Where Youth, Energy, and Creativity Meet, We Are All Made Richer
Every now and then the universe aligns just so, and suddenly you remember why you are alive. Such is the power of spending an afternoon with the fine young actors from The Company of Adventurers.
Did you know that Mark Antony girded up his tunic to show his muscular thighs? Sophie Miliner, grade twelve Lisgar student and resident historian, spent many hours researching Roman history and delighted in tossing out random facts while she and her fellow actors were busily preparing Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
For eight summers now, Cynthia Sugars and Paul Keen, both professors of English, have devoted their time — not to mention talent — towards making Shakespeare accessible to young people.
Throughout the spring, excitement mounts as the actors wonder: what will this year’s play will be? Comedy? History? Tragedy? Clues are released slowly and tantalizingly until finally the play is revealed, and work begins in earnest.
Did you know that for some actors, the chosen play will be their very first ever, and for others it will be their ninth with the Company? Everyone is made welcome, assures Geneviève Packer, grade eleven Glebe student, singer, and veteran actor. Whether they have performed Shakespeare, or acted in German plays, musical theatre, or no theatre at all, everyone is welcomed into the Company each new season.
Excited actors arrive for the first rehearsal, where they learn which character they will inhabit for the summer. Have they been chosen to play a lead, with the inherent pressure of mastering hundreds of lines? Or will they be given a smaller part, when the challenge becomes discovering the character’s back story, how they fit with the other characters, and what their importance is to the unfolding of the plot? Regardless, as Kate Solar, who plays Octavia, Philo, and Dolabella says, “I always end up loving my role.”
“The language is really beautiful,” says Neve Sugars-Keen, a first year Humanities and Biology student at Carleton who has been with The Company of Adventurers from the very beginning. Jaron Roy, a grade eight student from Hadley Junior High School who is new to the Company, says it’s “cool how [Shakespeare] puts everything into a two-hour play.” Indeed.
After a few read-throughs, the actors take to the stage and their bodies become the vehicles through which Shakespeare’s poetic language comes to life. Sometimes an actor might wish Shakespeare would just get to the point, but then they realize they get a monologue out of his running around in circles, and it’s worth their patience.
Slowly, the actors are asked to memorize more and more of their lines. They discover for themselves their characters’ expressions and body language, and suddenly they realize there’s a lot more meaning in the words. The weeks go by and the costumes are added, and eventually everything comes together when an actor looks down and realizes, I’m wearing a Roman tunic!
Did you know that the Soothsayer tried out five different costumes, one for each of five rehearsals, and asked the Company to vote for their favourite? Or that the Roman sandals involved tracing feet, visiting Value Village, spray painting, attaching leather, and securing elastics to avoid droopy straps?
This zealous costuming is matched by the intensity of rehearsals in the week leading up to opening night. If you think that the production will be childish because the Adventurers is a company of children, you are sorely mistaken. The directors push the actors to be better and better — even after the show opens, refining the scenes until they are perfected.
Did you know, for example, that they spent an entire rehearsal learning how to convincingly carry Antony’s body off the stage? Or that many of the actors are asked to improvise, sing, play instruments, even dance as part of the performance?
Finally, after weeks of preparation, the show opens.
This year, outside a home like any other in Old Ottawa South, I am greeted by costumed performers, given a token, and invited into an Egyptian marketplace. Through a beaded curtain, I enter the magic of theatre.
Inside, coin in hand, I make my way through a crowded marketplace, complete with shopkeepers selling papyrus art, garments, fruit, and trinkets, alongside a fortune teller, beggar, and street musician. Instantly, I am transported to another time and place, even thrown off balance slightly by the crush of Egyptians vying for my attention, trying to coax me to spend the single coin I have gripped in my hand.
More is yet to come! Through a portal at the end of the marketplace, lies the Alexandria of Cleopatra and the Rome of Caesar, for nestled in the back garden is a stage, rich with tapestries, and columned with white pillars.
I sit on one of the assembled chairs, protected from the threat of rain by sky-blue tarps. I have been here twice before: once, in the sweltering heat, I followed the wit and tumble of Kate and Petruchio, and once, in the chilly hills of Verona, I bore witness to the tragic innocence of Romeo and Juliet. So I sit warmly layered in wool, happily anticipating the delight of experiencing again Shakespeare in the surprisingly capable hands of young people.
The play is a wonder!
Performed with a confidence built on deep understanding, Antony and Cleopatra captures and sustains the attention of even the youngest audience members.
Noor Alabed, grade seven Macdonald-Cartier Academy student, says she really loved channeling Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. “She's a really powerful, strong, complex character” who has taught Noor that “when you make a decision, don't turn back, don't doubt yourself - live your life to the fullest.”
Abbey Sugars-Keen, grade eleven Lisgar student and consummate Shakespearean actor, reveals a rich panoply of emotions in her portrayal of Mark Antony — from confidence to indecision, longing, devotion, fear and hopelessness — and all with an intensity that shows a nuanced understanding of human nature.
In fact, the play moves from strength to strength. And sure enough, whether the role is big or small, every single actor puts in a performance worthy of respect and admiration, owning their characters with pride and joy, and supporting one another with a camaraderie built of a shared experience and common goal: to bring Shakespeare to the community.
Can you guess what drives these young people to commit their summers to rehearsals, and the month of September to performing? Fun. For many of them, the fun of working with other people who share their passion for acting is what they most enjoy about their time with The Company of Adventurers. “What could be better than spending the summer with my best friends?” asks Miliner.
And true to custom, this year’s play contains a surprise element. I’m not referring to the mulled wine, juice, and popcorn served during the intermission — though on a night warm or cold, such gifts are a welcome treat.
Macbeth (2011) was performed in kilts; for The Tempest (2012), the stage was covered in sand to replicate a desert island; in Hamlet (2013), a hole hidden in the stage floor became both the grave from which the infamous skull was drawn, and the setting for the fateful fight between Laertes and Hamlet; later in Twelfth Night (2014), Viola emerged to a gasp from a sunken bathtub; in A Midsummer Night's Dream (2015), huge tree branches were secured to the stage, which was covered in “turf”; and in Romeo and Juliet (2016) a real balcony was constructed from an upper floor window.
In Antony and Cleopatra, the playbill credits “Gerard” with a special guest appearance. Who is this “Gerard” you wonder? Clue#1: he travelled in a woven basket. Clue #2: he writhed when removed. Clue #3: he brought the venom needed to resolve the play’s action. Surprise! A real, live snake!
It is touches just such as these that make of dusty plays something new and wonderful. Old stories take on new meanings — especially when placed in the hands of young people as committed and talented as these. Who better to tease out Shakespeare’s humour and wisdom than adults who adore not just theatre, but clearly the young people entrusted to their care.
What would an audience of Shakespeare's contemporaries have thought of this year’s production of Antony and Cleopatra, I ask? First of all, they would probably throw things, I was told. Why? Because they would be shocked to see females on the stage. In a company composed largely of female actors, I could see their point. They wouldn't have cared much for Cleopatra, either, I am told. She's a very strong woman, after all.
Fitting, then, that all the money placed in the hats passed around at the end of the performances will be donated to Cornerstone Housing for Women, which provides safe, emergency shelter, and affordable housing for women at risk in Ottawa. When we are deeply moved, we cannot help but act with conviction — on stage, and off.
On my way home, I pass reluctantly through the Alexandria marketplace, empty now, but far from quiet. I can hear the excited chatter of the Company behind me as they pose for pictures in their new Company t-shirts, holding framed portraits of themselves dressed in splendid costume.
The rain has held off and Antony and Cleopatra has come to the end. Soon, everyone will return to their workaday lives. As Cynthia Sugars puts it, “the magic of theatre is that it's ephemeral.”
That may be — but there is always next year. I wonder what the play will be? Comedy? History? Tragedy? Whatever it is, it’s sure to be spectacular!
Featured in the November 2018 OSCAR.