Hell is empty and all the devils are here – Sir. William Shakespeare.
Some may agree with me when I say that this quote summarizes the first full year of Covid with immense precision. Others will not. But everyone will or should agree that Shakespeare is an important part of literature and theatre. Few understand it, and even fewer may truly master it. I am one of many who struggle to understand the complex rhythmic beat and tone given from the poetic text. For me, Shakespeare will always be a struggle to learn. From sitting in my high school English class at J.H. Bruns Collegiate nervously counting the people ahead of the line till it was my turn to read the next paragraph, to having a near panic attack while reading a sonnet in front of my theatre class at the University of Winnipeg, it has not been fun. And you will not change my point of view on that.
Thankfully however, there is always light at the end of the tunnel and that’s where I got to talk with Brazilian-born Canadian actor-director and Shakespeare In The Ruins Artistic Director, Rodrigo Beilfuss. Who not only helped me understand that everyone struggles, but also shared some of his own experiences both on stage and behind the scenes.
But enough about me and my struggles, let’s figure out what Rodrigo does even before he goes into the rehearsal room, what do you do, Rodrigo that helps you with Shakespeare?
The good news is that we ALL struggle with Shakespeare. Everyone. Forever. No exceptions. I have done over 20 productions of his plays, from indie no budget student shows, to big Stratford productions. ALL of them started with me – and everyone else in the room – thinking “what is Shakespeare going on about?” Shakespeare IS hard; the language IS complex. There is no shame in admitting that it is hard and that you don’t get it. The struggle, and the detective work one engages in to crack that code is part of the fun. Before I go into rehearsals, I just read the play over and over and over again; I edit the text – I cut out a lot of stuff that is too obscure…I really perform surgery on the text. And I try and have a lot of patience with this process, embracing the text’s complexity and working with it slowly – reading aloud to myself, over and over, as if I’m practicing a musical instrument, also helps immensely. I recommend it. Sometimes you find the meaning of a phrase just by saying it, over and over.
Once in the rehearsal room, whats the process into putting a Shakespeare show together?
Not different from any other show. Shakespeare isn’t separated from the rest of theatre. He wants from the actors the same thing any other playwright wants: openness, bravery, sincerity. The process is the same: repetition, discoveries, trial and error. The only special thing about Shakespere is that you get to consult with a text coach very often, double checking the meaning of things, making sure all the actors are making sense when speaking the text. But essentially, it’s the same process as any other play, you just have a special focus on making the text clear throughout it all.
Why is it important for actors or even young students, regardless if they pursue the arts of nor, for them to learn/hear Shakespeare?
I’m not sure if ‘important’ is the word…but I do believe it’s beneficial. It’s as important as playing an instrument, for instance. Are you less of a human if you don’t play an instrument? Certainly not. But it can be fun if you do! Now, there’s no distinction between the piano or the violin in terms of ‘importance’; you just play whatever tickles your heart and makes your blood pump with pleasure. The instrument I like to play is Shakespeare’s text. It gives me pleasure. But, in general, I think it is valuable to have some contact with Shakespeare simply because he wrote great stories, and his use of words is so inventive and bonkers and daring…it’s just a beautiful, vast world that invites investigation; imaginative stimuation.
If I am a emerging director, how should I approach point a play together?
Being a director is being a collaborator. Surround yourself with great people who know what they are doing, and trust they can help you find the way into the play. You don’t need to have all the answers, all you gotta be is open to a process of listening and collaborating. And find a way into the play that you love; that excites you. You’re an explorer.
What training can emerging artists do or take to help them understand Shakespeare?
I’d say read and listen to a lot of Shakespeare. Nowadays, it’s fairly easy to listen to recordings of his plays on YouTube; there are so many options. Listening is the best way to go into the world. It’s a world full of sound. In Winnipeg, SIR often offers workshops, and I’m happy to do private consultation on monologues or audition pieces for free, just reach out. Out there in Canada, NTS and Studio 58 offer pretty focused training in the classics. But here in Winnipeg, reach out. I’d be happy to go over the plays and play around with text with anyone, anytime.
When or how do you decide which play to do? How long do you spend time on working on that play?
I’m always thinking 2 to 3 years ahead, because you have to be thinking about programming that far in advance in order to meet the requirements of funding bodies like the Manitoba Arts Council or the Canada Council. I try and think of tone when programming; for instance, if last time we did Hamlet, next year I’d like to do a comedy, so I can keep things balanced. I also try and take the temperature of the conversations in the community: what are people talking about? What Shakespeare play could match the themes and topics that are being discussed these days, etc. Then it’s about a 6 to 9-month journey between choosing the show, having conversations with the designers, assembling the creative team and cast, and starting rehearsals. We usually spend a month rehearsing it before opening.
When auditioning, what are you looking for when an actor comes and recites a monologue or scene?
I’m looking for them to bring themselves to the part; to reveal themselves; their natural voice, their natural self: themselves. Forget it’s Shakespeare; mean what you say; be yourself. No “acting” required. Just know what you are saying, and mean it! Easy to say, surprisingly hard to do with Shakespeare because so easily you can think you aren’t enough. You are.
Is there a monologue that you dread or are tired of hearing from young artists or are they at the age range and level?
Hm…not really. I love being surprised. But I’d avoid Hamlet’s “To Be or not to Be”…simply because it’s an impossible monologue. I have played Hamlet, and I have directed it…I still don’t know what it means.
I want to talk more about casting a play, with the BLM and IBPOC movements getting more awareness, it’s important that we finally get to see IBPOC artists in leading roles like the Scottish play or King Richard. Will we see more of that soon? What does it all mean, does it mean that every character is open to interpretation regardless of sex or race and do we need to respect what the playwright has put in the show? Even more importantly, we need to respect our fellow actors so should a white actor play Othello? Because to me, they shouldn’t.
It’s important to note that, when it comes to casting in Shakespeare, for decades now there has been a growing movement to liberate ourselves from white-centric perspectives, and to open up possibilities for racialized and ‘othered’ voices to reclaim the canon, and to approach Shakespeare from their perspective – I think that is vital, necessary work, and we should be doing more and more of that. Throughout SIR’s history, for instance, the company has always approached Shakespeare in ways that challenged conventional staging; women and racialized actors have played many of the roles originally assigned to white men in our productions, and someone like me – an accented Latino – was playing a leading role back in 2007 already, in SIR’s the Merchant of Venice. What the current conversations are inspiring is more of that, more invention, and liberation and fairness when it comes to casting, but not just that: we need to address issues like homogenous Boards of Directors, and we need to address lack of diversity at the staff level too – throughout the entire organization, there needs to be transformation. And when it comes to Shakespeare, in light of current conversations, maybe some of his plays shouldn’t be done right now – Taming of the Shrew comes to mind. That’s what the resurgence of these movements are all about: a complete, all-encompassing reassessment of our entire practice – and that’s a good, vital thing. And no, no white actor should play Othello; that would be absurd and harmful. So yes, liberate casting practices, but be conscious about your choices – be aware.
Do you have a favourite William Shakespeare show that you have performed in? Do you have a least favourite?
I loved playing Hamlet in 2015, directed by Sarah Constible. I’ll never forget that experience. Yes, I do have a least favourite, but I won’t tell ya without you buying me a drink first.
Is there a Shakespeare play that you have seen or directed in that made you feel inspired?
All of them. They are all so vast, so weird, so complex and so silly. They all fascinate me. Having said that, after 3 productions, I am happy never to do The Comedy of Errors ever again.
Should we as artists be afraid to learn Shakespeare? Is reading it in schools enough, or is this a style of theatre that we need to perform to truly understand?
Never be afraid. His plays are yours for the taking. Read it, wrestle with it, make a mess of them, play. Play. And yes, I believe the thing only comes alive in performance. It was not written to be read alone. It was written to be PLAYED. So mess around with it, and try to find YOUR way into the text. It takes time. It’s not easy, but the rewards are immense, trust me. As Miles Davies said, “man, sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself”. So play.
I want to see more Shakespeare, where can I go and how can I support local theatre companies during these tough times?
Come to SIR, check our social media and our website regularly, sign up for our newsletter, and please, anytime, reach out. I will carve out time to sit down with anyone and play with text. And nowadays, we have all this wonderful online content from all around the globe. The entire Royal Shakespeare Company catalogue is available for streaming on Marquee TV; and so are all the Stratford Festival Shakespeare films, for free, on CBC Gem app. You can even see me wear a fantastic wig in Macbeth! You can support local companies by donating, or spreading their online content throughout the community, or simply by sending a nice message to us every now and then. We love hearing from people. It keeps us going. And you can help by advocating for us. This moment has clearly exposed how poorly Governments understand the Arts sector. They’ve no idea how we operate and they’ve no idea about how economically impactful we actually are. Talk to your MLAs and your MPs. Tell them that the Arts matter both economically and socially. We are here to share stories, and we are an important service.
As the Artistic Director for Shakespeare in the Ruins, what helps you decide what to do for each season and in Winnipeg, are people still interested in seeing Shakespeare live? Is there enough Shakespearean theatre or regular theatre work to go around in Winnipeg? Can we support enough artists or will we collapse?
As I said in a previous question: I listen to the conversations in the community, and I try and see what plays best fit the moment. And yes, people are still interested, absolutely. We just announced two masterclasses, one of them by Stratford actor Tom Rooney – one of our finest Shakespeareans – and they sold out within minutes. People want to play with Shakespeare still, because his plays are huge and offer many possibilities for re-interpretation. Winnipeg is still a small community, and it’s growing fast. Theatre work is hard in terms of a career – in truth, anywhere in Canada, it is very hard to make a decent living as a theatre worker. It’s a sad reality of our industry. We will not collapse, we will grow and there will be transformation, constantly, but it will never be a “smooth” ride. And that’s ok. Theatre is inherently about disruption. But we should most definitely reassess our practices and make sure we are a more humane, caring, fair industry. We need a culture of kindness.
Check out Shakespeare In The Ruins website.
Behind the Scenes is a series dedicated to show appreciation for the thousands of crew members around the world who work in the arts. From backstage and behind the scenes or even in the office building at your local school, they are the ones behind the curtain helping to create the magic.
This article is another instalment in the Behind the Scenes series.