Shakespeare Alive

4. Resurrecting Shakespeare, with Victoria Gartner

December 08, 2020 Victoria Baumgartner Episode 4
Shakespeare Alive
4. Resurrecting Shakespeare, with Victoria Gartner
Chapters
Shakespeare Alive
4. Resurrecting Shakespeare, with Victoria Gartner
Dec 08, 2020 Episode 4
Victoria Baumgartner

This week’s guest is the founder of theatre company Will & Co, Victoria Baumgartner. We’ll be talking about her play Will and hearing all about her groundbreaking project to bring Shakespeare to your own doorstep during the Covid 19 pandemic. 

Support the show (https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/podcast-support)

Show Notes Transcript

This week’s guest is the founder of theatre company Will & Co, Victoria Baumgartner. We’ll be talking about her play Will and hearing all about her groundbreaking project to bring Shakespeare to your own doorstep during the Covid 19 pandemic. 

Support the show (https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/podcast-support)

Anjna Chouhan:
Welcome to Shakespeare Alive: a podcast from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

My name is Anjna Chouhan. This podcast hosts conversations with people from all over the world who work or engage with Shakespeare across all sorts of media and genres. In this episode, I’m joined by Victoria Baumgartner, who is a writer, director, educator and Shakespeare enthusiast who, in 2015, established her company Will & Co, which performs plays based on the life, times and work of Shakespeare. – and the company has enjoyed success in the UK, in Switzerland and Germany, and is currently reclaiming live theatre in the pandemic age with Victoria’s extraordinary project, Bard in the Yard, which delivers a one-actor, socially distanced show to your very own garden. The Globe’s Michelle Terry has praised the company’s dedication to bringing Shakespeare and performance back into people’s lives, so it’s a real pleasure to welcome you to Shakespeare Alive, Victoria.

Victoria Baumgartner
Thank you very much for having me, Anjna. 

Anjna
When did you first have the idea for Will & Co? 

Victoria
That was four years ago now, um, four years ago. Um, so back in Switzerland, where I come from, where I grew up, I first had the idea for, for the show...so our big show  is called Will or Eight Lost Years of William Shakespeare's Life, because I like long titles and, um, And we first produced Will in French, but simply because I was raised in Switzerland and I was Assistant Director in Switzerland for a certain number of years, did my school there. So I had enough contacts to really make the project happen. So we did the show in French with a wonderful cast and a wonderful production team, and that worked quite well. And so I created the company to kind of put the show together. And it made sense to call it something that would work for the UK as well. Cause I knew that this was always... the end goal was always to, to bring it to the UK simply because there's more audience here for Shakespeare, for Shakespeare in English. But also because there's a type of theatre that I personally really relish to see and to do and to take part in, and the style of theatre here is really something that I love working in.

So I founded it four years ago and really wanted also something that represented the feeling of, of those old school companies, you know, who go on the road and who had their little wagon who had their things.... so I wanted something that sounded like a company. So a lot of the work we do with the company is really trying to trick people into accessing Shakespeare.

So we do that. We do the "Shakespeare sandwich" we do, like this is going to be fun! And also you're going to learn a lot of things about Shakespeare, but mainly it's going to be fun. Um, so it makes a lot of people enjoy the work quite differently and then be able to, Oh, but I also didn't know this and this and that about Shakespeare and then hopefully come back to it or go and see other shows. So we really try to be this kind of platform that's as much for people who know a lot about it and who will get another level of the jokes and who will go hahaha, that is Twlefth Night, and they will feel very happy about knowing that. But then alternatively, I really try to do shows that. Would it be accessible for somebody who's never , you know, seen a Shakespeare  play before 

Anjna
You mentioned the play, Will, which you'd written and you'd obviously performed back in 2016 and it's been to the Edinburgh Fringe festival too. Were you surprised at how much, kind of, traction Will was getting?

Victoria
So Will, is about the lost years of Shakespeare's life. So it's about... it's between the moment he gets married to Anne Hathaway in Stratford-upon-Avon and the moment he arrives in London. And I like to imagine that Shakespeare was the guy, the guy in the corner, in the pub who would just kind of be listening to everyone's conversations and taking it all in, but not really taking part in all the madness himself.

And we always have him as the witness for court cases. And that's like the guy who puts his signature next to other people's signature, but he's just there in the corner. and I really liked that. And in the play, what I tried to do was really to go back to this feeling of one day, he was a young kid who had a dream and no idea how to, how to make it happen.  And that's something a lot of people can relate to. I mean, Shakespeare didn't know he was going to become Shakespeare and there's a lot of things that he had to fight for and that, that luck and chance, and the world gave him through the people he met on his journey. And that was also really important. So in the show, it's not just, you know, Shakespeare, who's a genius. In our play it turns out that he's a really bad actor, which I quite enjoyed personally, because he has to be, you have to be bad at something. All the audiences' favorite scene was the scene where we have a young will audition to be part of Richard Burbage's theater company. And he has to do, he has to do a death scene and he's really quite horrendous at it. Um, they hire him anyway, cause they don't have much choice; but we understand from now that they have to teach him how theatre works. So yeah. So the show is about it's about how a young person from the countryside gets a chance at let's say being a writer in London, I was, I was really happy. Happily surprised at how long it lasted and in a way, what surprised me most throughout Will - so we performed it in French, in Switzerland. And so we had a run at the Rose Playhouse. So then we told the English version in Switzerland and Germany.

So we met the Swiss and German public, which is again, quite different to the French speaking public. Germany is wonderful. They have so much money for the theatre! So much!. But I think that conditions are just, I mean, you feel like a King when you, when you go to Germany and you're so welcome. And the theatre we worked with in Stuttgart,  the Tribune. it was just really wonderful. And then we decided to go to the Fringe. So overall Will really has been running for about three years. And what surprises me every time, I guess, is that audience still loves it! At the end of each show, somebody would stay and, and come to us and say like, thank you. Or wow.

People would come back and bring their friends and bring their classmates. We had this incredible experience in Switzerland. We were performing at a high school. So the kids in high school would see it for free and that French speaking kids. And they would see this show because it was part of the cultural program.

And then we performed at the local theatre in Sion in Switzerland and some of them came back. Some of them came back, paid for a ticket to see the show again and stayed over afterwards to tell, to tell us how much they had enjoyed it and how much it really, it really touched them. At the end of the day that that's what keeps you going because you do it, you do it for the audience.

Anjna
Obviously we've been living through this bizarre period where we've been in quarantine, we've been in lockdown. People have been shielding. I know that you are really personally affected.

Victoria
Yes. I did get quite sick at the beginning of the, the lockdown period. And I'm still experiencing long-term side effects, which is quite unpleasant.

Anjna
Im, I'm really sorry that you you've got, sort of, lasting side effects from that. That's, that's really awful.

Victoria
Actually. So being, having to rest and having to take time off and be sick and, and kind of have all that made me quite wary at first of what was going on. So a lot of people would send me that these articles about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine at the beginning of the chord and scene. And I remember at the time just lying in bed, barely being able to read a comic book or anything more complicated than that, and thinking, wait, all right. You know, like, um, maybe he did, but certainly that that's quite unhelpful pressure to put on, to put on artists because you know, we, it's not like we are, we feel like we're writing King Lear  in normal times.

Anjna
But that brings us on to sort of, I suppose, more positive news, which is that you found a way out of the deadlock, as it were. You came up with the brilliant idea of Bard in the Yard. And I remember when you were telling me about it, I just thought why hasn't somebody thought of this before? ,So could you just tell our listeners about what Bard in the Yard's all about?

Initially it was supposed to be called Shakespeare in your Park. Um, and, and I called my producer, Charlie, and I said, okay, you know what we can do, we can put, we can....bring it to people. If you can't go to the theatre, the theatre can come to you and we can go to your garden or your front yard or your backyard. A lot of people have a tiny bit of green space or an outdoor space of some sort, or, I mean, there is a way. And so I called my producer, Charlie McKeller, and I told her about the idea and she was just like, listen, this, we need to do this. It was always supposed to be a solo show. So it was always supposed to be one actor coming to you. And that's when "Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine", came back to hit me in the face and I thought, Oh, but of course it is going to be the Bard trying to write King Lear in quarantine but again, going through all the motions. And I guess the artistic intention was the same as for Will in the sense that I really wanted to be true to what was happening for people. So, as I was, I was, uh, as I was writing and devising the show, I kind of set down all these things that I really wanted to make sure that we talked about and the fun parts, as well as the parts where, you know, people might have experienced loss and grief and despair and stress and illness and all of these things.

And as soon as I started researching more about plague in Elizabethan England, I was like, Oh, there's plenty of that to go around. That's great. Um, there's, certainly quite dire conditions  back then. And then it was about making it... making sure that we also put enough Shakespeare in there to go around.

So that's when the idea came of Shakespeare trying to reignite his, his muse by going through his greatest hits and kind of calling upon the muse and bigging himself up as well, because there is that time where you think, Oh my God, I'm not that good am I? Or, I can't do it anymore. You know, I've done, I've done that many works.

Maybe now it's time to give up. So we find him quite... in a state of procrastination slash despair at the idea of having to write yet another successful show, but having absolutely no clue what it's going to be about. And obviously that's a lot of pressure to have. And then that's when we obviously also wanted it to be something for the actors to get a chance to have a job.

And we were lucky that enough actors followed us on this insane project of you're all going to rehearse the same solo show that you don't know when or how you might perform. But yeah, here's 22 pages of script -  have fun! Uh, so yeah, I'm very grateful that both the team and all of the Bards are here to do this.

And how many Bards do you have performing this work, victoria? 

Victoria
Currently we're on 24. 

Anjna
That's amazing. So you've got 24 actors who are being kept employed by this one-man, play that you've written and you've got men and women, haven't you? 

Victoria
Oh, we've got everything. We've got younger, older men, women. We've we've got it all.

Anjna
And they're all playing Shakespeare, trying to write a play during lockdown. And how much, how much audience participation is required?

Victoria
So as usual with our shows who are quiet... who...are intended for quite intimate audiences, there is a little bit; but because essentially the show was also about this connection, this reconnecting with audiences. And the appeal of the show is that we come and talk to you and you get, you get an actor in your garden, which is not something that happens very often and all our actors are fantastic performers. So you do get, you know, a professional actor, quite local to your area who comes and performance in your garden. So you also want there to be a certain connection. 

Anjna
I think that sounds fantastic. And this is...so at the moment... we've got... it's London-based and West Midlands.

Victoria
Exactly.  By the end of August, we'll be in Edinburgh as well. 

Anjna
And where do people go, Victoria, if they want to know more about Bard in the Yard?

Victoria
Bardintheyard.co.uk, you choose your region and then you get all the information about that. And then obviously when you book a Bard, we then confirm the Bard you're going to get. Um, so you know, who's coming to your house. 

Anjna
That's useful. It's a bit like Uber, you know, who's coming. 

Victoria
It's exactly like Uber. So they get you a name, you get their name, and their picture. I mean, obviously nobody's going to show up at your door pretending to be William Shakespeare on a whim.

Anjna
You say that! I don't know, we live in funny times, Victoria. 

Victoria
Yeah.

Anjna
One of the other benefits of having you go to people from, from a business perspective is that you're not sending very many people out and therefore you don't have many costs. to cover, uh, when it's just the one actor that you're sending. 

Victoria
Exactly, I think that's what was also really nice with this, with this model is that it's one actor and they have, I mean, thankfully Shakespeare didn't have any props, which I'm very grateful for. Um, since, you know, one actor and their quill and they just go, they come to you and they can do anything. It's been wonderful to see how a lot of creators  and creative industries and a lot of artists have just found new ways or found other ways and found loopholes and found ways of still making things. And that's when you realize how important art is. 

Anjna
Let's pause now for a short break. 

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Paul Edmondson: The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is the charity that promotes the life, work and times of William Shakespeare in his hometown of Stratford- upon- Avon. We look after five houses associated with Shakespeare and his family. We make freely available an internationally important library, archive and museum collection. We lead new research and we run an award-winning education programme. In light of this podcast, please consider making us a donation. You can do this by visiting shakespeare.org.uk and following the, make a donation link at the bottom of the home page, your support and goodwill really matter to us. And we hope you'll recommend our podcast to your friends.

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Anjna
You're listening to Shakespeare Alive with me, Anjna, and I'm talking to Victoria Baumgardner. Doing this show with people with real audiences in their own spaces is a celebration of art, and of course it's celebration of Shakespeare breaking down the boundaries and reminding people that Shakespeare is for everybody. As you know, because you've worked with the Trust before, but at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, we really passionately believe that Shakespeare really is for everybody and should be accessible.

Do you have any, any thoughts Victoria, about how Shakespeare belongs or fits into the new world or the 21st century? 

Victoria
I mean, obviously, you know, it gets thrown around a lot, the fact that Shakespeare is universal. I mean, it can mean a lot of things for a lot of people, the beautiful things that I've seen when people who didn't necessarily have access to Shakespeare eventually kind of had this spark and you can, you can see it in their eyes when the spark is lit and they go - ooh, maybe I understand this. Maybe this is for me. And that usually, because we as a civilization made Shakespeare this quite an untouchable, complicated thing,  that often for a lot of people equals something academically unachievable, or extremely hard to reach. Suddenly when, when you see people feel, Oh, wait a minute. Maybe it is for me. Then often I like to think is that you think, Oh, but if I can feel like Shakespeare's for me, maybe I can do anything. What he did was not tell... it was tell stories for his time. But what he really did was really, he knocked together, these sounds and these images and these ideas, and there's a lot of friction and energy.

And it's like, you know, when you're trying to light a fire with the, with the stone, with the silex stone and, and that's what Shakespeare is. Between each word, there's this friction and there's this...this thing that happens and it's so rich and it's so powerful. One of my first experiences of Shakespeare was sitting at the RSC and I was about 18 years old and it was The Merchant of Venice. I don't remember the  scene. Don't really remember really what was going on, but I remember just starting to cry. I was just crying because I could tell that something was happening in the relation between the actor embodying Shakespeare's words and the audience and that something was happening there.

And I think a lot of people who go and see Shakespeare, who like Shakespeare don't really know why. I don't think, I don't think we can.... it's really hard to pinpoint it down and to say, you know, I like it because Malvolio has yellow stockings, like, no!, like, I don't know. 

Anjna
I think what, what you're saying is that there's a real craftsmanship to his writing and sometimes you can't necessarily articulate why you're connecting, but you're right. There is a kind of magic to that. And I love that story of, of sitting in The Merchant of Venice and just crying and you don't know why - something moved you, I think you're, I think that's a wonderful response. And actually circling back to your earlier response to my question about why Shakespeare in the 21st century, that, that reference to the sort of aspirational quality of his work, you know, if people come along to your workshops or your performances and say, you know what, I didn't think I was going to get that, or I didn't think I was going to care. But I, but I do. So what else, what else can I go and conquer and being part of that? Um, certainly I suppose, for, for the younger generations is, is a very magical feeling. 

Victoria 
Well, for any generation. We've had this incredible experience where in Edinburgh at the Fringe, this person. So just, you know, middle-aged man came along with, um, the father of one of the actors. So he was a friend of the dad and he came along to see the show that basically had to drag him out of the pub to come and see the play because he's like, I don't do theatre. It's not  my thing. I just live here and, you know, leave me alone. And, and he came in and had to see the shows that he, I think, I think the dad even paid for his ticket. Like that's how much he did not want to be there. And he sat there and saw the show. And at the end of the show he stuck around. And he bought all of us a round and he came back the next day with three of his friends. It was really touching because it was, as you say, usually it happens with the young people who suddenly discover it, but this was somebody who just didn't have anyone drag them to the theatre before forcefully and who suddenly had discovered this whole thing that they liked. And that had touched them in a way that, you know, your screen can't. 

Anjna
That's fantastic. 

Victoria
So beautiful. I still, I still... this still keeps me going this man, just still, yeah. Keep keeps me going whenever I have doubts about what I'm doing. I got no, no, no it's worth it. 

Anjna
Given that you are still, you are now contributing to conversations about Shakespeare and in the, in the present, it is a hard time for any kind of theatre making, let alone Shakespeare theatre- making. So it is wonderful that you're contributing to that narrative. Now, just coming off topic slightly, I know that you've come to visit Stratford often, and I know that you've, you've obviously worked with us at the Trust before, but you know that we've got an extensive world-class collection of documents, books, museum items. We're asking everybody on this series what  their favorite object is from our collections. And I know that you have one in mind, but I'm quite curious because you haven't  told me whatit is. Would you like to tell our listeners what your favorite object is?

Victoria
I would love to, um, my favorite object is. So for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, you had an exhibition. This was a few years ago in 2016. And you had an exhibition that I was lucky that that year I was able to come to the UK and I came in and saw it. And you had Shakespeare's will during this exhibition, and it's not brought out too often because of the condition it's in, because it's a precious historical document. And it's the first time I saw it, and it's the first time that many people got to see it. And probably the last time for many people that they got to see it because it's back in very safe, archives.  I remember standing in front of it and obviously, as you know, it's one of the only, if not the only example of, of Shakespeare's handwriting and Shakespeare's actual signature and was just standing in front of it, thinking how incredible, how absolutely and utterly incredible to have this...and  just this little... this little scribble, um, that that's come through us through, through space and time. And just the sheer fact that it's been preserved is a miracle in itself. Um, And I don't know, being in presence of it was very, very special for me. It's hard. It's hard to be eloquent about it, but it's, it was brilliant. 

Anjna
It isn't, it, you know, the will is an overwhelming document from Shakespeare's life. You are so right. And it's almost, it's so curious almost what's, what's not in it, you know, is as interesting as what's in it; but what's fascinating as you rightly pointed out Victoria, that was a very temporary exhibition. And we only, we, as in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust only own a copy of that. So that particular one was on loan to us and the national archives. And your... I think your experience of standing in front of that is wonderful. And, you know, you weren't unique and experiencing that sense of, awe.

Victoria
I added a, a joke in the play, in  Bard in the Yard, in which Shakespeare bets his best bed on the fact that the Two Gentlemen of Verona will go down in history as his best comedy. So, the people who know the will - that's the joke. Um, So I, I quite like, again, I quite like the fact that Shakespeare was human and I quite like the idea that Shakespeare's his favorite  Shakespeare plasy were really not what we like. His favorite plays are Pericles, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona and he absolutely adores these plays and, and makes a big fuss over them and tries to get people, to see them more often.

Anjna
I love that idea, but it always tickles me that plays like The Tempest for example, have really become synonymous with Shakespeare and his greatest, you know, the real sort of zenith of Shakespearian activity. And it's no secret that I despise that play, so I'm really quite amused by your take on that perhaps for him, that was maybe something that he didn't care for.

Although it's quite, it's quite amusing isn't it? Just to speculate. 

Victoria
But just to think that yeah, like any of the artists, he would've had his favorites, he would have had the ones that he's really proud of. And what if that was Timon of Athens, you know?

Anjna
That was us kind of inspired by the will, if you like, and the idea that, that gets us closer to Shakespeare, the man. Do you think there's something that we should have in our collections that, you know, personally, you would bequeath to us if you had the power to do so, that should be part of the story of Shakespeare in the 21st century? You know, what should we collect now for future generations?

Victoria
I know  that people, you know, would love to see Ian McKellen's doublet and David Tennant's thing and yes, some something from those actors and something from, from you know, the scholars who are working so hard at making sure that this legacy is passed on and, you know, Paul Edmondson notes from, from, you know, you know, doing things at the Birthplace. That might be great. You know, if we could get Paul Edmondson's diary, I guess.

Anjna
I'm sure Paul would be delighted to submit any kind of diary to this, and I'm sure it would be accessioned. By way of conclusion, where do you think Will & Co is going to go, Victoria? If you saw yourself with the company in 10 years' time, what would you like to see it doing? 

Victoria
I think I'd really like to be able to be able to tour a lot of the shows quite extensively, because again, we have seen how many people actually really enjoy them and, and what it sparks, um, both, both in the audience and, and in us. And I think, I think I would love for the company to establish quite a solid touring reputation and be able to go further and to initiate more people into the joys of Shakespeare. And from the start, I always said like, I would, I would love to do a  tour of the Commonwealth, just, you know, just get me, get me somewhere sunny. I mean, I'd love having moved to England to study Shakespeare, but my Lord, I miss the sun and I miss I miss being able to go outside without a coat. Um, I would love to tour Australia.

Anjna
So on the road, but preferably in warmer climes. 

Victoria
Exactly. On the road, but preferably Hawaii, would be great. 

Anjna
That would be marvellous! Well, I think we'll wish you luck then on that journey, I'm sure. I'm sure it will happen, Victoria, because the company is made up of people like yourself who really care and who are committed to performing Shakespeare and telling, telling stories around Shakespeare and it's, it's meaningful, you know, and it's worthy. And as you say, it's. It entertains people. It surprises people, but most of all, it makes people happy and that's a, that's a noble cause. 

Victoria
Certainly. Thank you so much. 

Anjna
Thank you Victoria, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you, and we wish you from the bottom of our hearts at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, all the very best in the world for Will & Co. And indeed for Bard in the Yard.

Thank you very much for joining us, Victoria Baumgartner and good luck on your journeys.

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Anjna
Victoria suggests the personal notes of people working with Shakespeare today. So what would you like to deposit into the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust? Something real or imaginary? We'd love to hear from you via shakespeare.org.uk/future. And while you're there, please consider completing our short survey so we can produce more of the content that you like. 

Paul
Thank you for listening to this episode of Shakespeare Alive with Anjna. Next week, I'll be talking to Gregory Doron, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company about what made him a Shakespearian and what that means to him personally, and to the company. We'll be discussing cross-gender casting and how theatrical performance makes Shakespeare alive in our own time and culture.