This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. It’s Tori here with the latest in Shakespeare news from Toronto. I am happy to report that even with theatres around the world closed, and as Shakespeare would put it “a plague on [all our] houses,” Toronto artists are continuing to turn to the bard to get them through these hard times. Whether that be Breanna Maloney, who is taking part in the University of Essex’s East 15 Sonnet Challenge or Spur of the Moment Shakespeare Collective who have been hosting their test nights for their upcoming annual Shakesbeers Showdown over Zoom, they are still finding inspiration in Shakespeare’s words. I had a chance to chat with both Breanna and Torey Urquhart about their motivation for turning to Shakespeare during self-quarantine.
Breanna Maloney is one of the co-founders and general managers of Skipping Stones Theatre in Toronto but earned her MFA in acting from the East 15 Acting School. She describes the sonnet challenge as: “ open to people around the world to sign up. The idea is that every sonnet written by Shakespeare is “claimed” by one artist each. IE. I chose sonnet 51. My responsibility is to create a video of myself performing this piece, through an artistic lens. All of these sonnets will be posted together and shared online…It has been initiated by an actor who wants to start a quarantine challenge that invites community. People from all over the world have signed up.”
Tori: What motivated you to join this challenge during this time?
Breanna: what motivated me to join was to learn that this is something that is bringing people together. It is also tied to Shakespeare, which I have a passion for, and allows me to do something new and creative, and, hopefully, even share it with people who may be looking for inspiration.
Tori: That sounds amazing! I cannot wait to see it once it all comes together!
Torey Urquhart is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Spur of the Moment Shakespeare Collective who hosts the annual Shakesbeers Showdown to raise money for their Shakespeare in Hospitals Program. The Shakesbeers Showdown is a community-building event that pits members from different theatre companies in the Toronto area against each other in a hilarious battle over who can read sections of the first folio best while drinking copious amounts of beer.
It is an event I look forward to each year, so I was so excited that they decided to move their test nights online. It has provided some much-needed relief from the news. I had the chance to participate in the second test night a few weeks ago, and it was the highlight of my week.
What I have observed is that because everything has moved online that instead of the artists in Toronto becoming more isolated, they have instead widened their community to include those from near and far and those who they might not have much opportunity to work with. During the test night, there were participants who came from across Canada. It is a testament of Spur’s mission of community building, inclusivity, and creating wider access to theatre.
Torey had this to say about her motivation for continuing the test nights online
Tori: how are you feeling with so many shows having to close or postpone?
Torey: It was tough at first! I think a bunch of us went into a lot of confusion and I know for myself I went into denial. As Torontonians I feel like our natural reaction is to go “okay, how does this change my path to get to where I’m going?” never, “does this stop me?” which is a great coping mechanism, because there’s so much unknown that you work within living here for so many reasons… Toronto gives you grit like that. But we also need time to thaw that coping mechanism out, which didn’t hit me at first. Sure, we can roll with the punches, but we need time for relief too– stuff I often talk about with our programming but forget about when working hard on a project. We immediately went into planning for the community and saw a lot of the practical steps for how to adapt and adjust to engaging online– I don’t think I fully sat with the necessity of continuing the work in this time until I sat in on My Entertainment World’s #CoronaColdReads the first time. It was only about a week after the announcement that we were cold reading a Shakespeare play on zoom, but I laughed, really hard, and then almost started crying with how relieved I felt as it was the first time that I had laughed at all since it all started.
Tori: Why did you decide to move your test nights on zoom and what has the experience been like for you?
Torey: At this point, I was already having zoom meetings with folks, and the mention had been popping up amongst various people, so it really just seemed like the logical next step. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it as “physical distancing, but socially coming together” which I think is correct. Our community does not only exist in-person, and that is so important. As artists, we are often asked how we are engaging our communities. As Artistic Directors, everyone is trying to answer that question of getting bums in seats, and that question can’t be answered without acknowledging that the audiences start, especially now, behind computer screens. Theatres can exist behind computer screens too. Thus far it has been heartening, to say the least. Following the flow of a conversation sometimes takes a bit more energy now as I turn on different parts of my brain to focus and listen to people through a screen, but you know, that energy is worth it at the end of the day because I can still share words and feelings with people. I can still laugh with them. We can still make an impact on each other’s lives, which is so incredibly important. The screen doesn’t stop us from being real, ya know?Tori : What have the reactions been like?
Torey: Very positive. Folks often get a kick out of our test nights to begin with, because it’s playful because it’s taking something that Canadians hang their hat on in theatre and turns it on its head. And folks who make mistakes through the process are celebrated! Getting together for a celebration like that in a time like this takes the pressure off to create the next King Lear in a pandemic. There are a few tech adjustments that need to be made and talked through, in which you can’t make up for in-person interaction, but I think that the great thing about this is that when that comes up we can shift gears into our social media interactions with the public or even just through Q&A with each other! It takes the focus off of the nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes technical work. All in all, these nights just let us have fun. Last time we did this we had folks from the east coast of Canada. Last Tuesday we have a mix of various different Artistic Directors in Canadian Theatre. The next one next Tuesday…who knows? We’ve got the time to play!
Tori: What are your hopes and what are your worries ( about Shakesbeer or theatre in general)
Torey: Well, I think everyone’s fear is that the show will get postponed or cancelled indefinitely and that the community will suffer for it. That’s everyone’s fear right now. True, full isolation. The greatest thing though is that I think Spur has been training for fighting this attitude through much of our existence. Our hospitals program is about bringing distraction to those experiencing for medical reasons. Now we are just working this happening to the whole world. The work for us hasn’t stopped, the economy hasn’t stopped, people’s lives haven’t stopped, much to the fear of what everyone talks about. It’s just shifted. It’s not forever, but it is for a while. And there may be a lot of opportunities that we can get from this. We will definitely see more recorded Shakespeare in this time. I love seeing people play, so let’s go for it. I know we have some plans coming up that I can’t talk about yet, but it is exciting to explore
Tori: What have you learned and what advice do you have for fellow actors and/ or theatre companies?
Torey: The biggest thing I think we’ve learned as a company is that this doesn’t stop. It just changes. Say yes to change, and you will survive, maybe even thrive, especially at this time. As an individual, I mean, there’s a ton of little things I have gained: There is endless opportunity for you, despite what it feels like, and you really need to listen to yourself and what you need in this time to do it. Need a break? Take it. Need to do some art? Do it. Need to exercise/play ukulele/scream into a pillow/throw things/clean things/organize things? You can still do it. Miss backstage shenanigans and being silly? You can find it in Zoom readings. I’m on my 4th self-tape since this thing started. If that’s what you need, then get after it. Set some deadlines.Need to take time to cry and feel like the world is against you? Take it now, and be kind to yourself in the process, in the comforts of your home. You are real. I am real. This is real and temporary. Struggling is succeeding, and sometimes in this process, it will mean letting the struggle out for others to see. It won’t be forever, so get it out to make space for other feelings. And figure out how to focus on those other feelings. Catharsis is important. So it indulging in the little things
Do you see new opportunities for theatre/ community building during this time?
Oh, big time. What it all looks like at the moment, I am unsure. We are already relying more on self-tapes, stretching new muscles of our creativity, which is great. We are listening to people in new ways too. Seeing and listening to someone behind a screen changes the way that you listen to people, changes your focus, which I am very curious to see how it comes out in theatre and film in the next little while. I think that everyone’s hyperfocus is being developed and trained in a way that might give all of us a little ADHD in the long run– but hey, welcome to my world. I think it will definitely bring a lot more thought and consideration to our mental health. I think a lot of this is causing a lot of us to certainly get more introspective and reflective in general. I just had a conversation with a family member the other day who is usually a hardcore political right-winger with little artistic interest, and they actually started criticizing a lot of the right-wing strategies going on right now. I personally rarely find that I can talk with them, but this perked me right up. As we got talking the greatest thing happened in this discussion: they actually learned to separate their perspective from a universal perspective- as in, they acknowledged that their perspective wasn’t, nor shouldn’t be universal and that they didn’t need to fight or teach myself or anyone for having a different perspective. I don’t know if this conversation could have happened in the slightest without them having this time to reflect and think. It has made me very hopeful for audiences that come into theatres in the future, as well as other generations in general. I also just love bridging gaps in communities, so experiencing that has made me super grateful.
Tori: I couldn’t agree more. This time has made me feel more in touch with my community than I ever have before. I hope this helps us all appreciate the communities we belong to, the people in our lives, and the world around us in a new and more invigorated way. I hope we can all see this as an opportunity and a privilege, as much as it is a challenge. Thank you, Breanna and Torey, for chatting with me.
Check out the East 15 sonnet challenge here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/680370139449002/
Check out Spur of the Moment Shakespeare Collective Test Nights and watch live streams of past test nights here: https://www.facebook.com/ShakeTheSpur
If you have stories about how you are turning to Shakespeare during COVID -19 I would love to hear about it! Get in contact with me via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.