The third season of Sally McLean’s award-winning Shakespeare Republic series sees actors perform monologues from Shakespeare in their own homes. The Australian director tells us about putting the season together in lockdown, and why Shakespeare resonates so strongly during the pandemic.

Leo Atkin in Shakespeare RepublicLeo Atkin in the third season of Shakespeare Republic. Photo supplied

How do you feel Shakespeare speaks to the current situation we find ourselves in?

Shakespeare was a keen observer of human nature, particularly human nature under stress. He was also quite progressive for his time, you only need to look at Emilia’s speech in Othello or any of Beatrice’s dialogue to see that. And the now infamous Thomas More ‘refugee’ speech.  His unique ability to encapsulate and express what it is to be human – be it a pauper or a prince – makes his work relevant at any time, but as he was writing during a time when plague regularly caused London to shut down, he also knew a thing or two about sheltering at home during a pandemic. You will find plague mentioned regularly in his texts, it was so common, but also many references to being isolated, restricted, sometimes outright imprisoned and all the responses that situation evokes – reflecting the emotions that so many of us are going through right now.

What were the most important lessons you learned through the first two seasons of Shakespeare Republic?

I learn something new every time I get behind the camera, which is one of the reasons why I love directing as well as acting! But if I was to narrow it down to just Shakespeare Republic, I’d say the following: Trust my instincts. Trust my team. Choose your regular collaborators carefully and then allow them to do their job. Surround yourself with people who are excellent at what they do, who challenge you constructively and who keep you honest in how you’re telling the story on screen. Know that ‘impossible’ is just a concept and there is always a way to achieve what you have in mind with a bit of creativity and solid teamwork. Be flexible. Know when to let go of an idea. Know that your job is to support and guide your cast to be their best, not tell them how to do it – if you’ve cast well, they’ll always surpass what you had in your head. Have patience. Check your ego. Listen. Laugh – freely and often. And always have good catering.

Sally McLean at the CINE AwardsSally McLean at the CINE Awards in 2017. Photo supplied

What opportunities has the success of those seasons led to?

I have been so blessed with the response that this work has got over the past five years. The first two seasons have been selected and screened at over 80 international film festivals and industry awards, winning over 30 awards from over 70 nominations, which is just extraordinary! Some of those awards led to my being able to travel overseas to receive the award in person, such as winning the CINE Golden Eagle Award for Best Digital Series in New York in 2017, which put me in the company of fellow CINE alumni such as Stephen Spielberg (the then CINE President), Ron Howard, Jim Henson and Martin Scorsese, among many others. That alone was amazing and I pinch myself regularly that it even happened! (Luckily I have the photos on the media wall in NYC and statuette to prove it did!). Being commissioned to adapt and direct a Shakespeare short film, Speaking Daggers, for the Arts Learning Festival, also in 2017, which went on to win its own cache of awards internationally, including being awarded a Highly Commended Finalist nod at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Shakespeare Film Festival in the UK, as decided by Jury President, Sir Kenneth Branagh. Having Shakespeare Republic as the subject of a Plenary Panel at the Australia and New Zealand Shakespeare Association Conference. The National Film & Sound Archive acquiring the series as part of their official collection. Having the series acquired for broadcast by Ozflix. Becoming an academically published author with my 20-page chapter about creating Shakespeare Republic being included in Routledge Press’ new academic publication “Playfulness in Shakespearean Adaptations” alongside some amazing academics and practitioners and edited by the brilliant Marina Gerzic and Aidan Norrie. Honestly, the list goes on and on! All of these outcomes have led to more opportunities to create more work and also direct my own writing, which has been wonderful.

How did you go about selecting the cast for this season?

We put out a casting brief via social media in March this year asking actors, wherever they were based, to submit themselves. We had over a hundred actors respond, which was amazing, but also made casting a lot more tough for just 24 roles! Christopher Kirby and Phoebe Anne Taylor were already on my list, as they are regular collaborators (Christopher is one of my producers and Phoebe is in the Writers Room for my next season of the work – and they are both in the regular ensemble). I knew that I wanted a diverse cast of different ages. I gender-swap all the time in this work, but also am not attached to age-specific casting. In the live show version of Season Two, I had a 71-year-old Romeo doing his balcony scene monologue – and it was heartbreaking. And they didn’t necessarily need to be across Shakespeare. People are surprised when I say I don’t actually need the actors to have any Shakespeare experience to cast them – my first consideration when casting is about their ability as an actor. The rest can be worked on in rehearsals. If they have talent and a great work ethic, the lack of Shakespeare experience isn’t a barrier for me. Actors in previous seasons, such as Michala Banas and Ben Steel, had never done Shakespeare before; Nadine Garner had only played Shakespeare a couple of times, and yet they all delivered their pieces beautifully – for this reason.

What did you want to keep in mind when choosing the scenes/texts? Did the actors themselves suggest scenes or roles they’d like to play?

The way pieces were chosen varied according to the actor involved. Everybody initially went through the same process and answered two questions: What role in Shakespeare had they always wanted to play; and what did they want to say to the world right now? A few had very specific texts in mind and if it fit with the overall theme of the season and I could see they would absolutely embody it, we’d go ahead with it. Sometimes an actor will play it safe, and I try to encourage them not to, because where’s the fun in that?! But most left it up to me. I would suggest up to three pieces for them and then we would discuss which one spoke to them the most. There’s a certain light that comes into an actor’s eyes when they speak about a piece that signals to me that piece is the one. I can also tell from how they write to me about a piece in an email if it’s the right one – there’s a certain energy that comes across in how they speak about it that I pick up on. A lot of the selection is intuitive on my part, particularly if I don’t know the actor well.

How much have the actors’ homes suggested locations or scenes?

Depending on where the actors are based, not all of them were in hard lock down when they filmed. So while most filmed in their homes, some filmed elsewhere. That said, all scenes that were on the table were chosen because they would make sense in a lockdown situation. We cover a lot of different scenarios from the death of a loved one to coping with isolation to Zoom dating to marital strife to the Covid dreams phenomenon and everything else in between. And another level of relatability comes into the mix when you set these pieces in the home. Suddenly the character is a real person speaking in their lounge room, or kitchen or bathroom. A big part of the reason why Shakespeare Republic exists is to make his works more accessible to audiences – and settings that we’re familiar with help enormously in achieving that aim.

What have been the biggest challenges of putting this season together?

So many! The primary ones have been producing it on no budget and relying on the good graces of our cast and crew. We luckily have a group of patrons who support us via our Patreon fund, but that pool doesn’t go very far amongst 31 people! It has meant a lot more hours on my plate each week, doing several roles on the production to save on costs. The lack of budget then flows on to the actors needing to use different smart phones and cameras to film themselves, as we couldn’t afford to ship out a uniform camera and microphone set up to them. Which therefore meant we had diverse quality of raw footage and sound capture at play in the edit. I can’t say enough how grateful I am to have Thanassi Panagiotaras (Online Edit & Colourist) and Tim McCormick (Sound Editor) working with me on the post-production – I edit all the footage together and then they weave their magic and make it look and sound as if we had a full crew working on set! Working in four different time zones has its challenges – I’ve got used to directing at 3am! Also directing when filming via Zoom presented interesting challenges – not being physically in the room meant I had to learn a new way of directing and interacting with my cast.

What are the unique challenges as a director working through video conferencing?

You need a lot more energy. When normally working on set I can have a quiet chat with the actor while the crew are setting up in between shots and there is generally a lot of energy being generated by a lot more people. Which means when you’re ready to do a take there is a noticeable energy shift that subconsciously gives the actor a sense of coming back ‘on’. When the actor is also their own crew it means you’re juggling two elements at once with the same person. So finding a way to give a clear delineation between their role as crew when adjusting a light, for example, and then actively giving them the space to fully come back into their actor focus all has to be done through words and projecting your own energy for optimum results. I found myself being a lot more actively patient and calm and choosing my words carefully. But I got used to it and when giving direction I found that I could still read them as I needed to – even with sometimes unstable internet connections!

Do you have any favourite moments this season?

Oh, this is a tough question! I think most of my favourite moments happened off screen, so to speak, during rehearsals or in-between takes. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of shared stories of struggle with our industry being essentially shut down, a lot of just checking in with each other and connecting. All of which were treasured moments. But as far as the work goes – my favourite moment as a director is seeing when everything suddenly comes together in a take for the actor, when they take my direction, embody it, then leap off the edge and fly with the text and the character. I had a lot of those moments in this season. I struggle to pick favourites among the episodes, and we still have five episodes to film, so my work isn’t done quite yet. From Juliet processing Tybalt’s death in her car, to Richard III planning his brothers’ downfall in his bathroom, to Launce with her toy dog, to Adriana stuck in a half-renovated home, to Puck drinking beer in his garden, to Lady Macbeth on her rooftop, to Clarence reliving his isolation dreams in his apartment – there are so many gems to choose from! Each episode has a favourite moment for me and all the actors are bringing their A game to the table. I’m a very blessed director, and I know it!

Shakespeare Republic: #AllTheWebsAStage (The Lockdown Chronicles) will continue to release episodes until November 2020.

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