Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Tongues in Trees

Dawn Matheson
Dawn Matheson

Link to Catalogue Essay

Link to Action Read Guelph

Link to Guelph Social Justice

 

Audio Clips:

"To be or not to be..." Hamlet (Act III, scene 1) Shawn Turner

"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks..." Romeo and Juliet (Act II, scene 2) Kendra Dewar

"The quality of mery..." The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, scene 1) Kathryn Ssedoga

"Speak the speech, I pray you..." Hamlet (Act III, scene 2) Kathryn Ssedoga

"All the world's a stage..." As You Like It (Act II, scene 7) Deborah Murray

"Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo..." Romeo and Juliet (Act II, scene 2) Richard Dankert

"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows..." A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act II, sene 2) Cheryl Turner

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends..."  Henry V (Act III, scene 1) Andrew Saunders

 

Video Clips:

Video Interview with Dawn Matheson Conducted by Guelph Social Justice

Video Interview with Cheryl Turner Conducted by Guelph Social Justice

Video Interview with Shawn Turner Conducted by Guelph Social Justice

Video Interview with Andrew Saunders Conducted by Guelph Social Justice

 

Dawn Matheson is a multimedia artist and writer living in Guelph. Her exhibit, Tongues in Trees, was an outdoor installation at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre as a part of the Shakespeare- Made in Canada Festival. The evolution of the Tongues in Trees exhibit stems from Matheson’s interest in interventionist art and unexpected expression, for which she wanted to aesthetically combine nature and the “oh-so-famous words” of Shakespeare (Shakespeare-Made in Canada Catalogue, 43). Her initial hope was to employ Stratford Festival actors; voices filled with great eloquence and poise to speak out monologues to unsuspecting visitors passing through the Donald Forster Sculpture Park. However, royalties and cost restraints proved this initial idea impossible. Fortune intervened when Matheson volunteered at a poetry reading that included adult literacy learners from Action Read Guelph and was inspired by the voices speaking their own words and those of famous poets.

Cheryle Turner Andrew Saunders
Cheryl Turner Andrew Saunders

The idea of “exploring Shakespeare with people who are not professional actors or academics or whoever we usually associate Shakespeare with” was an appealing one (Dawn Matheson, Guelph Social Justice interview). Matheson cites the historical precedent of Shakespeare’s work, his personal motives, and symbolism as reasons for this. In the Elizabethan time period everyone could go to the theatre, the balconies of the theatres were reserved for the upper classes and aristocracy, while the “groundlings” stood in front of the stage. These groundings were commoners, often people with limited education and monetary resources who were illiterate. Despite this, Shakespeare appealed to all audiences, one of the reasons was that “Shakespeare used to be for everyone … he wrote in a way that everyone could understand” (Dawn Matheson). But in the modern day Shakespeare has become an icon of high culture, and the difficulty of the vernacular language has imposed an interpretation that the Bard is for “the learned, the cultured and the upper class” (Catalogue 44). Nonetheless, Matheson contends that Shakespeare “can be for anybody, who can just connect to that life experience and human struggle” (Dawn Matheson). The challenge of making this connection brought her to the adult learners at Action Read, and also made her confront Shakespeare’s status as icon of high culture pishing Matheson to reinvent Shakespeare as “an artist of and for Everyman, Everywoman” (Catalogue 44).

Deborah Murray Kathryn Ssedoga
Deborah Murray Kathryn Ssedoga

The seven performers used in the final project struggle with literacy challenges due to learning disabilities and/or limited access to education because of troubled or low-income histories. 23% of adults in Wellington County have difficulty reading at a basic level (Action Read Guelph), and this group was representative of many of the challenges that face adult learners. Each participant in the Tongues in Trees project embraced a Shakespearian monologue that appealed to their lives, and to their own personal struggles and battles, and then spoke them in their own unique way. To create the piece Matheson selected fifteen well-known monologues and “boiled them down to their basic modes of expression.” She would ask questions and find connections and new adjectives to describe the mindset of the character in question. Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, for instance, boiled down to “should I commit suicide or not?” Matheson increasingly found that with each exploration of the monologues the participants responded with the sentiment, “been there, got through that” (Catalogue 44-47).

Kendra Dewar Richard Dankert
Kendra Dewar Richard Dankert

Matheson cites the success of the participants to Shakespeare’s obsession with exploring the human condition, as “we all have the same access to suffering or human experience” despite differences in background, education, and class (Dawn Matheson). Only two of the participants had any experience with Shakespeare previously, one from family, and the other from Star Trek. One reason for this is that Shakespeare is often not taught in Special Ed classes, which further propagates the idea that only the well-educated can properly relate to Shakespeare’s works.

Shawn Turner
Shawn Turner

One participant, Andrew Saunders stated in an interview, “When I was in high school I never got the chance to read Shakespeare and I always wanted to … I would have like to have had Shakespeare because it would have broadened my mind … I would have understood life better, basically” (Andrew Saunders, Guelph Social Justice Interview). The venue of the installation also corresponded with Matheson’s interest in accessibility: she states, “Who goes inside a gallery on campus? The converted, the expected.” Rather, Matheson wanted to diminish the barriers between the literary arts and those usually not associated with supposed ‘high’ culture (Dawn Matheson) by placing speakers high in trees with sensors that detected the arrival of a gallery goer, then triggered, at random, one of the performances by her troupe of adult learners. The combination of the venue (taking Shakespeare to the trees) and of performers (taking Shakespeare to the streets) proved a powerful combination, and is a poignant reflection on the arbitrariness of designations that separate people from each other across different and diverse communities.

Matheson’s adaptation is exceptional and significant as it explores issues of accessibility and ownership of the most renowned writer of the English language. Rather, than adhering to the modern, classist and superior notion of Shakespeare as reserved for elite audiences, Tongues in Trees pares Shakespearean texts down to a level of “open expression, raw life, [and] human experience” that is available and understood by all people regardless of class, educational standing, or ability (Dawn Matheson).

Danielle Van Wagner

 

Link to Catalogue Essay

Link to Action Read Guelph

Link to Guelph Social Justice

 

Audio Clips:

"To be or not to be..." Hamlet (Act III, scene 1) Shawn Turner

"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks..." Romeo and Juliet (Act II, scene 2) Kendra Dewar

"The quality of mery..." The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, scene 1) Kathryn Ssedoga

"Speak the speech, I pray you..." Hamlet (Act III, scene 2) Kathryn Ssedoga

"All the world's a stage..." As You Like It (Act II, scene 7) Deborah Murray

"Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo..." Romeo and Juliet (Act II, scene 2) Richard Dankert

"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows..." A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act II, sene 2) Cheryl Turner

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends..."  Henry V (Act III, scene 1) Andrew Saunders

 

Video Clips:

Video Interview with Dawn Matheson Conducted by Guelph Social Justice

Video Interview with Cheryl Turner Conducted by Guelph Social Justice

Video Interview with Shawn Turner Conducted by Guelph Social Justice

Video Interview with Andrew Saunders Conducted by Guelph Social Justice

 


 

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