"Improvisation is completely alive, completely responsive. There's honesty, a sense of permission and relief."
Both photos courtesy of Rebecca Northan
At the height of the pandemic three years ago, I had the opportunity to Zoom with actor and improvisation artist Rebecca Northan. You can find our conversation link here:
Fast forward three years and our conversation continued.
She’s a busy lady but enjoying every second of it. Rebecca has just closed ‘The Applecart’ and ‘The Game of Love and Chance’ at the Shaw Festival.
What else is coming up for her?
Not in performance since the pandemic, ‘Blind Date’ returns to Regina’s Globe Theatre on October 18. ‘GOBLIN: MACBETH’ opens October 14 in the Studio Theatre at the Stratford Festival. She will write and direct JACK: A BEANSTALK PANTO this holiday season, which opens November 24 and runs to December
23 at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope.
Northan calls GOBLIN: MACBETH a very new show. It has never been performed in Ontario. It was developed in 2022 for The Shakespeare Company in Calgary and described on its website as: “[a] theatrical experience not soon to be forgotten. It is a three-hander, mash-up [whereby] audiences are brought to the edge of the seat for a ‘spontaneous theatre’ experience.” At Stratford, the show features musician Ellis Lalonde, Northan, and Bruce Horak, her creative partner, who have all performed the show out in western Canada. Northan and Horak have been making shows for over thirty years.
What’s the ‘mini story’ behind ‘GOBLIN: MACBETH? These creatures have found a copy of ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ and have read it cover to cover. They wonder who this Shakespeare guy is as he knows a lot about witches, fairies, goblins, and monsters.
If the Goblins try to do theatre (and they’re unconvinced it’s a good idea, but they’ll try), they may understand more about humans. They chose ‘Macbeth’ because it’s the shortest.
Rebecca and I agreed the Scottish play is terrific for high school students as they seem to love the witches, blood, gore, and murder. She even goes as far as to call it one of our perfect plays:
“It’s got everything. It’s dark, scary, sensational. There’s something watching the train wreck of blind ambition.”
As a retired teacher, I know the importance of getting kids to like Shakespeare. What better way to do that than to take them to a live production?
Rebecca stated that she, Horak and Lalonde have performed ‘GOBLIN’ for student matinees in Calgary and at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach. She compares performing for students to a rock concert. Rebecca and Bruce adore Shakespeare and remain respectfully faithful to Macbeth’s text. However, the two come from an improvisation background.
Along with Lalonde, according to Rebecca, the three of them have ‘an internal permission’ to break out of the text at any time if something occurs to them. They can do this if that improv moment highlights something in the play, is directly related to it, or what’s happening in the audience at any given time. As actors, they are responsive to what’s happening in the room.
Young people at student matinees don’t know what to expect; however, combined with the appearance of the Goblins and all the ensuing hijinks that follow, the students all wonder what this play is they’re watching.
“That’s how we won them over,” Rebecca stated with an accomplished tone.
I’m sure what the three of them accomplish for the student shows also applies to the other performances.
Three words came to mind when I saw the Bard on the Beach trailer for ‘GOBLIN’ – creepy, eerie, but fascinating.
Northan loved these three descriptors and said they’re apt for the production.
What caught my eye immediately in the trailer was the Goblin mask she, Lalonde and Horak wear. These single silicone headpieces, which fit snugly to the face, are made by ‘Composite Effects’ in the States. The picture above next to Northan's headshot shows the three actors in costume.
There is some articulation for the three actors, and the masks move slightly. For Rebecca, these headpieces are: ‘wearable works of art. There are veins in the headpiece and depth to them. They’re quite remarkable.”
What is it about improvisation in GOBLIN and in the upcoming holiday panto for Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre that makes for great theatre?
“It’s completely alive, completely responsive. There’s honesty, a sense of permission and relief. Improv lets the audience know they’re seen. I think, especially after two years of the pandemic (which we say is over, but it’s not), of being disconnected to having an experience where the performers see you and connect with you is so essential. It is the thing that live theatre can offer that nothing on your laptop or streaming device can…this modern notion of improv being a separate practice has never made any sense to me because there’s been improvisation in the theatre as long as there has been theatre.”
With a wink and a twinkle in her eye, Northan says misbehaviour and it being in the best way is the hallmark of the work she does constantly. Misbehaviour is something our world needs right now.
Once ‘Goblin’ concludes its run at Stratford, Northan is off to Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre to write and direct the Christmas/holiday fairy tale panto. She’s always loved fairy tale storytelling and listening to many accounts. She mentioned she heard a CBC broadcast that the ‘Disneyfication’ of fairytales has done a disservice as they serve to warn listeners of the dangers out there in the world but not to shut ourselves from it.
Rebecca is looking forward to the experience. Although she’s never performed at the Capitol, she has known the Artistic Director, Rob Kempson, for over 15 years and says he’s terrific. (Side note: I agree, too). She’s excited that Rob trusts her and gives her free reign to prepare. Kempson is also a wonderful dramaturg and has given her excellent notes on the script so far. She’s written the Naughty version already. The Family version will simply have the mature references removed.
Kempson told Rebecca that tickets to the Naughty Panto outsell the family version. She is utterly fascinated by the fact there is this hunger for naughty fairy tales. She says it’s not dissimilar to GOBLIN in that audiences want something familiar with a twist on it. It does something for us as audiences.
The first panto I saw at the Capitol was rather adult in nature. A cast member carried out a particular adult toy without going into specific details.
Rebecca’s version will not be that ‘adult-naughty.’
She and Rob have had some conversations already. Rebecca proudly states she is a storyteller first and foremost. She has to make a good play that will tell the story of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK – a pretty thin narrative – so what can she do to augment it? Then the jokes can come. Northan is more interested in naughty, cheeky double-entendres than overt dirtiness for the sake of dirtiness. The latter is of no interest to her at all.
She describes the adult text as ‘flirting with the line’ while still telling a story. There’s nothing more satisfying than great double entendres. The line can be very innocent, and what the audience brings to it makes the double entendres. That’s an extraordinary meeting between the playwright, performer, and audience.
‘Blind Date’s’ performance runs at the same time as at the Stratford Festival. Although Rebecca is delighted it’s back, the play is still dangerous. A stranger will be brought up on stage each night and made the star of the show with the hope this person does not have Covid since the setting is a small space. Because ‘Blind Date’ exists in the present moment, it’s growing and changing, and Rebecca is thrilled the script continues evolving.
“As it should be,” she quickly adds. The play is always for sale anytime, and anyone can book it.
What’s next for the artist after the panto concludes at the end of December?
She and Bruce Horak have been commissioned to create GOBLIN: OEDIPUS for the High Performance Rodeo put on by One Yellow Rabbit in Calgary. That’s happening in January/February 2024. Northan and Horak are also waiting to hear about some grants if GOBLIN: MACBETH goes to Edmonton. She’s also directing Shakespeare’s ‘Comedy of Errors’ at Bard on the Beach in the summer of 2024.
To learn more about GOBLIN: MACBETH, visit stratfordfestival.com. To learn more about Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre, visit capitoltheatre.com. To learn more about ‘Blind Date’ at Regina’s Globe Theatre, visit globletheatrelive.com.