Podcast series shakes up Shakespeare

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Four York University community members have launched “Shaking up Shakespeare,” a 10-episode podcast series that looks to re-examine playwright William Shakespeare – and productions of his work – through a lens that considers issues like gender discrimination, racism, ableism and more.

The origins of the podcast begin, much like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a ghost.

In 2021, Marlis Schweitzer, professor of theatre and performance studies – along with her York colleague Assistant Professor Jamie Robinson and PhD student Marilò Nuñez – held an online event that gathered Canadian professional actors, directors and playwrights to discuss how casting practices in Canada affected their work.

The event was part of a five-year project called “(Re)setting the Stage: The Past, Present, and Future of Casting Practices in Canada,” supported by funding from Schweitzer’s position as a York Research Chair (Tier II) in Theatre & Performance History, and aiming to situate debates about theatrical representation and the politics of casting in Canada within a broader historical context.

“Although the event’s primary focus was on contemporary theatre, one of the names that kept popping up was ‘Shakespeare,’” says Schweitzer. “He was like a ghost haunting the event. Some people spoke with reverence about him – others with revulsion.”

The conflicting feelings around Shakespeare led to the project team’s decision to host a followup symposium – supported by a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council Connections Grant – to engage more directly with Shakespeare and examine the legacy of his work, specifically in the context of Canadian theatre culture and society more broadly.

The symposium – titled “(Re)casting Shakespeare in Canada” – was held in spring 2023 and became the foundation for the recently launched “Shaking up Shakespeare” podcast, which sees Schweitzer and two recently graduated York research assistants, Hope Van Der Merwe and Liam Lockhart-Rush, serve as hosts and interviewers, with dramaturgical support from recent master of fine arts graduate and current theatre instructor Jeff Ho.

The podcast features interviews with over 30 individuals, across a range of professions, who all have a connection to Shakespeare or have been impacted by his work in some way. And rather than celebrating Shakespeare, no questions asked, the series takes a critical perspective, acknowledging a host of issues, including gender discrimination, racism and ableism, both in Shakespeare’s plays and in productions of his plays. It does so by incorporating recent conversations throughout the arts about diversity and casting practices, colonial structures and accessibility – all in the hopes of cultivating in listeners a different perspective of the famous playwright.

“Our big hope is to engage listeners in thinking anew about the role Shakespeare plays in their own lives – whether that’s casually, when they go to the theatre or watch a movie or tv show with Shakespearean references, or when they drive through a town like Stratford or Shakespeare, Ontario,” says Schweitzer. “We want listeners to consider some of the deeper questions we ask about how the historical privileging of Shakespeare in Canada has helped to exclude the voices of racialized and other minoritized artists.”

The podcast series will also shine a light on the artists who are grappling with Shakespeare, reworking and adapting his plays to meet the needs of contemporary audiences, including those whose stories have existed in the margins. For example, one episode will feature interviews with the cast of theatre company Why Not Theatre’s remounting of their production Prince Hamlet, an intersectional adaptation in which the role of Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, is played by Dawn Jani Birley, a Deaf actor and American Sign Language (ASL) translator. (This also led to a collaboration that resulted in translating the entire podcast series into ASL and recorded videos of each episode with a team of Deaf interpreters).

In spotlighting creative efforts like these, the podcast series hopes to not just facilitate listeners rethinking Shakespeare, but imagining what creative – and more equitable – productions of the playwright’s work may be yet to come. “We hope listeners will be excited to learn about how such artists have adapted Shakespeare to tell their own stories and are offering new critical perspectives on what it means to perform and produce Shakespeare in 2024,” says Schweitzer.

“Shaking up Shakespeare” is currently available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. ASL videos of the series are available on YouTube and the project website, which contains additional information about the series.