By Troy Hasselman, April 6 2020 —
A widely passed-around anecdote in light of the self-isolation that has happened in the COVID-19 pandemic is that William Shakespeare spent his time in quarantine during a plague writing King Lear. Like most stories involving the Bard, this anecdote is nearly impossible to truly verify but does speak to the necessary truth of the importance of art and creativity during these uncertain times.
Malachite Theatre, the Edmonton-based theatre company, has been presenting live readings of Shakespeare’s works every Sunday on the video conferencing app Zoom since self-isolation began, having already presented readings of Richard II and Henry IV. The readings have been organized by Malachite Theatre Artistic Director and University of Calgary Doctoral Student Benjamin Blyth. These online readings originated with previous Shakespeare readings done by Malachite at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.
“We used to do monthly readings at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, and we did that maybe three years ago,” Blyth says. “Since quarantine and self-isolation has came in we’ve brought it back.”
Blyth found these Shakespeare readings were a great way to build community by bringing a group of people together to tell a story and also allowed artists a chance to continue practicing their craft while large gatherings are temporarily banned.
“What we found when we ran through those things the first time was that it was a great way to create community,” Blyth says. “Reading something out loud together, telling a story together, creating that world together obviously brings people close together. There are a lot of artists right now who are out of work, looking for projects or are trying to continue to train. Working with Shakespare’s verse certainly does that.”
Blyth decided to use Zoom as the platform to host these readings because of the gallery view feature which allows viewers to see all performers at the same time and because it allows viewers and performers to be in the same space, which recalls how these Shakespearean plays were originally performed.
“You can use gallery view to see everyone all the time,” Blyth says. “People can choose when they join whether they want to switch their camera or sound on and when you’re reading a large scene you can see large groups of people. That’s a really cool way of bridging the gap between performer and audience and that is something that is quite traditional and quite Elizabethan. These plays were performed outdoors during the daytime. Everyone could see everyone else and they were large community events. This is bringing people together and closing that gap between actor and audience.”
The readings are currently focused on the first cycle of history plays that Shakespeare produced, starting with Richard II which has been followed by Henry II Part 1. Richard II deals with themes of isolation that are still highly relevant in today’s age.
“We did Richard II last week which was the start of Shakespeare’s big history cycle,” Blyth says. “He wrote two large cycles of history plays during his career and the first one starts with Richard II and ends with Henry V. Richard II is a good place to start because it’s a play that’s kind of about isolation. It’s about privilege and greed and being on your own so that’s where it came from.”
Those interested in participating in Malachite Theatre’s Shakespeare readings are encouraged to get into contact with organizers by direct messaging Malachite Theatre on Facebook or @Wintershakespeare on Instagram. Readings are scheduled for every Sunday.