Sally McLean: All the World’s A Stage

October 1, 2018
A born-again lover of Shakespeare, the actor/director is spreading the Bard’s gospel online and in film festivals around the world.

“I loathed Shakespeare in high school,” confesses Sally McLean. “I was introduced to it in English class, as many of us were, which is not ideal. It was dry, dull and difficult reading his words out loud as a 14-year-old. And unsurprisingly so, not just because of the language, but also because Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not read – even out loud. Fast forward to a decade later, when I was working in production in the BBC Music & Arts Department in London in the Books and Special Projects Unit. While I was there we did a strand of programming about Shakespeare that involved my researching a lot of performance footage and that was the first time I felt a slight twinge of interest and wondered if I’d judged him a little too harshly.

“Fast forward again to Drama School in London, where Shakespeare was very much on the agenda,” she continues. “Luckily, I had a savvy Shakespeare teacher, Phil Peacock, who pointed out that I was living and working in the town Shakespeare lived and worked in, so I should go out and walk in his footsteps – literally.

“I know the exact moment everything changed for me – I was standing on the stage at the Globe Theatre having a chat with one of the builders and turned to look out at that “Wooden O” being built up around me. All those seats, the thatched roof. They rebuilt that theatre using techniques from the 16th Century as much as possible and in that moment, watching the weavers hand-thatching the roof and the artisans hand-turning the wooden railings, I felt like I was actually in the 1590s and it suddenly all locked in. Shakespeare was a genius writer, who wrote entertainment for the masses and, most importantly for me in that instant, was a real human being who lived, like you or I. It’s because of that moment that I became a total convert and Shakespeare Republic now exists two decades later.”

Shakespeare Republic is a web series, about to commence production on its third season. The ensemble of players that it has collected along the way has also resulted in a short film, Speaking Daggers, and possible future productions and projects that are all spinning around Sally McLean’s orbit.

How did Shakespeare Republic originate? Was it partly due to you looking to create and control work for yourself?

Shakespeare Republic was born out of a love of Shakespeare, an urge to somehow make his work more accessible to modern audiences without modernising the text, as well as my need to push and challenge myself as an actor and director – plus create the opportunity to work with some of my favourite people!

It really all began when I was living and working in London. I was fortunate to have as my Honorary Patron for my production business, the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne. Most remember him for his role as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister, but he was also a beautiful Shakespearean actor.

I mentioned this idea of finding a way to bring Shakespeare to modern audiences in bite sized pieces, while playing with gender and celebrating diversity. Nigel thought it a fascinating idea, but also warned me about the difficulty of finding a home for such a venture. This was the days before the internet became what it is and the idea of the medium of web television hadn’t even been thought of. Nearly two decades later, while on hiatus from directing and producing my feature documentary Champion: The Franz Stampfl Story, I pulled out the idea again when looking for something else to do and realised it would be perfect as a web series. And so, the experiment I call “Shakespeare Republic” began!

You’re onto Season 3 now, is it difficult to inspire your collaborators to continue?

Well, my fellow producer, Billy Smedley, lives with me, so he doesn’t have much of a choice! But seriously, I have been so very lucky with my cast and crew on this project and if anything, I have to keep telling everyone to slow down! From the moment I made those first phone calls to Alan Fletcher, Michala Banas and the rest of the Season One team in 2015, to now, I have been so grateful for their continued interest, support and enthusiasm for the series. And it’s been extraordinary how much the word has spread and how many more people from all levels of the industry want to be involved. It’s become somewhat of a runaway train on that front!

While I’m responsible for directing and adapting each piece, the actors are encouraged to pitch ideas to me from the get-go – they give me an idea of what they’d like to explore through Shakespeare and I then go and adapt a piece that fits the idea. I know what vision I have for each season and generally we end up with what I had in my head on the screen, but I’m also a big believer in it being a team effort. And I’m realistic enough to know that someone might have a better idea on how to achieve what I’m going for – so I always open the door for discussion in pre-production, particularly with my Cinematographer Shaun Herbertson, Editor/Colourist Thanassi Panagiotaras and Sound Designer Tim McCormick. I have complete trust and faith in my team in front of and behind the camera and so it makes collaborating a joy and only makes the work better.

And this also helps when working on a minimal budget. Season One was done entirely for the love of it. Season Two had a bit more of a budget, achieved via crowdfunding, a MATCH grant from Creative Partnerships Australia and sponsorship we received from some generous businesses and organisations, but it was still being done on a shoestring! And while everyone got paid something second time ‘round, it was far, far less than they would normally receive for their work. But they were so incredibly supportive of the project and of me and jumped in anyway. It meant scheduling was tough and we had to work fast, with most actors only available for half a day and sometimes shooting two episodes a day over a 10 day shoot period – the equivalent of 13 short films at 60 minutes screen time in total – but we managed to do it. And if you’ve watch any of our behind-the-scenes videos, you’ll see we also laugh a lot on set, which I think is vital!

Season Three requires a bigger budget, so we’re in the process of sourcing financing. I’m in the midst of writing it at the moment and I’m a bit excited to share it with everyone! We’re taking a new direction with the work this time, while remaining true to the core concept of bite sized Shakespeare. We’re in the final stages of casting, but Nadine Garner, Michala Banas, Christopher Kirby, Alan Fletcher, Dean Haglund, Scott Major, Billy Smedley, Rowena Hutson and Phoebe Anne Taylor have all put up their hand to return for the new season (schedules depending), which is fantastic. Alan Fletcher, who has been a driving force behind the series, has also come on board as Executive Producer for this next season and I am thrilled that we have another of my favourite people and writers joining the team as a Story Consultant – John Cabrera – who was the writer/creator of the seminal multi-strand web series H+ (produced by Bryan Singer in the States) and has developed numerous projects for studios and networks such as Legendary Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal and SyFy.

I do pinch myself sometimes at how lucky I am to work with the people I do on this series. I have a core cast of incredible actors, who are also truly fabulous human beings. And my production team and crew are second to none.

And did that lead to Speaking Daggers? And why a short film? How does the short film differ from an episode of the web series?

Speaking Daggers definitely came about because of Shakespeare Republic. I was approached by Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) after their Chief Executive, Michelle Green, saw the series and loved it. ISV’s Arts Learning Executive, Anne Smith, asked if I would consider creating a screen project that was part of the Shakespeare Republic universe, but would be a separate, standalone project to be premiered at their inaugural Arts Learning Festival at ACMI last year and then used as a learning tool in schools as part of the curriculum.

I came up with three different project ideas, including a short film utilising excerpts from five Shakespeare plays together in an eleven minute film. That was the idea ISV loved and commissioned and so Speaking Daggers came to be!

Even though the short film is set in the same world as Season Two of the series, it is its own beast. It could be seen as a “what if” story related to the series – “what if” some of these characters came together at a café in Melbourne over coffee and cakes? What conversations would we hear? How much more could we see them as just like us if we put them with cups of coffee or a beer in their hands, enjoying a Spring Melbourne day in the sun? Sure, they’re talking about infidelity, deceit, reports of violence, power abuse, sexism and, yes, love, but aren’t those the kind of conversations, for better or worse, we could still overhear anywhere in the modern world?

While the film shares cast with the series, including Nadine Garner, Michala Banas, Christopher Kirby, Scott Major, Billy Smedley, Faran Martin and myself, the biggest difference between the series and short film is that the actors are playing scenes together, rather than just monologues. We also have our first musical piece. Jaron Natoli, a talented Melbourne musician who was 16 years old at the time, was given the lyrics to O, Mistress Mine (a song from Twelfth Night) and asked to compose a modern version for the film. He ended up also in the film performing the song as “The Troubadour” and we also produced a separate music video of the song as well.

Ultimately, the film is an extension of the web series – or a spin-off, as I keep calling it!

What sort of responses have you had to both the web series and short film from Shakespeare newcomers and diehards?

We’ve had an amazing response to both the web series and short film on so many fronts. We have attracted a loyal fan base here in Australia for the series, but also overseas in the USA, UK and Europe. We have viewers who just love Shakespeare and found us through searching the web, or seeing a post on social media, but some of my favourite emails and comments have come from those who had no interest in Shakespeare, but watched the series because an actor they liked was in it, or they liked the concept and have now become fans of the whole thing and Shakespeare to boot.

I think part of the reason for this response is our penchant for gender swapping and diversity on screen, on top of only doing short pieces. I get so many messages from people who hated Shakespeare in school and now, through the series, have discovered a fascination with his works because a girl played Hamlet or a guy played Juliet, which meant they got a different take on it, which is so exciting and a big part of the reason why I wanted to make this series in the first place.

And we’ve been embraced by the academic community, which is fantastic. I’ve spoken on a couple of University panels about adapting Shakespeare in the modern world and we were invited to present a plenary panel focused on the Shakespeare Republic universe at this year’s ANZSA (Australia and New Zealand Shakespeare Association) Conference at Melbourne University, which was moderated by Dr Susan Bye (ACMI Education). As a result of that presentation, I am now writing a chapter about Shakespeare Republic for an academic publication, to be published next year.

And we’ve had an absolute dream run with the series at film and web festivals around the world. The series has now been selected for over 70 international festivals over the two seasons, had a truckload of nominations and won a total of 24 awards to date, which is astounding! We actually just won the “Outstanding Drama Series” award at the New Jersey WebFest in the USA a couple of weeks ago and will have two episodes screening at the upcoming Valley Film Festival in California next month. As a result of our success on the circuit, and our landing at number #14 on the 2017 Web Series World Cup chart, both seasons also got picked up by US streaming platform Seeka TV.

Speaking Daggers has also had an amazing response on the festival circuit so far. We’ve now been officially selected for 20 international film festivals, including being in the 2018 St Kilda Film Festival Top 100 line up and have won three awards to date, which is a brilliant outcome for an independent short film, but particularly for one that uses Shakespeare’s original language! We’re also screening at the Fisheye Film Festival in the UK, the Cape Town International Film Festival in South Africa and Festival Île Courts in Mauritius. It’s been an extraordinary run!

Doing a web series must be a lonely experience, missing that audience interaction, especially for something like Shakespeare. How have you found that?

The joy (and terror) of doing a web series is that you get immediate feedback from your audience as soon as you put it up online. As a result, with web series, you are much closer to your audiences than traditional TV and that is actually a good thing for creators, I think. We’re currently looking at how we can further involve our audience for next season and push those boundaries a bit more. The web series medium is fantastic for trying new things and connecting with your community in a more direct way and I’m fascinated to see if we can involve them more during the various stages of production, not just once the work is completed.

As far as creating the work is concerned, in Shakespeare Republic, we generally deliver the soliloquies and speeches straight to camera, which automatically engages both the actor and the audience more. So, performance-wise, you’re always speaking to your audience, even if they’re not sitting there directly in front of you at the time. As director, on top of the pre-production rehearsal process, I am constantly working with the actor on set as needed, giving feedback and adjustments, so they’re never left hanging wondering if they’re hitting the mark or not. And when I’m directing myself I have the luxury of playback.

But we did perform Season Two live on stage as well. As part of our Season Two launch, we took over the Courthouse Hotel in North Melbourne (who are one of our fab long term sponsors) and presented a one-night only immersive theatre experience where all the actors performed their monologues live to a sold out crowd of 200 who roamed around the two levels of the building and “found” the actors in situ, performing their pieces on a loop. So, we have the experience of doing both. And the cast and audience really enjoyed that process, so we may do that again.

You’re now moving onto other projects as a creator, can you talk about that?

The next major project is the series ‘Till The Boys Come Home, adapted from my 2004 play P.S. I Love You, set in WW2 in Melbourne. We have already shot a pitch teaser for the project, featuring Nadine Garner, Christopher Kirby, Sarah Hallam and others, which amazingly just clocked 17,000 views, which might not sound like a lot, but we’ve done no marketing for it, so that’s all organic views.

It focuses on women on the home front, inspired by actual events, and has a largely female, ethnically diverse cast. I’m excited to get that one up on its feet! I am in the midst of writing it at the moment with Christopher Kirby as Story Consultant and we’ve begun the search for an EP and early financing. I’m also finishing production on my documentary and developing another TV series, adapted from one of my feature film scripts, set in Melbourne and Scotland.

And, on top of writing Season Three of Shakespeare Republic, I’m also in the process of putting together another short film for ISV, again set in the Shakespeare Republic universe. This one is a bit darker, as per the tone of Season Three, both of which, all going to plan, should be released next year. Plus, I’m working with ISV to take the Shakespeare work into schools and teaching Shakespeare at Howard Fine Acting Studio Australia, while still pursuing my acting work. There’s a lot going on, but that’s just how I like it!

Speaking Daggers is screening at the Noosa International Film Festival, October 25 – 28, 2018

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