Silliness and Shakespeare: Caffeinated Soliloquies by Jeremy Webb

In Halifax the name Jeremy Webb is likely to be synonymous with two things: constant hilarity, and the posting of a slew of old photographs of absolutely everyone in the Nova Scotian theatre community on Facebook within the last week and a half. Since arriving in Canada from England in 1998, Webb has become a mainstay of theatre in Nova Scotia, performing, and also directing, often at Neptune Theatre, Festival Antigonish and Shakespeare by the Sea (where he won the 2009 Merritt Award for his brilliant portrayal of Iago). His most recent venture takes him on tour to schools around the province with a new show he created and performs with Simon Henderson called Shakespeare On Trail. The show previously played for three public performances in June at the BusStop Theatre* and is currently playing as part of the Atlantic Fringe Festival at the Neptune Studio Theatre. Webb and I sat down at Uncommon Grounds Coffee on Argyle Street in Halifax on a perfectly Maritime wet, misty day to chat about this new venture. I drank hot chocolate, while he had tea and banana bread. “Tea and cake,” he said, sitting down across from me, “very British.”

Amanda Campbell (AC): So, what I want to know is; what was your first experience with Shakespeare? Was it always something that you connected to?
Jeremy Webb (JW): Oh wow, I guess, like most people it was in High School and studying it in a classroom. But we had this very animated English Lit teacher, Mr. Sutton. John Sutton, I think he’s still alive. And he motivated us in a very wonderful way. And I remember that we all took a school festival to the Stratford Festival (England) and we saw The Merchant of Venice and I was fourteen. Of course this was the time when it was more important who you were sitting next to- and whether you were sitting next to a girl- than what play you were seeing. So I remember that girl- isn’t that terrible? It was more important whether you were getting the chance to touch thighs with a girl… but that long court scene was great *laughs*. So, yeah, my first memory of Shakespeare was of sitting in a darkened theatre with a girl rather than focusing on the Bard’s words. Which is how it should be, I think. *grins*
AC: *grins* For sure. So, when was it that you started to connect more to the words of Shakespeare and focus less on-
JW: The girl I was sitting with?
AC: Yes!
JW: Uh, I would say years later when I was doing Community Theatre in Cambridge (England) where I grew up, I used to do Shakespeare in the summers with this amateur theatre company called Bawds. B-a-w-d-s. It didn’t even stand for anything. *chuckles* We would do our shows on the Cambridge University grounds, so it was a really beautiful space. And there was this costume designer who was one of my mentors- a set and costume designer- who was really flamboyant. That was my first experience with that type of over-the-topness that we now know and love. And I would direct shows there, and I would be in them, and we would rent costumes from the Stratford Festival. And I remember once I got to try on Anthony Sher’s Richard the Third hump. He had done a really famous portrayal of Richard III back in the eighties. And he wrote this book called Year of the King which I had read in the eighties. And then suddenly there I was standing in the costume room wearing his hump. It was really exciting. Really, this company was like Shakespeare by the Sea, only it wasn’t a professional company, and that’s where I fell in love with performing and the language of Shakespeare.
AC: You’ve had great success with your one-man show A Christmas Carol which you created and performed at Neptune Theatre and on tour; was that the first play that you wrote?
JW: No, actually, bizarrely enough, in this envelope *gestures to opened envelope and pulls out a script*, there is a play that I wrote in 1996 while at Bristol Old Vic that I sent myself as a cheap form of copyright, and it’s called A Dozen Single Eyes. It’s about the last British sailor to be killed by firing squad during World War II, and coincidently there is a Canadian character in it, and I wrote the play before I came to this country. So, I recently dug it out to see how my writing had grown and changed, and likely this will seem very naive to read now. It had been performed in Bristol and Cambridge, but I dug it out to see if there maybe was something there. So I wrote things. I also co-wrote a screenplay for HandMade Films about the Court of Charles II and, uh, it was called Ministry of Pleasure and, uh, we went for development, and got a pretty nice deal. We were going to make money and do the film, and then that year John Malkovitch announced that he was going to do a film on the same subject, with the same story, starring Johnny Depp. And that killed our film dead. Actually, it was only recently that I watched the DVD of his film (The Libertine (2004)) because I couldn’t bring myself to watch it, I was so upset. But A Christmas Carol was the first thing that I did here where I had an idea and I ran with it. Originally it was going to be just a semi-staged reading, but it very quickly turned into a fully staged production. I’ve done it three times and it’s going to tour again in (Christmas) 2009.
AC: So, how did you decide that you wanted to write Shakespeare On Trial?
JW: It was actually a very easy decision, I was unemployed in April and May and I needed to pay the rent, so I called Theatre Nova Scotia and I asked if I could do a workshop for students at around this time, maybe something to do with Shakespeare in schools. And they said, “Sure, sounds great!” And then a half hour later I called Joanne Miller back and said, “I think I have a play.” So I sat down and wrote a three paragraph synopsis of what I wanted the play to be, and it’s still what I use for promotional things now. I wrote that in about a half hour. Three weeks later I was rehearsing a play. So, it was pretty quick. For me when I think that I have a semi decent idea and it feels right, I like to go with it.
AC: This show is aimed at teenagers, and it is summarized as “exploring the Bard’s relevance and accessibility in classrooms today.” Why do you think it’s important for teenagers to read Shakespeare’s plays in schools?
JW: To be honest, I don’t think it’s important for teenagers to read Shakespeare. I think that it’s important if they’re going to be forced to read Shakespeare in a stuffy classroom that they understand that they are reading the script of a play that is meant to be performed by actors who know what they’re doing and who have passion and understanding of what they are doing. I think it’s important for teenagers to know that if Shakespeare is performed that way then it can be just as passionate, dynamic, relevant, and sexy as anything else they see at the theatre. But that is a big IF. Being forced to read Shakespeare in a classroom kills it, and it kills the idea of the theatre. And so the idea of this play (Shakespeare on Trial) is to destroy that idea of the theatre. Here you get to see a selection of Shakespeare’s plays in the middle of a really zany plot, and maybe they (the audience) will make a decision to check (more Shakespeare plays) out and not be scared of it… or bored by the prospect of it… and that goes for all theatre. I mean, here you have a forty year old, slightly overweight man playing Juliet. That alone, I think will turn some heads, and change some people’s opinions of what Shakespeare can be. And Simon Henderson as Ophelia! His Ophelia is great.
AC: *laughs* Oh, I can’t wait to see this show!
JW: *laughs*
AC: It’s funny because the production that I saw when I was fifteen where suddenly everything clicked, and I went, “Oh! This is what Shakespeare is supposed to be!” was Hamlet at the Neptune Studio which you assistant directed….
JW: Oh yeah, Linda Moore’s…
AC: Yeah. And I remember even then thinking it was odd that Hamlet was being done in the Studio rather than on the Mainstage. And that was the last time that Neptune did a Shakespeare show, I think… except for the Pre Professional Training Program. So, I was wondering if you thought that the larger, professional theatres in the province should be making it a priority to do more Shakespeare shows.
JW: Well, to be honest, professional theatres in Canada, I would imagine, they have to program shows that meet certain funding requirements, and doing the work of a 400 year old British writer doesn’t meet the requirements of every theatre. And we do have Shakespeare by the Sea who do two Shakespeare shows a year, so if you want to see Shakespeare shows, you do have that option. I’m- I get excited about doing classical shows, whether it’s Shakespeare or a George Bernard Shaw –although I wasn’t in that one… Shakespeare by the Sea had a great season last year and was met by a lot of success. (Their production of) Othello was nominated for a bunch of Merritt Awards, and I think maybe, that proved that these plays can really still cut it.
AC: I remember talking to you while you were rehearsing that show and you found it quite–
JW: Petrifying! It still was while I was doing it! When you’re playing a role of that size and, I don’t want to say “complexity” because I was having too much fun to complain about the role being “complex”, but just that size and importance- and being a forty year old man, my memory isn’t the same as it used to be, remembering all those lines alone was pretty petrifying! It was one of, maybe three career highlights for me, because it was just such a joy to do, and I got to pay my rent. The other two would be, of course A Christmas Carol, which was also such a joy, and (playing Cogsworth in Neptune’s) Beauty and the Beast, just the feeling of that show and the company and the great friendships that were made. Those three things. And to work with Troy (Adams) (in Othello) and of course that annoying has-been Raquel Duffy who keeps going back to school to learn more because she’s not very good to begin with. Hopefully she’ll decide to come back here when she’s all finished to do some work. *laughs* Raquel and I have worked together a number of times- actually she was in the very first show I did in this country. It was part of one of the most amazing casts- make sure you get this down. There was Frank MacKay. Niki (Nicola) Lipman. Bill Carr. Raquel Duffy. Martha Irving. Marty Burt. And Charlotte Moore. All in the same Summer Season at Neptune in 1998. All in the same shows. It was (Willy Russell’s) Blood Brothers and Rumors by Neil Simon. I had just moved here from England and I thought that I’d landed in the Promised Land. But yeah, having her (Raquel) as my wife was seriously wonderful. Although she should stop eating garlic. Unless, maybe she was doing that as a repellent. *laughs*
AC: Probably! I remember seeing Blood Brothers, I was thirteen and sat in the back row of the balcony. It was of course my first time seeing you onstage, but it was also my first time seeing Raquel, and I remember being like, “I just… want to be her friend.”
JW: Oh me too. When we were in Blood Brothers I would stand in the wings– there was this scene where Raquel was onstage and both the guys were singing this romantic song to her—and I would make sure I was in the wings and would take my clothes off… yes, I would flash her to try to make her laugh during this romantic song. So, I’ve been naked in the wings at Neptune. Isn’t that the title of a book? Someone’s autobiography? I can’t think of it… if it’s not, I’m going to take it and use it. It’s also a good title for a play. Naked in the Wings. … I’ll have it written by tomorrow. *grins*
AC: My readers will hold you to that. You mentioned memorizing lines, and I’ve often wondered, is there a trick to learning Shakespeare?
JW: No, it’s only repetition. Or, if there is, I don’t know about it! I have now this routine that if I know I have three weeks to learn my lines, I know it will take me three weeks. Which is terrible, twenty years ago it would have only taken me a week. But now, the first week is all about familiarization and having the script in my hands as much as possible. I go to this rocky beach near Purcell’s Cove with a coffee and I run the lines at the ocean. I don’t think this does anything except be a pleasant experience that makes a horrible process a bit better. In A Christmas Carol and Shakespeare On Trial there are improvised sections, which came about in Christmas Carol because I couldn’t learn the lines for the last scene. I found them so difficult. So, I thought, “wait, I’m the producer, and the director, and the writer and the performer, I can improvise this!” Which, of course, drove the stage manager crazy! The scene is scripted now, but I feel like I always have a little freedom to leave the text, especially if something happens with the audience, as long as we’re not disrespectful to the story. Sometimes I get into trouble about improvisation. I’ve had Neptune Stage Managers watching me making sure that I don’t go off onto some tangent. I remember once I stopped the show in One For the Pot because Nigel Bennett flubbed a line and I said, “would you like to try that again? Go on, give it a go!” And this started a little bit between the two of us, which was very naughty. But of course the audience loved it. I would never do that now, but I was a younger man then. And of course, I would never do it with an actor who I didn’t know could handle it. Of course, that was all Nigel’s fault. He’s a very amateur actor. He should go study with Raquel. *grins* I hope no one from Stratford is reading this! I’ll never work again! *laughs* *(Jeremy Webb wishes to make known that he loves working with his pal Nigel Bennett and is the godfather to Bennett’s daughter.)* You can only do that sort of thing in the plays that warrant it, but of course, the Stage Manager would say that no play warrants improvisation. But I think that a play is about growing with the audience. At first you have this relationship between you, and the play, and the director. But then when you add three hundred or four hundred audience members, things change. And you never know what they will do. You have to have a little freedom there, without ruining the play. Tory (Doctor (Lumiere)) and I (in Beauty and the Beast) got into a lot of trouble one night where we actually both got told off by stage management, and rightly so, for a little improvised moment that came out of something so natural and so real, but still, it left Julie Martell (Belle) standing there onstage, looking at the two of us, wondering when we were going to get back to the play. And even then, when we went offstage we were like “we shouldn’t have done that.”
AC: I’ve heard that Nathan Lane does the same thing, so you’re in good company.
JW: Yes. He’s one of my heroes.
AC: Mine too. Next time you’re in Toronto, you should check out a theatre show called Impromptu Splendor. They do live Improvised plays in the styles of different playwrights. And they have guest improvisers!
JW: I haven’t been to Toronto a whole lot; I was there a few months ago, when I saw you that night… I saw Sharron’s Party, which, is, it’s ending?
AC: Yeah, the last one is in June.
JW: Yeah, so I managed to see one. And that was fantastic. And I saw Thom Allison perform which- well, you know, you were there. I saw a lot of people that I had only ever heard the names of. And of course I was there with Raquel Duffy. I wasn’t planning on going with her; she was just a tag along. She said she had a lot of work to do, but decided to come anyway, and I was all like, “well, if you must- I had planned to meet all sorts of important people there and having Raquel tagging after me was kind of embarrassing.” *laughs* Oh yes, I am ROASTING Raquel Duffy! She’s going to kill me! *laughs* *grins*
AC: *laughs* So, how did you pick MacBeth, Hamlet, Iago and Juliet to be the characters that confront Bill about his inaccessible language in the play? Of all the characters you could have chosen…
JW: Yeah, I know! Okay, So I was writing the play, I was in a bar in Ottawa mapping out what the play was going to be and it was during that one hour lunch that I realized that this play needed two people. Because, originally, the play was going to be a one man show so that I didn’t need to ask someone else to give up their time. But then I realized that I needed two actors. So, I made a list of the plays I knew. And I had directed Romeo and Juliet, and I had directed Hamlet and I had played the role when I was twenty-three.
AC: Oh, wow!
JW: I know. Where do you go from there? *laughs* I was always saying that after that there was nowhere to go. And MacBeth, I had done a couple times, I had played MacDuff a couple times, and I had just done Iago. So I knew that there were good bits in all those plays, and also it was a bit of a time saving effort because I knew the shows really, really well. And MacBeth, I think, is basically the perfect play. It is blood-filled and it has sex… sex, blood and rock n’ roll. And Hamlet is the perfect play. It’s my favourite. I’ve worked it out that in total I’ve worked on that play for fourteen months of my life. So, I know it pretty well. When I did it at 23, I finished it, and it was not a long run, and I was like, “Well, that’s it. What am I going to do now?” It wasn’t even that I was very good in it. I really wasn’t very good at all! But I had peaked at 23. So I feel like I had my peak then, and then I got another peak with Iago, because the parts are similar size, they’re both huge, scary roles that are insurmountable. … It’s weird to be sitting here talking about myself… believe it or not. *grins*
AC: *laughs* So, then how did you decide that Simon Henderson was going to be in the show with you?
JW: Very easily, actually. I thought of him right away. I needed someone to play the Shakespeare role. I had decided that I would play the multiple character changes, because I tend to do that a lot. It did it in Stones in My Pockets at Festival Antigonish, I played multiple characters, and of course in A Christmas Carol. So I needed a good, solid, strong actor, and someone that I liked socially. Since we were going to be touring the show, and getting up at 7am and driving to—New Glasgow together, I needed someone that I got along with. And Simon and I had worked together before. We’re also similar looking. And there’s this idea that because I look a bit like Simon and he’s playing Shakespeare, then in a way all the characters look a little bit like Shakespeare. My brother, actually, was the one who mentioned that we looked alike, from looking at a picture on Facebook. He called Simon “MiniMe”, and it is right then, that the characters should be a larger than life version of Shakespeare since I am a larger than life version of the guy playing Shakespeare. That’s all far deeper than the play is. *laughs* Believe me. And I realized with two of us I couldn’t get away with not having a director and I immediately thought of Martha.
AC: Of course you did.
JW: As so many people do.
AC: Yes. Absolutely. Okay, one last question. Can you tell us about this new website that you have going on?
JW: Oh yeah! I guess you really do have the exclusive on this. Well, because I have three shows at the moment that I have created or co-created, and I don’t have a theatre company, and I don’t want a theatre company, I’ve got this website that is going to go live in a week’s time http://www.offtheleash.ca/. It’s basically going to be like my brand. It will include all the plays that I’ve written, and a play that I’m working on with Sarah English, that she created and asked me if I would direct called Swelle. And also, I’m working on a short film called Wake which is going to go into production this fall. We have some tentative shoot dates and I’m very excited. So, this will be the brand for everything that I have created and anything that I create in the future. So, there will be a page for each show on the website and you’ll be able to get more information, and then be able to book the show. It’s a way to gather everything together and to put all my ducks in a row. And Swelle is going to be in the Festival Antigonish Second Stage Series this summer, and there has been some interest in bringing Shakespeare on Trial to Cape Breton, and Newfoundland and Utah, in the States. I know—random! But hey, I don’t have any problem driving down to Utah! The show was originally written to be toured and to be seen by students but we wanted to have a few public shows for the public so that our friends and families could come, and so that the theatre geeks could come and laugh at me in a dress. Again.
*previously posted May 30st, 2009.*
Atlantic Fringe Festival Schedule:
Venue: Neptune’s Studio Theatre
Times: Sun Sept 6 at 4pm, Mon Sept 7 at 9:40pm, Sat Sept 12 at 1pm, Sun Sept 13 at 4:40pm, Sun Sept 13 at 7:50pm