Though the theatre company Shakespeare in the Ruins stages its plays outside at the Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park, it will not be hosting a live audience this season because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
That is not to say the ruins of the monastery will be silent. The company will film its intended 2020 production, The Winter’s Tale, in the ruins in the coming weeks, and offer it for streaming at home this summer.
The production, which will be made available online through July and August, is a bilingual partnership with Théâtre Cercle Molière in which half of the characters will speak English and the other half French, reflecting the culture clash between the two families in the play, one from Sicily and the other from Bohemia. Director Michelle Boulet was inspired by her own family life, growing up with a francophone stepfather and an anglophone mother.
"Filming at the ruins is really exciting, because we’ll be able to use the ruins in ways we have never done before, without having to worry about large audience moves," says artistic director Rodrigo Beilfuss. "We can actually really blend with the environment and really access corners of the ruins that we’ve never been able to actually stage on.
"But at the same time, the goal is very much to capture the theatrical experience of being immersed in the ruins."
SiR has two more digital productions in the works for the season. The company will première a filmed version of Macbeth in the fall, co-directed by Boulet and Sarah Constible, and featuring some 40 local actors, including Ray Strachan as Macbeth and Julie Lumsden as his calculating wife, "Lady M." If The Winter’s Tale is theatre-on-film, Macbeth was conceived entirely as a movie, Beilfuss says.
"I saw it last weekend and it’s just gorgeous," Beilfuss says, citing films of Ingmar Bergman as an esthetic touchstone. "It has these evocative images that really make you think of The Seventh Seal or Persona. It’s black-and-white and visually, it’s just beautiful."
Making the announcement, Beilfuss accentuated the positive.
"Rather than completely crumbling under the pressures of COVID, we are approaching this time as one of creative expansion — trying to program things that are informed and inspired by this time, rather than despite it," he says. "With filming The Winter’s Tale at the ruins, we will get to showcase that beautiful heritage park to the world through digital distribution.
"I think the show will serve as the perfect ad for Manitoba’s beauty," he says. "That site is simply stunning — and now everyone gets to see it, even my 95-year-old grandma in Brazil."
The film of Macbeth will be released at a public screening in the fall; the company is currently in talks with a venue.
"We think it’s going to fit nicely with Halloween," Beilfuss says of the carnage-filled play, which was filmed in and around Winnipeg between September and October 2020.
The third show was not written by Shakespeare, but it is about the Bard. Playwright Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will, which played at the 2020 ShakespeareFest, focuses on the travails of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, played by local actress Debbie Patterson.
Directed by Eric Blais (who won a 2020 Winnipeg Theatre Award for his work), it’s a one-woman show that has Anne tell her story with a sandbox, using inanimate objects as props and characters. Patterson, who uses a wheelchair, had a hand in "cripping the play" to integrate the wheelchair into the production.
Beilfuss says the idea of filming this play — which he hopes to shoot in September at Prairie Theatre Exchange for an October release — was already in the works before the pandemic struck. "It’s a beautiful storytelling production," he says.
The season gets a musical preview Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. on SiR’s Facebook and YouTube channels with a live fundraising event titled Play On, which will feature original music from the duo of Duncan Cox and Hera Nalam, inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets.
A "slick trailer" of Macbeth will also be screened at the end of the evening.
"We are hoping folks tune in, have a great time and feel compelled to donate," Beilfuss says. "Putting theatre onscreen is a fun pivot, but boy does it cost a lot of extra money."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.