Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.
Walk into Toronto’s Withrow Park, and you’ll see and hear the expected: spirited children engaging in summer-camp activities, happy dogs straining at their leads as they walk their owners along pathways decorated with sidewalk chalk, seniors practising tai chi under lush trees, and the inevitable swarms of errant insects to be swatted away.
But come August, sights and sounds of a different kind prevail in this urban idyll, when the maverick Shakespeare in the Ruff theatre company rehearses its annual production. This year, it is Macbeth: Walking Shadows, performed with specially-created puppets. Yes, puppets!
Alongside the main play runs an original production, crafted entirely by the Young Ruffians, a group of teens specially selected to apprentice with the professional artists of the company. These Young Ruffians perform their work as a pre-show of the main production on 2 evenings of the run.
Young Ruffians is an educational-outreach program offered free-of-charge to students in grades 9-12. We profiled this hidden gem of the theatre world last year in “Have You a Ruffian…?”. The value of this experience is not lost on the students, as 19-year-old Troy is quick to emphasize. Currently enrolled in the theatre program at York University, he deems the Young-Ruffians experience to be so worthwhile that – though already a post-secondary student in the field – he applied to it anyway. “What better way to spend the summer than with professional actors, for free?” he grins.
For Troy and all of the Young Ruffians, this extended access to actors is the program’s greatest allure. Each company member is matched with 2 students, according to their interests and aspirations. Caitlin Sullivan, Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Youth Development Coordinator, takes into account each student’s curiosity in order to assign a suitable mentor. And she doesn’t automatically assume that every applicant wants only to be an actor. Some choose to explore off-stage aspects of theatre, such as direction, playwriting or stage management. These become paired with a mentor who can share relevant insights.
“How do we students see ourselves?” muses Rachael, a grade 12-student who attends an arts-based high school. “Actor? Stagehand? Technician?” Though she wants to act and has performed in school productions, she understands that some peers might not have the same performance bug. Acting is just one part of a larger process, she feels. “We watch the pros rehearse, and also get time with our mentors. This is a huge influence. We see what a working actor’s life is like in Toronto and get insight into their process. We get time to ask questions, and our mentors observe us and provide feedback.”
Though the atmosphere is relaxed and supportive, the hour-long observations are neither casual nor arbitrary. Prior to each, Sullivan provides the Ruffians with a distinct focus. “We do a lot of movement and work on ways of communicating nonverbally,” Sullivan explains. “When [the Macbeth actors] were doing fight-choreography, what I wanted the Young Ruffians to watch for was the physicality of their movements because they’re using puppets. How is their movement impeded or improved by manipulating these puppets? The focus on process is not always there for younger people,” she notes. “So part of the observation is seeing how much preparation goes into every scene, every little fight or every little stabbing movement to make it more realistic.” By turn, the actors reciprocate by coming to watch the Young Ruffians rehearse, with time built in for one-on-one mentorship. These reciprocal observations not only strengthen relationships, but contribute to building skills which the students can incorporate into their performance and continue to develop, beyond the program.
Unlike other arts-based programs, which run in one- or two-week blocks, this apprenticeship comes with the luxury of time. With 5 weeks in which to develop their collective work and be immersed in the various aspects of the main play, the students appreciate having time to connect with their mentors and each other, and to come out of their comfort zones to hone their skills.
Just watching the Young Ruffians shows how they are unique among other theatre-course participants. The collaborative atmosphere is palpable. No one member is disconnected from the group. All are engrossed in the task at hand – which today is exploring puppet-making with their director Tijiki Morris, using ordinary objects like newspaper and can openers. And though application to Young Ruffians is open to all teens in the GTA, with “no Shakespeare appreciation required,” the students tend to leave with it anyway. Watching this production of Macbeth, being performed with puppets and the actors as their “shadows” has led Jahnelle, a student in grade 12, to ponder the notion that “Shakespeare can be anything. There could even be Macbeth the Musical,” she laughs. Cailan, who is entering grade 9, agrees: “It’s really cool being able to watch the company doing rehearsals because I’ve never really thought of Shakespeare with puppets before… You can see it all come together really well. And the concentration that they have to have to be able to make it move and seem so real is really neat.”
The company’s use of puppetry has also inspired the Young Ruffians to incorporate it into their project for the first time. As a specialist in puppetry (as well as acting), Director Tijiki Morris is the ideal artist to foster this skill. Additionally, “the Ruffians’ work has a thematic connection to Macbeth,” she explains. “We took a lot of time to discuss the themes that were interesting to us as a group and how those were related to the wider world, like world events and an awareness of things they’re passionate and concerned about. From there, we started to hone in on this idea of Lady Macbeth, and how she manipulates for her ambition.”
How manipulation for ambition works in the world – particularly for women – has became a central theme in the Young Ruffians’ creation. “This idea that, for a lot of women to be powerful, they have to lose their gender and essentially become men, and the misrepresentation of women who become villainesses. . . We’ve gone into that realm and it’s come out of Macbeth,” continues Morris.” It’s not strictly Shakespeare…We’re also adapting a scene from Medea as a ‘clothesline’ of our collective devising. And they’ve written pieces and found pieces. We’ve taken bits of Shakespeare, a sonnet, and we’re weaving those together.” This collective devising has culminated in Villanelle: Banished from Eden which the Young Ruffians will debut on August 21 and 23 at 7:30 pm.
While chatting with Troy, Jahnelle, Cailan and Rachael, there was disproportionately less mention of their performance than an eager description of the experience as a whole. What’s more, when asked who they’d recommend the program to, Troy instantly piped up, “everyone!” Jahnelle and Cailin quickly seconded that sentiment. And this enthusiasm for their experience in the program surely bodes well for the audience’s experience.
Walk into Toronto’s Withrow Park on the evenings of August 21 and 23, and you will see and hear the unexpected, the innovative and the energetic. Young Ruffians, play on!
News You Can Use
What: Villanelle: Banished from Eden by the Young Ruffians, directed by Tijiki Morris
When: August 21 and 23, 2015, 7:30 pm
What: Macbeth: Walking Shadows
When: Now running until August 30, 2015, 8:00 pm
Where: Withrow Park, 725 Logan Avenue, Toronto, ON
Who: Families (with a reminder that Macbeth is a bloody tragedy)
Good to Know: Performances are pay-what-you-can, with a suggestion of $15/person
© 2015 Sesaya, Sayani S-G and Arpita Ghosal