Bending The Bard: An Exchange With Panoply Classical Collective

I’ve had my eye on Toronto-based Panoply Classical Collective since its inception. Led by “Core Four” Artistic Directors, Olivia Tharme, Paige Madsen, Alyssa Pothier, and Sienna Singh, this troupe of young conservatoire graduates is quickly making a name for itself in the larger Toronto theatre and performance scene.

I reached out to the collective following their successful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with some questions about contemporizing the classical canon, dynamic theatre making, feminism, making space as “emerging” creator-performers, and more. Here’s what they had to say.

Early rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, photo by by Graeme Jokic

THE CAMILIAD: First and foremost, I want to thank you all so much for participating in this Artist Roundtable Series. I’ve been trying to engage with a diverse range of local artists and groups undertaking provocative work — and reaching out to you all was one of my first impulses.

I’ll start with a basic introductory question: Panoply defines itself as an “actor’s initiative”, dedicated to challenging audience’s preconceptions of classical theatre by using “modern sensibilities” to bring new life to plays from the classical canon. You’re also known for sourcing site-specific spaces for your productions that, to quote your mandate, “reflect and compliment the unique worlds of each play.” How exactly, did this mandate — and your collective — come into being?

PANOPLY CLASSICAL COLLECTIVE: Our collective was born out of a desire to create and play. Initially, and because we were all in different years of the same training, we were looking to collaborate with our friends and apply some of the actor training we’d garnered at Ryerson. We wanted to find out what we could create on our own!

Our mandate, and the name Panoply Classical Collective, came later that year during our production of Macbeth: More Than Man. We all gravitated toward classical theatre. This led us to big questions like: What Defines Classical Theatre? and Is Classical Theatre Still Relevant Today? Classical theatre is everywhere. We all grew up sitting in the school-trip-rows of the mezzanine at Stratford and then watching 10 Things I Hate About You in high school English class. We wanted to bridge the gap between taut classical performance and modernized adaptations.

Romeo and Juliet at St. George by the Grange courtyard, photo by Stefi Kopp

We believe there’s a difference between modernizing and contemporizing. You don’t need to take classical texts out of their context to make them relevant. You need to bring life into their original contexts. Each play exists in its own unique world. The excitement lies in developing these worlds; using movement, design, and style to create something “other”. Something unique. 

I’m interested, specifically, in the shows you chose and why. Your company is comprised of young adult actors. Romeo and Juliet seems like an obvious choice — the most obvious of the three — but why Macbeth? Why Much Ado? What does breathing new (kinetic) life into these productions, in the year 2019, do?

As a young actor, Shakespeare can seem so mammoth and intangible. It doesn’t have to be. It’s important to us that the young actors in our collective are given the opportunity to dive into luscious work like this. When we began working on Macbeth, our ensemble had many discussions about the content. How can a group of twenty-something actors in 2019 relate to an Elizabethan drama about a tyrannous king?

Much Ado at Riverdale Park West, photo by Amelia McCarthy Blaine

In a Macbeth rehearsal chat, Isabelle Ellis, one of our collective members, said it best: “I’m not a mother and may not be a mother for a long time, but I know how to comfort, to discipline, to listen.” We’ve discovered that our youthful energy can bring a tremendous amount of life to classical material.

When you first produced Much Ado, what were your expectations for the collective? Did you think it would keep growing into the entity that it has? How have you surprised yourselves with its development?

It’s safe to say that we had no expectations initially. The best part of Panoply has been discerning specifically what sort of theatre we’re interested in. Our mandate and vision evolves every day, which means we’re always challenging ourselves and each other. We’re more surprised, grateful and excited than we could have ever imagined!

I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to come up to Toronto to see Romeo and Juliet (in collaboration with Mixtape Projects, directed by Margot Greve), but that production had a stunning active aesthetic — how did members of your collective develop an interest in hyper-physical theatre? How has this interest developed over the course of your three productions?

Romeo and Juliet at St. George by the Grange courtyard, photo by Stefi Kopp

In our final year at Ryerson we worked with the UK-based devised theatre company Frantic Assembly. It was then that Margot in particular took a special interest in physical theatre. 

Our production of Macbeth was heavily physical too, as much of the rehearsal process was comprised of movement-based ensemble exercises. Margot developed a lot of the movement for Macbeth as well. While both productions were physical, the movement styles were entirely unique to each play. As a collective, it’s been important for us to devise movement collaboratively giving each production its own unique kinetic energy.

I also have to make note of the fact that this company has four Artistic Directors, all of whom are young women – which, of course, is wonderful. How has this fact informed the productions you choose and how they are produced? I understand Macbeth was gender-fluid?

Yes! Our collective is run by four women and is largely made up of women as well. We choose our productions with Project Proposals submitted by collective members looking to develop their visions into realized plays. 

Early rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, photo by by Graeme Jokic

Gender is just as important a topic in our modern world as it is in many classical plays. Macbeth: More Than Man featured a female Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo and Malcolm. It was fascinating to examine this play (a play largely about being a man in a man’s world) through female relationships. What happens when a woman betrays her female best friend; is convinced to kill a man by her female spouse; and is then defeated by a man to be succeeded by a young woman? How are the themes the same? How do they get subverted when genders are swapped? 

That said, as significant as it may be, we want to avoid capitalizing too much on gender. We believe it’s more important for the actor to focus on the relationships and actions of the character. The significance should be illuminated to the audience through the truth of the connection and their honest portrayal of the character.

How has it been for the bunch of you, as “emerging” artists (although I, in many ways, contest that label because I feel that it can infantilize instead of empower) to disassociate from the Ryerson School of Performance — now that you’re graduated — and emerge into the Toronto theatre community, going forth as professional artists?

It’s easy to feel underqualified and infantilized as a recent graduate. We’re taking the steps to build these qualifications for ourselves. As we define our mandate we become more assured; we develop our own artistic voice. We’re all about giving voices to young artists even if that means creating our own platforms to do so.

Much Ado at Riverdale Park West, photo by Amelia McCarthy Blaine

Where can anyone go — online or otherwise — to hear or learn more about Panoply and/or your upcoming productions?

We’ve just launched a new website and, with it, an announcement about our upcoming winter production of The Bacchae. You can learn more about us and our collective members at www.panoplycollective.com or through Instagram and Facebook.

Last question — what is for you all? Where do you see the collective headed? What projects are in your future and what can we expect from you moving forward?

Our next project is a feminist punk production of Euripides’ The Bacchae inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement. 

As a company, our next step is to seek new collective members. We hope to host general auditions sometime in the next year! There’s a lot of competition out there— we want to challenge that by creating a compelling and collaborate cohort of young actors.

Romeo and Juliet at St. George by the Grange courtyard, photo by Stefi Kopp

The Road to ‘We All Got Lost’: On Queer-Feminist Theatre, Identity Politics, Confession, Hometown Conservatism, and the Fringe Circuit

On June 22nd of this year, mere weeks before my play We All Got Lost opened at The Westdale in Hamilton, transgender activist Cedar Hopperton was arrested just outside of Gage Park’s annual Pride Festival for their involvement in a violent confrontation between religious anti-LBGTQ+ protesters and queer counter-protesters, one which made regional headlines and triggered several anti-hate demonstrations outside Hamilton City Hall.

In a statement issued to the public, the Hamilton Police Service attempted to justify the arrest by claiming that Hopperton violated their parole (the local resident pled guilty last November to their involvement in a Locke Street vandalism spree) by participating in a “public demonstration where peace was disrupted.” No anti-LBGTQ+ protesters (with hate signs) were arrested nor jailed.

This, of course, passionately enraged (there it is!) members and allies of the local 2SLGBTQIA+ community, especially given the Hamilton Police Service’s long and frightening history of violence against queer people. The HPS were originally not welcomed to participate in Pride for this reason.

Protesters who had witnessed the violence testified that Hopperton, a passionate LGBTQ+ advocate, was actually not responding to the hate in a violent manner and was, instead, attempting to intervene and defend their queer allies. When Hopperton came back at the police force with a heated anti-hate speech (that essentially expressed their distrust in the cops for not keeping queer people safe) at city hall, they were jailed.

It was in this sickening climate that We All Got Lost, our queer-feminist anti-conservative beast of a play, was getting ready for a run on the Fringe circuit.

We All Got Lost at The Westdale, starring Jessica Pellicciotta, Kaitlin Race, Evelyn Barber, Miranda Cooper, and Emily Meadows.

The show had already picked up a New Play Contest win (after placing as a finalist in the Winnipeg competition) and, on that note, was only the second instance in Hamilton Fringe history where a woman had won the contest – and the first time a young, local woman with a story about young women had won it.

To say that I felt the weight of this would be an understatement. It led me to a series of complex questions, one in particular that plagued me:

How and where do (or should?) my identity politics overlap with my artistry?

There’s a provocative essay written by Jeanette Winterson in her Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery collection in which she explores the paradox of being publicly labelled as a “lesbian” artist. This essay is entitled The Semiotics of Sex, and any attempt of mine to condense or summarize her musings would fail miserably – some of it I agree with, and some of I don’t (the published year is 1997 and the year, today, is 2019 – of course art and theory, and specifically queer art and theory, evolve) but here are some juicy, digestible bits that would fit this post well:

“In any discussion of art and the artist, heterosexuality is backgrounded, whilst homosexuality is foregrounded. What you fuck is much more important than how you write. This may be because reading takes more effort than sex. It may be because the word ‘sex’ is more exciting than the word ‘book’. Or is it? Surely that depends on what kind of sex and what kind of book? I can only assume that straight sex is so dull that even a book makes better reportage.” (Ah, Winterson – always cheeky!) 

And, only a few lines later:

“I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write.”

What is it about? Prurience? Stupidity? And as Descartes didn’t say, ‘I fuck therefore I am.’? The straight world is wilful in its pursuit of queers and it seems to me that to continually ask someone about their homosexuality, when the reason to talk is a book, a picture, a play, is harassment by the back door.”

The first time that I read this essay, it struck me as being relevant to a number of discussions I’d been having with queer friends and colleagues. A lot of my work, in theory, contributes (in one way or another) to conversations surrounding feminism and technology, queerness and capitalism.

In short, I like to keep “myself” out of my own playwriting work, not due to some crippling autobiographical anxiety (my folk music proves otherwise), but because I honestly feel that I don’t matter. Work precedes and exceeds me. That is my nature as a creative.

That being said, I also come from a place of social privilege. I am a cisgender white woman from a middle class family. I am femme and hetero passing and I have dated many men. My struggles have, for the most part, been visible in (albeit fetishized by) popular culture and media. I do not believe that placing my identity at the forefront of my work has an active, provocative, disrupting purpose.

But a lot of this changed when I went through the experience of curating Objects: London, Portrait of a City, which was my first solo installation/exhibition as a Resident Artist at the TAP Centre for Creativity.

Objects: London, Portrait of a City at the TAP Centre for Creativity in March of 2019. The exhibition is now available online at camilleintson.com/objects.

Objects was, among many other things, an experiment with (and lesson in) confessional discourse. The installation demanded I disclose some of my most personal and intimate experiences, some of which of a romantic or sexual nature, for viewers’ consumption and for the overall affect of what I was trying to achieve. The exhibit is now facing an online reprise on my personal website, where it is doing much the same thing.

It was through a post-performance “Unscripted” discussion that I realized the extent to which autobiography and confession were, in and of themselves, theorizing. Confession was the nature of the work. The work commented on confessional discourse by participating in it. I was in control of my own confessions and I was empowered in that art.

But performance art and live theatre are two entirely different mediums, although shaped by similar forces.

This brings me back to We All Got Lost.

Did I face condescension and juvenile treatment, in isolated instances, for the experience of being a young (22-year-old) woman leading a company of young women with a show about young women? Absolutely. Was I also welcomed with open arms by some very kind, sweet, and supportive members of the Hamilton theatre community? Also yes.

Before I go any further with this discussion of queerness and capital, I would like to give you some insight into the fabulous process of working and playing with my brilliant cast and creative team.

The Process

Eight months ago, during one of my worst insomniacal episodes, I was feeling strange about moving back to my hometown of Hamilton for a liminal six-month stretch (before hopping on a plane to the United Kingdom) and decided, on a total whim, to submit my only unproduced play to the Fringe New Play Contest circuit.

After making a splash with my last two Winnipeg Fringe sell-out hits, The Last 48 and The Stock, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to return to the Fringe. Nevertheless, I submitted.

Shortly after winning the Hamilton Fringe New Play contest, I learned that only one other woman had won it before me. This put me off, but it also lit a ginormous fire under my ass. This, I thought, was an opportunity for regional female (& queer!) voices and stories to flourish. This was a chance to grab my conservative hometown’s Fringe by the ass and make it listen.

I held self tape auditions. I met a bunch of (mostly) internet strangers at Churchill Park on one sunny afternoon in May. We took photos in mismatched Catholic uniforms that would soon be plastered all over the city of Hamilton. That day, as sweaty and strange as it was, was the start of something special.

We barely knew each other. We rehearsed every Monday in empty classrooms at McMaster University. We snuck into theatre spaces. We sourced props from forests and backyards and the back of our closets, brought them into rehearsal, and played with them for hours. We built worlds out of bedroom sheets and broken sticks. (I was experimenting with Viewpoints techniques, as well as “moment work” I learned from NYC-based writer Mina Samuels, to devise the physical landscape and aesthetic of the piece.) We barely had a budget. We were kind of scrappy. But we believed in the work that we were doing.

The rehearsal process was difficult. I could not have picked five more different women for this task. With everything happening in and around Hamilton, and with the intimate and very personal nature of the piece, things were hard at times. When Hopperton was arrested on that fateful day in June, I felt a sickness that I feared would accompany me all through the show’s run. I didn’t know how audiences would react to us. I thought we’d be swept under the rug until View Magazine shocked us with a cover feature.

View Magazine’s July 6th cover. Story by Brian Morton. This photograph was taken of me by Keith Tanner in London, Ontario in September of 2018.

In this article, I talk about many things. I talk about my influences and overall body of work. I do not talk about my labels. I do not talk about my political beliefs. (All of these things, by the way, I am very vocal about to anyone that knows and loves me. Or to anyone that has me on social media.)

So it starts to bother me when, as the Fringe goes on, I am approached by several local artists, journalists, theatre goers, and more whose first question, more often than not, was: What makes you qualified to tell this story?

To which I wanted to respond (rudely), “you’re asking me what makes me qualified to tell my own story?” But it isn’t, technically, my own story. This play is not autobiographical. It isn’t directly constructed from real-world experience, and the parts that I guess “are” aren’t privy to your nosiness. What are you really asking? Am I a feminist? Am I queer? Am I religious? Was I raised Catholic? Did I witness a murder? (Spoilers.) Are my answers to these questions more important than the work? Why do I need to justify myself to you? Would it make you happy if I screamed Yes-This-Company-Is-Made-Up-Of-Real-Feminist-Real-Queer-Real-Young-Women-And-Also-I’m-An-Artist-Which-Is-Perhaps-The-Most-Dangerous-Identifier-Of-All in your face?

Do you think “Telling Queer Young Women’s Stories” is all just a scam to make a quick buck off of the unsuspecting (and likely homophobic) small town Fringe audience? If that were the truth, that’d be an impressively bad business strategy.

Do you deserve answers to your questions? Is my reluctance to speak about myself, in relation to my work, selfish or internally misogynistic and/or homophobic? Is my reluctance to “out” my cast in every promo interview a product of the same forces? Is it a product of my own anxiety? So what? Do I really owe anyone anything? And does the work not speak for itself? If a woman or a queer person comes forward with a story, why is it our immediate reaction to question whether or not it’s rightfully theirs?

Are men asked all of these questions?

Of course I understand where some of these people are coming from. I’d be pissed if there was a band of hetero artists making waves by appropriating queer identities for capital gain, too. The complex conversation surrounding appropriation is crucial right now. There are many a folk out there who use diversity rosters and other similar measures to “perform” their own “liberalism” without actually practicing active allyship. This is a huge, gross problem. Stories of marginalized persons should be told by artists who identify as a part of that group. But this statement opens up an infinite number of portals, filled to the brim with more complex questions and queries – the nuance for which I don’t have the time and space for on this blog at this moment.

My point here is this question: Why are women (and especially young women) not always “trusted” to tell their own stories?

How are our post-feminist politics active in the post-#MeToo era? How can we ask “the right” questions while simultaneously respecting the private and intimate nature of these things?

You’re probably wondering how all of this ends. Well…

On the festival’s final night, we won Best of Fringe and Best of Venue (The Westdale). We were chosen as View Magazine’s Reviewer’s Pick. We were the highest attended and highest grossing show in the festival. Our sales and attendance surpassed that of two bigger-budget commercial musicals, two commercial darlings (F**kboys The Musical and You Want it What Way: A Boy Band Tale – cue the screaming heteros!).

Somehow, against all odds, people showed up. And kept showing up. And kept showing up. Critics started raving about it. Audiences started talking about it, started showing up more than once. People started believing, and I mean really believing, in the work that we did.

What’s more, we were approached by so many young women (and especially young, queer women) who were so happy to finally see themselves represented onstage. Talking to some of these women was the best reward of all.

I’m still trying to fully comprehend the experience of We All Got Lost and dissect its many, complex affects, but hopefully with this post I have shed some light on some of the issues effecting my hometown’s creative spheres.

I also hope that I have, in some way, opened up a dialogue through which some of these things can be more fully fleshed out.

Food for thought. I might come back to this later. But for now, I’m hopping on a plane.