Bylaw vs. the Bard: Backyard Shakespeare show will go on, this weekend at least

The show will go on — this weekend, at least — for a troupe of young actors after Ottawa bylaw officials abruptly reversed an order banning their backyard performance of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.

It really has been a comedy of errors since an Old Ottawa South youth troupe was ordered to cancel their play

From left to right, Neila Pringle, Abbey Sugars-Keen and Willa Spatz-Rudner act out a scene from William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. (Sarah Kester/CBC)

The show will go on — this weekend, at least — for a troupe of young actors after Ottawa bylaw officials abruptly reversed an order banning their backyard performance of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.

The Company of Adventurers was supposed to debut their rendition of the Bard's famous farce this weekend before a small audience of family members in director Cynthia Sugars's backyard in Old Ottawa South, before opening it up to a wider audience in September.

But Sugars said the troupe learned Thursday morning that someone — she suspects a neighbour — had complained to the city, and the play was being shut down for breaking zoning and noise bylaws.

After CBC published the story Friday morning, Mayor Jim Watson announced on Twitter that he had offered the company the use of Windsor Park for their performance. 

Later, city officials said they would allow Sunday's intimate backyard performance to go ahead as well, as long as the performers respect noise bylaws.

'Great news'

"This is great news," said Sugars's husband and co-director Paul Keen on Friday afternoon. "That's really nice."

But Keen said there's still no solution for the rest of the play's run, since the production relies on the deck behind his Glen Avenue home for a stage, and there's no time to build a similar set in a public park. Keen said most of the actors are children whose voices won't carry in a large outdoor setting like Windsor Park.

Cynthia Sugars, far left, directs the actors in a scene from William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. The show was supposed to open on Sunday but a bylaw complaint has shut it down. (Sarah Kester/CBC)

The Company of Adventurers has been staging the free shows in the same backyard for 10 years, passing on donations to a different charity each time. This year, money raised by passing the hat was to go to Ottawa Food Bank.

"It's a fairly small enterprise. As you can see, it's our backyard, really," Sugars said. "So it's not like we have, you know, all of Ottawa coming to the shows."

The city confirmed it received a complaint on Aug. 26 about the production and issued a warning that the show would not be allowed to go on.

Order unrelated to COVID-19, city says

The city said the complaint was not specifically tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, but said any outdoor gathering would still have to adhere to physical distancing rules. 

Sugars said this is the first year the company has reserved seats in order to control audience numbers.

"We're limiting it to 20 people per show so that we can ... put family groups together," Sugars said. Family groups would be kept two metres apart from one another, she said.

Sugars and Keen have also adapted the script to address the current pandemic. 

"The town in the original Shakespeare version has put a lock down on its borders because it's in a trade war," said Sugars. "So we thought, all right, why don't we work this into COVID-19?" 

All the actors wear masks on stage, and there are public health signs incorporated into the set, as well as jokes about physical distancing and handwashing.

During the first scene, actors placed public health flyers around the set. (Brian Morris/CBC)

'Bright light in their summer'

Actor Abbey Sugars-Keen, one of Sugars and Keen's daughters, said at first she couldn't quite believe this year's show was being cancelled. 

"When you put so much time and effort and love into something, it's quite heartbreaking to have it suddenly stopped," she said. 

Her mother said it's a real neighbourhood affair, and she's often stopped on the street and asked about the shows. 

"The one kind of bright light in their summer was working on this show. And to have this shut down on them, I think, is really, really devastating," Sugars said.


Sarah Kester


Sarah Kester is a reporter at CBC in Ottawa. She can be reached at

with files from CBC's Laura Glowacki

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