YORK Shakespeare Project has a not-so-secret location for its latest sonnet adventures, the “secret garden” of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, in Blossom Street, York.
After several years of Sonnet Walks through the city streets and public gardens and the socially distanced Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity churchyard, in Goodramgate, last September, here come Sonnets At the Bar 2021, directed by Emilie Knight and produced by Maurice Crichton from tomorrow (30/7/2021) to August 7.
Emilie, who played a Covid Nurse in last year’s performances, has come up with the conceit of the Bar Convent being in use for all sorts of community centre-type activities, some of them outdoors in the garden on account of Covid, with the sonneteers either hosting classes or groups or attending them, all under the watchful eye of the caretaker, Mr Barrowclough.
In YSP’s now time-honoured fashion, each character has a sonnet to set up, the pairing of character and sonnet opening up some unknown sonnets in an accessible way or giving well-known ones a new angle.
Here, Emilie answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions on plays versus sonnets, topical characters, outdoor performances, new sonneteers and Covid times.
What draws you to Shakespeare’s sonnets by comparison with his plays?
“The sonnets provide an instant hit of the Bard’s language and turn of phrase, and while you may need to read it over and for some do a little research, when you do get it, it’s striking. Each one tells a story or even more than one as we’ve explored with the Sonnets productions.”
What struck you most about performing the topical Covid Nurse role in last September’s production?
“Although there was a touch of humour in the role, I found playing the nurse very moving. I have no healthcare experience and felt a tinge of imposter syndrome, especially when I was leafleting in Goodramgate between performances in my scrubs and people came up to me assuming I was campaigning for the NHS, which in a way, I was.”
What did you learn from that outdoor staging – in one location, rather than moving around York’s streets and gardens – that you can bring to this summer’s production?
“There was a stillness in Holy Trinity churchyard – apart from the restaurant kitchen noises that punctuated some of the performances – that enabled the audience to really focus on the character and their sonnet without distractions from passers-by and traffic.
“I was keen to replicate that while introducing the movement that the sonnet walks allows. In this case, the characters are moving through the space rather than the audience moving through York.”
What do you see as the director’s role in this production?
“Very much as an introducer of ideas. I had a strong image of how I wanted the production to look and feel, but from my own experience as a sonneteer also knew that the organic nature of this sonnets concept relies on the ideas we have and sometimes accidental discoveries we make throughout the rehearsal process.
“It’s also been my role to ensure that everyone has fun. We’re a community group with jobs, studying, family responsibilities to deal with, all coming together because we love theatre and never more so than now after the challenging times we’ve all experienced.”
How did you settle on this year’s Shakespeare Sonnets conceit of the Bar Convent being in use for all sorts of community centre-type activities?
“Within hours of finishing our last production, I’d started mulling over possible future themes, and by the beginning of this year, it struck me that through the pandemic our hobbies and community activities had been completely turned upside down.
“I asked myself, ‘how is it going to feel to return to gatherings in person after doing everything online for so long?’ and whether there would be any hesitation in doing so. We heard a lot about how desperate everyone was to ‘get back to normal’, but I did wonder whether some people would prefer it to stay as it is, and that’s when Harry Barrowclough popped into my head.
“Then I thought about all the different things that go on in community centres that, unless you’re involved in yourself, you barely give any thought to. A major consideration in the early days was where to stage the production and, given the community connection and the fabulous garden, theBar Convent seemed a perfect fit and it has been.
How did you decide on the characters? Did you give the actors leeway to create them or did you create the characters first and then let them work on them?
“I had very clear characters in mind and drafted a working script as a starting point. But you never know who’s going to audition; through that process I was able to identify some who fitted a particular character exactly as I thought of them or who delivered something completely different from how I imagined it and it just worked.
“From day one of rehearsals, I invited the sonneteers to play with their character and dialogue and try out different ideas until we settled on the perfect fit. For me, the joy of the YSP Sonnets programme is very much that it is a creative process for everyone involved and together we develop something very special.”
Five “new” sonnets feature among the selection. What made you choose those ones?
“I chose all the sonnets first with a few extra, without reference to which had been used before, and by a happy coincidence there were new ones. Some I chose for their direct relevance to a character and situation I had in mind; others I simply found very beautiful and knew I wanted to use them and so devised a way to make them suit.”
How have you rehearsed the sonnets in Covid times?
“We were very fortunate that the Bar Convent embraced our production from the beginning and made it possible for us to rehearse in the space, which, being open air, made everything instantly more Covid safe.
“We’ve also been lucky with the weather…so far! Of course, we’ve had the ongoing challenge of cast members being ‘pinged’ at any moment and have all been committed to keeping each other safe and will continue to do so for ourselves, the Bar Convent community and our audiences.”
Among the cast, you have selected four actors new to York Shakespeare Project. Who are they?
“Lindsay Waller Wilkinson, Aran MacRae, Luke Tearney and Josh Roe. I’m so excited about this production and very proud of all the work everyone has put in, most especially the youngsters.
“With the cuts in arts education generally and worryingly more to come, and the reduced opportunities for our youth to explore the creative arts, it’s been very rewarding to have been able to offer this chance for them to shine.”
York Shakespeare Project presents Sonnets At The Bar 2021, Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, Blossom Street, York, tomorrow (30/7/2021) until August 7; no show on August 2. Performances: 6pm and 7.30pm nightly, plus 4.15pm on both Saturdays. Tickets: 01904 623568, at yorkthreatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the YTR box office.
SONNETS AT THE BAR 2021 CREDITS LIST
Luke Tearney, Friday to Sunday
Matt Pattison, Tuesday to Saturday
Maurice Crichton* –
* Sonnet veterans
** Other YSP involvements but not Sonnets
Four debutant sonneteers