In what is now a tradition on the eve before the premiere of a new season, Shakespeare Republic Creator/Director, Sally McLean, reflects on the past four months and how she came to be directing a “surprise” edition of her critically acclaimed web series during a global pandemic while in lockdown.
The pandemic that has the globe in it’s clutches right now has given us all a new sense of weird. When it first began, responses ranged from blithe dismissal to low-level anxiety. We distracted ourselves with baking (sourdough apparently a favourite), learning the limitations of Zoom, divesting supermarket shelves of toilet paper and reassuring ourselves that restrictions would only be temporary and we’d be able to get back to normal in a couple of months.
And one of us (me) decided to create a new season of Shakespeare Republic.
My response to Melbourne’s first round of restrictions due to COVID-19 was to sleep for a week. I’d just finished producing a major one-off film festival, Shorts Relief, at Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre, raising money for Wildlife Victoria and The Victorian Bush Fire Relief Appeal (yes, we’ve had fires, floods and now plague here in Victoria in the first half of 2020 alone). It had been a gruelling schedule to pull it off with only six weeks from coming up with the idea to the day itself and I’d hit close to burn out as the Event Producer. Sleep was non-negotiable.
That was March 8.
Five days later, the Melbourne Grand Prix racing event was cancelled, but more importantly to my way of thinking, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival cancelled and all theatres were closed. By the end of that week, all film and TV production had ground to a halt and my industry was suddenly and worryingly pretty much dead in the water.
Working in the Arts is precarious at the best of times, so working in the Arts during a pandemic is truly an oxymoron. One of the first places to close are the theatres, as they are a super transmitter for disease – especially surface or airborne. Just as in Shakespeare’s time, our theatre industry was shuttered up and everyone told to go home. Sadly, unlike Shakespeare’s time, we couldn’t just pick up and go on the road, because a week after that, borders began closing too – both internationally and locally.
So, what do you do as an actor/director when there is no work and nothing to distract you from the ever-growing grim reality around you? If you’re me, you come up with the idea of a socially distanced version of your current web series looking at social distancing and isolation through the lens of Shakespeare’s text, because it seems like an obvious thing to do.
Why do this in the middle of a pandemic with no budget?
I am never very good at sitting still. And yet am somewhat of a social hermit. Put those two traits together and you get a workaholic. Put those traits together along with the anxiety of living in a pandemic and you’ve got a workaholic who will likely make impulsive choices and dive in the deep end just for something to do.
So, despite the quizzical, careful questioning of my brilliantly supportive co-producers Billy Smedley and Christopher Kirby (who had been instructed by me, only a month earlier, to stop me from doing any more crazy projects), I found myself putting out a casting brief mid-March looking for actors world-wide who might want to be part of the next stage of the experiment, otherwise known as Shakespeare Republic.
I have always called this series “The Experiment”. It’s labelled that for a few reasons, but primarily as a way to give myself permission to see how far I can push the boundaries of the work and my own limitations. And this next phase would embrace the spirit of that idea fully. I’d stretched and grown with the previous two seasons of the work as a director and adaptor of the Bard’s work and so I entered into this new process with a sense of anticipation and a healthy touch of fear that it could all go horribly wrong. Which is the best way to go into creating anything, in my experience.
After getting over 100 actor submissions for the season by the close of casting, I set to work. I had so much talent to choose from, which was both a blessing and a curse. I’m used to getting actors approach me about being in the series and I always struggle to say no, due to being an actor myself and knowing how much we want to work, but this season only had a set amount of spots available due to time and resources, so I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in. I made so many shortlists and had so much back and forth with myself on the casting, but eventually, I decided on 24 actors divided up across 4 blocks of filming from Melbourne, Los Angeles, Glasgow, London, New York and Edinburgh.
During this time, the wonderful Sass Pinci and I had a phone chat (we both teach at the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Melbourne) and I ended up asking her if she was up for composing the music for the season. Within a week I had the theme music sitting in my Dropbox, composed and performed by Sass – and it was perfect, which was no surprise as Sass is crazy talented (and is also one of our cast).
And then the project took over my life completely and I haven’t been doing much else since. I’ve done a few bits and pieces as an actor since March – a couple of turns in the fabulous The Show Must Go Online and Sofa Shakespeare, for example, but other than teaching and a couple of weeks of writing for another project, this new season has been “My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!” as Constance would say.
So I threw myself into the process of juggling four time zones, scheduling Zoom rehearsals, the building of a technical document to help the actors film themselves in isolation, discussion on how I could be present during filming (we ended up using Zoom so I could be “in the room” to direct the actors while filming was happening), and as the first round of filming loomed, looking up weather reports, doing shot lists, scripts and scheduling the shoot.
Was doing it this way easy? No. In some respects it was simpler, in others a lot harder than if I’d had a full crew and support team. I’d rehearsed with a few of my actors on Skype for Season Two before filming, due to them being on tour or interstate during the rehearsal process, so that aspect felt normal to me, but the filming presented it’s own set of challenges that required a lot of focus and clear-thinking beyond directing actors’ performances.
That said, everyone coped with the process with flying colours. Sure, there were issues, there are always issues, but nothing we couldn’t handle. From neighbours using leaf blowers in the middle of a shoot to putting up scaffolding and having a huge skip delivered, family members insisting that they had to get online to play video games to last minute location changes due to a sudden downpour, we weathered all storms and managed to complete shooting of 19 of the 24 episodes by last week.
I am now deep in the edit (did I mention I have a proclivity to do all the things?) getting each episode to fine cut before passing them onto our awesome post-production team of Thanassi Panagiotaras (Online Edit & Colour Grade) and Tim McCormick (Sound Editor), while prepping for our final five episodes to rehearse and film with our remaining cast, which starts up next week. I still have at least another month of madness until I can come up properly for air, but the light is now clearly showing at the end of the tunnel.
In Melbourne, we now have Stage 4 restrictions and metropolitan-wide stay at home orders. We need permits to travel to work (if we are deemed essential workers) and are allowed one hour outside the house for exercise a day. Masks are mandatory outside the home. We can’t travel more than 5kms from our homes and deal with regular police and now, army, checks to ensure that we’re adhering to the rules (because sadly, not all of us did before, which is how we got here). We’re hearing numbers of over 700 new cases a day and our death toll is beginning to rise, although hopefully due to these new restrictions, we’ll see those numbers drop again soon.
Do I feel that putting together a series about the pandemic while it’s still raging around parts of the world is too soon? No. At the very least, it will hopefully give all those parents who are currently home schooling an additional resource for their kids studying English and English Lit (you all have my sympathy – as do your kids!), but I also think it might provide a certain catharsis for the rest of us as well.
These actors are speaking words that were written over 400 years ago. Some written during bouts of the Bubonic plague. And the author survived and the world recovered and now, that plague can be treated by antibiotics and doesn’t kill people (if caught in time). So I feel it also serves as a reminder that we’ve been through things like this before as a race and survived. Which means we can survive this too.
And I think this is a time where we have time to reflect, which is never a bad thing. I don’t think its an accident, for example, that the BLM movement found new momentum after the horrific video of George Floyd’s death hit social media in May. Unfortunately, I don’t know that it would have got the same visceral reaction and global traction if everyone hadn’t been home and paying attention.
As a race in general, we have sadly become immune to so many atrocities and inequalities over the years, so it is fittingly ironic and appropriate that due to a lack of immunity to a virus, we were all suddenly in a space to truly hear and see where the wrongs in our world lie. And, with nothing else distracting us, want to do something about it and connect with others to say “we stand with you”.
So this season is a love letter to my fellow humans. It is a call to recognise that we are all in this together, despite being so far apart. It is a celebration, a commiseration, an acknowledgement and an extended hand of friendship, human being to human being. It is a message of “you are not alone” and an invitation to look into the mirror and grieve, laugh, embrace and recognise ourselves. It is a chance to explore the works of Shakespeare in bite-sized chunks and, in turn, due to his writing acumen and uncanny understanding of human nature, explore ourselves.
Most of all, for me, it is a chance to work with some truly talented people who are all facing an uncertain future right now. The Arts are always important to society and we are going to realise that as more and more of this sector falls silent. The Arts are our touchstone, our conscience and our escape. We are creative beings – just seeing how many people have perfected the art of sourdough baking in the last two months tells me that – and while we can survive with just our head and heart, we don’t truly live without our soul.
And so, here is our gift to you. A reminder that you are part of an ongoing story. That we are all part of something bigger than ourselves – a larger story, a global community. That we are but the latest in a long line of human beings to walk this earth, weaving our own individual stories into the global historical tapestry. That we come from lineages that stretch back centuries. That we will make mistakes, but we can learn and even change. That we can be silent in the spaces we carve out in-between the noise and there, if we just stop for a moment, we can truly hear each other, and recognise ourselves in the other.
And that this pandemic too shall pass.
To our health workers, you have my absolute respect and admiration. To our essential workers – same. I wish everyone love, safety, quiet space, self-care and the knowledge that you are not alone. Be kind, to yourself and others, smile when you can, cry when you have to and remember – you’re part of something bigger and your story is important to keep building and growing the global tapestry of human experience, so take good care of the weave.
With love and in solidarity,
Shakespeare Republic: #AllTheWebsAStage (The Lockdown Chronicles) will premiere tomorrow, Friday, August 7 (AEST) on the Shakespeare Republic Facebook page. Make sure you “Like” and “Follow” the page to see each video as it releases.
This season is made possible by our generous Patreon Patrons. Do you wish to join them in supporting the work? You can do so by clicking here: https://www.patreon.com/incognitaenterprises
Member of the Press? You can reach out to Co-Producer, Billy Smedley with any inquiries by clicking here.