

  • Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam: This annual event hosted by Melinda Hall brings performers and non performers of all ages and experience levels together for a reading of all 154 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The event took place in Central Park for around a decade, before being moved indoors and ultimately online in the wake of the coronavirus. Disclaimer: I participated in this year’s event, with a reading of Sonnet 130.
  • Manhattan Shakespeare Project: This all-female group delves into the sonnets week by week, dedicating an Instagram Live episode to each sonnet’s exploration, performance, and analysis.
  • OTHERS: There were other groups who focused on the sonnets, including two different Sonnet Projects and a handful of Sonnet focused Facebook Groups , but whose work either came mostly before the coronavirus era, or which were not based primarily in New York, or which in fairness, I did not spend enough time with to fairly review.
  • THE AWARD GOES TO: Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. This annual sonnet event has become something of an institution in the New York Shakespeare scene, is recorded and executed beautifully, and draws both big audiences and big name participants.

Shakespeare Performances: Audience Interactive

Audience interaction has long been one of the most enjoyable things about live presentations of Shakespeare. That had to be reimagined in the digitally mediated COVID era. Or did it? Here is an exploration of the groups that either persisted in presenting Live Shakespeare with audience interaction, or reconfigured the concept of audience interaction for the current Zoom moment, many in the sub-category of Drinkingbased Shakespeare.

  • Instant Shakespeare Company: Paul Sugarman and the long running Instant Shakespeare Company have been doing staged readings of Shakespeare for years in public libraries around New York, running through the whole canon, plus some, on an annual basis. In the COVID era, they expanded their level of audience interaction by frequently inviting viewers of their readings to step in, take on a role (or three!), and be a part of the performance, instead of just a beholder of it.
  • Staten Island Shakespearean Theatre: Frank Williams and the Staten Island Shakespearean Theatre Company were one of the brave groups who presented live Shakespeare during the coronavirus era, performing a socially distanced version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and thoughtfully altering the performers’ face coverings into commedia dell arte style masks.
  • Rogue Ensemble Theater Company: Julie Spina and the Rogue Ensemble braved the frigid temperatures and cloudy skies of open air theater in New York City in November, as they presented their version stage-blood soaked version of Titus Andronicus.
  • The Night Shift Theatre Company: Lucy Lavely and the Night Shift Theatre Company brought live Shakespeare back to the great outdoors of Central Park on multiple occasions, bringing Drunken Shakespeare fun back to New York City, and encouraging audience members to get up, perform a monologue or scene, and break out of their coronavirus cocoons.
  • The Drunk Texts / Drunk Restoration Comedy: Another drunken Shakespeare group, this one based in Queens, is Drunk Restoration Comedy, who periodically present their Drunk Texts programs, mashing up Shakespeare with such other franchises as Star Wars, Harry Potter, and more, in a format that encourages audience participation and involvement. They moved their programs online in the COVID era, and continue to have a devoted fan base.
  • Siren & Sailor Theatre Company: Yet another Shakespeare group that has drinking based Shakespeare presentations, Chrysten Peddie and company presented multiple Bard and Booze events during the Zoom era, giving the viewer the feel of having a drink at the local pub while watching talented actors take on the Bard.
  • Shakespeare Happy Hours: This collaboration between two Shakespeare groups, New York’s Rude Grooms and the group Seven Stages Shakespeare Company, presented numerous online presentations of Shakespeare, particularly during the summer months. The prolific output from this tandem effort, helmed largely by Montgomery Sutton and Daniel Kemper, made for many memorable moments, the recordings of which are still available on their website.
  • Shakespeare Approves / Shakespeare’s Coffee Break: Dan Kostelec and his band of merry mischief makers brought this Renaissance Faire staple to the Zoom world during the coronavirus shutdowns, and has had an ever expanding audience since then for his humorous Happy Hours, Coffee Breaks, and other presentations, which encourage the audience to get online, get involved, get inebriated or highly caffeinated, and have a laugh with him and his Socially Distanced Players.
  • Food of Love Productions: Victoria Rae Sook and Food of Love NYC presented two iterations of Twelfth Night during the COVID era, with one casting High School students around the United States whose graduations or other year end activities were lost to the coronavirus, and the other employing the novel strategy of sending a food box to the viewers’ homes by mail, in which the viewers could interact with the live Zoom performance by eating the items in the box in coordination with what was happening on screen. These efforts were followed by a year end video series, bringing brief clips from a number of New York Shakespeare regulars to the group’s social media platforms.
  • THE AWARD GOES TO: Shakespeare Approves. This was a really tough category, with every group bringing a lot to the table, and with Staten Island Shakespeare being very innovative with their clever repurposing of masks, and Food of Love also being very innovative with their concept of sending food boxes to viewers’ homes to encourage an in-home Rocky Horror Picture Show type interaction with what was being performed on screen. Overall, though, Dan Kostelec and Shakespeare Approves took the proverbial cake (and ale, and coffee), with their frequent Happy Hours and Coffee Breaks, their fun and engaging audience interactions, and their bizarre frenemy rivalry with another prolific group, the Zenith Players.

Shakespeare Performances: Modern Updates and Adaptations

While there were many presentations of full on Shakespeare plays during the coronavirus era, there were also several adaptations and distillations of Shakespeare into a more modern setting that created a lot of buzz in the Shakespeare community. Here are the most memorable of those in 2020.

  • Lady Capulet: This work from playwright Melissa Bell is a prologue to Romeo and Juliet, and was presented in partnership with Emily Gallagher and the Barefoot Shakespeare Company as an online performance. This show has had various incarnations prior to 2020, and has a new Remixed version coming up later this month in January 2021.
  • Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey: This autobiographical effort by Debra Ann Byrd, the founder of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, details her arduous personal journey as a Black female performer taking on the mantle of Shakespeare’s famous Moor.
  • American Moor: This semi-autobiographical play by renowned performer Keith Hamilton Cobb envisions his audition for a Shakespearean production, and the racial expectations and pigeon-holing that come with being a tall, Black male actor performing Shakespeare.
  • David Serero’s Shakespeare Adaptations: This long-time veteran of the New York Shakespeare scene has for two decades been presenting his own unique twists on Shakespeare, adapting multiple Shakespeare plays per year to include opera, pop music, Borscht Belt humor, and other winks to the modern audience.
  • Hamlet Isn’t Dead’s Timon of Athens: David Andrew Laws and his cheeky group, Hamlet Isn’t Dead, who humorously tout themselves and New York City’s 467th best Shakespeare troupe, took on the rarely performed Timon of Athens this Fall, but rather than present it as a full-on production, they presented the process of exploring the play instead, with clips of the group discussing the play, exploring its characters, and finally, playing select scenes. The end result brought to mind something along the lines of Al Pacino‘s exploration of Richard III, entitled Looking For Richard. It’s some serious work from a not so self-serious group.
  • THE AWARD GOES TO: American Moor. Keith Hamilton Cobb‘s personal take on his life long challenge of being presumed to want to play Othello, but being vehemently opposed to those presumptions, is engrossing, enlightening, humorous, and humbling all at the same time. It’s not wonder that the estimable Red Bull Theater included it as one of the main components in their month long Othello 2020 project.

Shakespeare Performances: Comedies and Romances

There were multitudinous presentations of Shakespeare’s Comedies and late Romances throughout the COVID era in 2020. I lump these two categories together, as the division between them is a more recent editorial decision, whereas as traditionally, the late Romances were deemed as tragicomedies, and fell under the larger Comedy umbrella.

  • Food of Love Productions / Twelfth Night: As mentioned above, Food of Love NYC presented Twelfth Night online twice in 2020, with one casting high school students who lost their graduations to the coronavirus, and the other being an interactive production that sent a food box to the viewers’ homes, to be opened and consumed in coordination with the action on screen. The latter production was particularly riotous, and included a remarkable performance by Michael Padgett in the role of Malvolio.
  • Titan Theatre Company / A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Queens based Titan Theatre Company presented their ambitious Titan Shakespeare Festival in April, one performance of which was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was a sparkling version of the evergreen comedy, with fine work by a well coordinated ensemble.
  • Soho Shakespeare Company / The Tempest: Alex Pepperman and the Soho Shakespeare Company had their own festival in the early days of the coronavirus closedowns, and presented The Tempest as part of that series, starring renowned actor and company confidante Jack Wetherall.
  • Shakespeare Sports Theatre / Pericles: Carrie Edel Isaacman and the Shakespeare Sports Theatre, a group dedicated to investing the works of Shakespeare with a sporting vigor, presented a memorable version of the late Pericles in the Fall, with a diverse cast playing from multiple locations.
  • Classics on the Rocks / As You Like It: An effervescent As You Like It was put forward by William Downes and his group, Classics on the Rocks late in the Fall season, which was full of capable younger actors, and was one of the best attended live streaming productions of the last few months. For good reason, too, as it was a fun and energetic performance, and a solid rendition of the play.
  • Shakespeare At / The Tempest: As mentioned above, Sean Hagerty and Shakespeare At presented radio play versions of Richard II and The Tempest, both audio only, and both in a classical manner reminiscent of the radio broadcasts of a bygone era. Their Tempest was certainly one of the finer productions of a late Romance in 2020.
  • THE AWARD GOES TO: Food of Love Productions / Twelfth Night. While Food of Love‘s dual Twelfth Night productions were each memorable in their own right, the latter one left the most indelible impression, with knockout comedic performances, with the innovation of the interactive food box, and with the general feeling of fun and smiles it left behind.

Shakespeare Performances: Dramas, Tragedies, and Histories

Perhaps most plentiful in this year, wherein the world was grieving and suffering from the effects of the coronavirus, were performances of Shakespeare’s great Tragedies and Histories. These were some of the most memorable online productions of the year.

  • Titan Theatre Company’s Henry V: Presented in May as part of Lenny Banovez and the Titan Theatre Company‘s ambitious Titan Shakespeare Festival, this Henry V featured excellent performances, fine music, exciting visuals, and great direction. This history was the jewel in the crown of that series.
  • Gorilla Rep’s Macbeth: Gorilla Rep, a staple of the New York Shakespeare scene for decades with their summer productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, took on the Scottish play, but rather than doing so via Zoom or YouTube, went in the direction of a full-on feature film. Christopher Carter Sanderson and company hit a home run with this film Macbeth, which was one of the most visually simple yet thrillingly intense performances of the year.
  • Theatre of the Living Word’s Macbeth: Another version of the Scottish play from the Queens based theater group headed by Marlon Campbell, the Theatre of the Living Word, arrived at the end of the year, and offered an intriguing mix of traditional stagecraft and surprising visual effects.
  • Gallery Players’ Hamlet: The Brooklyn based Gallery Players present at least one Shakespeare production a year as part of their theatrical season. This year, directors James Dean Palmer and Myah Shein took the show online with an all-female variant of Hamlet, and created perhaps the single most visually exciting production of the coronavirus era in 2020. Fronted by the debuting and dazzling artist Eliana Rowe as Hamlet, it was one of the shows that I not only was amazed by, but had to watch more than once.
  • New York Classical Theatre’s King Lear: Stephen Burdman and the New York Classical Theatre have been mainstays of the outdoor New York Shakespeare scene for decades, and had to make major adjustments in transitioning their get up and go style of theater to fit the computer screen. Nonetheless, they made it happen, and put out a memorable King Lear early in the COVID era, with a particularly ruthless set of daughters.
  • The Public Theater’s Richard II: As mentioned in the Audio section above, The Public turned their summer season of Shakespeare In the Park into a Black Lives Matter inflected Radio Play version of Richard II. It did not disappoint, and was one of the finest Shakespeare’s of the COVID era.
  • Shakespeare At’s Richard II: Also mentioned above in the Audio section, Shakespeare At’s Richard II came out at the same time as The Public Theater‘s version, and stood toe to toe with it in quality. Given a more traditional classical flavor, this one had plenty of rock solid performances from a starry cast.
  • THE AWARD GOES TO: Titan Theatre Company’s Henry V. This was an outstanding effort from the Queens based Titans, was visually exciting, and featured plenty of superb performances, including one of the performances of the year from Laura Frye Banovez, who with simplicity and earnestness brought forth a wellspring of emotion.

Shakespeare Performance of the Year, Male or Female

In terms of the most memorable individual performances of the COVID era in 2020, I found it difficult to draw the line between male and female performances, as many traditionally male roles were played by female performers, and vice versa. Rather than bog down in gender politics, I am highlighting the top performances of the year, male and/or female.

  • Michael Padgett in Food of Love Productions’ Twelfth Night: It is established that Michael Padgett is a fine actor, as was seen in his work with the phenomenal international group The Show Must Go Online earlier in the year. But it was in Food of Love ProductionsTwelfth Night that his tremendous ability as a comic actor shone through, with his turn as Malvolio being one of the funniest performances of the year.
  • Laura Frye Banovez in the Titan Theatre Company’s Henry V: As mentioned above, Laura Frye‘s performance was one of the most memorable components of our award winner for Drama of the Year, Titan’s Henry V. It was also one of the most compelling individual performances of the year.
  • Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor: As mentioned above in the Adaptations section, Keith Hamilton Cobb wrote and starred in American Moor, his semi-autobiographical meditation on his relationship with Othello. He gave an outstanding performance during the reprise of the show given as part of Red Bull Theater‘s Othello 2020 project.
  • Leajato Robinson in Gorilla Rep’s Macbeth: Television actor Leajato Robinson made one of the more memorable Macbeths in the coronavirus era, with a slow burning performance that was captivating in its eery intensity.
  • Debra Ann Byrd in the National Art Club’s Othello: If any one performer was prolific in the coronavirus era, it was Debra Ann Byrd, who not only put on her one woman show, Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, but also did several other projects, including an all-female Othello with the National Arts Club. Her Othello here was powerful, poignant, and possessed, and between this Othello and the Becoming Othello variant, she put her stamp on the role of the Moor in a huge way.
  • Eliana Rowe in the Gallery Players’ Hamlet: As mentioned above, Eliana Rowe made a dazzling debut in the Brooklyn based Gallery Players‘ all-female Hamlet. Her work was so impressive, that it makes one wonder what’s left for this recent college graduate to do in the world of Shakespeare performance if she can kill it with one of the most complex roles in the history of theater, right out of the gate?
  • THE AWARD GOES TO: Eliana Rowe, Hamlet. While the Marvelous Ms. Rowe is not yet as seasoned as the rest of the nominees in this category, she is a tremendously gifted performer who is fearless with her work, and is not afraid to take chances with pushing the limits of the role. Her performance was so impressive, that some Shakespearean colleagues and I were discussing her work, and unanimously agreed that Eliana Rowe may well be the Next Big Thing in the world of New York Shakespeare. Side note, she’s already been offered at least one role from one of the other groups nominated in this Year In Review article.

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Published by newyorkshakespeare

New York Shakespeare is a social media website, and blog dedicated to the New York Shakespeare scene. We cover stage performances, film, books, scholarly discussion, and much more. This blog is one component of the New York Shakespeare online presence.

3 thoughts on “Year In Review 2020: The First Annual New York Shakespeare Awards

  1. Wow! Theatre of the Living Word is honored to be included in this illustrious group of thespians. Congratulations all, and hats off to Rodney Hakim and New York Shakespeare for keeping the torch lit.


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