Back to the Bard | Speak The Speech

By October 17, 2015 No Comments

I recently had the pleasure of chatting, post-production, with John Sheehan who performed with Perchance Theatre perchancelogothis summer in Cupids, Newfoundland about how Shakespeare brought him back to summer performance. I reviewed Perchance’s productions of Much Ado About Nothing, and Macbeth earlier this season and was in complete awe of Sheehan’s stage presence and capacity for Shakespeare. I had absolutely no idea what kind of story would unfold at our meeting, but I knew it would be interesting and reaffirm my own love for Shakespeare.

If you were able to catch my review, you’ll remember that I praised Sheehan for his ability to shift character on a dime, and commended his solo performance of The Porter as one of the highlights of the production. As Benedick, he was “pure perfection … He was crass yet witty, intelligent yet such a fool, abrasive but with a heart of gold. Sheehan’s reactions during the gulling scene were priceless, and his comic timing added to the believability of the scene. The performance was crowned by Sheehan’s natural dialect which lends itself to Shakespearean verse with such ease that one could seriously imagine that Shakespeare wrote for Newfoundlanders. The musicality of Benedick’s verse compliments the dialect so fully that one can almost imagine this was the way Shakespeare must have sounded when he was writing. His delivery of “I do love nothing in the world so well as you” melted the hearts of the entire audience.”

John Sheehan (Benedick) & Alexis Koetting (Beatrice). Photo Credit: Perchance Theatre

John Sheehan (Benedick) & Alexis Koetting (Beatrice). Photo Credit: Perchance Theatre

So when I asked Sheehan how this journey of summer theatre began, I was certainly surprised when he said that he initially wasn’t interested in Artistic Director Danielle Irvine’s offer for him to perform with Perchance in the 2015 season. Past experiences tend to dictate how we approach new ones in the future, and this was simply the case with Sheehan. According to Sheehan, he “had made the mistake of becoming an AD of a company too young.” And it burned him out.  Forward thinking Sheehan had a plan to recuperate funds, working through the winter season to fundraise, and considered shelving the upcoming season to prepare for a new beginning.

This new level of burn-out caused Sheehan to reevaluate what he wanted for his own future, and perhaps that meant leaving showbiz entirely. He applied to the RCMP, but was informed he was colourblind, so even plan B was no longer an option. In a twist of fate, Sheehan, who was supposed to be performing a 10 minute set sketch comedy one night with long time friend Rory Lambert ended up performing solo standup, and absolutely loved it. He’s been doing that ever since.

John Sheehan. Credit: Erin O'Mara

John Sheehan. Credit: Erin O’Mara

So why chat about him now you’re wondering – what does all of this have to do with Shakespeare? Well I’ll tell you…

Sheehan’s daughter, who also performed with Perchance this season, mentioned to Irvine that her father was a big Shakespeare fan. Like father like daughter, Annabelle can be found with her nose buried in a complete works any time of day according to John, and was even told that she brings the Bard to school for casual reading. Irvine asked Annabelle how she got her love of Shakespeare, and she said “my dad”…  So let’s backtrack a little to that phonecall from Irvine about Perchance’s summer season…

Sheehan might have said he wasn’t interested, because of the burnout that he has known from summer theatre, but that sneaky Bard had put a bug in Sheehan that just can’t be explained. Benedick is John’s favourite character, and the “excitement was just crazy” thinking about the offer that Irvine made to Sheehan. He called her back the next day, and auditioned over the phone by recording a remembered speech of Benedick’s into his phone and sending it off to Perchance while driving from gig to gig. What I am blown away by is the fact that a character can have such an impact on someone, to the extent that not only will they drop what they’re doing to become that character, but that they remember his words from having read them and identified with them in some way.

Sheehan had been doing standup exclusively for 7 years before accepting the role of Benedick with Perchance, and while Benedick is a little bit of a witty comedian, the performance is entirely different. Two days before opening, Sheehan was a bag of nerves, and ready to walk… Sheehan’s only previous experience of Shakespeare was playing Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream 16 years earlier. Sheehan also struggles with ADD paired with his sense of comic timing, as he puts it he always “wants to go for a joke all the time, so its hard for me to focus”. It was a concern for lines and blocking, but Sheehan comments he was lucky to have the support of co-star Alexis Koetting (Beatrice) for the dramatic parts, and Steve O’Connell (MacDuff) on stage with him for those parts in Macbeth.

But he didn’t walk.  And the shining moment for Sheehan was his teenage daughter Annabelle telling him how proud she was of him. Shakespeare not only brought Sheehan to Perchance’s stage it brought his daughter. This summer father and daughter bonds were strengthened on and off stage at Perchance grounded in a simple love of  literature, the stage, and a passion for performing.

It goes to show you that the “wild card” can pay off.

Sheehan with daughter Annabelle, and the Cast of Perchance Theatre's 2015 Season. Credit: Perchance Theatre.

Sheehan with daughter Annabelle, and the Cast of Perchance Theatre’s 2015 Season. Credit: Perchance Theatre.

Lauren Shepherd

Author Lauren Shepherd

Lauren Shepherd is a current PhD Candidate at The University of Toronto's Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies. She has studied at Shakespeare's Globe, and researched in the RSC archives. She has studied under the direction of renowned actors/directors/playwrights/voice masters such as Howard Barker (and The Wrestling School), Jane Lapotaire, Emma Thompson, Trevor Rawlins, Philip Bird, Philip Stafford, Glynn MacDonald, & Stewart Pearce while abroad, and taken Masterclasses from Gloria Mann, Chick Reid & Tom McCamus in Canada. Lauren's current research is in the performance and diagnosis of 'madness' on the early modern stage. Lauren recently co-founded a performance troupe that works with early modern and Shakespearean texts, as well as adaptations and modernizations. The Shakespearience Group's work is experimental, and rooted in creating experiences of Shakespeare (and other early modern playwrights) that audience members can share and explore. Their goal is to create engaging performances that tell stories, communicate needs, and facilitate new experiences as well as the remembrance of past experience; the idea of recalling memories and exploring those pathways. Their inaugural performance was grounded in Lauren's PhD research on madness, titled Fortune's Fools, and premiered at the 2014 Flounder Festival at Burlington Student Theatre Centre. For the summer of 2015 The Shakespearience Group is scheduled to perform Twelfth Night, as well as run both Summer Camp (for youth aged 10-16) and Masterclass (for those 16+) at Burlington's local community theatre, Drury Lane.

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