Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
Learn more about Voltaire!The Sanders Portrait

Spotlight


Slings & Arrows

 

Slings & Arrows screen shot

 

Slings & Arrows Interviews
Slings & Arrows Multimedia
Slings & Arrows Reviews and Reception

Slings & Arrows Teachers' Guides

CASP database entries:

Season I

Season II
Season III


 

Richard: Shakespeare's like...

Holly Day (Jennier Irwin) and Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney)

Video clip – Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) and Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) discuss Shakespeare's appeal after a trip to see Mamma Mia in Toronto.
You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

Holly:      Four hundred years old!

Richard: And I don't even think he was that good! There. I said it... I mean, at entertaining people.  I'm not saying that, like, ABBA were better writers.

Holly:      No, no, no -- I know what you mean.

Richard: I don't like Shakespeare.

Holly:     Nobody does, Richard! That's the thing -- you put on plays that nobody wants to see. God, what a waste!

Richard: You're right.

 

 


Welcome to the second spotlight on the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) website.
These spotlights intend to focus our research on a genre, community or trend within the field of adaptations of Shakespeare.  Our first spotlight focused on adaptations of Shakespeare by and about Canada’s First Nations people, and it continues to grow as we collect more material and information.  Instead of focusing on the ways that a cultural community adapts Shakespeare, the CASP spotlight on Slings & Arrows focuses on a project that adapts Shakespeare and Canadian theatre to television.  Produced by Rhombus Media, Slings & Arrows takes television adaptations of Shakespeare and theatre in new critical and creative directions.  CASP has archived other television and film takes on the Bard including the sketch comedy of Wayne and Shuster, Air Farce, and History Bites as well as the feature length Hamlet adaptation Strange Brew.  Each of these distinctly Canadian adaptations is highly comedic, and takes advantage of our national familiarity and sometimes reverence for Shakespeare. While grounded in comedy and satire, Slings & Arrows is also a clever vehicle for cultural commentary and broad critique of theatre culture, arts funding, and national identity.

Slings & Arrows tells the story of the New Burbage Shakespearean Festival. Following the death of long time Artistic Director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) New Burbage is thrown into a confusion that intensifies when Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) arrives to fill in until a new Artistic Director can be found. Each season of Slings & Arrows is built upon the narrative structure of one of Shakespeare’s central tragedies. Season one finds New Burbage under the questionable direction of Geoffrey Tennant who is regularly visited by the ghost of Oliver Welles. This Hamlet-like dynamic off stage mirrors the troubled Hamlet in rehearsal onstage. Season two centres on rehearsals of Macbeth with the drama of the Scottish play seeping into the boardroom as a patron revolt threatens to leave New Burbage a kind of Theatre Sans Argent. The soon to be released third Season completes the trilogy with William Hutt as King Lear on stage and promises a tragic ending for a television audience used to the hopeful outlook of those who populate New Burbage. The adaptation of these three tragedies makes for three seasons of witty parody that are critical of the state of Canadian theatrical practice while at the same time honouring Shakespeare’s place as a great maker or marker of meaning in Canada.

Adaptations of Shakespeare form a significant body of cultural production in Canada. These adaptations offer readings of society almost as diverse as the experiences of the people who call Canada home. The Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) has documented nearly 500 of these adaptive works, and this website seeks to highlight the way these adaptations of Shakespeare are used as one medium for dialogue between the many distinct parts of Canadian culture. Slings & Arrows makes public the behind-the-scenes drama of a national Shakespearean theatre festival in rural Ontario, and scrutinizes a corporate model of Shakespearean theatre in Canada (to great comedic effect). Described by some as just another workplace drama, CASP is interested in this series for its often-critical look at the world of Canadian theatre. We are also interested in the way it manages a merger between classical theatre and popular television. The success of this kind of project could have great implications for a public understanding of Canada’s national, multicultural theatrical practice.

The dissemination of the series through the popular medium of television is also of great interest –– Slings & Arrows reaches a significant audience through the various television windows in which it is shown (the Sundance Channel and the Movie Network, for example) and this widens the play of Canadian-made meaning that circulates through popular culture. That the series focuses on Shakespearean theatre in Canada is already daring enough.  The high quality of the writing and acting in the series reinforce powerful associations that link Canadian with Shakespearean cultures at a level of cultural dissemination perhaps not seen before.

The adaptation at work on the set of Slings & Arrows is three-fold:  It involves the practice of classical theatre re-imagined for television, Shakespearean narrative and theme transported to a modern workplace drama, and Canadian high culture jammed into a pop culture medium. In adapting classical theatre for television, Slings makes public and possibly popular a mode of cultural production that has traditionally been reserved for elite audiences at the Stratford Festival, the National Arts Centre, Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and the like. It is interesting to note, however, that while television might democratize access to representations (and celebrations?) of classical theatre, Slings & Arrows is only available through specialty subscription channels.

Development of this series was initially in partnership with CBC Television. However, when the CBC decided not to add Slings to their broadcast schedule the producers were free or forced to shop around. How differently might this series function in the Canadian cultural landscape if it were accessible through the national public broadcaster?  What about Slings did the CBC feel was not worthwhile or appropriate for broadcast to Canadians?  One answer to this last question may come from a look at the kind of theatre and the kind of Shakespeare CBC has presented in the past.

In the 1980s, CBC produced a series of films documenting Shakespearean productions at the Stratford Festival. Before this, CBC had a long tradition of producing Shakespearean works on radio and television. These live productions played a major role in Canada’s early theatre training. All of this production at the CBC, however, preserves the classical, high cultural status of Shakespeare. In comparison, Slings & Arrows stages moments of classical theatre on screen while at the same time introducing clever and incisive critiques of Canadian high theatre culture.

As well as functioning as a critique of high theatre culture in Canada, Slings dramatizes the contrast of independent theatre in Canada, and the problems facing artists engaged in the production of ‘low’ or fringe culture theatre. Episode one of the first season opens with Geoffrey Tennant as Artistic Director of Theatre Sans Argent (Theatre Without Money) struggling to mount a production of The Tempest while evading the landlord, the phone company, and wrestling with a plugged toilet. That the series opens with this scene and not one at New Burbage may show that the creative team behind Slings & Arrows does not place major cultural institutions at the centre of Canada’s theatrical universe (they may, however, put Shakespeare near the centre:  while critical of funding structures, Slings does place Shakespeare in both spaces). Indeed, Slings steps back even further for a global perspective in the same episode when Nahum, the Nigerian security guard at New Burbage, tells Oliver Welles about the danger he faced directing Ken Saro-Wiwa’s The Wheel in Nigeria:

Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) and Nahum (Rothaford Gray) on opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

Video clip – Season 1, Episode 1 “Oliver’s Dream”
Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) and Nahum (Rothaford Gray) on opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

This moment between Oliver and Nahum backstage on opening night is one of several moments where the series can be marked as distinctly Canadian. Not only for references to hockey and for the recognizable logo on the news reporter’s microphone, but also for an attempt at representing a (multicultural) diversity of experience. With his former life as a theatre director in Nigeria, Nahum's current status as a security guard at the New Burbage Shakespearean Festival mirrors the devaluation of one’s knowledge that can accompany immigration into Canada’s multicultural society. These moments of cultural critique are injected into Slings as apparent sidelines, but they are also important moments for understanding how cultural production functions in Canada. The perceived reality seems to be that Shakespeare will always fill the theatre on opening night while Wiwa’s The Wheel would not. It would seem that the same is true for television; perhaps a series about a Shakespearean theatre festival will please certain critics and audiences, while one that focuses on other, less dominant, voices would not.

Graham Harley

 

Video clip – Interview with Graham Harley where he discusses issues of diversity and stereotypes in Slings & Arrows.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

 

 

The implications of the use of Shakespearean theatre as a staging ground for this series clearly places Slings & Arrows beyond a simple workplace drama as some have suggested. Slings honours a particular brand of Shakespeare in the series that fits with a traditional approach to the classics. It is interesting to note, for example, that in both seasons one and two, Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) faces massive resistance to his pyrotechnic Hamlet and later for his Barthes-inspired Romeo and Juliet. It would appear that the author here (Shakespeare) is far from dead, still imagined as the teller of universal truths about the human condition.  

Darren Nichols (Don McKeller) introducing his vision for the Barthe-inspired Romeo and Juliet.

 

Video clip – Season 2, Episode 4 “Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair”
Darren Nichols (Don McKeller) introducing his vision for the Barthes-inspiredRomeo and Juliet.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

As well as focusing on Shakespearean text in performance as part of the series, the thematic parallels between the Slings plot line and Shakespearean ones push the series beyond a generic sit-com. One example of this occurs as the curtain falls on the closing night of Hamlet at the beginning of season two. The appearance backstage of an old woman, played strikingly by the iconic Jackie Burroughs, recalls Macbeth’s first vision of the weird sisters at the edge of the battle. Moira’s prophecy that Geoffrey Tennant will direct Macbeth in the coming season haunts him until the prophecy is realized.

Moira (Jackie Burroughs) appears on closing night of Hamlet, recalling Macbeth’s first vision of the weird sisters at the edge of the battle.

 

Video clip – Season 2, Episode 1 “Season’s End”
Moira (Jackie Burroughs) appears on closing night of Hamlet, recalling Macbeth’s first vision of the weird sisters at the edge of the battle.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 


Geoffrey Tennant’s Macbeth in performance.

 

Video clip – Season 2, Episode 6 “Birnam Wood”
The prophecy that Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) will direct Macbeth in the coming season haunts him until the prophecy is realized. This scene presents Tennant’s Macbeth in performance.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

Another example of a parallel plot line is in the constant presence of the ghost of Oliver Welles in conversation with Geoffrey Tennant. The madness of Geoffrey’s ongoing one-sided conversation is alarming to Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns). This mirrors the concern expressed by Gertrude towards Hamlet and makes the episode as a whole, and season one especially, an allusion to, if not an outright adaptation of, Hamlet. These parallels are recognizable to certain audiences, and they invite the audience into a dialogue with the producers of the series as people who are able to communicate with or though Shakespeare’s text:  Knowing Macbeth or Hamlet become marks of belonging to an educated and possibly elite social class. At the same time, to not recognize these moments leaves the audience outside of dominant discourse. This same process of Shakespeare marking those who belong and those who are on the outside can be seen on television shows like South Park and Air Farce and in films like Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, and Strange Brew. These cultural products use Shakespeare to tell their story, and each depends on the viewer to recognize and engage for the message to be wholly received.   

Slings & Arrows seems to mark Canadian theatre as an important part of how we know ourselves. As our national institutions work to disseminate a way of being Canadian, Shakespearean theatre festivals cannot help being implicated in this production of identity. All modes of cultural production participate in expressing identity whether or not that is their explicit goal. Whether it’s Shakespeare or Québécois playwright Michel Tremblay – whether a classic text presented as a cultural artifact or a new play witnessing current shifts in Canadian identity – there is an effect.

The trouble with this recognition is that these institutions are not simply benevolent caretakers of our cultural production. Theatres, museums, and galleries depend on funding sources which include Government grants and corporate sponsors. The influence these sources of funding can wield is great, and the work to reduce dependency on outside funding is a constant activity. This fact does not escape the creators of Slings. In the series, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) is General Manager of the New Burbage Shakespearean Festival. His constant hunt for funding is set against the financial state of Theatre Sans Argent. Smith-Jones leads the administration of a classical theatre dependant on government and corporate infrastructure. The madness of Smith-Jones is fueled by grant writing and corporate begging, on which the infrastructure of New Burbage and similar institutions depend. In season two, Smith-Jones saves New Burbage from their funding crisis by tailoring his grant application to a fund that requires that the Festival re-brand.  The ability of sponsors to direct how funding will be spent is a dangerous test of the autonomy of institutions like New Burbage.

 

Susan Coyne and Mark McKinney

Video clip – Season 2, Episode 2 “Fallow Time”
Anna Conroy (Susan Coyne) suggests that Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) apply for a government grant from the "Cultural Initiatives Fund."

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

 

If viewers of Slings & Arrows agree to see New Burbage as Stratford-like, then Slings becomes a real-time “state of the union” address exploring the state of the Canadian theatre/culture industry. In episode one of the first season, attention is drawn towards the state of independent theatre when Theatre Sans Argent faces eviction as they work to put up a production of The Tempest. This attention then shifts to the New Burbage Shakespearean Festival with its multi-million dollar budget woes and artistic struggles over bleating or silent sheep. Oliver Welles settles on the bleats.

Tension over the failing artistic leadership of Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is illustrated in rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

Video clip – Season 1, Episode 1 “Oliver’s Dream”
Tension over the failing artistic leadership of Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is illustrated in rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

 

With the arrival of Geoffrey Tennant, independent theatre meets national theatre and the possibility of a working balance between artistic integrity and fiscal responsibility is offered. Slings & Arrows presents an inspired artistic force at the helm of a national theatre as if to say this meeting is workable. Enter Soulpepper Theatre. While many of the stage actors who populate this television drama might call Soulpepper their home away from Stratford, Susan Coyne is critical of the observation that Slings is positioning Soulpepper as an answer to artistic concerns at Stratford. However, this reading is compelling when Albert Shultz, Artistic Director of Soulpepper, speaks at the memorial of Oliver Welles.

A reading of Slings & Arrows as a critique of the Stratford Festival is furthered as Albert Shultz (Soulpepper) speaks at the memorial of Oliver Welles.

 

Video clip – Season 1, Episode 2 “Geoffrey Returns”
A reading of Slings & Arrows as a critique of the Stratford Festival is furthered as Albert Shultz (Soulpepper) speaks at the memorial of Oliver Welles.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

 

The response to Slings & Arrows has been positive in the greater theatre community while the response from Stratford has been described in two ways. The administration are said to have ignored the production while contraband copies have allegedly circulated around Stratford since Slings was released in 2003:

Stephen Ouimette

 

Video clip – Interview with Stephen Ouimette where he discusses some of the Stratford Festival's reaction to Slings & Arrows.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

 

 

While no one at Slings will admit that “Yes, of course this is Stratford,” the references lead viewers to draw exactly this conclusion. Richard Monette, Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, has announced the end of his mandate and the work to find a suitable replacement has probably been going on for years (his successor and a new administrative structure were announced by the festival in April of 2006). While this is only a figurative death it will no doubt be met with tribute and some kind of mourning. The death of Oliver Welles, hit by a pork truck (a hilarious ironic allusion to the real Stratford Ontario’s being home to the Ontario Pork Congress) while stumbling out of a local pub, inspires the return to New Burbage of long lost sons and daughters of the festival who were not welcomed during Oliver’s reign. A new Artistic Director at Stratford may signal the same kind of homecoming. Stratford has faced accusations of growing corporatization that has shifted their artistic focus from Shakespeare to Broadway. In her review of Richard Monette and Antoni Cimolino’s 1995 production of Merry Wives of Windsor, Kate Taylor remarks:

The directors’ main concern for this show is that everybody have a good time. They pile on the business and the props: a real dog, a dancing bear, a broken cuckoo clock, a stage full of sunflowers, a troop of pumpkin heads some music hall songs – oh, what the hell, why not play the cancan every time the French doctor finishes a scene?

Taking these trends towards corporatization to an extreme, the first season of Slings sees board member Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) launch a campaign to remake New Burbage a kind of Shakespeare theme-park where American tourists wear little beanies with Shakespeare ears while watching Mamma Mia on the main stage. This kind of theatrical dystopia is a real alternative for a theatre like Stratford desperate to appeal to American dollars even as national borders are becoming more difficult to cross.

Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) introduces board member May Silverstone (Marcia Bennett) to her plan for a Shakespeare theme park.

 

Video clip – Season 1, Episode 5 “A Mirror Up to Nature”
Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) introduces board member May Silverstone (Marcia Bennett) to her plan for a Shakespeare theme-park.

You will require Quicktime Media Player to view this video clip; visit www.apple.com/quicktime to download the player for free.

 

 

The issues addressed in Slings & Arrows are issues that Stratford and other national theatres must address. Can Shakespeare or Shaw continue to generate the revenue needed to keep major theatre venues in rural Canada afloat? Are classic interpretations of Shakespeare’s text valuable to public discourse or will they remain accessible only to an elite who can afford the day trip out of the city? Slings & Arrows honours classical theatre whether at Stratford or at the Shaw Festival. However, while Slings is critical of corporately-sponsored theatre it does show Geoffrey Tennant creating innovative, passionate theatre in that environment; he seems to offer a glimmer of artistic integrity on the "Cosmopolitan Lenstrex" main stage.

In the end it doesn’t matter if we all agree that Slings is a parody of Stratford or not. Here reception trumps intention and our knowledge of how theatre functions in Canada is expanded as we are invited backstage and into the boardroom of a national Shakespearean theatre company. Slings & Arrows can be seen as a documentation of theatrical production in Canada and a way of engaging a broader audience in a critique of Canadian culture. Within the boundaries of the television screen, Canadian theatrical practice is performed and re-inscribed if not re-made anew. The staging of Shakespeare in performance is also a re-inscription of Shakespeare’s cultural capital. Slings purveys the Bard’s cultural capital to an audience far greater in number and scope than Stratford or Soulpepper could hope to reach, thus transmuting the intimacy of the Shakespearean stage into the magic of what television could be––and all too rarely is.

Ben Walsh and Mat Buntin (with Daniel Fischlin)

 

Note:  "Cultural Tourism at Shaw and Stratford" is a collaborative review of two major Ontario theatre festivals published in the Canadian Theatre Review (CTR).  The issues discussed in this review may be of interest to CASP users who wish to do further research into the topics that are introduced in this spotlight. CASP greatfully acknowledges CTR's and the author's consent to reproduce this article here.

DiCenzo, Maria, Alan Filewod, Ric Knowles, Harry Lane and Ann Wilson.  "Cultural Tourism at Shaw and Stratford: The Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival 1999." Canadian Theatre Review 102 (Spring 2000): 85-88.

 

Works Cited:

Taylor, Kate.  "Theatre Review:  The Merry Wives of Windsor."  The Globe and Mail 31 May 1995: C2.

 

Basil Thume and Oliver Welles interviewing Geoffrey Tenant

Basil Thume (Sean Cullen) and Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) interviewing Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) in Season One.

Slings & Arrows Interviews

Over a period of two days on set and behind the scenes, the CASP research team conducted six interviews with creative, production and cast members of Slings & Arrows. The video footage of these interviews explores connections between Shakespeare and Canada, and explores the comedy and satire of the series.

Joanne Kelly and David Alpay from season two of Slings and Arrows

Joanne Kelly and David Alpay from season two of Slings & Arrows.

Slings & Arrows Multimedia

This section presents the complete footage of CASP's on set visit with Slings & Arrows, as well as clips from the Seasons I and II, and promotional material from its Canadian and US release.

 

Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) from Slings and Arrows

Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) in a fictional news article from the program for Season II

Slings & Arrows Reviews and Reception

A series about Canadian theatre becomes a cult hit on Canadian television; the clever concept and writing make this no surprise. However, its incredible success in the United States is another matter. This section samples reviews from both sides of the border and investigates the reception the series has received.

 

 

 

Slings & Arrows Teachers Guides

An elementary school production of Macbeth in Season II of Slings & Arrows.

Slings & Arrows Teachers' Guides

Media Studies has become a significant subject and instructional tool across many disciplines of elementary and high school curriculum. CASP has created a series of Teachers' Guides to the Slings & Arrows series in collaboration with a team of curriculum consultants. These guides provide activities and resources to facilitate the use of this innovative television series in the classroom.  

 

 

 


 

Links

Production Company:

Rhombus Media

 

Broadcasters:

The Movie Network

The Movie Network: Slings & Arrows

Movie Central

Movie Central:  Slings & Arrows

ARTV

Showcase

Showcase: Slings & Arrows

Sundance Channel

Sundance Channel: Slings & Arrows

 

To purchase the series on DVD:

Acorn Media

Acorn Media: Slings & Arrows

Amazon

Amazon: Slings & Arrows

 

CASP database entries:

Season I

Season II
Season III

 

CASP gratefully acknowledges Rhombus Media's permission to include these video clips in the Slings & Arrows Spotlight.


 

Disclaimer: This site has been designed with only non-commercial, academic uses in mind. Although every effort has been made to secure permission for materials uploaded on the CASP site, in some circumstances we have been unable to locate copyright holders. Links may be made to our site but under no conditions are the texts and images to be copied and mounted onto another site server. Researchers using the site should accredit it following standard MLA guidelines on how to do so. Correct citation of information from the site is as follows:

Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004. <http://www.canadianshakespeares.ca>.

Online Anthology | Spotlight | Database | Interviews | Bibliography | Essays | Multimedia | Links | About CASP | Shakespeare News | Interactive Folio | Learning Commons