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.



Another Hamlet

The true story about the first Hamlet produced by Driftwood

Long-time Driftwood supporters may recall that although 2015 marks the first time Driftwood is producing Shakespeare’s most celebrated play as part of the Bard’s Bus Tour, it isn’t the first time we’ve delved into the world of Denmark.

Back in 2002, before the days of our annual Trafalgar 24 festival, I was fortunate enough to get a tour of the beautiful Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, and immediately began planning an event to take place in and around the 19th century castle standing on its grounds.

That project became our first fundraising event at the castle—Trafalgar Hamlet, featuring (now award-winning director of Stratford, Soulpepper, Tarragon and theatres across Canada) Alan Dilworth in the pivotal title role.

It was unique not only for using the castle and grounds to create a site-specific theatre experience, but because the audience was also divided into five groups, each following a different set of characters. The entire play was then presented simultaneously. Audience members were only privy to the scenes featuring their characters. They traveled in, around and outside of the castle on what I recall were two suitably cool and wintry nights in March of 2003.

Guests were invited to dine on a fine meal during intermission, and the dining hall became the setting for the famous ‘mousetrap’ scene of Act 3, Scene 3—where a troupe of players perform the play which convinces Hamlet of Claudius’ role in his father’s murder.

Further adding to the drama of Trafalgar Hamlet was a massive power-outage affecting half of the town of Whitby, where the castle is located, on the evening of our first performance. From the time audience began arriving until about 30 minutes after the performance was set to begin, the castle interiors were pitch black. Safety regulations forbade us from conducting the event in the dark, and so audience members were confined to dining lounge by candlelight at a pre-show wine reception until the power came back on.

I’ll never forget it—I was on my way to the dining hall to announce that we’d be cancelling the evening’s performance when the power suddenly came back on. The entire cast breathed a sigh of relief and we quickly got things underway.

The ghost appeared down by the front gate, Hamlet delivered his famous soliloquy on the main hall staircase, Claudius knelt to pray in the chapel, and Ophelia drowned in the indoor swimming pool.

I have always loved this incredible play and look forward to the challenges of directing it for the outdoor summer stage, but I will never forget that first Driftwood Hamlet experience.

– Jeremy.


It is not in the stars to hold our destiny…

…but in ourselves

Starting your journey with the Creative Roots Theatre Training Intensive

Driftwood isn’t an institution. We don’t have a physical building to call home, we don’t keep a warehouse full of sets and props and costumes (more like a locker), even our producing staff work “in the cloud” collaborating through the internet from offices across the province. In a way, Driftwood is as ephemeral as theatre itself; the legacy we are building is not tangible, but it is a legacy nonetheless.

In the absence of any physical structure to leave behind, I decided a long time ago that Driftwood’s legacy would be about fostering a strong future of theatre in Canada, nurturing the creative energy of the next generation of actors, artists and technicians. These are our Creative Roots.

Over the last twenty years, we’ve offered emerging actors their first professional gig, provided paid apprenticeships to early career directors, designers and technicians, and two years ago, we launched our Creative Roots Theatre Training Program for Young Actors.

As we’re currently accepting applications from teens who would like to participate in this two-week summer theatre intensive, I thought it would be an apt time to reflect on the origin and philosophy of the program.

When we made the decision to include young actor training as part of our outreach activities, I knew exactly who I would approach to develop the program: Peter van Gestel.

Peter is a long-time friend. We bonded during my third year at Queen’s University (about 20 years ago) when, as fate would have it, I ended up both designing scenery and playing Horatio to Peter’s Hamlet in a local theatre company’s production that great play. From that time on Peter has been one of my best and most trusted friends.

Peter van Gestel and Jeremy Smith in 'Hamlet', 1995 (yes, the hair was flowing).

Peter van Gestel and Jeremy Smith in ‘Hamlet’, 1995 (yes, the hair was flowing).

No, being my friend doesn’t exactly make Peter qualified to develop and lead a training program for young actors. But his extraordinary credentials most certainly do.

Peter has trained at some of the best institutions in the country (Queen’s University, B.A., M.Ed.; the National Theatre School of Canada; Stratford Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre), has worked for some of its finest theatres (Stratford, Mirvish, Factory, Grand Theatre), and has been teaching performance in Canada for many years.

Moreover, we share the same ideology when it comes to the work of William Shakespeare. When I spoke with him recently about why he felt it was important to lead the Creative Roots program, he offered:

“After a performance during one of the Driftwood tours I was on as an actor, I spoke with a friend who studied the play in high school and her comments to me about the performance and how it deepened her understanding and connection to the play impacted her. She spoke of being afraid to come to the performance that evening because of a fear of Shakespeare. I am glad and proud that we helped with her fear of the language but I was also frustrated because nobody should be afraid of Shakespeare: looked at through the lens of human behaviour instead of the lens of literature makes Shakespeare so much more accessible.”

For Peter, as for me, the value of Shakespeare doesn’t lie in his language, but in his ability to reflect upon us the rhythms and secrets of our own hearts. Shakespeare helps us to understand who we are and what our place in the world might be. And if we can teach that, well then getting through any perceived ‘language’ barrier is a relatively simple process.

In addition to exploring classical theatre, our Creative Roots participants learn from our performers and creators to stretch their theatrical limits.  It is a rigorous, full and intensive program. And it is also richly rewarding.

Creative Roots participants during their final performance, 2013.

Creative Roots participants during their final performance, 2013.

A day in the life of Creative Roots could include hands-on theatre workshops exploring sound, movement and text, observing a Driftwood rehearsal or performance, attending other professional shows happening around town or preparing their final performance to be shown to friends and family.

Throughout the program, the students are paired with a mentor from the Driftwood company. Peter cites the first connection between student and mentor as one of his favourite moments in the Creative Roots program:

“This moment is memorable for me because it allows the student to make a one on one connection with a working actor. It is an opportunity for the student to see theory put into practice…seeing their mentor “at work” and seeing the production come together from the early stages of rehearsal to show readiness gives them a framework and perspective that the average theatre goer does not usually get.”

The most incredible part about the whole thing is that thanks to the generosity of our partner TD Bank Group the Creative Roots Theatre Training Intensive is offered at no charge to the participants.

So if you are, or if you know a young person with career aspirations in acting, check out the application information on our website. We’re accepting applications until May 15th and we’d love to hear from you!