We chatted to the actor about his project The Show Must Go Online, which weekly presents a Shakespeare play for online audiences.
Hi Rob, for those who aren’t aware how does The Show Must Go Online work? Every week, we live stream readings of Shakespeare’s plays in the order they were believed to have been written, every Wednesday night at 7pm BST on our YouTube channel. We do so using inclusive casts, combining a mix of experienced professionals, recent graduates and experienced amateurs from around the world, all donating their time and talent freely to entertain, and to introduce Shakespeare to new audiences in new ways. Consequently, it’s a 24/7 process for myself and my producing partner, Sarah Peachey. As soon as one show goes live, we’re onto creating the next.
Actors can sign up any time to express their interest in getting involved. Casting takes place on Fridays, rehearsals start Sunday, and by Wednesday, we have the show. Rehearsal is when we work out most of the business, set pieces or innovations we want to try out. This is a brand-new medium, and we are still exploring it week by week. Similarly, Shakespeare keeps switching genre, which enforces whole new approaches. It’s hard to believe Henry VI Part 1 is only our third show.
How did the idea for the project come about? I lost a gig for April on the crest of the wave, and I knew immediately that I was only the first of many. I didn’t realise quite how many at the time, but it soon became clear.I put out a tweet saying Sarah and I would like to start an online Shakespeare reading group, with the intention of doing a play a week, every week in the order they were thought to have been written. I had been inspired by a friend, Jon LeBillon, who had run a reading group for actors in London, a year or so ago. I was supported by friends Ed and Kay Guccione, who helped me set up an infrastructure to handle the data from the extraordinary interest.
Kate Morley PR offered to donate their time to support the venture. Then we were lucky enough to get Ben Crystal on board to introduce the first show – he’s now curating the intros, inviting guest speakers each week.We called it The Show Must Go Online.
This caught on like wildfire, and within a week, we had produced our first show – The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The actors were so enthusiastic and creative, it became much more than a reading. We were able to bring together a unified audience who are passionate about Shakespeare, from all around the world. We had 768 people watching live, and the stream had over 27,000 views in just a few days. It’s now over 36,000. The stories audience members have shared with us have been truly inspiring. During the live broadcast, we were watched live from across more than 25 countries, including the US and UK, Russia, Australia, Greece, Germany, Italy, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Malaysia, Belgium, Canada, Turkey, Hungary, Philippines, France, Bosnia, Holland, Estonia, Poland, Ireland, and Sweden.
Could you tell me more about how often people can catch the plays and where they can watch them? The plays are every Wednesday at 7pm BST on YouTube. They can subscribe to my channel (Rob Myles), and click the ‘bell’ on each video to receive a reminder. Next up is Henry VI Part III. Actors and theatre makers who want to take part can also sign up for email updates by hitting “Take Part” on the homepage and filling out the form as a participant.Viewers can also fill out the form to become a part of our growing Groundlings mailing list.
Do you have a personal favourite Shakespeare play that you enjoy watching? This jumps around a lot – often it’s whichever I’ve done most recently, which means now I have a new favourite every week! Julius Caesar is one I frequently return to, and I’ve done Midsummer Night’s Dream many times now, so that has to be up there too. Macbeth is a play that is genuinely cursed for me – I’ve been cast as the lead twice in productions that haven’t gone ahead. One day!
For those who are perhaps not so familiar with Shakespeare’s work for a variety of reasons – is there a particular good place to start? Ben Crystal’s book “Shakespeare on Toast” is a fantastic, accessible primer for people who are considering dipping their toe in the water for the first time. I firmly believe Shakespeare is for everyone – it was written for the groundlings as much as it was for Queen Elizabeth and later, King James. Consequently, we make our shows as accessible as possible – we have Character names on screen, so it’s really easy to keep track, and the medium forces a simplicity on the delivery that makes understanding much easier.
Similarly, our groundlings (those who join in on the live chat feature) are amazing for filling in blanks, offering trivia, discussing elements of the play as it’s happening – as we imagine would’ve happened during the rowdier Elizabethan and Jacobean eras of theatre.
Why should people consider tuning into The Show Must Go Online? It’s a time, once a week, for people to come together and share stories together, live and in the moment with both actors and audience. This has been a fundamental part of what it means to be human since the dawn of civilisation, and in the current situation, it’s especially precious. It’s fun, accessible Shakespeare that gives people a truly live experience – there’s a rawness and sense of anarchy that comes from the fact we only run the play for the first time on the day. The excitement is palpable.
Similarly, this medium enforces a focus on the words, and lets you get closer to actors than you ever could in the theatre. Audiences have said they’ve understood new things in plays for the first time as a result of watching in this format.
We have global casts which otherwise would never get to work together, and we aim for 50/50 casting across gender, as well as striving to include under-represented groups in theatre. This week, we had a female Talbot, who was incredible and an audience favourite, and likely wouldn’t have had the chance to play that part otherwise.
The live chat is also very popular – with audiences asking and answering questions, playing games along with the play, and reacting to their favourite moments. It’s a true ‘groundling’ experience, where the Elizabethan audience may well have talked during the show.
The resourcefulness and ingenuity of our casts, creating moments the audience love, bring something fresh each week. We’ve done three large shows already and only one person in a cast has been repeated so far, meaning you have fresh takes on the format each time.
All put together, it’s a weekly viewing experience that offers something totally different from other online theatre offerings, and what’s more, you might just find you enjoy some Shakespeare!
By Emma Clarendon