By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Some time before the end of the month, it will happen. You’ll be in a park. Or a community playground. At a farmer’s market. Or chilling on a front deck. And suddenly, a little troupe of actor/musicians will pop up. They’ll sing songs, play instruments, tell jokes, do scenes from Shakespeare, taking their cue from the travelling players of the Bard’s own time.
They’re the Free Willies, a trio of young triple-threat troubadours presented under the joint flag of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and Thou Art Here, the latter a “site-sympathetic” company dedicated to bringing Shakespeare to wherever you are. And in a series of 20-minute pop-up shows, the Free Willies mission is to raise your spirits, festival-deprived fellow citizens, while following all the COVID safety rules. It’s not your money they’re after, it’s your smiles.
“Think of it as a late-summer dessert, an ice cream cone of a show,” says Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s new artistic director Dave Horak. “Something fun and light” for a heavy time. And something live for a time of screen images.
The three 20something up-and-comers in The Free Willies — Jameela McNeil, Chariz Fulmino, and Billy Brown — “play versions of themselves,” says Horak. The spirit is cheeky; they take material from Thou Art Here’s larky Shakespeare puppet shows, which co-opt contemporary songs for Shakespearean purposes. I Will Survive, for example, turns out to be about Hamlet. Who knew? Taylor Swift’s Fifteen is a Romeo and Juliet interpretation. The cabaret variety is a collaborative effort that owes much to Thou Art Here’s Alyson Dicey, says Horak.
There’s even a song to works in the scrupulous COVID safely protocols in physical distancing and masks: “these are a few of my favourite things,” borrowed from The Sound of Music. The free Willies perform in face shields (better acoustically than masks), and they travel with a wagon equipped with an amplifier and speakers.
Since the 2020 Freewill Shakespeare Festival was delayed by a year (Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing won’t open in Hawrelak Park till June 15, 2021), the company was looking for an outdoor theatrical experience in the meantime, something to tickle both aficionados and those who are “a wee bit Shakespeare-curious,” as Horak puts it.
The Free Willies rehearsed in Horak’s garage, much to the enjoyment of his neighbours. Which says something about the classic showbiz impetus of the whole enterprise; you know, ‘my dad has a barn; we have a flashlight; let’s put on a show!’.
There’s already been a lot of interest, Horak reports. Which means he’s up against an unusual theatrical problem: how to not attract a bigger crowd. That’s why the locations aren’t announced till an hour or two before showtime. Look for them on the Freewill and Thou Art Here social media feeds: @FreewillPlayers and @ThouArtHere.