Nov. 29, 2019

UCalgary drama division teams up with The Shakespeare Company for Merchant of Venice

Co-production with theatre royalty a tremendous opportunity for School of Creative and Performing Arts

On a Friday morning before rehearsal, not two weeks out from the Nov. 28 premiere of The Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice presented in partnership with the University of Calgary’s division of drama Sadaf Ganji admits to feeling terrified and intimidated. But the fifth-year drama student in the School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) is also elated, determined to rise up to the greatest challenge, and the greatest opportunity, of her academic career.

Ganji has been entrusted with the role of stage manager for The Merchant of Venice, which has her overseeing key aspects of the high-profile production, working closely with internationally renowned director Carey Perloff and Canadian theatre royalty Seana McKenna, in the controversial role of Shylock. UCalgary alumna Jamie Konchak is also among the talented cast, playing the role of Portia.

  • Photo above: Mackenzie McDonald, Josh Olson and Seana McKenna. Set and costume design: Jennifer Lee Arsenault (MFA’14), lighting design: Narda McCarroll. The Merchant of Venice, 2019. Photo by Tim Nguyen

Ganji is not alone. Six of her classmates are also featured as actors in the play, which will run thru to Dec. 8 in the University of Calgary’s Reeve Theatre.

“I think we all know, as students, that we’re part of something really special here,” says Ganji. “We can feel it. We’ve never been a part of something this insanely huge in every way. We’re all very aware that the bar has been raised and we have to reach for it.”

It’s been intense, but it’s an amazing opportunity.

It’s an opportunity that came about thanks to The Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, Haysam Kadri, who had worked with SCPA in 2017 as a guest director for its production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. Kadri pitched the idea of a co-production to SCPA’s drama division earlier this year and, in the bargain, brought his peers Perloff and McKenna to the table.

Perloff says that, at first, she was taken aback when Kadri suggested tackling The Merchant of Venice, perhaps Shakespeare’s most controversial play, rife with themes of anti-Semitism directed at the villainous Jewish character Shylock.

“As a Jewish-American woman I thought: Do we really want to do this play at this cultural moment, when there is so much partisanship and bile out there?” says Perloff. “But it’s an extraordinarily nuanced play. And I think Shakespeare was exploring the kind of toxic partisanship we’re living through today, in our social media and our politics.

"It’s an incredibly complex and beautiful play but it’s also ugly. And you can’t back away from that. I said ‘Yes, I’ll do it.'”

Avital Fertel and Jaden Sullivan.

Avital Fertel and Jaden Sullivan.

Set and costume design: Jennifer Lee Arsenault (MFA’14), lighting design: Narda McCarroll. The Merchant of Venice, 2019. Photo by Tim Nguyen

One of the greatest challenges for the student actors, says Perloff, has been in playing their roles as the Christian merchants, espousing anti-Semitism in opposition to the character of Shylock. “Playing such hateful characters, who declare these things, that’s a hard job to take on,” says Perloff.

Perloff added to the play’s complexity by portraying Shakespeare’s male character Shylock as a woman. “It adds to the othering that these Christians inflict on a Jewish character, because we also have this group of men directing their derision and scorn at a woman. We see unleashed the things groups of men often do to women.”

She adds: “It’s a play about prejudice. And you think, no wonder Shylock is driven to this behaviour in the face of such anti-Semitism. But of course, nothing justifies planning to murder someone. Nothing justifies the pound of flesh. So, it’s a play about partisanship and ugly biases on both sides. And I think it resonates in today’s political discourse. 

“It’s a great learning experience for these students and I think this will be a benchmark for (SCPA) in their future collaborations.”

Christine Brubaker, artistic director of SCPA’s drama division agrees. “Our students are essentially working with Olympians here, and they’re the most generous of Olympians,” she says. “They’re holding the bar so extraordinarily high. Our students are slightly terrified, but they’re in awe. And, they’re being stretched. While this full-time production is happening, they’re still in school, they’ve got papers due. They’re sometimes overwhelmed, but they’re rising to the occasion.”

David Haysom, Jamie Konchak, Jaden Sullivan, Amy On, Avital Fertel, Sarah Wheeldon, Roger LeBlanc.

David Haysom, Jamie Konchak, Jaden Sullivan, Amy On, Avital Fertel, Sarah Wheeldon, Roger LeBlanc.

. Set and costume design: Jennifer Lee Arsenault (MFA’14), lighting design: Narda McCarroll. The Merchant of Venice, 2019. Photo by Tim Nguyen

The tremendous opportunity afforded the students to work on a professional production with such top talents of both the local and national theatre communities is not lost on Ganji and her classmates.

“Working with professionals like this is a gift, introducing us to the real working world,” says Ganji. “I’m learning how to work at a high level at the earliest stage of my career. This wouldn’t have been opened to me for years, if not for this opportunity.”

Ganji also appreciates the unique position she’s in, with the School supporting the students as they work in a professional production. “It’s a beautiful thing experiencing it this way, as we’re still within our school setting, so we all have that support. We’re not left to our own devices. We can still turn to our teachers and supervisors to help us succeed with this.

“That allows us to feel more comfortable, focus on the work and enjoy the process. Because who knows when this will happen again?”  

Buy tickets to The Merchant of Venice.

Merchant of Venice poster

The Merchant of Venice runs through to Dec. 8 at UCalgary’s Reeve Theatre.