Nfld. & Labrador

The Bard is back: Here's how 2 troupes are returning Shakespeare to the stage

After performances went virtual last year, both Shakespeare by the Sea and Perchance Theatre are bringing back in-person performances this summer. As Andie Bulman writes, they are also building on what they learned last year, too.

Shakespeare wrote about plagues, elitism and gender … all issues that still matter in 2021

Allison Moira Kelly prepped for the role of Hamlet by studying fencing. (Paul Wilson/Perchance Theatre)

Shakespeare looked different last summer, thanks to the pandemic. This summer, the Bard is back, with two troupes in eastern Newfoundland capitalizing on what they've learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

St. John's theatre company Shakespeare by the Sea went virtual last year, with actors and technicians assembling makeshift green screens in their individual living rooms, learning to translate their stage performances for a Zoom audience, and bringing the Bard into homes across the province … and anywhere else.

Artistic director Mallory Fisher acknowledges it was a different season but says there were gains.

"In some ways, the pandemic made theatre more accessible to a broader audience," Fisher said. "Online theatre is friendly to most bodies, and is friendly for those who can't travel."

Perchance Theatre cancelled in-person performances, and the charming outdoor theatre in Cupids sat quiet and empty throughout last summer, a move that artistic director Danielle Irvine found challenging.

"I took solace knowing that theatre has survived these types of shutdowns and always comes back together," she said. 

Instead of live performance, Irvine created The Power of One, a filmed series of monologues from every play Shakespeare wrote or had a hand in. Irvine and her team created 41 videos, representing 40 plays and one sonnet.

Rob Ormsby, who has been teaching Shakespeare in Memorial University's English department since 2008, says the pandemic brought something new to Shakespearean performances.

"Before COVID-19, companies were streaming 'live' broadcasts or creating DVDs of performances, but that's it. The pandemic made us realize what we were missing. Companies like Perchance Theatre embraced the situation and found new avenues of performance," Ormsby said. 

WATCH | From 2020, we found out how Shakespeare by the Sea was using Zoom to stage an online production of Pericles: 

Shakespeare goes Zoom

1 year ago
St. John's-based troupe Shakespeare by the Sea is taking its work online this summer, to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic 3:37

Both companies are back this summer with live, in-person performances. Shakespeare by the Sea will be showcasing Pericles at The Rooms Fortis Amphitheatre, and Tales and Tunes will be presented at a new venue, with an announcement coming soon.

"In the spirit of maintaining accessibility, we're also doing a hybrid season," said Fisher, adding that Toronto-based artist Desiree Leverenz will be directing an online adaptation of Richard III.

"I'm excited to see what they do with it," said Fisher.

This adaptation of Richard III will be created in collaboration with the actors and will be an entirely new piece of theatre. "The text will be a starting point, but Shakespeare was working at the height of colonialism, so there's a sense of elitism and preciousness around the work sometimes. By building a piece and co-creating it with the actors, the integrity will still be in the work, but it'll be something new. too."

Gender roles and acting roles

Meanwhile, Perchance Theatre company will be performing As You Like It, Our Eliza and Hamlet, which will look a little different this year.

Allison Moira Kelly will be playing Hamlet, but cross-casting and gender-fluid casting in Shakespeare isn't a new phenomenon.

Shakespeare by the Sea has been offering a number of workshops to volunteers over this past spring. Here, cast members rehearse for Pericles. (Caitlin Harte/Shakespeare by the Sea)

"To the best of our knowledge,," said Ormsby, "no women acted in Elizabethan for-profit theatre, but male actors, usually adolescents, played female roles, a practice that Shakespeare alludes to in several plays, including As You Like It."

The first recorded instance of a woman playing Hamlet was Fanny Furnival, who played the tormented prince of Denmark in 1741, but the idea of Hamlet being a woman stretches even further back.

"In prepping for the role," Kelly said, "I came across a Danish myth, written long before Shakespeare, that claimed Hamlet was born a girl. The queen, terrified of not having an heir, disguised Hamlet and presented them at court as a boy."

Perchance Theatre Company believes that cross-casting is essential.

"In classical theatre, there are often fewer roles for women and non-binary individuals," said Irvine. "Cross-casting opens doors for more balanced storytelling. Hearing arguments from the female or non-binary perspective gives us a new lens on the stories.

Kelly as Hamlet is not Perchance's first example of cross-casting. "Two summers ago, Bridget Wareham played Cassius in Julius Caesar, and that was so resonant," said Irvine.

"Cassius is a great strategist, but he's ignored and overlooked, and that is often the female experience. Our series The Power of One played with cross-casting too, and it was truly a delight to hear these words through a different frame of reference," she said.

Bridget Wareham played Cassius to Steve O'Connell's Brutus in Perchance's 2019 production of Julius Caesar. (Pamela Whalen/Perchance Theatre)

Shakespeare by the Sea will also host actors playing across the gender spectrum.

"For us, it's about the right ensemble for Pericles rather than casting based on a specific gender," said Fisher, who says the Shakespearean canon is a perfect playground for gender exploration. 

"I love integrating queer and trans narratives into the classical text because the text supports it. So many Shakespearean characters find freedom by side-stepping out of their assigned gender roles; it's a safe place where artists can explore the possibilities of gender beyond the binary."

LISTEN | Danielle Irvine tells The St. John's Morning Show how Perchance Theatre Company is safely bringing Shakespeare back on stage this season: 

Perchance Theatre in Cupids is back this summer. We hear all about their plans for this season. 7:34

So how does an actor prep for one of the theatre's most complex roles? And how does that role change with a shift in gender?

"I feel very prepared to go into the rehearsal room. I lived with Hamlet in a focused way for 16 months," said Kelly.

"I've read books and listened to podcasts; I've picked many brains and taken fencing lessons. The story is now a father/daughter story. What does that mean? What does it do to the text?"

With a laugh, Kelly added, "The line 'Frailty, thy name is a woman' becomes more fun to say."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Andie Bulman


Andie Bulman is a chef, writer and comedian in St. John's.

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