Great ideas frequently come from academics in fine research institutions, but rarely are such ideas as entertaining and innovative as the Driftwood Theatre Company. The idea took root when Jeremy Smith asked himself a question that haunts many scholars during theatre history lectures at Queen’s University: what on earth am I going to do this summer?
Jeremy came up with the following solution: get some friends together, produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Kingston’s City Park, and see what happens. With the help of a few of his fellow students and a single microphone, he successfully produced Shakespeare’s comedy for local critics of all ages. Remarkably, the production turned a profit from the pay-what-you-can tickets. If an inaugural performance can be considered a first draft, then one year later, after his graduation, Jeremy submitted his thesis: the Driftwood Theatre Company.
Proposed in 1994, the company was to be Jeremy’s opportunity to pursue his “learning unchecked.” He likens the director’s role to that of a tour guide: “He knows where we need to go but he’s not the only one taking that journey; he is the funnel through which everything moves.” It’s an apt statement: Jeremy is the founder, Artistic Director, General Manager, and primary contact for the company. When he graduated from university Jeremy decided that “Driftwood would be my school,” where he would be both student and teacher.
The curriculum is gruelling; every summer the Driftwood Theatre Company travels across Ontario performing Shakespeare in parks for audiences on picnic blankets and lawn chairs, who enjoy the show on a by-donation basis. The sets are simple enough to be built and rebuilt at every new venue. And Jeremy’s passion for music means a good singing voice is a prerequisite for all Driftwood actors.
The logistics of moving musical instruments from location to location prevents any sophisticated accompaniment, and so everything is sung a cappella. “A cappella suits Driftwood very well,” says Smith. “We depend on our actors, and so we encourage them to use every faculty that they have.” He pauses before saying, “there is nothing more incredible than the human voice.”
He hires two composers every year, Kevin Fox and Tom Lillington, to write music for Shakespeare’s lyrics or to create original scores for the productions. Last year’s production of Much Ado About Nothing was set in postâ€“World War I Canada, so the play featured 1920s jazz tunes and original scores. Even in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Jeremy featured an original score as a technique to signal the passage of time in the play.
Bad weather can pose a challenge to the company, although host cities have sometimes been kind enough to offer an alternative venue. On one rainy night, fairies danced and serenaded Titania as she lay on a staircase in an old house in Port Hope. Another evening, Romeo and Tybalt dropped their gloves at the local hockey arena during Romeo and Juliet. The arena’s scoreboard kept track of the Montagues’ and the Capulets’ feud, and the penalty box housed the actors’ change rooms. Romeo got two minutes for slaying.
Jeremy has taken an interdisciplinary approach to his craft, honing his talents outside of the Driftwood school. He spent time as a general management intern at CanStage, production manager at the Canadian Children’s Opera Choir, a scenic painter for the National Ballet of Canada and the Tarragon Theatre, director at Sansanus Productions, and director for the a cappella group, Cadence. After spending time in the business, he knows artists cannot separate art from commerce, especially now and in Canada. “Artists should be aware of the value and costs of their work,” he says. “To be otherwise is irresponsible and selfish.”
When asked about his goals for Driftwood, Jeremy traces a circle with two fingers on the table as if to signify a continuous cycle. “I’m interested in the concept of â€˜company,’ and matching emerging artists with veterans.” To keep up that unique dynamic that Driftwood strives for, Jeremy is always growing and always challenging himself and his company. This summer, he plans for a repertory season, where the same cast will perform King Lear one night and The Comedy of Errors the next. He adds: “I just like to tell stories. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tom Stoppard or Shakespeare; it’s all about the telling and re-telling. It’s that simple.”