LISTEN: Episode 2 of Arts Amplified
Episode 2: Shakespeare Remixed – We go behind the scenes and unpack the creation of Prince Hamlet, Why Not Theatre’s remixed, reimagined, and bilingual staging of Shakespeare’s 400 year-old play that recently had its BC premiere at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. We talk with director Ravi Jain about his directorial process and gain additional insights from actors Karen Robinson (Schitt’s Creek), Jeff Ho, and producer Kevin Matthew Wong.
Hosted, written, produced, and edited by Ashley Daniel Foot
Executive Producer: Brian Paterson
Associate Producers: Kyra Wittkopf and Ben Lange
GO BEYOND THE PODCAST
- Read a review of Prince Hamlet
- Get tickets to Prince Hamlet at the NAC in Ottawa.
- Watch an interview with Dawn Jani Birley about her role in the play.
- Read a fabulous article on Ravi Jain from Intermission Magazine.
- Watch Karen Robinson in Schitt’s Creek.
- Read this great article about Jeff Ho and Prince Hamlet from the Toronto Star.
- Explore Kevin Matthew Wong’s many exciting artistic projects
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(Header Photo by Dahlia Katz of Christine Horne and Karen Robinson in Prince Hamlet)
Arts Amplified Episode 2: Shakespeare Remixed
Ashley Daniel Foot – Host, MPMG Arts
Ravi Jain – Director, Prince Hamlet / Artistic & General Director, Why Not Theatre
Karen Robinson – Plays Gertrude in Prince Hamlet
Jeff Ho – Plays Ophelia in Prince Hamlet
Kevin Matthew Wong – Associate Producer, Prince Hamlet
Ravi Jain: Theatre, for me, is one of the most conservative sectors that are out there.
Karen Robinson: It’s still it’s still the biggest challenges that I have to overcome feeling like I’m not good enough.
Jeff Ho: How do I make this living work? Do I make myself straighter? Do I make myself a whiter? All of these questions of not being myself.
Overlapping Voices: This is Arts Amplified.
Ashley Daniel Foot: The podcast about the business behind the arts. I’m Ashley Daniel Foot from MPMG. Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet recently had its BC premiere at the Push International Performing Arts Festival and it is truly Shakespeare through an entirely new lens. On this episode we are going to delve into new possibilities of storytelling on stage and how that can indeed interrupt and interrogate the way that we relate to each other and even live. On one sunny Sunday afternoon, I talked with the plays director Ravi Jain about what Prince Hamlet is indeed all about.
Ravi Jain: It’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but told through a very different lens. It’s restructured to be told from the perspective of Horatio, who is Hamlet’s best friend, and at the end of the real play he’s the only one left alive and Hamlet, as he’s dying, says a “please tell the world my story” and in our production Horatio’s played by deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley who, when she signs, brings the story to life. So, actors enact what she’s signing and what she’s telling as she’s reading the story and the actors that we have are all actors from different ethnicities and genders to the characters that they’re actually playing, which also adds just a surprising element of humanity to this play that’s really about trying to understand life and death and what it is to be human.
Ashley Daniel Foot: Prince Hamlet isn’t just about putting a new spin on the classic play. It espouses a whole new philosophy that is explained by the producer of the play Kevin Matthew Wong.
Kevin Mathew Wong: I want to quote our lead performer Dawn in saying that the philosophy behind the production is not so much inclusion as it is intersectionality.
Ravi Jain: When we talked about inclusion there’s always a power dynamic that’s present because that means there’s a dominant group that includes a lesser group into their thing. The idea of intersection is… lets people be on their own terms and acknowledges that were two different maybe perspectives that intersect and in that intersection is an interesting friction that can cause confusion and tension and it can also cause fusion and a new way to think about something.
Ashley Daniel Foot: Here’s Producer Kevin Matthew Wong again explaining, in more detail, about how American sign language works in the play.
Kevin Matthew Wong: One big difference as well from a piece that you may have seen traditionally interpreted by hearing interpreters is that you don’t actually see an interpreter on stage. You seen actor telling the story, narrating this very complex story and this complex text in a way that is visceral and that is visual and that’s exciting, and I think that is something that really excites me about the piece and makes the producing a little bit easier because I think it’s going to be a good experience for the audience.
Ashley Daniel Foot: We also talked with actor Jeff Ho, who plays Ophelia – yes, you heard that right – about the challenges of finding roles that honour and represent who he is as a person.
Jeff Ho: Graduating theatre school in a predominately white class, race and my queerness was a huge part of the problem. A lot of myself and my ego sort of sticking to the integrity of saying ‘This is who I am. The parts aren’t there. How do I make this living work? Do I make myself straighter? Do I make myself a whiter?’ All these questions of not being myself.
Jeff Ho: But I’ve been fortunate in something like Prince Hamlet where it wasn’t about colour blindness. It was actually about acknowledging my colour and acknowledging my sexuality and my gender, my gender fluidity. And so it’s been a journey of figuring out what are the projects that I am willing to compromise my integrity and my identity, and what are the projects that I can actually abandon it throw all of myself into?
Ashley Daniel Foot: It seems that no matter how much success you find as an actor, there are still the little monsters hiding under the bed criticizing you. Karen Robinson from Schitt’s Creek plays Hamlet’s mother Gertrude.
Karen Robinson: It’s still the biggest challenge that I have to overcome, feeling like I’m not good enough. [Pause] That little… that voice; it still exists and it’s there to, you know, to encourage me to get better, to learn more, to take steps in the right direction, to admit my wrongs or my failures or my misdoings and freaking carry on.
Jeff Ho: It’s considered one of those legendarily difficult parts for a female actress.
Ashley Daniel Foot: Jeff Ho talked about the space he found with Director Ravi Jain to explore that difficulty.
Jeff Ho: …and so there was a lot of pressure, but with Ravi there was a lot sort of just questions and time, space, and play in figuring out the grief that Ophelia is in and to tap into that every single day.
Ashley Daniel Foot: I want to know more about the process that director Ravi Jain went through to unpack Prince Hamlet and so I sat next to him in the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC to ask him about how he directs. You’ll hear the sounds of the stage crew deconstructing the set. It’s an exciting window into a working theatre. It’s also a noisy window.
Ravi Jain: I feel like rehearsals are about trying to discover the thing that we’re looking for. So it’s never anything that I can do on my own and in order to find that new thing, that thing that’s not in my head, we have to trust the actors, and all the people in the room really, to be their fullest selves, to bring their best ideas forward… and their worst ideas, like sit in the bad ideas too, and that we all have a place at the table, a voice at the table of equal power to create this thing that we’re making and it’s my job then to choose the best choices to make the, you know, tell the story that we’re all trying to tell. So, for me, I like to have fun. I like to be stupid and silly and I also like to push us to continue to search. Even now, and when they’re on stage, I’m giving them… I’m not really… I’m giving them, is to say, ‘Keep looking this way. Keep looking for this. Keep looking for that. I see how you’re making this choice, keep go further with it or pull back and try this.’ So, I need actors who are going to search and play and continue to play.
Ravi Jain: Slowly, I just built the team around actors who I know in the community. Some I had work with before, others I hadn’t, and they were all just people who I thought I wanted to see play these roles that I think they would never get an opportunity to play. Dawn was an amazing story. I went to a conference in Minnesota that was all about equity and social justice and the arts and I needed to consider that if I was casting anything, I should cast someone with different abilities. And, as someone who is so passionate about challenging race and gender on stage, abilities was my blind spot.
Ashley Daniel Foot: How did Ravi Jain become Ravi Jain the director, in a nutshell?
Ravi Jain: [laughter] Well, you know, I’ve been really fortunate. I was an actor. I started as an actor and I became a director because I wanted to tell stories and have a bigger hand in shaping what was being said. I like to build teams. I’m a big team player. In sports, I love being part of teams and and leading a group to go somewhere that we couldn’t go on our own and I would say, you know, I had a number of mentors along the way who really inspired me to want to be like that. One was a woman named Ellen Lauren, an actor from the States, and she, as a teacher, really inspired me to find my own voice and to lead and that, you know, the only thing that separated her from me was 30 years of experience. at the time. and so all I needed to do was just keep practicing in trying.
Ravi Jain: Then I had another mentor name Jim Calder when I was a student at NYU, who was one of the best teachers to remind me to be as crazy and risk-taking as possible. He had no limits to anything and, for me, his spirit of collaboration and willingness to embrace chaos really left an impression on me and it’s why I listen to actors and let them be themselves and play, continually play in a room, is really his spirit. And then, lastly, is the director Daniel Brooks who was the most impactful on me because he taught me the importance of how a director works with an actor and uses language to help them figure out how to best get to the emotions of a character or the thoughts of a character and how to help them embody them in a way that is authentic and true to themselves and encourages them for more precision in their choices. And even as I talk about him like that, I am kind of embodying the way he is able to be so precise with language and he’s never messy with it. He’s very direct and clear and just a master of helping an actor to be precise.
Ashley Daniel Foot: As you know, our podcast is about the business behind the arts, and so I asked Ravi Jain about the difficulties of being a working Canadian theatre director.
Ravi Jain: I had a great conversation, actually, with the director from Vancouver named Meg Roe about the difference between directors who are creators and directors who are interpreters; those directors who just work with texts and that, often, there can be, on both sides… it was funny, she was saying she feels she has a stigma towards her because she seen as a director who’s an interpreter and I said ‘actually I feel stigma towards me as a director who is a creator primarily.’ So, I think it just depends on what side of the fence you sit on.
Ashley Daniel Foot: But surely it’s possible to not have that, like to do both right in terms of…
Ravi Jain: Yeah.
Ashley Daniel Foot: Maybe there isn’t that line. Maybe you’re both, in some ways, doing the same thing right?
Ravi Jain: Well…
Ashley Daniel Foot: Maybe not, like, tangibly tangibly, but…
Ravi Jain: No, it’s true. I think it we are doing the same thing, because process wise we’re approaching it as a new creation and that we agreed on, that in a way we’re kind of working the same way, but I think the institutions tend to be mistrustful of creators when it comes to text because there’s this feeling of ‘oh well they’re not going to…’ Historically in Canada, in English-speaking Canada, we we’ve inherited from the British a value of the text over everything and, you know, traditionally creators tend to value more the image or more of the theatricality of a thing. So, I try to find a balance between both, for me and and the work that I do, and surprisingly my career I’ve actually done a lot of work with texts. So, Saltwater Moon was a big kind of… it was received very well. Hamlet was received very well. So, it’s a funny, yeah, it’s a funny dichotomy that I agree shouldn’t really…
Ashley Daniel Foot: Yeah, I was about to say that your work almost challenges that very nature because it’s so… you’re dealing with some of the most classic text ever in terms of Canadian theatre and Saltwater Moon, with Hamlet which is like pinnacle, right?
Ravi Jain: And well, for me that’s important because I’m really looking to go to the heart of the traditions and show us that we don’t actually know what they are and we’re in a time where we want to challenge them and that and that doesn’t mean doing away with them, that we can challenge them in a way like this that opens them up in an entirely new way that that frees our imagination to see things differently and that theatre, for me, is one of the most conservative sectors that are out there. It’s so stuck to tradition in a way that is doing itself a disservice and when we can inspire ourselves by going back to our roots and just bringing a contemporary sensibility to them. And, for me, that’s that’s why I’ve chosen iconic, traditional, let’s say classics because I want to show us that there is something else there and when we find it, oh man, what a joy.
Ashley Daniel Foot: [laughter] I’m just trying to imagine what Ravi Jain would do if you had to direct one of those, what is that playwright that’s always at the… you know?
Ravi Jain: Oh, oh, oh, Norm Foster?
Ashley Daniel Foot: You know what I was gonna say! [laughter]
Ravi Jain: Norm Foster, yea, there you go. [laughter]
Ashley Daniel Foot: I mean just for like a after-school experiment or something.
Ravi Jain: Yeah. [through laughter]
Ashley Daniel Foot: Last question. This is actually the last question. One thing that occurs to me as I’m listening to you talk is that, in our business, we have to promote and get people to come see your shows. Do you get frustrated in that process of having to promote your work in a way that feels honest and can show, like, audiences what they’re getting? Does that challenge you ever?
Ravi Jain: I think, for me, it’s hard when I’m in the process of making something. Like, when we first did Hamlet, you know when we made it, I didn’t know what it was going to be, so I don’t know how to tell people to come see this thing. I’m still discovering what it’s going to be up to the very last minute. But, I don’t find it frustrating because I think theatre, it tends to be a closed ecosystem and I’m really interested in another kind of audience… I like the initiated and the uninitiated and I know that if we’re trying to reach the uninitiated we have to do the work it takes to get out there. But again, that’s why I like to remount shows and get another kick at them because then I know what it is and then I know what to tell people that are getting and that’s always exciting to be able to say to someone ‘come,’ you know, ‘you’re going to be surprised and here’s why.’
Ashley Daniel Foot: As my journey with Prince Hamlet came to an end, actor Jeff Ho gave a very moving and rallying cry for the reason artists create new, challenging sometimes almost unclassifiable works.
Jeff Ho: All I can believe in is to just keep on telling the stories that we need to prioritize in terms of equality and equity, championing the people who don’t have as much of a voice, recognizing my own privilege and working on this production and seeing ‘oh my goodness! Ability as a privilege that I have.’ And finding and learning and growing and making sure that were holding each other up, rather than keeping those borders of separating each other, you know, building those stupid walls between ourselves – finding ways where we can intersect.
Ashley Daniel Foot: Prince Hamlet, the remixed, reimagined and indeed bilingual edition of Shakespeare’s classic play featuring a cross-cultural, genderbent cast
is at the National Arts Centre until March 9. Head to theatrewhynot.org to find out more about what Ravi Jain and company are up to next.
Ashley Daniel Foot: The conversation continues on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Do leave us a review on iTunes and tell your friends about what we’re up to you. I’m Ashley Daniel Foot and Arts Amplified is produced by me, along with Associate Producers Kyra Wittkopf and Ben Lange. Our Executive Producer is Brian Paterson. Laura Murray is the founding co-partner of MPMG. Find out more about what we do at mpmgarts.com
This is been Arts Amplified…. to be continued.