Arts

a Company of Fools performers in front of a nursing home sign
The Fools strike a mask-savvy pose outside one of the long-term care homes. Image: a Company of Fools/courtesy

Love from Afar explores what love is and how we can foster it even during COVID-19.

Best known for its Torchlight Shakespeare series in local public parks, a Company of Fools is a Shakespearean theatre company operating within the Ottawa region since 1990. This year should have marked their 30th anniversary, however, due to COVID-19, they won’t be having the celebration they had hoped for. Instead, they’ve seized the opportunity to bring Shakespeare to new audiences; migrating from touring parks to touring nursing homes.

Nicholas Leno, artistic director of the Fools, is a 2016 University of Ottawa alumnus of the MFA in theatre directing program, and has worked for a Company of Fools since 2017. While Leno himself is not an actor, he enjoys “telling stories with pictures and providing a framework for actors to work off of.”

Leno says that the goal of a Company of Fools is to provide “accessible works of theatre”; the company tries to do so by bringing theatre to different communities throughout the Eastern Ontario and Ottawa regions. Every Fools production is “pay what you can” as a hat is passed around to collect donations from the audience. This ensures that no matter their income, all patrons can enjoy the art of theatre, thanks in part to grants from funding bodies like the Ontario Arts Council and the City of Ottawa.

The Fools’ usual summer tour occurs in July and August, when the company tours “entertaining, and accessible shows based on the works of William Shakespeare” in 90-minute shows to over 40 communities in Eastern Ontario. 

Leno explains these plays as “when Shakespeare meets cartoons with a more physical, comedic approach”; they’re funny without making fun of Shakespeare’s famous works. The Fools have a certain reverence for the Bard which they attempt to preserve in performance, even when gently poking fun at him.

Due to COVID-19, this year’s summer park tour was unable to occur. Instead of touring around their mobile shows to local parks, the company opted to bring theatre to those who can’t leave their assisted living homes due to COVID-19. 

The Fools’ new endeavour, entitled Love From Afar, performs 45-minute productions in the courtyards and parking lots of local nursing and long term care homes.

Love from Afar includes three actors who present a compilation of six Shakespearean plays: Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The project’s main theme is love, and begins with the opening line: “Love. What Is It?”. Actors Maryse Fernandes, Geoff McBride, and Mitchel Rose present their Shakespearean version of a love letter to the audience, and struggle to find a way to present it authentically. 

Love from Afar is projected into the long-term care homes via an FM radio channel, and all the actors are microphoned to ensure that residents can remain inside their rooms and still hear the play. 

Franco Pang, production manager for the Fools and another U of O theatre grad, spoke about the FM wire transmission that the company has designed to broadcast to the long-term care homes. The audio is transmitted to a specific radio channel that residents can tune into in order to hear the play in real time. 

Residents usually stay in their own rooms during the show. However, Pang said that one of the residents “opened her window at the end of the show and waved to everyone and said she loved it”, showing that the Fools have achieved their goal: bringing happiness and theatre to those unable to leave their homes due to COVID-19.

In order to make Love From Afar even more accessible to everyone, the play has been turned into a free online animated comic book at the Ottawa Public Library (OPL). The digital comic shares Love from Afar in a way that references Shakespeare in an easier-to-understand, more accessible form than the traditional written texts.

Leno says that a Company of Fools has “made people fall in love with Shakespeare, either again, or for the first time” as the Fools’ adaptations are always at a digestible length. Since each show is typically only six actors playing up to fourteen characters, lightning-fast costume and identity changes grab viewers’ attention. Leno also says that standard Torchlight audiences really do represent all ages – around 30 percent of a given Torchlight audience is under 30 years of age. 

Leno hopes that the Fools’ standard Shakespeare in the park programming can return for the summer of 2021, but, in the meantime, encourages students to check out the comic book online at the Ottawa Public Library.