When man of many talents, Rob Myles first came up with the idea for Shakespeare-inspired online platform, The Show Must Go Online, he never envisaged it would become so popular. Here, he talks to Lindsey Huebner about the journey the project has taken and why the big institutions should especially be taking this time to reflect.
What else is there to say about this very weird time we find ourselves in? My biggest accomplishment thus far is making what I believe to be the perfect vegan butter tofu and I’m not being self-deprecating; it was genuinely revelatory. Rob Myles, actor, writer, director, stage-combat-instructor-in-training, creator of the Shakespeare Deck, and now The Show Must Go Online has different priorities, as I find out when we chat isolation-to-isolation.
I meet Myles remotely on a tortuously sunny day – myself in London and he in Glasgow; the distance between us reflective of the border-defying work he has found himself doing. A textbook example of technology being used for the forces of good, The Show Must Go Online, uses pre-existing online tools to provide a framework for actors and Shakespeare enthusiasts to do what they love: put simply, to act. The goal is to have performed every Shakespeare play (one a week until November) in their widely accepted chronological order. Myles and casting director, Sydney Aldridge sift through hundreds of applications from around the world to create a diverse cast of actors and in doing so, obliterates many of the barriers that have hitherto kept us in our separate little corners.
When I ask the question of how this juggernaut of a project came about, Myles reflects, noting the ubiquity of this experience for creatives around the world:
“It came about as a response to loss. I lost out on a gig that was going to keep me fed and watered until the end of April and unfortunately, that didn’t go ahead. As you find with fringe theatre and mid-scale regional touring theatre, we are kind of the canaries in the coal mines – it became apparent to me probably a week before things ended up shutting down that this was on the horizon, because we were the first domino to fall.”
Myles, who does not define himself as a “Twitter powerhouse” nor the possessor of influencer-status then put out a casual tweet to see if anyone would be interested in reading some Shakespeare over Zoom. He “clicked send, my wife and I went to make dinner, and within twenty minutes my phone was blowing-up.” It does not appear to have stopped since. Myles humbly describes this as being, “the right idea at the right time.”
In response to the deluge of interest, Myles put together a sign-up sheet with friend and “data-wrangler extraordinaire” Dr. Ed Guccione. Ed is husband to Dr. Kay Guccione who does work in the context of mentoring and inclusion. Myles says:
“When designing the form, I talked it through with her to make certain that within the design of the form itself, we were ensuring maximum inclusion from under-represented groups in theatre. It’s something that I am very passionate about. I have a lot of privilege, but I’m also working-class, and even that has been a barrier within this industry. I am hyper-aware of how easily barriers can be put in place without necessarily thinking about them. I wanted to make sure I did what I could to make it as actively inclusive and as welcoming as possible.”
World-renowned Shakespeare authority, Ben Crystal reached out very early on and undertook the role of introducing the first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and is now curating the introductions for the plays to come. The resident expert at the time of writing is Debra Ann Byrd, founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival.
Along with producing and life-partner Sarah Peachey, Myles has amassed a team equal to this mammoth task. Myles stresses, “what I would love to get across is the fact that it takes a village,” and this particular village happens to be a global one.
At the time of this interview, The Show Must Go Online is about to stream its latest production, Henry VI: Part II, with a cast comprised of individuals spanning the globe, including those with CVs bursting at the seams, to recent graduates; scholars; PhDs; acting tutors; TV executives, and an NHS front-line worker.
Looking forward, Myles tells me, “I’m really optimistic about the future of theatre as it pertains to this; I hope that my optimism is borne out. There has always been a kind of stratification to theatre. It feels like a lot of the walls that may have existed between those strata have come down because we’re all experiencing a period of radical empathy with one another; we are all in the same boat and it doesn’t matter what level you practice at.”
Myles also notes,
“It is an opportunity for large-scale institutionalised commercial theatres to take time to reflect. I totally understand that when you are producing x-number of shows a year, maybe there isn’t time to reflect on the more philosophical side of what it means to do good theatre and you have to keep things moving. You don’t have to do that right now, so my appeal to anyone running one of those institutions is to take this time to really reflect on how you can open the doors to everyone so when you come back you’re going to be stronger for it.”
I ask if he foresees a place for a project like this even once the restrictions have been lifted. He responds with, “a unique benefit of this project is that you can put a global cast together and reach a global audience who can come together and share that experience live in the moment.” If you want proof of this, scroll through the live chat for The Two Gentlemen of Verona and witness audience members reacting in real time, in true groundling form. Myles continues, “these are all things that traditional theatre cannot do. I think for that reason there will still be a place for this when we’re all allowed to be outside again.”
Chatting with Myles, the existential dread does abate ever so slightly. Perhaps more can be gleaned from this time of enforced solitude than the refining of my culinary skills… As we coast toward the end of our time together, he makes the familiar quip, “all the world’s a stage”, now perhaps more literally true than ever before.
No matter where you are, you can tune into The Show Must Go Online every Wednesday at 7pm BST. For further information, educational resources, links to live and past performances and to get involved, visit www.robmyles.com/theshowmustgoonline
To support the performers, Myles and co. have set up a Patreon page as a benevolent fund for participants. If it is within your means to do so, please give generously.