If you’ve attended the Freewill Shakespeare Festival in Hawrelak Park in recent years, you’ve probably heard about the Thou Art Here puppet shows, which break Shakespeare’s works down into easily understandable 15-minute introductions to the work. During this year’s festival, not only do the puppet shows return, but Thou Art Here is bringing a second show to the festival – the world première of Ben Stevens’ But Hark, A Voice!
Ben says the play was inspired by the group of six amature actors (“the Mechanicals” as Puck calls them) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and thier quest to put on the play Pyramus and Thisbe at Thesus’ wedding. “We thought it would work well to have these characters who are trying to put on a play and impress the Duke and we thought, what if the Mechanicals were at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and trying to impress the Festival Director? But Hark, A Voice! emerged as this metatheatrical nod to the kindness of Freewill and as we started working on it, it became more than that, and a show all on its own. It fits in the space really well and it has a lot of heart and fun antics.”
But Hark, A Voice! closely follows the Mechanicals’ journey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where they attempt to rehearse a play to put on a top-notch performance. Ben says, “The really want to impress the Festival Director of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival but, unfortunately, they are not very good, and the play is not very good. We watch them working on that show and trying their best, and meanwhile we meet two fairies from Hawrelak Park who are kind of like the guardian angels of the park and they know the show is so bad that the only way to make it good is to turn up the bad and make it into a complete farce. They cast magic on the actors, they trip up the actors, they turn the actors against each other and maybe they transform some of the actors into donkeys… They turn the whole thing on its head, but perhaps they realize that they took it a little too far.”
In the end, the Mechanicals perform for the Festival Director and do their best despite their lack of training and the challenges they’ve encountered along the way.
Thou Art Here is known for making Shakespeare fun, accessible and bringing it into today’s world in a way that pays homage to the setting in which they’re performing, and But Hark, A Voice! will be no different.
“We like making theatre accessible and fun for everyone… You’re not sitting in a theatre, you’re sitting or standing in and amongst the actors. The actors are also talking to you as they’re working things out. Shakespeare uses a lot of monologues and soliloquies where characters are thinking out loud and talking to themselves. In our version, the characters do that with the audience and they get to bounce ideas off the audience and think through things with them and it makes the audience feel like they’re part of that character’s journey. And our favourite thing to do is to put people into the show. Our audience members actually get to play parts in our final production of Pyramus and Thisbe – they get to join the rehearsal and the performance.”
While But Hark, A Voice! is based on Shakespeare’s work, Ben has also blended in more modern language into the play to increase accessibility for all ages. “Thou Art Here does a lot of found space work, so I wanted to do “found text” work. I wanted to take things that Shakespeare has written in elsewhere in the play and recontextualize it in a different part of the play and see if his words in one scene can mean something new or enhance the action in a different scene.”
Ben took that “mishmash” approach to the gender of the characters in the play as well, casting women in roles written as male to open Shakespeare’s stories up to a wider audience. “I think sometimes people have trouble connecting with Shakespeare because it’s often 90% male stories, but they touch on something that everyone can enjoy… It’s important to us to make sure that people are represented and that the audience can see themselves in these stories… I think Shakespeare’s characters are so well known that they’re almost mythological in a way. If you see a Romeo, you know who that person is regardless of who is playing them. It’s not going to ruin your picture of Romeo if you see someone else playing him other than an Italian man. That doesn’t have to be what Romeo looks like in the 21st century.”
But Hark, A Voice! plays at the Heritage Amphitheatre at Hawrelak Park on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays (except June 25) during the Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s run June 19 – July 15. Check Thou Art Here‘s website for specific dates and times.