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Free Shakespeare theatre for students, low-cost tickets for all

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Anna Takayo as Juliet in a production by Devil’s Isle Shakespeare Co, which is bringing free shows to Bermuda for students this autumn (Photograph supplied)

Séamus Miller believes theatre should be free to everyone 18 and younger. For the rest of us, it should not cost more than a loaf of bread.

It is a model he has been successfully pushing in the US and is bringing here this autumn with The Tempest, a Bermuda-themed, musical version of William Shakespeare’s play. On the stage will be the professional actors of Devil’s Isle Shakespeare Co, a venture Mr Miller launched in 2023 to “bring exceptional Shakespeare productions to Bermuda”.

“My founding principle for the company is that every Bermudian aged 18 and under should be able to see every single show that we produce for free, for ever,” he said. “I've also borrowed something from how Shakespeare operated, which was that his company was first called the Lord Chamberlain's Men and then called the King's Men, but in all iterations it was under a system of patronage where wealthy individuals and institutions were paying for this art to be created so that it could then be affordable and accessible to everybody.”

When Romeo and Juliet first took to the stage 400 years ago, the ticket price was one penny – the cost of a loaf of bread in Elizabethan England.

“A ticket price shouldn't be $60 or $80, which is really typical in today's professional theatre, but the truth is that's neither enough money to pay for the show nor is it affordable enough for average people to go to the theatre,” he said.

“It's not enough money to cover the cost, but it is enough money to keep a lot of people away.”

Stuck, he decided to ask “wealthy individuals and corporate partners to make philanthropic contributions” to help his plan bear fruit.

What got him going was his own experience.

In high school Mr Miller “struggled a lot” until he saw a live Shakespeare performance that gave him what he needed: “something to grasp on to and care about”.

“I instantly fell in love with Shakespeare, in performance specifically. I find the material to be incredibly delightful and visceral and engaging when it's performed live and my experience in working as an actor and director for the last 15 years has been that when young people can have that experience, or really any audience member, even people who think that they don't like or don't get Shakespeare, when they can have that immediate and visceral in-person experience, it's incredibly valuable and entertaining,” he said.

“Reading Shakespeare in school had not had that effect on me. I found reading his plays to be difficult and opaque and even boring and I think that a lot of high school students can probably relate to that experience, because the plays are not meant to be read; they were never published during Shakespeare's lifetime, they're meant to be performed by great actors and great directors and great designers.”

Séamus Miller of Devil’s Isle Shakespeare Co (Photograph supplied)

Mr Miller spent years acting on stage and then returned to school for a master's degree in Shakespeare performance.

“Around that time, I started shifting into directing. I was able to direct the first professional production in Washington DC after the Covid lockdown. That was an outdoor musical performance that I found to be truly cool and I could sense how much people missed being together as a community, enjoying a show as a group and not watching it on a screen. And that's informed a lot of my work since then.”

As he sees it, it is the antithesis to today’s “post-Covid, heavily digitised world”.

“Having these analogue in-person, community-based, accessible, imaginative experiences, is incredibly healthy and vital to the wellbeing of our whole society. I don't pretend to be competing with streaming services like Netflix. I say that we're providing a completely different product that solves a different problem and provides a different service to people.”

It is widely believed that Shakespeare based The Tempest on William Strachey’s report of the Sea Venture’s shipwreck on the island in 1609.

As such, for a Shakespearean company’s debut production here, it might seem the perfect choice. Mr Miller initially was not so sure.

“I had never loved the play or felt quite comfortable producing it because at the end there's all of this restitution and forgiveness of various characters and yet the fact that Prospero has just enslaved the island, or Caliban is left, went largely unaddressed and is not resolved. And that always felt deeply uncomfortable for me and not a story that I really felt like telling on the island,” he said.

“I really credit my writing partner and music director, Emily Erickson, who said to me: you know we can change the ending of the play, we can write musical numbers that tell a different story. Shakespeare is not going to show up and tell us not to.”

Anna Takayo as Juliet and Stephen Kime as Romeo in a production by Devil’s Isle Shakespeare Co which is bringing free shows to Bermuda for students this autumn (Photograph supplied)

Theirs is an adaptation that includes “about half of Shakespeare’s original text” and ten musical numbers that “make the show even more easy to understand”.

“It’s exciting and it’s funny,” Mr Miller said. “It also includes this new ending of the show in which the island is restored to Caliban and Ariel and the wrongs that have been done to them are incorporated and resolved. It challenges that colonial attitude that Shakespeare had. He was alive 400 years ago, he wrote this beautiful play about Bermuda but he had also never been here and he has no idea what it's like to live here in 2024. And so we've taken some liberties with the ending of the show to make it what I would call a joyful and complete production.”

The feedback – from people who have seen the tasters Mr Miller has put on here and from audiences in the US – “has been tremendous”.

“Everyone is really enthusiastic about this product. I think everybody agrees that there is a need,” he said.

“I see it all the time with students. When I'm directing Romeo and Juliet, for instance, they cheer for the sword fights and they get grossed out by the kissing. They yell at Romeo to not drink the poison because she's not really dead and it started to help me understand that [with an] excellent live performance, students and young people really care about these stories. They get really involved and engaged. And when I talk to teachers they frequently tell me that in reading the plays in class that is not at all their experience; that they really struggle to get students to understand, engage or enjoy Shakespeare's work on the page.”

Audience member Tori Richardson Jr, left, jumped onstage to portray the Apothecary who provides poison to Stephen Kime, playing Romeo, in Shakespeare’s classic (Photograph supplied)

For the pilot show, his plan is to construct a lightweight set in the US and bring it here for productions in parks and at schools. His hope is to have more Bermudians join the team, Quinceé Kaya Dill is already on board as Devil’s Isle’s artistic associate.

“In the future I would like to build the shows completely on the island. Ideally we would be using a mix of the most highly trained and experienced professionals from the US and the most talented, enthusiastic and engaged Bermudians who want to be part of the project, to create a show that is professional grade, and gives Bermudians an opportunity to act at a professional level.”

• Devil’s Isle Shakespeare Co is a registered non-profit in the US. Séamus Miller is in the process of having it become a registered charity here. For more information, visitwww.devils-isle.org, @devils_isle on Instagram or e-mail seamus@devils-isle.org

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Published May 31, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated June 01, 2024 at 8:12 am)

Free Shakespeare theatre for students, low-cost tickets for all

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