For more than three decades, one of The Bard’s famous plays has been staged outdoors in Prince’s Island Park during Shakespeare By the Bow. Due to this year’s pandemic and social distancing rules, Theatre Calgary, The Shakespeare Company and Hit + Myth Productions have teamed up to produce a free online production of Romeo & Juliet featuring emerging actors who perform live from their homes in Calgary and the Edmonton area.
Actors and real-life couple Anna Dalgleish and Zach Running Coyote play the titular pair and are able to act together in scenes since they live together. Recently, you may have seen Running Coyote in Lunchbox Theatre‘s production of Snowblind, while Dalgleish was in Alberta Theatre Projects‘ production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest. We caught up with the pair to learn more about the experience of starring in an online production together during a pandemic. (Note: Some answers have been edited for length).
Watch Romeo & Juliet live on Vimeo from June 27 to July 18 on Saturday and Wednesday nights. Viewers can text 20222 with the word TRUELOVE to donate $5 in support.
For some background, were you both involved with the Shakespeare by the Bow program before the pandemic began and then things changed partway through, or did the play process start after the pandemic was already underway?
Zach: “They put out an audition call for the show … a couple of months before anything shut down and they had us scheduled for auditions that were going to be in early March. Right before auditions, everything kind of shut down and they asked everyone to send in a video audition with a couple of monologues. At that point, I don’t think anyone really knew what was happening, but they knew that they still wanted to see auditions in preparation for whatever it would look like. So we did that and then it was several months until they decided that they were going to go ahead with the show and that they should do it online.
“Sometime in late April or early May, mid-May maybe, they decided and got back to everyone. It was a longer process than normal for casting, obviously because we auditioned early in the pandemic before they knew what they were doing. We were hoping to be part of whatever happened in the park, but there was nothing in place until the pandemic.”
Anna: “And oddly, the last time Shakespeare by the Bow did Romeo & Juliet was the year of the flooding in Calgary. So last time they did Romeo & Juliet, they had to totally shift their strategy as well. That year I think they ended up moving the show to Mount Royal University and using an outdoor space there. But it’s just funny that there’s this kind of tradition that when Romeo & Juliet happens, disaster strikes.”
How has the rehearsal process been the last couple of weeks with an isolated cast and doing it from home?
Anna: “It’s been pretty bizarre. I feel like we’ve really blended together as a group and there’s a really energetic and lively dynamic between all of us, but it’s bizarre because there are still some cast members that I’ve never even seen in person. I was grateful to experience how much relationships and bonding and teamwork was actually possible through the computer. But at the same time, I just keep thinking, man, I want to meet these people. It’s definitely been a strange process, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how it really still does feel like putting on a show together.”
Zach: “It’s complicated. As an extrovert, I’m really ready for us to be back in the theatre and back in relationship to people that way. But on the flip side, as an Indigenous person, I’m really grateful for the online platform and for the opportunity to share this art form and these stories with people who don’t have access to the theatre. Theatre can be very, very elite because of ticket prices, because of location, staircases. People with disabilities and people from rural communities and a lot of the urban Indigenous community that I really am passionate about in my work, it’s hard for them to feel like they have a place in the theatre. If they do want to be in the theatre, it’s hard for them to practically get in. This provides an opportunity to share the work outside of the circle that we would normally share it with. It’s a double-edged sword for me in terms of what I actually enjoy and what I actually deem important.”
Since the play is produced in your own homes, the actors take on tasks they wouldn’t normally have in a stage play, like filming themselves on phones and laptops for the livestream performances. That seems like it could be both creatively rewarding and difficult. Can you speak to that?
Zach: “I’m a creative by nature, I actually spend more time writing than performing. When we were all offered the show … we were told that we were going to be asked to be creative and make offers and help figure out what the show was going to be and what it looked like, because we all knew more about our living situations and technological abilities than anyone else did. Haysam [Kadri], the director, really successfully brought together a cast that is all really willing to make bold offers and try silly things and do that behind the scenes work that normally other people do. And that’s the most exciting part of the process to me, is that added layer of creativity and trying to find the story in the middle of that.”
Anna: “Throughout rehearsals, it took so much brain power just to keep track of where we had to be for each scene and who was filming who and from what device, and do you mute the microphones during this part or have it on, it was a lot to think about. But now that we are kind of in the flow of the piece and that the show is open, I find that it’s quite a fun, hectic element. The kind of chaotic, hectic energy of it in some ways replicates the intense energy of doing a live performance in front of an audience. We do still have a lot to juggle and there are a lot ducks that have to be in a row in order to get our shots right and get the scene on its feet. The backstage show, honestly, is probably just as exciting as what people end up seeing, all of us scurrying around to our different locations.”
The show features fun social media and animated elements, as well as timely references to the pandemic. What’s it like to mix those elements with classic Shakespeare text?
Zach: “This play lends itself to that because it’s a story about two people who aren’t allowed to be together. It definitely lends itself [to the pandemic] better than any other Shakespeare play does. It was going to be this play before the pandemic, they knew that. But they didn’t know there was going to be a pandemic and that a play about people who can’t be together was suddenly going to become relevant. That makes it exciting. The challenge is honouring the weight of the text and the weight of the story while also honouring the absurdity and humour of the medium and to hold those both in balance to do something that is both entertaining and compelling.”
As a real-life couple, what has it been like for you to take on such a famous literary couple?
Anna: “Zach has actually played the role of Romeo before. He played it a couple of years ago in Red Deer’s version of Shakespeare by the Bow. I had a crush on him at the time and went and saw him in the show and was just wishing that I was Juliet, you know? I was like, ‘I’m an actor too. I would be awesome at that.’ [laughs] And so then it’s really great two years later now to be in this show together. It is really special because we both love Shakespeare’s text and really have a soft spot for these two characters. Romeo is such a romantic and Juliet is just so smart and so dedicated to what she knows to be true. It’s been a really special opportunity for the two of us to be able to do the show together and be the only major instance in the play where people can actually speak right to one another and look one another right in the eye. That’s been a real gift through this process, to have someone who’s actually there and someone for whom the love is real too.”
How has working on a project closely together, literally and figuratively, impacted your pandemic experiences?
Anna: “Just before this project started, I was just so desperate for something to do. I was tired of empty days and having a project like this to work on and having a team to work towards something with has just completely uplifted me. I’ve just been so grateful to have a project that excites me and wakes up my creativity daily. I think outside of the pandemic, I take that for granted a fair amount more. But, after having spent a few months just in empty to-do lists, it has been uplifting for me to have a creative project on the go.”
Zach: “Anna and I, I didn’t know if we’d get to act again after theatre school. It’s not a given that you get to act with your partner in the real world. But here we are, and that’s really a gift. I’ve worked on a bunch of other online things since the pandemic started as well. This has been a remarkable experience because we get to do it together and actually have that human interaction. And, it’s also really cool to be doing Shakespeare by the Bow online of all the things to be doing online. It’s something that’s a legacy. Nothing stops it, you know? It’s not the same, obviously, as being in the park with a live audience, sweating and bowing in front of 200 people every night. But we do get the distinct experience of being the people who did it during the pandemic, the people who played Romeo and Juliet — the icons in an iconic time.”
Assuming the pandemic situation gets better and things are back to normal next summer, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime Shakespeare by the Bow experience. What has it meant to you to be a part of it?
Anna: “Everybody that’s pitched into this project has just dared to learn something new and to just try. All of us approached this without having experience in the show in this format and everyone just had to say, well, just because we’ve never done it before doesn’t mean we can’t make something awesome out of it. I’ve been really encouraged by the amount of commitment I’ve seen across the board from this team of saying well, who knows what tomorrow’s going to be, but we’ll work as hard as we can today making it happen. And, we did open and there is a show to see.”
Zach: “I’m really grateful for the way that this team has dignified this platform and this opportunity. And I think, through the show, dignifies today’s youth and understanding of technology and the speed at which we tell stories now. There’s a lot of judgment about the way young people today absorb information and process stories. Doing a production of Romeo & Juliet that at times feels more like an Instagram story, a Tik Tok post and a couple of Facebook posts tied together with ancient text, I think that it actually dignifies today’s youth and increases our capacity to connect across generational boundaries. I’m hearing from people of all different ages that they really loved the show, people who didn’t believe that digital theatre was possible, who are coming to me and saying thank you for that work, it was really compelling. As a creator, I’m always looking for ways to bridge those gaps and I think that this is a really bold offering in that direction.”