Shakespeare-in-Hospitals Cuts Through Clinical Milieu, Pushes Boundaries on What Professional Theatre Looks Like
Signy Lynch observes the work of Spur-Of-The-Moment Shakespeare Collective, who perform Shakespearean scenes in hospitals and medical facilities across Toronto as part of their Shakespeare-in-Hospitals project. Their annual fundraiser, Shakesbeers Showdown, the proceeds of which go to funding their hospital project, is set for 27 April, 2018 at the Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media, and Education.
This review is part of an ongoing experiment in theatre criticism and consists in three parts: an outsider’s analysis of the production, and interviews with two members of the artistic team. All parts are equally important.
Signy Lynch, Reviewer
Signy is a graduate student in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University.
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” Romeo proclaims as he stares up at a balcony where his beloved has appeared. The scene is familiar, but the location is not—I’m watching it in a hospital room. The Spur-Of-The-Moment Shakespeare Collective (Shakespur) has been producing theatre since 2010. Founded by Victoria Urquhart, Sean Horbatiuk, and Brian Daniel Hansen, the company performs Shakespeare in modern spaces in order to “[break] down barriers surrounding Shakespearean text,” beginning with a Shakespeare-on-the-Subway project. The latest production in their most recent program, Shakespeare-in-Hospitals, weaves selected scenes and monologues from Shakespeare into a complete show that explores the theme of identity. There are continuous 30- and 45- minute versions, and a third version in which individual scenes are presented in private hospital rooms.
When I was first asked to write a review for the show, I was, admittedly, a bit confused. As a program that is performed exclusively in hospitals and mental health facilities for non-paying spectators, Shakespeare-in-Hospitals doesn’t fit the template of what most would consider a professional theatre show, certainly not one that would typically be reviewed. Nevertheless, it seemed an intriguing challenge to add to my ongoing experiments with theatre criticism. The review format I’ve been working with places the voices of individuals involved with a production alongside my own, both to decentre my perspective and to give the reader a sense of deeper engagement with the work. Ultimately, I only ended up seeing some of the scenes performed on demand in individual hospital rooms. As a consequence, what follows is not so much a review as a critical reflection on my experiences of the show.
I meet the company members in early December at a well-known Toronto hospital. The artistic director, Victoria Urquhart, comes down to fetch me and let me into the ward. When I arrive the cast of five (three female-identified, two male-identified, all professional actors) is on break, having just finished a round of performances. They are casually dressed, their only costumes white t-shirts featuring Shakespeare’s image and phrases such as, “Have you seen this man?” and “Will Power” (pun intended). Already this is quite different from my previous experiences reviewing theatre. More typically, I expect to watch a show, write my piece, and occasionally interview company members several days later. In this case, I squeezed in a couple interviews between short scenes as I followed the cast through the ward hallways and chatted with them.
Here’s how a typical interaction happens. A group of actors enter a hospital room. They introduce themselves and ask if patients would like to see some Shakespeare. If accepted (which doesn’t always happen) the patient(s) are then given choices; for example, between a lighthearted or dramatic piece, a monologue or a scene. Occasionally there may be special requests made for a particular play or scene, and the company does what it can to accommodate. The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is not a part of this year’s larger show, but is learned by all actors for their ward visits due to popular demand. The scenes and monologues are lifted out of Shakespeare’s plays with varying degrees of adaption, often for accessibility or continuity (in one scene the King of England becomes the Prince of Toronto, for example).
As we go, I notice interesting and sometimes awkward tensions emerge between performers and audience. In one room when faced with a choice an elderly man brushes aside the offered options for comedic and/or dramatic scenes and asks for something gory instead. The company tries to avoid potentially disturbing content for its general audiences of inpatients, and he is disappointed to learn that Titus Andronicus isn’t on offer. (He settles for a scene from Taming of the Shrew, and seems to enjoy it.) Some of the awkwardness I observe seems a result of the actors’ continual displacement from room to room through unfamiliar wards and spaces – a dramatic change from a fixed theatre space. This awkwardness also stems, more broadly, from certain societal approaches to both sickness and old age. I am not criticizing the company: on the contrary – these feelings of awkwardness seem to me to be natural, almost unavoidable, and make for an exciting change of relations when audiences typically have so little contact with performers. By performing in the ward, the company not only enters the personal and private spaces of the inpatients, they also come up against Western cultural norms that marginalize the sick and elderly and seek to reduce them to objects of sympathy or pity. Accordingly, in these encounters a potentially patronizing and generalizing relationship between performers and inpatients is constantly being negotiated, and, if anything, it makes the pieces themselves seem more grounded and human.
The scenes I see are at their best when they are interactive (perhaps influenced by the clown training that was part of the group’s rehearsal process). For example, in a proposal scene written using passages from several different plays, Katherine (played by Melanie Leon), after being asked for her hand in marriage, turns to the lone female audience member as though asking for confirmation before giving her affirmative reply. This dynamic seems to delight the spectator and for me proves instructive of the potentialities of using Shakespearean scenes as the basis for this project. Shakespeare’s text invites this type of interaction, but it’s a dynamic that’s seen more frequently in movies about Shakespeare and the theatre of his time than it is explored in contemporary productions. In this case, the close, collegial performer-audience relations are engaging, and unlock playfulness in the scenes in which it is employed. In another scene I watch, Romeo (played by Laura Vincent) appeals to the audience, inviting them to share in his longing for his newfound love Juliet and later in his excitement upon her appearance at the balcony above. In a way, it is almost as if the spectators become partners in the scene. It seems to me that through these encounters lies the potential to destabilize patronizing societal attitudes towards the sick and elderly. The scene’s collaborative nature cuts through the clinical setting to show what is ultimately a meeting between agentic subjects. In watching this scene I not only see individuals acting together, but collectively confronting and even rewriting societal norms.
Cultural recognition of Shakespeare is another effect of the group’s choice of source material. Regardless of their individual exposure to the Bard, most people have a general understanding of his works and characters. This seems to lead to a familiarity, a common ground between actors and audience members that encourages the latter to be engaged in the performance and the scene selection process. My original skepticism about Shakespeare as the best choice for the project—due to my concerns about the inaccessibility of the language—was overturned by this factor of cultural accessibility. Though a past (and present) Shakespeare lover myself, I have seen Shakespeare’s text deployed in increasingly inaccessible, unjustified, and (frankly) uninteresting ways, all in the name of tradition, high art, and, perhaps most disappointingly of all, sheer force of habit. Here, however, the text is not only justified, but flourishes.
Over the couple of hours that I spend with them at the hospital, a common theme pops up in my casual conversations with cast and crew: the surprise and delight they regularly encounter from hospital staff and patients about the group’s professionalism and the high quality of the work they produce. These statements reveal a common underlying assumption (one I confess that I, at first, shared): that a hospital is not the place for professional theatre. Despite the fact that the performances take place outside a regular theatrical venue and are for private unpaying audiences, they feature a professional cast, crew, and creative team with a clear creative mission. Both thematically—in their exploration of identity—and methodologically—in their approach to the text in performance—there is no doubt to me that Shakespur is engaging in serious artistic inquiry.
In these ways they are quite clearly professional. So what, then, really is the difference between their work and the other professional shows that I would expect to review?
In addition to its pursuit of artistic excellence, most theatre that is reviewed seems to be linked by a goal of commercial gain. Economically, the theatre review serves to tell the discerning consumer (often a member of the social elite) where they should spend their money, emerging out of a new print media culture to judge between productions in a time of growing theatrical competition. Secondly, the artistic excellence inferred by a good review is cultivated by the social elite as a form of cultural capital. What I ultimately realized is that in my surprise at being asked to review the show, I was really expressing surprise that someone would be making “good theatre” for audiences that can’t give anything (economically, culturally) in return. I want to conclude by suggesting that operating outside the drives of traditional capital should not invalidate or push an artistic work to the side. Theatre criticism should not just be about promoting works that meet our norms and expectations, but about celebrating artistic work wherever it is found. We need more criticism of non-traditional shows and projects such as the Shakespeare-in-Hospitals project, thus acknowledging the important artistic contributions that are being made under unconventional circumstances.
Laura Vincent, Cast Member
Laura is an actor and an artist originally from London, England.
Q from Signy: How did you get involved in this project?
I saw an ad—I just saw a thing for it on, you know, we get these audition notices online. So I saw that and it just seemed so interesting because acting is a very selfish pursuit… You’re trying to get the job at the expense of other people getting the job, right? That’s the whole game, so you’re always out for yourself, selling yourself. So I think you lose sometimes the idea of giving back a little bit. And this way you get to kind of do both: you get to act, you get to do some great Shakespeare, but you also get to come away with the impression at the end of the day that you’ve actually done something to help someone—maybe brightened their day a little bit. Obviously we’re not changing lives but a little entertainment in an otherwise relatively dull day, if you’re an inpatient in a hospital, is a good thing, I hope.
Q: Do think this project impacts people in a different way than the theatre work you typically do?
Yeah, absolutely, because people that come to see theatre, they pay a ticket, and they come to theatre—they’re theatregoing people. They have a prior interest in it, they expect to be entertained, and they can be critical of it all, they can like it—whatever they want, because they’ve paid for the privilege of it. But these are people who are stuck in a hospital ward for whatever reason, and we are coming to them and offering them—and they’re not necessarily Shakespeare experts; they may never have seen a Shakespeare play ever, but the idea that we’re making them feel a bit special, right, they’re not just one of a huge number of an audience who’s paid for a ticket. We’re sitting down in front of them and doing it especially for them. I think it becomes a little more meaningful than being just one of an audience in a regular theatre.
Q: Do you approach a scene differently—the scenes you do in the hospital—than you would in a ‘typical’ production?
Yes, taken out of the context of a whole play they obviously are a little harder to deal with—I mean, to make them scenes in and unto themselves is a little bit challenging. Like, how do you end this scene if in the original play it’s just a scene that segues into something else? Ideally what do you do here? And also just trying to make it very clear to people, because people don’t necessarily have the knowledge of Shakespeare, maybe they have hearing problems, maybe there’s a language barrier, so you have to try and make it very specific. We can’t be as cerebral with it as we might be doing it for a crowd of Shakespeare nuts.
Q: Is there anything else you want to say?
It’s been a really great experience, and I get to do my favourite thing, which is Shakespeare. And I get to give back a little bit. It’s hard to express. We’ve had some nice experiences. A lot of people say “no”—they don’t want their room to be invaded, they’re feeling a bit tired—but when people say “yes” sometimes they’ll be moved by it, even though they’re not necessarily Shakespeare fans. And that speaks to the quality of the works that he wrote.
Victoria Urquhart, Artistic Director
Victoria is an actor and producer, and one of Spur-of-the-Moment’s founding members.
Q from Signy: How does your company approach its work?
There’s still a lot to be found, especially in our approaches to Shakespeare right now. There are a lot of things that I think we can get away from in our storytelling, particularly just the way that a lot of us approach performing the text. Just getting away from a traditional Shakespeare play…It’s important to bring all these traditional practices into a present context and that we allow the next generation to inspire our work just as much as the previous one, blending new practices with Shakespearean text. I think there’s a lot of play that can be had there that we’re just scratching the surface on.
Q: How do you find working in hospitals compared to working in more traditional spaces? Do you think you approach the audiences differently?
I think it’s about the fact that we’ve got to work with distractions; we’ve got to work with very unique spaces. And interesting stuff happens to Shakespeare when you perform that text in an intimate space as opposed to a really public space. You’ve got to acknowledge that that’s there and let that happen. But also, there are some things that we can re-sleuth or remake through engaging in other practices. Each year directors bring in some other practice that we experiment with and blend with the text… For example, the clown work that we’ve got going on this year has really primed our actors for working in those private rooms and allowing those distractions to happen. And being able to acknowledge them instead of pretending that they’re not there and they don’t happen. Much of Shakespeare’s text requires that in the first place, but because we bring [the clown work] in, the artists and audiences have multiple ways of interpreting the text. The whole Shakespeare-in-Hospitals project—back in the day, when we were in our first year—we drew from a lot of clown work so that we could do that; so that we could work with a lot of vulnerability, too. Because, I mean, you look at the basis of clown doctoring and that is giving the patient a sense of control when they have so little, right? And when you’re doing clown work you’re getting vulnerable so that they don’t have to, in some cases. Not necessarily in all cases, I don’t want to make that a stereotype or a generalization. We all see theatre for so many different reasons—especially when it comes to your bedside.
Q: I saw a lot of the smaller scenes in individual hospital rooms, but could you tell me a bit about the larger show?
The great thing is that you can take these scenes apart and put them in the private rooms, but they’re all a part of a larger story. So for this year we’re exploring the question, “Is identity fixed?” It’s been an exploration where, especially in this story, I don’t think we have a solid “yes” or “no” answer. For me, there are no solid “yes” or “no” answers. A lot of people go out of their way to try and [prove], “Here’s my thesis, and I’m going to solve it now,” and good theatre doesn’t do that in my mind… In the end I think that what we come to is the idea that while identity is not necessarily fixed, the only person who can really determine that is yourself.
Q: Why Shakespeare?
For me, especially in hospitals, it perks people up in a different way than what everything else does. It’s very human and we’re dealing with the human condition… I think, too, there’s a musicality to it, to the poetry. Iambic pentameter is a heartbeat. There’s a rhythm to it that a lot of people get drawn to in the same kind of way they get drawn to music. And that’s really characteristic for a lot of people. Shakespeare’s text is made up of a combination of sounds that really get people vulnerable when they speak it, and I think especially in hospitals a lot of people connect with that even when they don’t realize that that’s what they’re connecting with. In mental health units especially I’ve seen patients respond to it in so many unique ways… I have seen audience members come to extreme clarity, I’ve seen audience members turn on a dime. I’ve seen audience members suddenly become really joyous and it’s not until afterwards that the facilitator turns to you and goes, “This person has not smiled in months, this the first time that I’ve seen them engaged in something.” It’s like, wow. You don’t realize that that’s something that a simple performance can do, just because you give them a distraction from constantly being here, or you gave them a moment to reflect, or you gave them just a moment to laugh at something really human.