Over the last three months, Spur-of-the-Moment Shakespeare Collective’s ensemble has been touring Shakespeare to places where theatre can’t usually be found. As part of the Shakespeare-in-Hospitals program, six performers have brought an original showcase to hospitals, hospices, shelters and senior residences across the GTA and now they’re capping off their season with a Pay-What-You-Can gala complete with red carpet photos, performances, stories from the tour, hors d’oeuvres, dancing, and a signature cocktail you can vote on HERE. We caught up with Artistic Director Victoria Urquhart for the full story on how Shakespeare-in-Hospitals came to be, what went into this year’s tour, and what we can expect at their La Maschera Gala.

Tell us about the origin of the Shakespeare-in-Hospitals program and how it’s grown over the years.
Well, when I graduated university I was determined to exit with a project, so summer of 2010 I had built Shakespeare-On-The-Subway. We performed on subway cars one day per week for 8 weeks over the summer. In the middle of the run, a member from the ensemble had cut her thumb open on a tincan (while she was making dinner at home) and had to get stitches. She went to the hospital and sat in triage, and a news report came up about our project. Someone turned to her and said “They should bring that here! A lot of people would appreciate it” It was an idea that stuck out for me but…I didn’t act on that for a while. At the close of that project, my grandmother asked me if I would come to her senior residence with the SOTS ensemble and perform for them. It took some rejigging to turn a bunch of random scenes into a show with a sense of flow, but the residence loved it. I had done talkbacks for shows before, but this one was unlike anything else. They had so many questions for us, not just as actors, but as people. I got the sense that everyone was so happy just to have a new face to talk to. When we finished the show, the facilitator told us that she had never seen the group so engaged. Her facility hadn’t had a lot of theatre prior to us and we were, in some cases, people’s first taste of what it was (not for my grandma though. She taught me what theatre and dance was.) I walked out of that show very encouraged about what we had done, and starting to build ideas for the future.

The next day I got a call from my dad, and my whole world changed overnight. My grandma had had a heart attack that evening, and she was in ICU. That ended up being the last day I spent with my grandma. After funeral arrangements were made and done, it took me a week or two before I realized that if I didn’t do something with this then I was going to regret it.

From there, I literally walked into hospitals with letters of our intentions, offering a free trial to anyone who was willing to have us. That year we went to 10 different hospitals, 14 different units, 3 senior residences, 2 hospices and were a part of 5 special events. It was a lot different from what it is now- we stuck with an anthology kind of showcase of scenes for a long time. As it grew over the years we instated policy and practice training (so that we aren’t always just walking in with a letter of intent and an idea of what the show looks like– vulnerable sector checks and trigger training with social workers became a huge plus), and artistic elements that really pushed us to get into discussion about Shakespeare in performance and its approaches today (i.e., making it a devised work between multiple directors and actors to incorporate multiple creative languages and approaches, working in multiple formats to be able to bring a performance to work around an audience’s needs, dramaturging and working with the pieces to string together more of a narrative). Today we have over 100 alumni and perform for somewhere between 800 and 1000 audience members per year.

You tour a different showcase of Shakespeare scenes every year. Tell us about this year’s program.
Every year we choose scenes and build a narrative based off of a theme that we can form into a question. We’ve been forming a lot of our flow off of the previous year’s events thus far. Last year we asked “How do we find a common language?” and got to explore some really cool elements with Shakespeare in other languages, and found that we were floating above some larger questions about identity and adaptation. For this year, we formed this exploration into the question “Is identity fixed?” which we ask ourselves and our audiences in our show this year.

To look at this question we drew from texts from 18 different plays in the canon, plus three different sonnets. The amount from each play varies, larger scenes can be found from:
Twelfth Night
Taming of the Shrew
Romeo and Juliet
A lot of the King Henries
Winter’s Tale
Comedy of Errors
As You Like It
…and I still think that we are just scratching the surface on a really important conversation.

Who were this year’s directors and actors?
Our All-Star Ensemble:
The incomparable Roselyn Kelada-Sedra
The hearfelt Melanie Leon
The sensational Felix Beauchamp
The wholehearted Mariann Kirby
The inventive Chris Kelk
The brilliant Laura Vincent

Our Amazing Directing Team:
The impassioned Ash Knight
The judicious Eli Ham
The intuitive Chloe Payne

How do the different directorial voices work together to make a cohesive project?
Each year we work take an extended preproduction to develop scene choices based on our theme, and sew together a new narrative. Essentially we are devising a new play. We tend to work off of milestones and throwing a lot of paint onto the canvas, starting with a skeleton, and fleshing it out with finer details and texts from other plays (and not always necessarily Shakespeare!).

Every year is a different ensemble, a different set of directors, and with each comes a different fascinating group dynamic, based on everyone’s creative backgrounds and language. This year’s directing team comes from a diversity of creative backgrounds- it’s been especially interesting to work with two directors that have been a part of the Stratford Festival, and another who studied with Philipe Gaulier. I would say that our dynamic this year is very talkative, ensuring that we discuss every detail of a concept that we can, then plunging into the execution. Sometimes this has caused for a few late ideas and script changes to enter the game, but it’s been worth it to land where we have. It’s been interesting to find!

How did the directors choose the excerpts they wanted to work on?
We started with characters that we really wanted to follow and draw from, then started exploring some interesting turns by adding other scenes. This helped us carve out our skeleton. From there it was a matter of filling plot holes for the narrative. Sometimes this involved working with favourite scenes. Sometimes it just involved pulling a lot of random scenes. We did a lot of work on exploring relationship to audience and shifts in imagery in order to determine how the scenes ended up tying together.

What are some of the challenges of performing in such unique environments?
Generally we work in three formats, all of which have a unique set of challenges. The thing that we always have to remember is that we are performing for a very particular kind of audience. Our demographic will change day-to-day based on where we go, so we need to be mindful of certain aspects. When we are in mental health units, for example, we have to offer a different version of the show that curbs some of the imagery that’s spoken. Some people see that as far too much censorship in theatre, but the way I see it, we are making a piece of Shakespeare accessible for people who would otherwise not be permitted or not be able to hear it. For all shows, no matter what format we work in, we have to anticipate there being interruptions, and knowing when to acknowledge them, work with them, or ignore them. I am a huge believer in acknowledging and working with them– it includes the audience in our world so much more when we perform.

We also work in spaces with more mobile audiences (waiting rooms, cafeterias, etc.) that require more of a street theatre style of working (giving people permission to watch, knowing where your audience is will change, etc.) as well as private room work, where we literally perform at someone’s bedside. This is often the most intimidating but the most rewarding, because we often find out right away whether they liked it or not. The biggest challenge in this format is how intimate we choose to make these scenes, and how we let that affect us as we perform– especially if it is a super public piece.

What have been some of your favourite memories from the hospital tour this season?
There are so many good ones, but I don’t want to steal the glory away from the actors– they will be telling them on the night [of the gala]. This is their night.

…but…there is one story that I know no one else knows…

Facilitators and staff- sometimes even family members can get so apologetic when patients have to leave or interrupt a performance. We go through a lot of training for it to make sure that no one takes it personally and doesn’t miss a beat when it happens. We performed for this one group with a very young patient who didn’t really seem into the show, so he and his dad ended up leaving part way through. I don’t think anything of it when people leave a show anymore- that’s their lives and their journeys, right? On my way out of the unit that day, I passed the dad in the hall who started apologizing for having to leave. I explained he didn’t need to apologize- it’s the nature of the environment and the program. Then he said to me “you know, I always feel so bad for the older kids here– when people come here they are often bringing shows for the younger kids. It means a lot that you are thinking for the older ones too.” we had done a lot of work to make the show accessible for the younger kids at that show, but it still felt good to know that other parts of our audience that weren’t thought of as much were being taken care of that day.

You’ll be presenting a few scenes from the hospital showcase at the upcoming gala. Can you tease any highlights?
Everyone has the balcony scene in their back pocket this year. I’ll start with that.
Each year the stories are completely unique- some that I have never seen or heard before. They are honest. They are real. I don’t like censoring them.
Oh yeah, and so. Much. Henry.

Where/when/how much are gala tickets?
We make our gala financially accessible, so tickets range from $15-$100, based on what attendees want to pay. Also, if people buy their tickets this Sunday, they will be entered to a draw to win a $50 gift card from Malabar (so they can get a fancy mask to match their outfit!)

What else do we need to know Shakespeare in Hospitals and the gala?
This is a night to celebrate! The year is almost done, it’s a last hurrah for the cast, and it’s been quite a few months of working with many different people. #GetFancy with us! I’m going to be wearing a different formal dress/suit each night on the red carpet. There will be hors d’oeuvres (courtesy of Panago Pizza) and a cash bar (courtesy of Amsterdam Brewery). We will be performing the narrative staged version of our show, so you will get a story, but we will also be sharing stories from our own experiences in hospitals with the people that we met along the way. Doors open at 7pm, preshow at 7:30pm, show is at 8pm and mix and mingle begins at 9pm! It’s going to be a great night to kick back in style. And if anyone wants to vote on the name of our cocktail for happy hour, the poll is open here.