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B.C. Actors put on Their History Pants

Claire Hesselgrave (Chris Marlowe) and Matt Reznek (Thomas Kyd) play historical figures as college students. What could go wrong? /Charlie Allison
Claire Hesselgrave (Chris Marlowe) and Matt Reznek (Thomas Kyd) play historical figures as college students. What could go wrong? /Charlie Allison
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Article: Robyn Tocker – A&C Editor

The webseries Blank Verse puts a unique twist on Shakespeare

Twisting classical stories has been a go-to for film, theatre, and literature for some time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Shakespeare and his work is some of the most twisted. What is shocking is how no one has done a webseries about him in modern times—until now.

Introducing Blank Verse, a webseries put together by students, graduates, and friends of students of the University of British Columbia. Amanda Konkin, one of the creative directors of the series, pitched the idea of taking Shakespeare, along with other famous writers from that time like Thomas Kyd, and putting them in a university setting.

“One of the goals of the project was to see what success means in the art world now in contrast to what it meant 500 years ago,” said Xander Williams who plays William Shakespeare. “Now there are seven billion people, the internet where you can publish things basically for free, and millions of people who are doing the same thing as you. It’s a saturated market that is incredibly apathetic. Would the works of Shakespeare survive?”

 Konkin explained that, after talking with one of the producers, Andrew Lynch, everything snowballed from there.

“We started bringing more people on board, building a team, and getting scripts made. We approached a few different people who we thought could bring the characters to life.”

Since then, Konkin’s team has grown to roughly 50 people, who all work passionately to make this series a success.

Laura Mclean, the Transmedia Producer, has found doing this series different than just a standard theatre performance or film project.

“Most of my background is in theatre. There have been new projects and challenges to work on, but it has been great. It’s something I’ve always wanted to get a chance to work on.”

With such a unique idea with well-known (or should be well-known) characters, it can be challenging for the actors to fit into their role. Williams said it had been “interesting” so far.

“We all have different accounts of who Shakespeare is. Many contest he never existed, so it has been a great challenge to find a middle ground for all these conflicting views on who the man was behind the work.”

Williams also mentioned how every four episodes there is a different writer.

“Coming from a theatre background and playing a character that is being written as I’m playing him is new for me. I think one of the great strengths of the show is the question of what Will would be like in a modern context. Just playing him as a real person and trying to let go of the figure that we all know is the key to it.”

The art world has seen many things, but this webseries is something new and it’s making an impact whether it wants to or not. Williams mentioned how it makes people wonder what success means in the artistic world and why Shakespeare was chosen to hold that success.

“[Shakespeare’s] contemporaries like Ben Johnson and Thomas Kyd were just as educated if not more than Shakespeare, yet Shakespeare is the one everyone knows, so what happened? Why him? And would that work today?”

Konkin said how the series helps people learn about historical figures that have affected our literary canon in many ways.

“Watching their lives unfold on a webseries is fun. It sparks people’s interest to learn more about people like Thomas Kyd and what they were writing. The series opens up the world to the characters and enriches characters that people already know. Just to be able to spend five minutes a week watching the characters interact can cause you to ask questions.”

Mclean believes webseries themselves are impacting mainstream culture, as well as the arts, in a bold, new way.

“Webseries . . . are new wave of content. They are a new style of telling stories. Webseries creators don’t need to wait for some Hollywood producer to say they can tell their story now. It is a much more direct relationship to the audience. It creates online material directly for them.”

As with everything, there comes highs and lows, but for the Blank Verse crew, it’s been mostly highs. Konkin did mention how time and scheduling has become difficult at some points.

“We are all doing this as a passion project and with that schedules become a problem.”

But from this Konkin has had unexpected high points.

“People are forced to be creative, and some of the greatest decisions made have come from this. You never know where ideas are going to come from and the new decisions are sometimes better than the original ideas.”

Williams had his own set of highs to list off, one spotting inside jokes in the scripts while he’s reading over his lines. Williams has also been writing the last few episodes, or Act Five, of Season One and it has been a great joy for him to take up the writing helm. One challenge for the Shakespeare buff has been the lack of audience as he performs. Thankfully, with all the positive feedback on YouTube, Williams hasn’t had a lack of fans.

As the Transmedia Producer, Mclean has had her fair share of highlights, the main one being creating blogs, Twitter accounts, and YouTube accounts for the characters. “[One of the highlights] has been creating backstories for characters. I am in charge of letting the characters tell more in-depth stories outside of the episodes. It’s a really interesting way of revealing character. It can become very interactive as viewers discover the accounts.”

Konkin and her team picked a passionate team of actors to come together for the project, especially Williams and Mclean. “I recently completed a BFA acting program at UBC where I played a bunch of Shakespearean characters, like Macbeth. When I heard about the project I went up to the producers and begged to be involved. I auditioned and got in and am now writing for it. I also wrote the theme song,” said Williams.

“I have known Amanda and Ryan for a long time, we went to UBC together. When they started the project and asked if I wanted to come on board I said ‘Absolutely!’” Mclean said.

The goals for Blank Verse are something Konkin and her team are striving for as they wrap-up the first season. For one, Konkin wants to see this series have five parts produced.

“I’m inspired by television narratives and I want to tell a complete story. There is certainly potential for five seasons,” said Konkin.

She hopes to get to complete it as much as she can.

“We are also really focused on finishing Season One and getting enough interest to produce the second season. We’re looking to grassroots campaigns and digital media funding to get more resources to create the second season. We want to make sure there’s support out there for it and create the best project possible.”

Mclean hopes for the same.

“It’s great talking with the writers and hearing storylines get pitched. We know where these characters end up and we get excited about things we’ll be able to do later on. I hope we get to tell this story to its fullest.”

Since Williams is a writer for the fifth act, he did give a hint as to what it’s going to be about.

“It’s the time in Shakespeare’s life when he’s writing Romeo and Juliet, so anyone familiar with that play is going to want to watch.”

“Like Shakespeare we’re finding our way in the world and I hope people engage with our work. It’s such a rewarding experience. I hope people watch it and have fun,” said Konkin.

She thanks everyone who has been a part of the series, either through the crew or viewers. To check out the series, visit their YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/BlankVerseTV?feature=watch.

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