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Megan Watson

Our 2017 Season!

By | Uncategorized | One Comment

Shakespeare in the Ruff is thrilled to announce our summer show: A Midsummer Night’s Dream! This is a play that we’ve had our eye on since the beginning, and we’ve finally found our “Dream” Director. We are happy to welcome Megan Watson!

Megan is the Artistic Associate at The Grand Theatre in London. She has run their High School Projects for the last two years (2016: Julius Caesar, 2017: A Shakespeare Mixtape) and is building their new play development program: Compass. In 2018, she will be directing The Glass Menagerie.

Megan on Midsummer:

“For me, both professionally and personally, 2016 rang out as a call to action. A call to be more political, more articulate and more fierce with my intention to create theatre that is part of a solution. The American presidential election has foregrounded hate and fear. As we feel the ripple effect of that in our own communities, we are required to take a closer look. Specifically for me as a theatre artist, this means taking on the systemic gender and racial inequality that our canon and traditions uphold. How do we take Shakespeare’s plays, which on one hand contain an unparalleled expression of the human experience and on the other, when not approached critically, serve as a platform for misogyny and racism? This has always been my struggle when staging Shakespeare and I am more committed than ever to take on that challenge in this volatile social and political climate.

In following Ruff for the last five years, I have seen them cultivate a clearer and sharper sense of who they are and what kind of ‘Shakespeare in the park’ company they strive to be. Reinventing and innovating the classics and specifically Shakespeare seems to be a common endeavour. However, Ruff approaches this with a fearlessness that is unmistakable in their productions. Their practice of taking Shakespeare’s plays and mining them for humanity and beauty – while blowing open and leaving behind the parts that perpetuate archaic and negative stereotypes – is why I am thrilled to join the company this season. I want to stage plays that reflect the world I want to work, live, play and love in.

And so we began the process of selecting the right play for the 2017 season. Kaitlyn and I visited the park together and she shared stories about the Withrow and Ruff community. I thought back on the magical experiences I have had there: setting up my picnic blanket, snuggling in close with loved ones and being transported. Even as we considered Shakespeare’s more overtly political plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept surfacing as the right choice. With the barrage of negative media coming at us, it became clear to me that our best offence against all this HATE is to fight back with LOVE. With this in mind, our production of Dream will be a wild celebration of what is possible when we set ourselves free, believe in magic and plumb the depths of our psyche to discover more about who we really are. Suddenly, in 2017 it seems radical to believe in and pursue love, magic and beauty.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs August 15th through September 3rd, 2017 in Withrow Park. All performances are Pay What You Can and more details can be found on our website soon. 


Announcing our New Artistic Director

By | Outdoor theatre, Shakespeare | 2 Comments

My adult life has be characterized by radical geographic change, moving from Montreal to London, then to New York City, and then to Toronto in under ten years. I’ve thrived on shaking it up and seeking re-invention. It’s enabled some incredible adventures and opportunities, but I always sensed that it also left me missing something; a sense of community. When Brendan approached me about re-starting Shakespeare in the Rough (now Ruff), in 2011, I began my journey of finding that sense of community. 

When, over a year ago, Brendan reminded us that we needed to start thinking about a new Artistic Director, I automatically thought, ‘well, I guess I’ll leave too. We’ve had a good run, and after all, I came with Brendan, it only makes sense that I leave with him, five years as the Associate Artistic Director seems like enough.’

My need for re-invention and change kicked in, and then something else kicked in; a realization that my dedication to this company has grown beyond one person and is connected to the community we’re a part of. I realized that I now have that thing in my life that throughout my 20’s I felt was missing. I have learned so much being a part of Ruff, grown, and struggled, and delighted in the successes of everyone involved. Have felt supported in tough times and have met so many wonderful people along the way.

I am not ready to leave Ruff behind. I’m part of a company of people whom I adore and respect and am challenged by, and a Board of Directors who help us make our wildest visions come to life. Shakespeare in the Ruff is a platform to share Shakespeare’s incredible plays and we get to do that with the most generous community of people who join us in Withrow Park every summer. I love Shakespeare. Since reading Hamlet in Grade 11 and dreading the day we got to Act V, knowing he would die, I was hooked. I love seeing his plays, acting in them, and talking about them. I love so much of what Shakespeare’s writing has to offer and also have some serious beef with other elements of it.

I know we are at an advantage; our society makes a lot of room for Shakespeare, so my intention is to consciously populate that space with people who are less commonly offered that megaphone. To look at his plays from a less traditional angle, to defy convention, and to make them our own.

And a large part of addressing this has to do with how we cast our shows; casting at least as many women as men in our shows and having people of colour in lead roles is a priority for me. That may not sound revolutionary (and many companies across this city are doing it!), but until it is a given, until it is done at the highest level, until it is the new norm, viva la revolution!

In a country that is so diverse in culture and in language, where gender equality is being touted on every level, why is theatre, and Shakespeare in particular, an exception? Because it was written that way? I don’t believe that it has survived for 400 years simply because it was written that way. It has survived because it has the quality to be deeply personal, reinvented, twisted into knots, and thrive because of it.

Brendan & Kaitlyn during rehearsals for Macbeth: Walking Shadows

I feel ready to take on this beautiful challenge, in large part because I follow in the footsteps of an incredible leader. Brendan McMurtry-Howlett has an infectious spirit, mobilizing those who have been and those who are Shakespeare in the Ruff. It’s one thing to take the reigns of a company that has a loyal audience base, decent infrastructure, and operating funding, and it’s another things to start something from nothing more than the shadow of a past company and make it into something so vital. Brendan stepping down is something he said he would do from the beginning; ‘I’ve got five years in me, and then I’ve got to move on’. And true to his word, he is. We will miss him very much, but his passion and vision for this company have infected us all. As he transitions into being an Artistic Associate, I know that his creative presence will also play a role in how the company evolves.

So that’s what we’re aiming for and what I want for Ruff moving forward. No small feat and impossible to do alone. Thankfully I’m not; with Eva Barrie, AJ Richardson, and Caitlin Sullivan, we forge on creating the accessible, joyful, challenging work that Ruff is known for, while running our Young Ruffian Apprenticeship Program for teens in tandem.

I’m so excited to share what we have in store for our sixth season, which we’ll be announcing in early May. So here we go…the readiness is all.

-Kaitlyn Riordan

5th Birthday Sonnet

By | Events, original practices, Shakespeare | No Comments

On May 26th, 2016, we celebrated our 5th Birthday by launching our 5th season in Withrow Park. Our Board Chairman, Larry Smith, penned a sonnet for the occasion, in the spirit of William Shakespeare, and Sonnet 155 was born. Not only did he perform it for us, but he did so dressed as an Elizabethan playwright. What a guy!

Sonnet  CLV – by Larry Smith

When birthdays come, and come they tend to do,

With unfailing certainty, year to year.

A time it is to take a look anew,

And question all the reasons you are here.

A few have written countless pleasing plays;

While others have those lines breathed into life.

And managers have toiled away their days

Assuring the world’s stage is without strife.

The playbills of our past, we call to mind

And think about our lines, our casts, our crew.

And wonder, with some fear, if we will find

A play next year with roles for me and you.


This year, what drama your life lacked.

Be thankful that you’ve got another act.


2016 Season Announcement

By | Acting, Events, Outdoor theatre, Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare | 3 Comments

Drum roll please… We are very excited to announce that this summer, Andrea Donaldson will be directing ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in Withrow Park. Both a highly creative mind and an East End resident, Andrea brings a fresh perspective to our landmark fifth season. Some of her most recent work includes ‘Within the Glass’ at The Tarragon Theatre, where she is the Associate Artistic Director, and ‘Mistatim’ at The Young People’s Theatre, starring Ruff’s own Brendan McMurtry-Howlett. Below you’ll get a glimpse of both Andrea’s passion for this play and the strong theatrical potential of our home base, Withrow Park.

“I am interested in creating a beautiful summer evening which is inspired by love, inspired by the environment, inspired by the outdoors. That people can come and lay out a blanket and sit with their kids or their lovers or their friends and go from fights to really beautiful intimate romantic moments to huge moments in scale that can only happen with this huge outdoor environment.

A big piece of my interest in working outside is operating under the notion that the space in and of itself holds so much information and opportunity. The limitations that is poses are also opportunities in disguise. Having to locate where sundown is going to happen, having to imagine how the trees that I’m looking at right now, in the winter, will look when they’re perfectly green and lush. How do we use the space, how do we enjoy the field that is 60 feet long, when in a theatre we typically only have 20-30 feet in depth. All of these things feel like huge gifts for me and actually a real source of inspiration as a starting point to ask – what are all the things we can do outside that we can’t possibly do inside with four walls and a ceiling?

While I don’t know what that evening’s going to look like really precisely yet, the things I do know is that it’s going to be really beautiful. I know that this Romeo & Juliet wants to be a story about two really unlikely young people who aren’t drawn to each other because they should be, but because they can’t help it. There’s an inexplicable force that’s connecting the two of them that doesn’t make sense in their world. I think that that’s truly what love is, the force of love, the power of love, and the power of healing that love can have.”

Kaitlin Morrow - The Porter

Now do an improvised clown routine with your ass; or Becoming The Porter

By | Macbeth, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

I’ve lived in fear of improv for most of my life, certainly my adult life. All my buddies are improvisors, I’ve seen hundreds of improv shows, I’ve always secretly wanted to do it, but I’ve always been paralyzed by fear. To the point, that on a regular basis, I would have improv nightmares, where I’m called onstage incorrectly to do an improv show. But then this year, I thought, enough is enough, I will conquer my fear of improv, and have been doing improv shows with Sex-T-Rex  (a comedy group that I’m a member of) all year.


When I heard that I’d be playing The Porter, in Shakespeare in the Ruff’s ‘Macbeth; Walking Shadows’,  I was excited to get the one comedic role of the show. We were in rehearsals and I was working on getting off-book, and was pretty much there, when I received a text message from Brendan (the show’s director) and Zach (the puppet creator) saying that they were thinking of not using the text at all. I was excited about it, because doing a scene and following the beats of it, is a world I’m comfortable playing in. But when I read the text a little further it said ‘we’re hoping for it to be an improvised clown routine’ and I pretty much shit my pants.

Then, when I showed up on that day of rehearsal, and they told me they were thinking of making it the ass puppet, and I was even more terrified. Ingrid Hansen had developed this puppet during Ruff’s Macbeth workshop last December, and I had seen it on a video and thought it was really cute. She put a mask on her butt and put a cloth over the rest of her body, bent over, put her head between her knees, and used her hands sticking out in front as the puppet’s hands. Very contorted, with her feet backwards. It was fine, in theory, but the little I remembered from clown is that you’re supposed to constantly check-in with your audience, and in order to do that with my ass, it was going to be very difficult. So then, for what felt like two hours, though I’m assured is was more like one hour, I was improvising for the cast; it became an exercise in not panicking. 

So whenever we came to The Porter scene in rehearsals, I was filled with dread. Not only was I contorted, but to be contorted for that length of time, and it was hot, and I literally felt like an ass. No one was laughing, I didn’t know what it looked like, I was stumbling around thinking ‘this isn’t funny and I literally have to make up what I’m doing on the spot’. Then they gave me these arms, which were really heavy, and then the keys, which were ever heavier. There was one day, when I went off with Zach to work on The Porter, but all we did was talk about my anxiety and didn’t actually do any work. When we came back, I felt so unprepared and I just tried to smile through it, because what else am I going to do? I was expecting to conquer my fear of improv, but come on! As a clown, with my ass, that IS my nightmare (laughs). 


But then one day, really close to the end of the process, Brendan sent everyone off with their Young Ruffians (the teenagers in Ruff’s apprenticeship program), except for mine: Amie & Cheyenne, which he told to stay and watch me do The Porter. ‘Oh great’, I thought, ‘any respect that have/may have had for me will immediately be gone, so that’s great’. But it went alright, and they giggled throughout as Brendan and Zach yelled instructions of things to do with him. It was sort of the first time I had had an audience and was starting to get a sense of what was funny and what wasn’t. 

And then, my big ‘aha moment’ was when they asked to put the puppet on. My first reaction was, why on earth would you want to? But they were so into it and both really wanting to do it and then the wonderful thing that happened was, that it was the first time I saw what it looked like. I was able to ask it to do the things that I had been asked to do, and I finally saw what worked and what didn’t and the words that Zach and Brendan said to me finally made sense. ‘It looks really funny when the arms are in the air’, or ‘the faster the feet move the better’. Just all of these things that were theoretical, I was finally watching happen, and realized that The Porter is actually quite delightful. And so it was a complete 180; I was inspired but their keenness, they didn’t have the hang ups that I had and I thought ‘oh my gosh, this is just a silly puppet’ and now when I go to do it, I have a better picture in my mind of what it looks like. And for me, being a puppeteer first, the picture is really important and you can’t do that with The Porter, even with a mirror, you’re looking at it upside-down and backwards. 

STEP 3:Kaitlin Morrow-Puppet

Now that the show is running, it’s less improvised, there are beats, but it’s still loose. Getting to this point was all improv. Because this was so terrifying for me, but I’m doing it and it’s going well, it’s been huge, it’s been such a huge step. If it wasn’t going well, it would still be huge, but it would be a different journey.

And, I’ve heard from lots of people saying it’s funny. There was a tweet recently saying ‘I finally laughed at The Porter’ and I thought YES! That was my whole goal, but I didn’t think I’d achieve it this way. I’m really really happy that people like it, that they’re laughing and responding, I mean doing comedy, that’s all that matters, silence is death. Especially doing comedy with your ass. I’ve seen and done bad improv and I’m just glad that this isn’t one of those experiences.

-Kaitlin Morrow 


From Volunteer to Lady Macbeth

By | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

With two more weeks of performances (final show is August 30th, 2015), we are looking for more Front of House volunteers. A free show, a night under the stars, and you get to wear a Ruff! A bonus for some… Tara Koehler, currently in the cast of ‘Macbeth: Walking Shadows’, met us as a volunteer in 2013.

My first contact with Shakespeare in the Ruff was as a front of house volunteer. To be honest, I did it mostly so I could see a show for free! But I was immediately hooked: their production was so impressive, and the company members so genuine, smart, and lovely. They’re a company that really strives to create community, and it shows.

We kept in touch, and last year they asked me to come on board as a guest director for their Young Ruffian Apprenticeship Program, as well as to assistant direct Cymbeline’s Reign. These were novel experiences for me but I plunged in, learned a ton, and loved being involved. And this year they ended up inviting me to play Lady Macbeth as a puppet—again a completely novel opportunity! I’ve really grown as an artist through my contact with this adventurous company, and their passion is infectious. These are the kind of people you want to volunteer for!

Lady Macbeth - Tara Koehler

Lady Macbeth – Tara Koehler, Photo credit – Karl Ang

Puppets + Shakespeare = The Canadian Way?

By | NAC, Shakespeare | No Comments

People keep asking what possessed us to combine Shakespeare and puppetry; as we head into the final week of rehearsals for ‘Macbeth: Walking Shadows’ (Aug 13th-30th), we thought we’d pass the buck, and ask someone else that very question. When we heard about Jillian Keiley’s decision to bring puppets to the world of ‘Twelfth Night’, next season at the NAC, we were very excited (and relieved), that we weren’t the only ones who thought puppets and Shakespeare would make a great combination. We’ll get around to answering this question ourselves, but for now, back to rehearsal. -SitR

Programming Shakespeare at Canada’s National Theatre – by Jillian Keiley

Even though I was raised on and have directed, acted in or assistant directed eight different Shakespearian productions, I have always felt kind of politicized about the sheer amount of Shakespeare that Canadians produce. Don’t get me wrong – I love Shakespeare. But I’m also a nationalist. And it strikes me odd that the primary storyteller in our theatres is a man from another continent who had never dreamed of knowing Canada.

I believe in that good kind of nationhood: shared ideals, pride of place, together we are better. And so I believe that when a Hannah Moscovitch play slays a new audience or when Robert Lepage makes the world believe that Canada (or at least a part of Canada) is at the cutting edge of the craft – I think that’s good for us, not just as an arts loving community but as a country: our stories, well told. So I do believe that Canadians and Canadian artistry should have priority in our National Arts Centre space.

However, when I took over the reins at the NAC I didn’t want to restrict the programming to only Canadian writers. I am from the school that believes that the writer is a very important key creator in identifying the ‘nationality’ of a play, but I also believe that the director or ensemble of artists can interpret a play in such a way that is so unique to that artist or to that community that the play becomes a Canadian expression, if not an entirely Canadian play. I think Raoul Bhaneja’s Hamlet is uniquely his version. I believe The Electric Company’s No Exit was as much about the art of that company as it was about Sartre. I saw Modern Times’ Macbeth several years ago and it was as unique a piece as I could imagine, using Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the primary of many layers.  Chris Abraham’s gay wedding Midsummer Night’s Dream belonged more to the backyards of Toronto than anywhere else.

At the NAC, we have two ways of programming. We select six or seven shows a year to present from the multitude that we see live or on video. For our in-house productions, we bring together a group of actors from across the country to build that year’s Ensemble. The Ensemble inspires the choice of plays for the season.   Often times, even though the Associate Artistic Director Sarah Garton Stanley and I pride ourselves on knowing as much as we can about the Canadian canon, we hit on a combination of people that seem to call for a classic which happens to be from somewhere else.

This coming season, for example, we happen to have the perfect alchemy of artists to do Twelfth Night. (Incidentally the other five shows for the Ensemble this year are Canadian.) I was very interested in how they would tell that story and hear that music. But also I wanted to see it envisioned by uniquely Canadian dreamers.   So I went to a team of the most unique Canadian dreamers I know – The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. This group visiting-trout_lof guys, who started out in a shed south of Calgary performing for Hutterites, had the kind of vision that could engage visually with all of the textual delights in Twelfth Night. So we moved forward with the plan to do a Shakespeare as imagined by The Old Trouts. It won’t be with marionettes or hand puppets so much as it will be visually animated using the Old Trouts’ signature style.   The Old Trouts for years have done interpretive works that have blended quite animate inanimate objects with quite animated humans to great effect.

The last Shakespeare the NAC produced (outside of presenting the visiting Raoul Bhaneja’s Hamlet) was Peter Hinton’s all Indigenous King Lear. It too was a very Canadian interpretation. I believe this Twelfth Night in the hands of the great artists in our Ensemble and the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, will offer audiences an entirely new theatrical experience; and a uniquely Canadian one at that.

Twelfth Night runs January 20th-February 6th, 2016, in Ottawa at The National Arts Centre.

2015 Season Announcement

By | Macbeth, Uncategorized

Macbeth + Puppets = MacWhat??????  

Ruff’s Artistic Director, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, explains our most adventurous production yet.

I love Macbeth. It’s one of my favourite plays to read, to speak, or to perform in (I played Malcolm under the direction of Nick Hutchinson in theatre school). The visceral imagery that Shakespeare uses in his writing is unparalleled anywhere else – it’s incredible. And now, this coming summer, I couldn’t be more excited to be directing it with Shakespeare in the Ruff. But ironically, as an audience member, I’ve often had a hard time watching it. The play asks us to watch the fall of a tyrannical, blood-thirsty, Evil-with-a-capital-E madman. I’m often unsure if I’m meant to enjoy the blood bath as I would in a horror flick or be disgusted by the tyrant’s inhumanity. In either case the result is that I disassociate with Macbeth’s character, and lose the point of the play. So what are we going to do differently? ENTER THE PUPPETS!

My first introduction to puppetry was 8 years ago, by a great man named Zach Fraser who directed me in a show about WWII called “…and stockings for the ladies” by the ever inventive RustWerk Company. One component of the show featured three puppets speaking to their survival of the concentration camps. Yes, I was thinking the same thing: puppets + concentration camp = this is not going to go well. But their moving monologues were what the audience connected with most. Something about the simplicity, fragility, and naivety inherent in those puppets made them immediately sympathetic. A puppet, unlike a human actor, is clinging to life every moment they are on stage. The audience is directly responsible for that puppet’s existence – it’s their imagination that allows the puppet to live, and a unique bond is formed between them. Kind of like watching your child take its first steps. 

It’s this aspect of puppetry that I want to explore with the story of Macbeth. I’m interested in a figuratively and literally fragile Macbeth built of wood and paper. A man, filled with naivety, exposing his doubts and fears to an audience who is responsible for giving him life. I would be more willing to go on a journey with Macbeth if I could see both his emotional and corporal fragility through everything he does. That’s exactly what we get with puppets. 

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the supernatural stuff in the play that’s way more fun in the world of puppetry. Puppets aren’t bound by the laws of physics, and so can do all sorts of inhuman things. Witch puppets?! Are you kidding me?!

The real challenge is going to be bringing together the worlds of puppetry and Shakespearean text. Luckily we got to spend a week developing ideas thanks to funding from the Ontario Arts Council. We already have some exciting things up our puppet sleeves and we’ve embarked on a rather drastic adapting process, letting the aesthetic choice of working with puppetry guide our approach to the text. 

And the secret weapon that I’m most excited about: I’ve brought on Zach Fraser, the man who taught me everything I know about puppetry, to build our puppets and work with us as a puppet choreographer throughout rehearsals. 

And now, a word from the man himself:

Ok. Confession.  I don’t always understand Shakespeare!

His words can be poetic & powerful, but at times, I get over-whelmed by the language. Through the years, I’ve seen many Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions. In Toronto… In Montreal… In Halifax… Each has its own charm. But I often leave the performance feeling like I don’t understand the story as well as I should.

This summer, with Shakespeare in the Ruff, we intend to create a truly accessible, visceral production that touches the soul and transports the spirit…

…using puppets.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a production of Shakespeare as unique in its vision as that which we are venturing to create this summer in Withrow Park. Shakespeare’s language can be exquisite. The plight of puppets can be absurd, splendid, and heart-wrenching. Puppets are the masters of high comedy & deepest drama, so partnering them up with Shakespeare makes perfect sense to us.

There’s a reason why most theatre companies avoid puppetry: they add a LOT of extra work to a production. But there’s also a reason why some of us keep getting drawn back to puppets; because they are spellbinding, seductive, magical, and they have the power to win our hearts instantaneously! They appear to be naïve, but their power is great.

Ruff is an ambitious, motivated, slick young company of talented & bold artists. I applaud the company for their willingness to respect, revere, and yet reinvent Shakespeare’s plays. It’s an honour to join forces with these Ruffians this summer.

Zach Fraser

Cymbeline Series-BONUS Edition

By | Cymbeline, Outdoor theatre, Shakespeare, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

We are so thankful to directors Anita Rochon, Dawn McCaugherty, and Antoni Cimolino, who have shared their take on Cymbeline with us over the past month in our Cymbeline Series. Now that Ruff’s production is up and running, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, our Artistic Director and director of Cymbeline’s Reign, tackles the same three questions we put to these thoughtful and generous theatre practitioners.

1. For a title character, King Cymbeline has very little time on stage and no time alone with the audience. How did you ensure that audiences would connect with him? Do you think the play would be better served by a different title?

Well, we did change the title of the play. And I guess this is as good a place as any to discuss our adaptation – what we did to the original script and why.

Shakespeare’s original script is an epic and intricately woven story filled with beauty, compassion, and morbid humour. Every seemingly insignificant detail laced into this story ends up playing a key role in the play’s famous final scene where everything is resolved in what can only be described as a miracle. The original, with all of the myriad plot details, would run at about three hours which is just not possible for us in our park setting, so cuts and edits are required.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the moment you cut one word from Shakespeare, you are creating an adaptation – you are making decisions about what to focus on for your own individual production for your own specific audience. In an attempt to “do justice” to the play, often cuts are made evenly across the board to keep every element of the original in the edited script while reducing the content to roughly half of the original. What I’ve often experienced in these cases is that although a gesture of all of the play’s original elements are included in the edited version, what remains resembles more an excavated medical cadaver than a living and breathing play.

In our approach, we opted to fully embrace the spirit of adaptation and, as such, changed the name of the play to let our audiences know that what they would be seeing was not the original Shakespeare script, but rather our artists’ creation specifically for our audience and setting. I’m proud to say that it’s a world premiere of an original Shakespeare play.

Another aspect we focused on in our decision to adapt were elements in the original that were key social issues of the day when Shakespeare wrote the play in 1610-1611 – mainly the notion of needing a male heir of royal blood in order for security and harmony to be reestablished in the kingdom. In the original script this is done through the reemergence of Imogen’s missing brothers, which allows Imogen to marry an orphan boy without her family losing the throne. I could go into all the political reasons as to why this element was crucial to Shakespeare’s era when he wrote the play, but the basic fact is, the notion of maintaining a class system led by men, is contrary to the kind of society we all wish to live in today.

By no means is this the only thing we’re left with at the end of this play. It could be argued that in a modern production, this element may not even be noticed by audiences and, therefore, could be argued to be irrelevant. But I firmly believe that as artists and storytellers, we need to take full responsibility for what we put out into the world. I didn’t feel it would responsible considering my feminist upbringing to put that kind of story into the world – my mother would disown me.

Now, just to be clear we had no interest in creating a polemic rant against male-centric hierarchy (although a good rant now and again doesn’t hurt). We wanted to focus on the miracle of compassion and acceptance which I believe is truly at the heart of Shakespeare’s original, so we opted to simply remove the male-heir-restoring-harmony element.

In our extensive research on this play (which surprisingly uncovered a long history of derision and dismissal of this play from over a century of critics) we discovered many fascinating adaptations along the way. George Bernard Shaw felt so affronted by what he deemed the ridiculous nature of Shakespeare’s final scene in this play that he decided to re-write the whole 5th act – if you’re curious, click HERE to read it.

The most exciting thing we found was an adaptation written in 1779 by British poet Henry Brooke. He rewrote the entire play, using Shakespeare’s characters and basic premise but taking it in quite a different direction (spoiler alert: there’s an insane human sacrifice scene at the end). The most interesting thing that Brooke did was completely remove the plot line of the missing brothers in the cave and instead focused in on the journey of Posthumus and Imogen. This was one possible approach we had already been discussing and took the uncovering of Brooke’s script as a sign to continue. Brooke also fleshed out the story of the Queen’s plot to usurp the throne, which we found intriguing. Plus, who doesn’t want an excuse to have that amazing character on stage more!

Inspired by Brooke’s play, we took pieces of his text and pieces of text from what must be more than a dozen of Shakespeare’s other plays to remove the brothers plot line and fill in the many holes that their removal created. Instead, we sharpened the focus on Imogen’s journey and renamed the play Cymbeline’s Reign to highlight the idea that although King Cymbeline isn’t the main character in our play, everything stems from the decisions he makes. He is both the first and last obstacle put between lovers Imogen and Posthumus. (If anyone is curious to read Henry Brooke’s script, send us an email and we’ll point you in the right direction!)

2. Most deus ex machina (god from the machine) moments are vital to the story. Jupiter’s descent on the back of an eagle in Cymbeline is often cut and feels less integrated than many similar interventions by the Gods in other plays. What was your take on this moment and how important a role did the unseen whims of the deities play?

Researching this play, reading and re-reading it along with all of Shakespeare’s other “Romances” (Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Two Noble Kinsmen), it’s clear these late-career plays took a sharp turn away from the great tragedies for which Shakespeare is known. The main difference that I noted was that the driving action of the play is propelled by individual characters’ thoughts and actions and how they influence the world around them, for better or for worse. We follow one, or a few main characters’ psychological journeys as they cope with the decisions they make and the consequences that arise from those decisions. But in the “Romances”, Shakespeare seemed far more interested in how a character’s journey was shaped by external elements outside of their control that pulled or pushed them through the action of the play. The main characters are more like swallows in a strong headwind, rather than the great engines in his earlier plays.  Reading Dan Falk’s recent blog post connected a lot of dots for me based on what I was seeing in these plays  – at the time of Shakespeare’s shift into the Romances, there was a huge change happening in science and society where, because of Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s four moons, humans started to really understand the notion that planet Earth, and therefore all humans, were not at the centre of the universe, but are just a miniscule part of something much larger.

In Cymbeline, as well as in Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare uses the metaphor of the Roman and Greek Gods, to represent those external elements. In Shakespeare’s original script, the final moment of the play is a deciphering of a tablet left for Posthumus by the god Jupiter, which essentially tells all of the mortals that all of the fantastical and unbelievable things that happened to them over the course of the play were in fact all coordinated by Jupiter himself (and his pet eagle).

Jupiter’s decent on the back of an eagle before Posthumus is the physical manifestation of the idea that Posthumus doesn’t have all the answers. Although he attempts to control his destiny in his quest for death, this moment reminds him that he doesn’t necessarily have control over his own life, which in this case, turns out to be a good thing. In our adaptation, we have not cut Jupiter, but have actually heightened the moment of intervention that exists in Shakespeare’s original and made it more direct.

3. Cymbeline isn’t produced very often, especially in Canada; is it just the ebb and flow of fashion, or are people are afraid to do it? And if so, why? 

It’s a hell of a thing to produce – fight sequences, figuring out what to do with Jupiter, worrying that the audience might get lost in the labyrinthine plot twists. But I think more than the logistical nightmare it poses, this play, more than his others, doesn’t have much life on the page. It reads more like an entire season’s worth of soap opera plots condensed into one play. I found it incredibly hard at first to figure out what was actually at the heart of each scene and what characters wanted from each other moment to moment.

I don’t think that it’s an accident that many generations of critics haven’t had many positive things to say about this play – it’s not a piece that holds up to academic and literary analysis and lacks the poetic language of Shakespeare’s better-known plays. It only truly comes alive at full-speed. The scenes and each character’s drive starts to make a lot more sense when you remove any time to think; all of the characters act and react from pure impulse. None of the characters really think anything through; they simply don’t have time with all of the elements of their world applying pressure on them.

In rehearsals I told all of the actors that this play wouldn’t make much sense until we got it up to speed. I kept encouraging them to speak and do faster than they could think. The recurring questions of, “why does Imogen do this bizarre thing in this moment? Why does Posthumus make this insane decision here?” started getting answered when we removed the characters’ time for deep analysis of their situation. When the actors started to act from the gut, they found that the choices their characters made responded far more to their emotional state than to any kind of deep psychology. I found myself learning far more about the scenes and the play watching the actors in action than I did from reading the play two dozen times on my own.

When reading it the first time, one can get a very simplistic view of the play and these characters, reducing them to archetypes without much depth, but when you put them into action, they come alive. You’ve got to have a lot of courage and trust in Shakespeare to believe that what you read on the page is just the very beginning of this “beautiful mountain” as Antoni Cimolino so aptly put it.

Shakespeare, Galileo, & Cymbeline by Dan Falk

By | Cymbeline, Education, Shakespeare

There’s no getting around it:  Cymbeline is an odd play.  The plot is labyrinthine, even by Shakespearean standards, with at least three intertwined stories; texture and mood seem to change with the wind.  It’s also a bit of a hodge-podge, containing , as Jonathan Bate of Oxford has noted, an “array of favourite Shakespearian motifs: the cross-dressed heroine, the move from court to country, obsessive sexual jealousy, malicious Machiavellian plotting, the interrogation of Roman values.”  It’s as though Shakespeare, nearing the end of his career, put every possible dramatic ingredient into the pot, and stirred.

But there is another reason, often overlooked, for putting Cymbeline in a class by itself.  The play might – depending on one’s interpretation – offer a glimpse into the changing world-view that was underway when it was created.  More specifically, it may allude to one of the most important scientific developments in history, one that unfolded in a northern Italian university town in the months before Cymbeline was written.

Looking Up

People have been gazing at the night sky since the dawn of humankind, but until the early 17th century, they had only their own eyes to provide the image.  But in the autumn of 1609, a new optical device, invented in Holland, found its way into the hands of an ambitious Italian mathematician, Galileo Galilei.  Before long, Galileo had improved on the original Dutch invention.  From his workshop in Padua, Galileo turned this novelty into a scientific instrument.

Moon drawings from Galileo

Moon drawings from Galileo

Galileo aimed his telescope at the night sky – and was amazed at what he saw.  He found the moon to be covered with mountains and craters, contrary to the established teachings of the day.  His telescope revealed thousands of stars, too dim to be seen with the unaided eye.  But the biggest surprise came when he peered at Jupiter: Alongside the planet he observed “three starlets – small indeed, but very bright.”  Observing in “amazement” over several nights, he concluded that there were in fact four of these objects – “four wanderers [which] complete their revolution about Jupiter.”  We now call them the “Galilean moons” after their discoverer.

Galileo described his discoveries in a slim book called Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), published in Venice in March of 1610.  Although written in Latin, anyone could grasp the message:  Here was a blow-by-blow account of the wonders of the night sky revealed by Galileo’s telescope, sights “never seen from the creation of the world up to our own time.”  It was an instant bestseller.

It had been nearly 70 years since Copernicus had published his theory that the earth moves around the sun, rather than vice-versa – but it was a highly abstract, mathematical work, and few took notice at the time.  But Galileo’s telescopic discoveries finally seemed to give Copernicus his due:  Everything he saw through the telescope seemed to accord with the Copernican model of the universe.  Jupiter, for example, behaved like a miniature solar system:  If Jupiter had moons of its own, how could anyone say that the Earth was the centre of the universe?

The usual view is that these discoveries, announced in the spring of 1610, come too late to have had much of an impact on Shakespeare’s work.  But perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty.  Shakespeare was not quite ready to retire in 1610:  He would write at least two more plays on his own, plus a few more with collaborators.  It is among these final plays that we find Cymbeline.

The Symbols in Cymbeline

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t encountered Cymbeline yet:  Since my book The Science of Shakespeare came out this spring, I’ve been asking audiences, by show of hands, who has either read or seen the play; only rarely does a hand go up.  (Those of you in the Toronto area should definitely catch Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production this summer!)  Let me summarize just one of the play’s three parallel plots:  King Cymbeline is angry because his daughter, Imogen, has secretly married a commoner named Posthumus Leonatus.  Cymbeline banishes Posthumus, who heads for Rome; there, he argues with an Italian nobleman named Jachimo over which of their native countries has the most faithful women.  Jachimo wagers that when he travels to England, he will be able to seduce Imogen.  (For the sake of suspense, I won’t reveal just how far he gets.)  

There is much more to the play, of course, but let’s skip ahead to Act 5: Posthumus, having been convinced of Imogen’s infidelity, orders her killed; later he learns of her innocence, but mistakenly thinks his orders have been carried out.  He had been travelling with the Roman army, but now switches sides and fights valiantly for Britain; the Roman forces are defeated.  Believing Imogen dead, however, he yearns for his own death, and puts on Roman garb to hasten his demise.  Instead, he is taken prisoner.  While in jail, something very peculiar happens.

In Scene 4, we find Posthumus in his prison cell, where he collapses in slumber.  He then has a dream involving the ghosts of four dead family members – relatives who he never knew in life.  The spirits are those of his mother, father, and two brothers.  As he lies in a daze, the ghosts move around him in a circle.  (The stage direction says, They circle Posthumus round as he lies sleeping.)  Feeling Posthumus’s anguish, they appeal to the Roman god, Jupiter, to come to his aid – and Jupiter obliges.  The stage direction reads, Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle.  He throws a thunderbolt. The ghosts fall on their knees.  Jupiter chastises the ghosts, and then gives them a book, and instructs them to give it to Posthumus.  When he is done, he ascends back to heaven.

Although Shakespeare’s characters often call on the gods for help, Jupiter’s appearance in Cymbeline is unique; there is nothing else like it in the entire canon.  Scholars have examined the scene from various angles, but only recently have they begun to look at a possible Galileo connection.  Granted, in Shakespeare’s play it’s the god Jupiter that we see, not the planet – but still, the details of the scene are compelling.  Notice that we have exactly four ghosts, and that they move in a circle (why should they move at all?).  Could the ghosts represent the four moons of Jupiter, newly discovered by Galileo?  Certainly the timeline seems to hold up: Cymbeline is thought to date from the summer or fall of 1610 – in other words, it was written within the first few months (or at most half a year) after the publication of The Starry Messenger.

A New Look at an Old Play

About a decade ago, three scholars, working independently, hit on the idea of a Cymbeline-Galileo connection at about the same time:  Scott Maisano, of the University of Massachusetts in Boston; John Pitcher, at Oxford; and a retired American astronomer named Peter Usher.

Usher is best know for his controversial (many would say far-fetched) theory of Hamlet, which he interprets the action in Shakespeare’s best-known play as an allegory about competing views of the cosmos.  What he says about Cymbeline, however, is quite reasonable: Writing in the Shakespeare Newsletter, Usher summarizes the bizarre happenings of the play’s fifth act, noting the descent of Jupiter and the appearance of the ghosts:  “These ghosts happen to be four in number, equal to the number of the Galilean moons.”  And what about the book that Jupiter gives to Posthumus, via the ghosts?  Its identity is never specified, but Usher believes we ought to see it as Galileo’s Starry Messenger.

Maisano and Pitcher agree that the appearance of Jupiter, and the unidentified book, likely allude to The Starry Messenger.  Maisano describes Cymbeline as a “scientific romance” – a work that urges the reader to question his or her understanding of nature.  Toward the end of the play, as the various loose ends are tied up, a startled King Cymbeline asks: “Does the world go round?”  Maisano notes that this is “the only such utterance in Shakespeare’s plays,” and it just happens that this very question “was part of intellectual discussion all across Europe in 1610.”

Like Maisano, Pitcher sees Cymbeline as Shakespeare’s attempt to come to grips with a changing world, a universe opened wide by the scientific discoveries of the day (an idea he discusses at length in the Introduction to the recent Penguin edition of the play).  The transformation began with Copernicus writing about the revolutions in the sky; soon, Pitcher suggests, there will be revolutions of a more dangerous kind, with political and religious orders turned on their heads.

It is a rare treat to enjoy a production of Cymbeline under the stars.  After the show, take a moment to glance upward:  The play you have just seen might just bear witness to a dramatic turn in our conception of the universe.


Dan PalkDan Falk is a science journalist based in Toronto.  His most recent book is The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe.