Surviving the Tour, or: I Love Your Silly Faces

Tales of tour survival from actor Steven Burley….

Listen.  I will tell you how we survive.  I’ve done it for many years.

But, first: It’s windy in Peterborough.  It’s the kind of wind that comes on strong, then suddenly dies, and in that moment of calm, before the next push, it’s like the trees whisper ‘holy foof’.  We are on a hilltop next to our intended playing space.  Many of the actors are hoisting iPhones to the heavens, as if refracting the sky through the lenses of their mini-cams will stave off our obvious doom.  The cloudbank skimming towards us looks like an ink stain on Zeus’s palimpsest, or, simply, less pretentiously, an alien mothership.  An invader from that awful Will Smith movie.  I look around for Will Smith.  He is nowhere to be found.


There will be no show tonight, the heavens are saying.  No matter how electrifying your performances, or handsome your veteran actors.  Regardless of the hours of labour it took for the crew to build your stage and hoist your lights and run your miles of cable.  Also: nuts to the legions of patrons that usually flock (in the hundreds!) to this particular venue.  Forget your 100% rain-or-shine guarantee, the heavens say.  I am coming to kill you.

But I paraphrase.

Weather is one of the obvious, and most unforgiving, forces we fight when we tour.

But, then, truly—it has always been thus.  Even when we didn’t really tour.

And there’s the rub!

Driftwood Theatre Group, today, is known as a touring company.  In fact, it is one of the only touring theatre companies left in Ontario.  (Cue: wood-knocking.)  But in 1995, the year of its inception, Driftwood performed only 8 shows at 4 venues—Oshawa, Whitby, Bowmanville, and Port Perry.  (More a weekly excursion than a tour.)  Now, Driftwood travels to nearly thirty venues—between London in the west, St. Catharines in the south, Bobcaygeon in the north, and Kingston in the east.

So, here I am—twenty-one years from outbreak—nestled in a coffee shop in downtown Kingston, a few hours before show time, strewing my pearls of wisdom pell-mell about the blogosphere.  To tell you about touring. And, most importantly:  How.  We.  Survive.

Ominous, right?  Bet you can’t stop scrolling now, can you?  (Here’s a cute picture, just in case you can.)


First, a few logistical clarifications.  We have a company van.  We have a company bus.  I drive the bus.  It’s a sweet, sweet ride.  Tricked out for both style (sexy art/logo on its sleek, forest-green exterior) and function (it houses costumes, concessions, and about 8 company members avec duffels.  Also, the ‘Bard’s Bus’—hence, the tour moniker—when parked on site, becomes a change room.  A ladies change room.  Again, classy.

Now, an admission: I have a wee bit of road rage.  It’s gotten milder with age, and is frequently quelled by the stuffed toy kitten in my cup holder.  This is my Thera-Pussy.  When the microcosm of social decay that is bad driving begins to rile me, TP takes it upon herself to screech at the offending motorists.  It keeps me focused on my task, which is good driving.  A survival tool not as much for me, but for people who can’t drive properly.

Over the years, we have endured both the grind of GTA traffic, and the miles between Orono and Lindsay with nary a Tim’s in site.  Tips for survival here include: good confab, a compilation disc of reggae, the proper connecting cable to antiquated dashboards, so as to play your new-fangled devices, song circles, the latest Governor-General Award-winning novel, nap time, and Candy Crush.  (This is in NO WAY a promotion for that application/game.  It’s diabolical.)

Another way we survive the tour: CUTE TOWNS.  Oh, my.  Ontario is rife with them.

Many of our shows land in such unapologetically beautiful places as Westport, Bloomfield, and Port Perry.  Places near water.  Places with family-run coffee shops.  Places with stores that go ‘tring-a-ling’ when you walk through the front door.  These towns provide us a respite from the road, and the bustle of urbanity.

Which brings me to one of the main reasons I love traveling with Driftwood.

We are currently in that stretch of the tour (usually the second-to-last week), where we get SPOILED.  Just spoiled rotten.  It begins with The Luncheon.  The Luncheon is an annual treat on the lawn of Colin & Kerry Taylor, two of the company’s staunchest supporters.  Whether it is philanthropy or sheer madness, these two people host a mid-afternoon party (on their own property, mind) for our band of straggly babies.  It is here that you can: eat, drink, swim, compete with stage management for the Bocce ball title, nap in the grass/hammock/bed of kittens, and generally experience a state wayyyy outside of melancholy.  This Luncheon tends to take place before the Peterborough show.  And when we aren’t rained out (see above), that show tends to hum with clear-eyed contentment.  More wisdom: feed an artist, enhance an artform.  (THIS PHRASE IS COPYRIGHTED.  But spread the word.)


And then the tour heads east through Prince Edward County.  Artistic Director, D. Jeremy Smith has a family cottage in Outlet, a fizzy little burp of a place outside Picton.  This cottage becomes DTG’s HQ for most of the week, as we tour to outlying areas.  And—as many former company members know—the cottage rules.  (The ACTUAL cottage rule: DO WHAT YOU WANT.  Ridiculous.)

I mention former company members here for a reason.  Whether they (a) have moved on to other gigs, (b) are coincidentally homeless that same week, or (c) can’t take the words ‘you are FIRED’ as a reason not to attend, ex-Drifties tend to posse up and ride the tour’s coattails for a few days of DOING WHAT YOU WANT.  Which usually includes: campfire karaoke, beach-bumming, wine touring, and all sorts of salad-eating.  And, now that some of the company members have grown into adults and spawned progeny, there is an additional bonus: playing with babies.  My phantom uterus goes BOOM.






Barbara and Howard Smith, my other parents and Jeremy’s actual parents, host and tolerate us for the week.  Their generosity is immense.  Another reason we survive the tour.

And now.  Here I am.  Thinking that there’s actually a boil of sentiment brewing beneath this cheeky survival memo.  Penned not by the gristly survivalist I hinted at before, but rather the sap on Driftwood’s tree.


Survival on tour is ALWAYS an option.  Despite the odds against it, when we caravan about twenty people thousands of kilometres through columns of tornadoes, fatigued and hungry and missing home, we always survive.  We survive because we all become, and reunite with, family.  That’s why I’ve been around all these damn years.  Family.  Smiles new and old.  A growing narrative of people and places.

Plus, the shows we do are good.  Real good.  So come see us.  You have another week.



Speak the speech…

Myekah Payne is the Assistant Director of Hamlet. Though she has logged plenty of time on the stage, this is her first time on the other side of the action at the Director’s table. Currently she is finishing her degree at York University specializing in the study of Dramaturgy. This study is what spurs her fascination for development and re-imagining of the classics. Read on for Myekah’s tales from the rehearsal hall…


Hello all!

It’s Myekah just giving an update as we move now through our second week of rehearsal of Hamlet for the Bard’s Bus Tour.

As we began our first week of rehearsal, the daily morning routine was quickly established. After all morning pleasantries, the cast is seated and our Director Jeremy leads us all in a moment of meditation.  This moment every morning helps everyone to bring their awareness into the space, and to focus for the ever busy schedule to come.

This is usually always followed by a movement warm up led by Richard Lee and/or Adriano Sobretodo Jr. These warm ups consist of fun games to get the body moving and the mind active. There is nothing more motivating and energizing than quick reaction memories games (zip,zap,zop) especially when the penalties for screwing up include push-ups and jumping jacks.

Rehearsal Warm UpAfter movement comes a vocal warm up with music director Tom Lillington. Though our cast is amazingly talented, vocal music isn’t always at the tippy top of the skills list. However, under Tom’s direction the actors found new confidence in their singing abilities. Through sound-building exercises Tom has begun creating the original soundtrack for Driftwood’s Hamlet.

Using only vocal sound, rhythms and vibrations the cast quickly learns three part harmony in nasal overtones. Every music rehearsal new sounds and harmonies are explored. Repetition has already found some constant themes that are truly haunting. As said before much of Driftwood’s work is about exploration and these soundscapes are a fluid exploration from rehearsal to rehearsal.

Exploration are not only made in sound but also through Toby Malone’s adapted text. Even when actors were not being blocked onstage, they were constantly working on and through their text. If you looked around the hall at any given time you could find someone like Natasha Mumba (Ophelia) memorizing in an upstairs room or Sarah Finn (Horatio) doing scene work outside. Even now as we move ‘off book’ you can still find really any cast member looking up words in one of four lexicons floating around the room at any given time. And if that doesn’t work, you will find me on Google Books trying to help with whatever obscure volume that I can find. The text work is endless and wonderful when it comes to Shakespeare, not to mention this variation of Hamlet. However it is essential to make sure everyone understands fully what is being said.

Hamlet Bed RehearslaWith all the text work, vocals, and blocking, the movement within the piece is never neglected in rehearsal. As I stated previously every morning the actors are guided through a body warm up by movement co-directors Richard and Adriano. However many times, after the fun, the cast is asked to explore themes through their bodies. These movements are used or are reimagined for different moments and transitions within the play. Much like the vocal music being created this is also just as explorative. Watching the company embody fear and grief during one of these
exercises was quite moving and visceral.

By the end of the first week rehearsals we’re growing in momentum. Scenes were being expertly blocked and layered. Characters were being honed and developed through script and scene work. Hamlet and Leartes fought to the death numerous times (some of those times with actual swords).  Kind of like a puzzle where you put together all the doable pieces first, the show shakily started taking shape.

Fight RehearsalThat first week was a whirlwind and even though scenes were taking shape the play still seemed really disjointed in rehearsal. Not always having the full company every day meant many of the scenes had to be rehearsed out of order. So at times it was hard to remember how the full action of the play would come together. Finally having transition day really gave a glimpse into what was coming.

During these transitions, Tom began adding in bits of musical themes, getting the company singing and adding vocal rhythms. Richard joined in the process, choreographing movement to layer on top of the sound and shifting scenes. Until all of a sudden, I am, as the audience, in the king and queen’s bed chamber during a romantic moment while the eerie fear theme drones out from cast. Other moments pass and all of a sudden I am listening to a dance worthy beat boxing theme of hope as the players set up and re-enter for their second chat with Hamlet in Act III Scene II.

Rehearsals are on for a few more weeks and we have yet to do a full stumble through but Hamlet is on his vengeful way. And I must say that this year Driftwood has “the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastorical-comical, historical-pastorl,tragical-historical-comical-historical-pastoral” and pretty much everything in between. Here’s to two more weeks of rehearsal till opening!

The actors are come hither…

The actors are come hither…
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral…
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Rehearsals for Hamlet started this week. It’s always a thrilling time, full of possibility. Before we jumped into the first week’s work of table reads and meet-and-greets and design presentations, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the process of bringing this incredible group of actors together for our summer tour.

First day of rehearsal for Hamlet

First day of rehearsal, Hamlet 2015.

Casting a production is never simple and it represents for me the very best and worst aspects of my job. I both love and loathe this annual process of narrowing a field of over 400 candidates to exactly the right combination of 8-10 individuals.

From one perspective the casting process is filled with unknown opportunities. At any moment someone can enter the audition room and bring that unexpected quality that you didn’t even know you were looking for – one which takes your thinking about a play in new and surprising directions. The challenge is always to create an auditioning environment where, within a very short amount of time (usually 10-15 minutes), a sense of trust and play can be built between the auditioner and the auditionee. And when you do engage with someone in a meaningful way, it’s a great room to be in.

From another perspective, there is the constant knowledge that in nearly 90% of the cases, you’re going to end up saying ‘no’ to the person who walks in the door. This is something I’ve never really gotten used to – even after over 4,000 auditions. It’s a serious downer. Auditioning is an imperfect system: one fraught with both excitement and considerable stress.

The Bard's Bus, circa 2011

The 2011 Bard’s Bus Tour company hanging out with the old Bard’s Bus.

But when you do end up with that right combination of people – actors or who are both new and familiar, who will both trust you and challenge you (and in Driftwood’s case, who will continue to work well together throughout a five-week tour in a small bus) – it is an extraordinary experience.

The journey of casting Hamlet was particularly grueling. It took nearly four months (it normally takes one), involved numerous rounds of auditions and countless phone calls, offers and emails. But the end result is quite frankly one of the most exciting groups of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of bringing together.

Driftwood is very much an ‘ensemble’ company. When you’re working in touring theatre, a cast not only needs to perform well together, they need to get along well enough to enjoy being on the road together for over five weeks and 4,000kms. There needs to be plenty of trust, respect, patience and good humour.

For this reason, I’m thrilled by this year’s ‘core’ company members, Steven Burley, Chris Darroch and Rick Campbell. These three actors are not only among the very best ensemble members, able to deftly and quickly maneuver a number of character arcs, but they are incredible to be on the road with.

oberon and puck 95

Steven Burley, all the way back in our first show: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1995.

They bring ease, camaraderie and a commitment to Driftwood Theatre to the table. I’ve worked with Steven for over 20 years and with Chris for over 10: they are an integral part of the Driftwood family. I’ve admired and respected Rick for over 15 years and we’ve worked together twice. These three know the score when it comes to Driftwood and I trust them wholeheartedly.

Christopher Darroch and Karl Ang RnJ 2008(1)

Christopher Darroch in our 2008 production of Romeo & Juliet

But I also love what new energy brings to the process, and I’m so excited to be in the rehearsal room with our new company members this year, Nehassaiu deGannes, Jon de Leon, Sarah Finn, Natasha Mumba, and Paolo Santalucia. Throughout my limited time with each of them so far, they have all demonstrated a passion and energy for the project that is more than I could have hoped for. They each bring intelligence, passion, curiosity and considerable talent to the table. True to Driftwood form (where pairing emerging artists with established professionals is a stated mission of the company), they represent a range of experience from Natasha, who will make her professional theatre debut, to Nehassaiu, who has worked for some of the finest theatre institutions in North America.

Hamlet Cast Announce

The cast of Hamlet, 2015. Paolo Santalucia, Natasha Mumba, Christopher Darroch, Richard Alan Campbell, Sarah Finn, Nehassaiu De Gannes, Jon de Leon, Steven Burley

Together, this ensemble has the potential to put some of the very best work on the Driftwood stage our audiences have ever seen. As with any cast, I hope they’ll challenge me and expand my thinking about both the play and my craft, and I sense that they are collectively up to the task of putting together a production inside of a grueling and busy four weeks. I have a feeling they’ll also be pretty stellar people to work and play with as we venture out on the road to 25 communities in Ontario this summer.

Still, you never really know how things are going to work out until you get everyone into the rehearsal hall and start working. At the time of writing this, we have been through one fantastic day together. I couldn’t be more excited.

– Jeremy.


The play’s the thing…

Text Adapter and Dramaturg Toby Malone shares the story of how the text for Driftwood’s Hamlet came to be.

I feel like it started out as a dare.

It wasn’t a bet, but it certainly felt like a challenge. In early 2012 I was in New York City attending a Shakespeare workshop run by Sandy Thomson, artistic director of Scotland’s largest permanent ensemble, called Poorboy Theatre, based in Auchmithie, a tiny fishing village not far from Dundee.   Sandy’s relationship with Shakespeare was all about the scripts’ visceral immediacy, and she told me all about Poorboy’s attempt to dive in to the plays in such a way that would honour the writing while still maintaining the primacy of actors’ impulses. She had designed a concept called ‘Blast Shakespeare’, where her ensemble would gather to be (sometimes randomly) assigned roles in a Shakespeare play, sight-unseen. The ensemble then threw themselves into the process and staged the play, at pace, without stopping, from top to bottom, with scripts in hand and roaming all over the venue in a promenade style. Then a lunch break, then the audience arrives to watch the tumultuous performance.

Burial of Ofelia, Poorboy Theatre, August 2012.

Burial of Ofelia, Poorboy Theatre, August 2012.

Sandy had staged a number of these ‘Blast Shakespeares’ when we first met, including a go at Hamlet in two versions: first the lengthy (4000+ lines), familiar 1623 Folio copy, and then later, for fun, the less-known, much shorter (nearly half the length) and rougher (“To be or not to be, ay, there’s the point”) 1603 First Quarto. The 1603 Quarto has in the past been called the ‘Bad Quarto’ for its flaws, but Sandy marveled at the pace of the piece, and the way the scenes flew by, unlike the austere, beautiful-sounding Folio version, which took four hours to ‘Blast’ and nearly killed the actor playing Hamlet. She mused aloud, over breakfast (and hilariously kitted out from head to toe in tartan for a Scots parade later that morning), that wouldn’t it be interesting if we could find a way to combine the line and scene structure of the First Quarto with the lovely poetry of the Folio? No worries, I said. I’ll whip something up.

Death of Hamlet Poorboy

Death of Hamlet, Poorboy Theatre, August 2012.

A few months later, I had combined the text through parallel-text comparison, and uncovered a script worth testing. I left nods to the First Quarto in the script, along with some unusual character names (Polonius is Corambis, for example), and found that aside from some interesting speech restructuring, the play hung together nicely. Then it was off to Glasgow to join Sandy and the Poorboys to see if it worked.   With a stunning cast of game Scottish actors, and a Hamlet played by RSC regular Brian Ferguson (who recently played the role at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in a 4-star performance the Scotsman called ‘nervy and furious’), this new version of the script – cheekily retitled The Hamlet Variorum – absolutely flew. We performed the text in a stark Glasgow church hall and I could not get over the energy lent by the Scottish bravura, along with the nuance that the local accents allowed. Thrilled with success, Sandy committed to come to Toronto to try it again, this time with local actors.

Staged at the Luella Massey Studio at U of T, this new Blast featured Driftwood alums Chris Stanton (Macbeth), Geoff Pounsett (Trafalgar 24) and Tim Machin (Macbeth, Twelfth Night), an imported Poorboy in our Hamlet, Jeremiah Reynolds (who played the title role in one of the early Scottish Blasts), along with our future Driftwood Hamlet, Paolo Santalucia, who did his apprenticeship in the roles of Rossencraft, Voltemar, Barnardo, the Second Gravedigger and the Player Queen. Roaming around the falling-down former Russian Orthodox church, watching the creativity flow from this committed group, we knew we were on to something. But it was still an experimental script.

Laertes (Ben Clost) confronts Hamlet (Jeremiah Reynolds) at Ofelia’s grave as director Sandy Thomson looks on. Driftwood Hamlet Paolo Santalucia (Second Gravedigger) is at bottom left. Poorboy Theatre, Toronto, October 2012.

Laertes (Ben Clost) confronts Hamlet (Jeremiah Reynolds) at Ofelia’s grave as director Sandy Thomson looks on. Driftwood Hamlet Paolo Santalucia (Second Gravedigger) is at bottom left. Poorboy Theatre, Toronto, October 2012.

When Jeremy asked me to think about how Hamlet might be edited to fit a Driftwood season, I gave him The Hamlet Variorum as food for thought, not as a potential solution. I am both gratified and terrified that he has so wholeheartedly embraced this script, and am very aware that people may miss the ‘old’ version. Regardless, I’m excited by the potential in allowing this structure to breathe, and with such a stunning cast I have no doubt that it is going to fly. It’s an immediate, visceral take on the play: actor Peter Guinness (who incidentally played Claudius opposite Brian Ferguson at the Citz) once called the First Quarto “Hamlet with the brakes off.” In today’s culture, brakes are the last thing we want on Shakespeare, and a tumultuous, riotous approach to this script feels right for us and the Bard’s Bus Tour.

I keep thinking of this as the last phase in an experiment that I can then publish on, but it’s more than that. It’s a reminder that behind the famous words and speeches remains a family drama reeking with urgency and pace, and we don’t get to see that very often.

I’m so very excited to get started.