Stage Door News

Stratford: Rebecca Northan’s troupe Spontaneous Theatre presents “Undiscovered Sonnets” online

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The world premiere of her latest improvised theatre experience, An Undiscovered Shakespeare, was put on hold last year, but that doesn’t mean actor and director Rebecca Northan’s critically acclaimed spontaneity is getting rusty.

On the contrary, Northan and her collaborators at Spontaneous Theatre have been flexing their improv muscles by finding pandemic-friendly ways to keep busy, including Sidewalk Scenes, the series of outdoor shows fans in Stratford may have seen from the safety of their front porches this past summer. 

Next week, the Stratford Festival will unveil another of Northan’s pandemic projects, Undiscovered Sonnets, a spin-off of the completely improvised Shakespeare-inspired plays she was expecting to perform on stage in 2020.

The concept is similar. A couple shares with Northan the origin story of their relationship, but instead of a five-act play performed in iambic pentameter, cast members of An Undiscovered Shakespeare – Raoul Bhaneja, Ashley Botting, Ijeoma Emesowum, Bruce Horak, Kevin Kruchkywich, Ellis Lalonde and Lee Smart – challenge each other to come up with a Shakespearean sonnet for the pair on the spot.

“Our thesis going into it is that every love story deserves a sonnet,” Northan said. “The stuff of poetry, the things that we raise up, don’t have to be these giant epic adventurous love stories. What we each experience in our own lives is enough inspiration for something beautiful and artistic.”

The idea follows in the footsteps of Northan’s other work. Much like her most well-known production, Blind Date, there’s an exploration of love through the real-life experiences of the audience members participating, which she expertly teases out in a way that’s both entertaining and relatable.

“I’m always moved by non-performers being willing to share their own truths,” Northan said. “I love hearing everybody’s story. How did you meet? How did you fall in love? Were there any obstacles? How did you overcome them? These are all universal things that, whether you’re single or whether you’re in a couple, you can hear these stories and go, ‘Oh I have an experience (like) that.’ That, in the middle of a pandemic, makes us feel less alone.”

The biggest difference is Undiscovered Sonnets is pre-recorded. Northan explained the couples involved were approached by the Stratford Festival and, after they agreed to participate, the experience, which she hosts, was organized via videoconference with three other cast members.

The format was challenging, Northan said, “but we did assign ourselves the task of, OK, let’s really push to keep this as improvised as possible.”

“We really tried to capture things in real time so that if there were happy accidents, we included those in what ends up on screen,” she said.

The first episode of the show debuts on the Festival’s YouTube channel Jan. 28 and continues on a double bill with another new Festival production, Up Close and Musical, nearly every Thursday until April.

Antoni Cimolino, the Festival’s artistic director, described Undiscovered Sonnets as “really powerful.”

“It’s funny, the power of these pieces is, in part, not just because of the entertainment – the joy of watching people come up with Shakespearean lines on their own in real time – but also because of what you find out about people,” he said. “I knew it would be entertaining, I suspected it would be stimulating, but what I didn’t expect would be how moving many of these (sonnets would be) because you find out about people and their relationships and those moments when their lives changed.”

An Undiscovered Shakespeare, which is still expected to be staged at some point in the future, was supposed to offer a unique element to last year’s lineup, but Cimolino and others at the Festival have since been doing much more improvising than they imagined.

Part of their response to the pandemic has been the free online viewing parties Undiscovered Sonnets will be a part of. The weekly series, which this year will feature three past Shakespeare productions, resumes Thursday with 2019’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

More digital content from 10 other artists is also in the works for the spring, Cimolino said. 

By then, the Festival will be ready to unveil more plans for 2021, including outdoor productions organizers hope will be flexible enough to fall into whatever public-health protocols are in place this summer.

“We feel that being able to be outdoors will give us the best possibility of staying viable,” Cimolino said. “We feel that it’ll give us the best chance of being able to actually see the performances through and having people attend and feeling confident in attending.”

By Chris Montanini for

Photo: Rebecca Northan.