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!


Though this be madness…

…yet there is method in’t.

Assembling a 26-Stop Ontario Tour with Driftwood’s Artistic Director, D. Jeremy Smith

With the temperatures finally above zero on a regular basis, it feels like summer might actually be around the corner. And for Driftwood, that means the Bard’s Bus Tour is coming up fast. Luckily for us, planning for this season’s tour began almost a year ago. This summer, Driftwood will visit 26 communities in Ontario (we’ll officially announce the full season and company on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23).

Company Members of Driftwood's 20th season, including author Dr. Toby Malone (2nd from right).

Company Members of Driftwood’s 20th season, including author Dr. Toby Malone (2nd from right).

Structuring a six week, 26 venue tour across a great swath of South Ontario might seem like a tall order, but we’ve had a lot of practice. In fact, Driftwood began with only four locations in the Durham Region (where I grew up) and performed only eight shows over two weeks. There was no bus back then – we borrowed a neighbour’s trailer to transport the big stuff and threw the rest in the back of a few cars.

Expansion happened gradually over time, growing to include more of East Ontario and the GTA before heading to points further West. First it was a few dates in Peterborough and Cobourg, then Toronto (in four different locations before we eventually settled in the East end’s Todmorden Mills and Withrow Park). Along the way we’ve performed in parking lots, on farms, at private residences, and even under a beer tent. Driftwood now tours to points between London, Westport and Bobcaygeon. And yes, there are plans to expand even further. But always one step at a time.

In 2015, we’re planning for a great mix of die-hard Driftwood locations with a few new and renewed sites and communities – places we’ve never been or just haven’t been in a while – to share our unpredictable, unsettling and downright dangerous adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest play, Hamlet.

The Bard's Bus, circa 2011

The Bard’s Bus, circa 2011

None of this tremendous growth would have been possible without our Touring Partners – dedicated and passionate organizations and individuals across the province who work with Driftwood to provide venues, resources and marketing support.

We currently have 20 Touring Partners across the province, ranging in size from voluntary organizations like the Friends of the Library in Marmora, to municipal bodies such as the City of Pickering (who are hosting Driftwood this year as part of the Durham Festival, celebrating the diversity of that region in tandem with the PanAm and Para PanAm games). Being a Touring Partner is a tall order, and each of our 20 partners is a unique and vital part of our success.

When I founded Driftwood 21 years ago, it was to share my passion for classic theatre with the community that helped raise me. I never expected that it would grow to encompass an annual summer adventure across this great province. This does have its benefits however – I’m an avid motorcyclist and look forward to the summer season not only for Driftwood, but also because it’s riding season.

Jeremy and the Bolt.

Jeremy and the Bolt.

So this year, as with most summers since I first started riding in 2004, I’ll make sure all of our 15 company members are comfortably loaded up on the Bard’s Bus and our other four-wheeled support vehicles before packing my bike, gearing up and getting onto the open road for another kind of adventure.

Driftwood provides me with an opportunity to get out there on my 2014 Yamaha Bolt and explore some of Ontario’s great roads while simultaneously bringing the magic of live theatre home to so many wonderful communities.

As far as I can tell, it’s a win, win.

– Jeremy.

Sign up to Driftwood’s e-newsletter to receive the full tour announcement hot off the presses on April 23.