Acting,  Work

Live theatre in the age of COVID-19 – The Show Must Go Online

A laptop sits on top of several books, including the Complete Works of Shakespeare, on top of a coffee table in front of a couch. Beside it on the left of the image is a a cup of coffee with a Shakespeare insults design by Sally McLean and a plate of brownies as food props.  Beside it on the right of the image is a folding table, still folded, placed on the couch and the coffee table, to form a L-shaped desk with a computer mouse and mousepad. Behind the laptop is a ring light that is on.
Above: A behind-the-scenes peek at this new normal for live theatre from an actor’s POV in the time of COVID-19. Photo by me

When I got the email about ten days ago that I’d been cast in the new online initiative, The Show Must Go Online, as “Katherina” (or “Kate” as I call her) in The Taming Of The Shrew, I’ll admit to an initial hesitation at saying yes.

Not because I didn’t want to play her – I’d submitted to do the show in the first place, and I’ve been fascinated by “Kate” from the first time I saw her (as a Hollywood musical obsessed kid) portrayed by Kathryn Grayson in a late night TV re-run of the movie Kiss Me Kate when I was about 10 years old. Admittedly, that early influence spun me in the direction of doing Musical Theatre rather than Shakespeare when I began my professional acting career years later, but something about that show and that story stuck with me and I’d always been intrigued by Kate and Petruchio’s relationship (and somewhat perplexed).

It was more the realisation that I would be stepping hugely out of my comfort zone. Even though it was technically a rehearsed reading, the juggling of the technology required in this new age of virtual theatre brought about by COVID-19, alongside having never played this character before, felt suddenly very daunting and full of technical traps – both of the acting craft and software variety.

But, I’d thrown my hat into the ring because I was looking for a creative challenge, and I loved the idea of doing live readings of Shakespeare plays via the internet during this time of self-isolation, lockdown and uncertainty, as well as learning more about how the internet could connect creatives around the world. So really, who was I to say no to the Universe when it was giving me exactly what I’d asked for? Or rather, say no to Robert Myles (the director and creator of this rather brilliant concept), who I knew had taken effort and care when casting and who was offering me the chance to play with actors that I would never normally have the chance to know, let alone work with. Not to mention giving me the opportunity to play such a rich, feisty and complicated character as Katharina Minola.

So, after that split second pause, I shook off any feelings of anxiety and joyfully accepted the opportunity by return email. And I am so glad I did!

Above: Myself and some of the cast in full performance mode during the live broadcast on YouTube. Photo by @VictoriaRaeSook

Creating a new kind of theatre

For those who don’t know, The Show Must Go Online is the creative brainchild of the wonderful (and talented) UK actor/director Rob Myles, who is brilliantly supported by the equally wonderful (and talented) Sarah Peachey as Producer (also another actor). They are both based in Glasgow, Scotland and are in the process of staging readings each week of Shakespeare’s entire canon of plays – in the order they are believed to have been written.

They began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and then they were headlong into The Taming of the Shrew, which is where my story with them starts.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect. The process was still taking shape, with Rob and Sarah evolving and streamlining the system as they went. But they already had an impressive set of tools in place – highly professional “how to” guides for Zoom, the online rehearsal room link ready to go, a script for everyone to use (there tends to be a few versions of the same play floating around when it comes to Shakespeare, so this is of paramount importance!) and regular and clear communication from the get-go, all delivered with gentle reassurance and generosity.

And they were prepared to experiment with the medium. In my first email from Rob, letting me know that I’d been cast, he also had a proposal – would I be interested in playing with a stunt/body double for the wooing scene? Um … yes! I had no idea how that would play out, but of course I was in!

Above: Fight choreography run-through in rehearsal with Miguel Perez in LA as “Petruchio” and myself in Melbourne as “Katharina” via Zoom from my office. Photo by me.

And so, a couple of days later I was waking up at 6am (due to the time zone difference, Rob had kindly scheduled the fight call later in their evening so I wasn’t up in the middle of the night) and by 8am, was sitting in front of my laptop speaking with my new leading man, the fabulous Miguel Pérez (Petruchio) and our wonderful fight coordinators (and body doubles) Yarit Dor & Enric Ortuno, along with Rob, discussing how to choreograph the very physical scenes between Kate and Petruchio, when I was in Melbourne, Miguel in Los Angeles and Yarit and Enric in London and we were all performing over Zoom.

And this is one of the fantastic and innovative elements of this format of online live performance that Rob has created. Even though this is technically a read of the works – we all have our scripts up on the screen and are reading the lines as we play – it is really a performance of the plays, complete with costumes, make up, physical interaction between the players, props and more. And it makes it a wild ride for not just the audience, but also the actors – mainly because the production is put together in only a few days, so most of the time we’re playing together on screen during the actual broadcast for the first time ever, having never even fully played the scene before! This is theatre at its most raw and immediate as a result.

This, of course, means that homework needs to be thorough, from an acting craft perspective, to really do this work justice. It is always important, but when you only have four days (including the day you’re performing) to lock in the character – especially when you’re only vaguely familiar with the play – it’s vital!

Above: Three minute bell – the cast, director, producer (including the dogs from the first scene) prepare to go on “stage”. Photo by Rob Myles

Finding Kate

I wrote the equivalent to a whole other essay on this subject, so I’ve decided to hold off on my detailed analysis of how I came to my choices when playing Kate for another time. But in summary, while Shakespeare is open to interpretation, I feel that all my choices were supported by the text. It’s all in the text with Shakespeare – all you have to do is read it and read it again to find what he’s trying to say.

Essentially, Kate falls for the bad boy. Because he’s her mirror. Her soulmate. He’s the one she didn’t know she was looking for.

Rob, Miguel and I briefly discussed their relationship during our first of two rehearsals together and Miguel made the comment that Petruchio comes to the table just for Kate’s dowry, but almost immediately stays there because he falls deeply for her, seeing her as she is. Not just her outside beauty, but what resides within her. And so, he must have her. And I think she has the same reaction. She arrives ready to reject him and suddenly she can’t. Even though she fights this with all her might on every level.

Above: Miguel Perez and I as “Petruchio” and “Kate”. Photo by @robmyles.

Miguel found a moment of wonder, tenderness and fear (of his unexpected feelings) in the wooing scene that fully supported this take as well. Needless to say, he’s become one of my favourite leading men – a dream to work with and a genuine and lovely human being to boot.

As I said, I wrote essentially an essay about this, which would have made this blog post far too much longer than it already is, so I’ll hold it over for another day. What I will add is that Rob was an absolute star of a director and gave me so much freedom in my interpretation of the role, for which I am so very grateful. See Exhibit A below:

It might sound like I had all my choices locked away and ready to go by the time we were ready to go live with the show. Truth be told, I discovered most of it during the playing of the work on the night (or at 6am in the morning, as it was for me here in Australia!). None of what I did was fully planned. It’s how I normally work, but even more so on the timeline we were working to!

I had the fleeting thought of having an apple in the wooing scene because what is the best way to show someone you don’t care what they think? Eat in front of them. The repeat of that moment later in the play with a different meaning? Discovered in the moment (luckily I hadn’t eaten the whole apple in the wooing scene!) My discovery of my own power as Kate in the “sun and moon” scene – again, discovered in the moment. All from mining the text, my character homework and what the other brilliant actors were giving me in the scene. And it was thrilling and exhilarating and a little scary dancing out on that tightrope, but so exciting to feel Kate and the circumstances driving all those decisions for me.

Above: The scene after I’ve just broken a lute over Hortensio’s head featuring some of my fellow cast members: Miguel Perez, Alis Duff, Kim Durham, Dominic Brewer and Joe Penczak. Photo by @dombrewer.

The experience was heightened by the joy and privilege of playing opposite the divine Miguel as Petruchio (he really does deserve all the praise for his work on this!) As I said in the group Q&A afterwards – how could Kate NOT fall for his Petruchio? Also, the joy of watching everyone else do such brilliant work. Off camera (or “backstage” as we called it), I laughed out loud so many times with glee watching this world come to life. It was pure bliss on so many levels.

Have a listen to the aforementioned Q&A at the end of the play to also hear the fabulous Kirsten Foster discuss her take on Bianca and Miguel talk about his beautifully romantic take on Petruchio and Kate, as well as the wonderful Dominic Brewer (Hortensio), Leo Atkin (Sly/Pendant), Ailis Duff (Tranio) and Yolanda Ovide (Biondello) talk about the experience of doing theatre this way, along with all the other fabulous peeps in the show.

Shout out to the brilliant and engaged “groundlings” (who turned out in their hundreds during the live stream – you all rock!) who were commenting, laughing, clapping and sharing their thoughts during the broadcast in the live chat and had such great questions for us afterwards. While I’m here, BIG shout out to talented teenager, Annabel Higgins, for her gorgeous fan art of Kate and Bianca! It’s stunning work and we all loved it!

Above: Some “The Show Must Go Online: Taming Of The Shrew” fan art – “Kate and Bianca” by Annabel Higgins

Needless to say, I had a whale of a time playing with this extraordinary company of players, tackling a role that I didn’t have a deep knowledge of beforehand, and doing it across five time zones and right around the globe from my couch in Melbourne, Australia. At 6am. (But I’d get up even earlier for the chance to do this again!)

People have asked me since how did I feel playing like this. It’s hard to describe. It’s very different on one hand to performing together on stage, and yet, I finished the show feeling like I’d run a marathon – which told me that I’d worked every second on “stage”, as I should have. I even had post-show blues the next day, knowing I wouldn’t be doing it again. So, it was different and yet the same in many ways. Even more intimate than being there in person in some ways. It is definitely something I would do again in a heartbeat, given half the chance, that much I can say for sure!

Of course, several of the cast members of this play are discussing (semi-jokingly) how we can get together to perform this show again in person, on stage. Again, I’d jump on a plane and travel wherever I had to, to make that possible (after this conoravirus thing is over, obviously). I feel a bond with this cast and with Kate that I was surprised by, but welcome with open arms.

Above: Members of our amazing cast during my final speech as “Katharina”

In this time of social distancing, disconnection and lack of opportunity for work as an actor, I am so grateful and feel so privileged to have met and worked with these talented, fun, generous and wonderful human beings – doing something that I love – playing Shakespeare. And I get the irony of the situation, but I don’t care. It is a difficult and unsettling time out there for so many right now and I am not immune to those feelings. Which is possibly why I feel so intensely connected to my fellow artists from this show. So I thank Rob and Sarah for offering me the role and bringing me into this incredible family of players from around the world. It means more than I can say.

If you’ve got to the bottom of this (it still turned into an essay of sorts!), well done! If any of this has interested you in watching the full show, it is embedded below for your viewing pleasure (and the direct link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAMtHmeHzio). I hope you get as much enjoyment watching it as I got playing it. See you as a “groundling” in the coming weeks (along with several of the fabulous cast from these productions). There are over 30 more of these productions to go, so we have a feast yet to come! And the previous ensembles love watching this work almost as much as doing it – so stay safe and well and see you at the (online) theatre!

Our amazing company of players for The Taming of The Shrew:

PETRUCHIO Miguel Perez
TRANIO Ailis Duff
KATHARINA Sally Mclean
HORTENSIO Dominic Brewer
LUCENTIO Anthony Michael Martinez
BAPTISTA Joe Penczak
GRUMIO Carys Mcqueen
GREMIO Kim Durham
Lord/VINCENTIO David Sayers
BIONDELLO / PAGE Yolanda Ovide
BIANCA Kirsten Foster
SLY / Pedant Leo Atkin
CURTIS/Messenger/A Player/Players Tim Green
Tailor/Widow/First Huntsman Mary Ion
First Servant/Servant/NATHANIEL Muhaddisah
Second Servant/PHILIP Katie Mestres
Third Servant/JOSEPH + PETER Kwinten Van De Walle
SWING 1: Hostess/ Haberdasher Grace Miller
SWING 2: Second Huntsman/NICHOLAS Dan Beaulieau

SUPPORT THE CAST AND CREW: https://patreon.com/theshowmustgoonline
HOMEPAGE (with all productions so far and a sign up sheet for actors who are ready to take on the challenge!): https://robmyles.co.uk/theshowmustgoonline/

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