Scott Florence is a “Big Fool” — that is the artistic director of the local theatre group Company of Fools, which is Ottawa’s only independent professional Shakespeare company. Established in 1990, the Fools have become a mainstay on Ottawa’s arts scene with their annual productions at the NAC and around the city’s many parks each year by providing “innovative, entertaining and accessible shows.”
The bread and butter of your company seems to be fun takes on Shakespeare’s plays or Shakespeare-inspired original works. Why did you decide to bring whimsical, not-so-serious elements together with this now-immortal playwright?
We began working as a street theatre company, and our style evolved from the challenges of keeping people’s attention on the street. We needed to be fast, furious, a little loopy, a little improvisational, colourful and over the top to grab people’s attention and keep them from walking away.
While Shakespeare was no slouch when it came to writing, you guys are 20 years deep with the company, which means you’ve probably had to recycle some of his material. How do you keep things fresh?
Baking soda. Liberal sprinklings of baking soda. And Lime. You need a lot of lime to keep Shakespeare’s rotting body from stinking out the place.
What’s the biggest challenge to being Shakespeare-inspired? How about the best thing about it?
The biggest challenge is juggling Shakespeare’s language with the world of today, sidestepping the references and allusions that no longer have any cultural resonance, and ensuring that the vibrancy of the original work doesn’t get dimmed by the differences between his world and time, and ours.
The greatest reward is when people thank us for “translating the work into REAL English” — because of course, we haven’t altered Shakespeare’s text, we’ve just performed it in a way that transcends the barrier of words.
An Ottawa Citizen article I read about the company a little over a year ago described you as actors that “thrive on … insurgency.” Is that a fair description?
We burned down the Citizen office after they wrote that, and then continued our riot at Ikea. We were stealing all the allen keys thus rendering it impossible for anyone to put the furniture together, when the fiesty staff got us in a cross fire of those Swedish meatballs and we had to retreat and lick our wounds. Literally. We licked off the meatsauce. Best meal ever.
Each summer, the Fools perform the annual Shakespeare-in-the-park series, which has become quite popular. What’s been the most memorable audience from those events?
We’ve had over 300 different audiences of the Torchlight Shakespeare Series, and I think the most memorable audience was the 17th. Some of the more memorable moments from shows are always when the unexpected happens — like the time the squirrel fell out of the tree on top of an audience member and then ran like stink through the rest of the audience to get back to the tree. That was a show stopper.
You guys are strictly a professional group, meaning you all have theatre background. How do you bring new fools on board? How can the broader Ottawa community get involved if they harbour a Shakespeare passion?
We hold auditions every year for the Torchlight Shakespeare series, and all are welcome to audition. We also hold workshops in different styles — Shakespeare, Clown, Mask, Bouffon — that are open to all who want to fork over the money. People who want to make sure they know about these opportunities should either join the artist newsletter list on our webpage, or join our Facebook group.
How would you describe Ottawa’s arts scene overall? Any favourite people, groups, places or events our readers should keep the eyes peeled for?
The theatre scene in Ottawa is continuing to blossom. There’s so many exciting new companies on the scene, the number of available venues has increased, it’s a great time to be an actor in Ottawa. As for favourites, Margo MacDonald (co-founder of the Fools) has her piece “Shadows” at the GCTC Undercurrents Festival and if you haven’t seen it yet, you must! Also, MiCasa Theatre are rocking my world these days.
What would you say has been the best show you’ve put on to date? Has it also been your most popular?
I think the show we are most proud of recently is A Midwinter’s Dream Tale, which we performed at the Gladstone Theatre in 2009, and that we hope to remount and tour in the future. It was a lot of fun to perform and people really liked it.
You guys also offer elementary and high-school workshops. How do kids react to Shakespeare? (Flashbacks of awkward readings in English class come to mind …)
Shakespeare isn’t often a students favourite thing — the language is awkward, and the work is meant to be performed, not read, so it can be a real slog to read it. Plus the Shakespeare’s you tend to read in school are often chosen so that you can also talk about things besides the story — Merchant of Venice and Othello, so that you can deal with issues of race and religion. So not only do you have something that is hard to read, it’s also being used to have discussions that are hard to have.
Our approach is very fun, physical and kicks Shakespeare off his pedestal and down into the muck. We generally get a pretty good reaction to both our shows and workshops in schools.
My understanding is that the fools also hold down what I’m sure is less-fun day jobs. How much time goes into each season? Where and when do you practice?
All of the core members of the Fools are full-time artists, but we aren’t full-time Fools. We all do work with other companies, or work in other disciplines, or teach. We are almost all artist-managers as well, so when we aren’t working artistically either with the Fools or with another group, we’re doing the paperwork. Long hours, but the joy of performing is the reward.
As for where and when we practice, that always depends on the project we are working for. New creations we work on for longer, often in short bursts over a long period of time. We don’t have a fixed rehearsal hall or a fixed rehearsal model – we figure out what will work best for each show, and move forward in that way.
What’s coming up in 2011 for the Company of Fools?
We will be delivering sonnets on Valentine’s Day, hosting the Ottawa Theatre Challenge on March 26 at the NAC’s Fourth Stage, touring schools with Shakespeare’s Interactive Circus in April, animating at the Ottawa Children’s Festival in May. Our Torchlight Shakespeare production this summer is Antony and Cleopatra, directed by David Whitely. We are currently trying to put together tours of some of our other work for the fall of 2011 – and as soon as we have anything concrete to say, we’ll be telling the world!