Twelfth Grade (or whatever)

Date: 2016
Posted by: Liv Belcik, S Messing and S-messing Around!
Cast: Sarah Taylor (Viola/Sam Messing), Kristen Vaganos (Liv Belcik), Julian Hermano (Oren Douglas), Derya Celikkol (Tammi Belcik), Jon Steiger (Drew Aguecheek), Adriana Figeuroa (Maria Waites), Evan Neiden (Malcolm Volinsky), Andres Cordoba (Vic Caius), Justin Linville (Curt Slender), Eliot Barnhart (Sebastian Messing)
Credits: Quip Modest Productions. Jules Pigott (head writer/director/editor), Uma Dwivedi, Angela Farooq, Sarah Goodwin, Lee Hittner-Cunningham, Daisy Murphy and Julia Reinstein (developers), Simona Riccardi and Shannen Michaelson (assistant directors)
Duration: Ongoing

This is excellent. Right from the start of the opening episode, in which a kazoo-playing Oren tells us of his favourite bands, then confesses to his room mates that he is utterly in love, one senses a confident directorial hand and a witty retelling of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s own opening has been simulataneously acknowledged, parodied and used as the steeping stone to an original conception.

So, yes, it’s another another web series designed for those who “like Shakespeare and awkward teenagers” (as writer-director Jules Pigott pithily puts it). The set-up is familiar: students using vlogs to share their thoughts with the online audience, with multiple viewpoints achieved through different YouTube accounts in the names of the characters, social media spin-offs and so on. There’s a plot-line that riffs on Shakespeare, so that Oren = Orlando, Sam/Viola = Viola, Liv = Olivia, Malcolm = Malvolio, Drew = Andrew Aguecheek, and so on. The main business involves Viola disguising herself in an all-boys’ school and falling with love with jock Oren, with a range of secondary characters, some with Shakespearean roots, some invented, who flesh out and enrich the narrative. The twists and turns of young love are credible enough, the contrivances (such as characters using other people’s cameras to post vlogs) no worse than Shakespeare was guilty of, and the characters’ frankness combined with naivety is of our age.

What makes this series stand out is the style. The need for the characters to confess to cameras (usually, though not always, in their bedrooms) both constrains and defines such productions, but the production takes every opportunity to play imaginative variations on the theme. So we get musical interludes, conversations held while all we see is a video game being played by the speakers, intercutting between different people’s vlogs, characters answering viewers’ questions, even one episode that takes place completely in the dark. Even the eye-catching variety of their titles pleases (Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Representation of the Ego in Media, Unreliable Narrator, Oren Plays Kazoo for Five Minutes). There is also a satisfying narrative arc, showing as much control over the series as a whole as its individual elements. The performances from the young cast are uniformly good, with lightness and darkness of tone equally well handled.

Twelfth Grade (or whatever) is written, edited and directed by New Yorker Jules Pigott, who engagingly and illuminatingly and rapidly explains how the series is made in the above video. One sees the huge dedication involved, from preparing the scripts, to co-ordinating the performers, to editing and uploading the videos, to keep the social media streams going. And all this for around 1,000 views per episode. That suggests that this is not being done simply for the likes, tweets or followed, but because those involved believe in what they are doing. It’s what separates art from mere opportunity.

This is the second Shakespeare series from Quip Modest productions – the first, Like, As It Is (based on As You Like It), I have yet to see, though apparently it is an apprentice work. Twelfth Grade (or whatever) shows how Shakespeare functions as a stimulus to the imagination, letting ideas fly. It has enough of a debt to Shakespeare’s play to cause smiles of recognition, but it is never weighed down by the association. It has its own special story to tell.

Complete episode list
Quip Modest Productions tumblr site
Twelfth Grade (or whatever) on Twitter
Jules Pigott’s personal site

Kate the Cursed

Date: 2014
Posted by: Kate Minola
Cast: Emily Lubbers (Kate Minola), Julia Buchan (Megan Carpenter), Bryan Versluis (James Wright), Jenna Harman (Britt Minola), Devon Peacock (Hudson Vanderberg)
Credits: Golden Moose Productions. Created, written and directed by Emily Lubbers and Zoe Lorenz
Duration: 30 episodes

Here’s another web series updating Shakespeare to the milieu of the twenty-first century vlogging teenager. In this case it is The Taming of the Shrew, somewhat loosely adapted to give us the point of view of Kate Minola (“your average high school pessimist”), whose friend Megan encourages her to set up a vlog. Kate’s dilemma is that she doesn’t much like people, but her younger sister Britt is not allowed to date unless Kate does so first. The story is then fleshed out soap-wise by bringing in assorted friends and classmates, including James (a soft Petruchio).

Kate the Cursed (great title) is the creation of two Canadians, Emily Lubbers and Zoe Lorenz. It is slickly produced, plausibly scripted and convincingly performed by its young cast. It suffers from the limitations of the pseudo-vlog, because everything must be told through confessional statements to camera that are nearly always in the teenagers’ bedrooms, and there’s only so much textual analysis you can indulge in by looking at the objects they have on their walls. A restrained use of jump-cuts alleviates the sameiness of the shooting style somewhat, and some key scenes take place on a woodland vacation. But it is still people talking to camera, relentlessly, which inevitably palls (though one is not expect to watch such a series all in one sitting).

It has the usual literary web series spin-offs, including Twitter handles for the lead characters, Tumblr sites and Facebook account, and one can only be amazed at the energy and dedication that goes towards production these amateur epics. What does it tells us about Shakespeare’s play? In its way, quite a lot. Its aim is to make Kate understandable and the mistress of her own drama. She steps out of the play to talk in the language of her audience. On the Golden Moose Productions website there are some illuminating statements on why they chose Shakespeare over, say Jane Austen, to structure their series:

Another reason why we did Shakespeare over a full length novel is that there is more freedom with Shakespeare. In a novel, there are set plot points and with Shakespeare you pretty much just have the dialogue. So you can sort of take it to mean what you want.

That’s as good an argument for the Shakespeare adaptation as you could hope to find. Its meaning becomes your meaning. Kate the Cursed is not the best Shakespeare web series out there, but does show why this is such a valid and vital way of interpreting Shakespeare.

And it’s nothing like 10 Things I Hate About You.

Series trailer

All episodes on YouTube
Golden Moose Productions Tumblr site


Date: 2014
Posted by: SHAKES
Cast: Victoria Smith (Beatrice), Ellis Oswalt (Benedick), Anna Stone (Ophelia), Tim Childers (Hamlet), Cathy Koch (Juliet), Cody Sparks (Romeo)
Credits: Writer/Producer/Editor: Kathryn Orsmbee; Writer/Director: Destiny Soria; Production assistants: Rebecca Campbell, Katie Carroll; Marketing: Nicole Williams; Dramaturg: Clare Thomson
Duration: 12 episodes plus two extras

It is interesting to see what has been happening to the online Shakespeare video over the past four years. In 2012 I stopped adding to this site because I thought it had gone on long enough and there wasn’t much that was new that I thought I could add (I returned in 2016). In part the aim had been to trigger academic interest in an area of Shakespeare film production which wasn’t being considered at all, at least not with any seriousness. But gradually people were starting to take a serious interest, which culminated in the first book on the subject, Stephen O’Neill’s knowledgeable and stimulating Shakespeare and YouTube: New Media Forms of the Bard (2014). But what I hadn’t realised was round the corner, and which O’Neill missed, because the phenomenon was only just starting as his book went to press, was the Shakespeare web series.

It was the great success of the Emmy award-winning web series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012/13), with its setting of Pride and Prejudice in modern times told through the individual characters’ vlogs, with social media spin-offs, which sparked a small explosion in web series which treated other literary properties in the same way. Here was a sparkling way in which to use the special features of the online world to bring the classics to a new audience. It was also great fun to produce, as is clear from the spirit of enthusiasm that leaps out from the dozens of these kinds of web series that have now been produced.

Many of these series are adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve listed the main ones in a new Web Series category on the right-hand column of this site, and I’ll be posting something on most if not all of them, in time. I’ve already written about Not Much To Do and Lovely Little Losers, produced by the premier exponents of this new Shakespearean form. But coming close behind them, and with a slightly different apporach, there is SHAKES.

SHAKES is the creation of two Americans, Kathryn Ormsbee and Destiny Soria. It started out as a web series entitled Shakes that mashed up characters from Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet, featuring modern characters living in the fictional American town of Shakes. When they decided to move on to a second series, the first was renamed The Town’s the Thing, with the second given the name Weird Sisters.

The Town’s the Thing shows us the interaction of three couples: Beatrice and Benedick, Hamlet and Ophelia, and Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Nothing Much To Do, which follows the path set by the Lizzie Bennet Diaries in telling the story through direct addresses to the camera (vlogs), The Town’s the Thing is a more conventionally composed drama, without any confessional moments to us the audience. The six main protagonists are a group of friends with different backgrounds (Hamlet’s a lawyer, Benedick is a journalist, Beatrice runs an online news service, Ophelia works in a pharmacy, and so on), with traits that link them loosely to their characters as Shakespeare imagined them (though Juliet as sassy kleptomaniac seems more removed from the original conception than some).

The technique and performances are a little faltering at times (though you can see them learning as things go along), but the overall conceit is capably maintained. The story moves comfortably between comedy and tragedy (with sprinklings of Shakespeare’s words every now and then). The overall effect is to shed new light on Shakespeare’s appeal, as a creator of archetypes whose perennial qualities are proven by how adaptation into this very early 21st-century form seems so natural. A delight to the imagination.

Date: 2016
Posted by: SHAKES
Cast: Channing Estell (Fiona), Melanie White (Octavia), Beth Posey (Tabitha), Alec Beiswenger (Jack), Matthew D. Whaley (Hector), Garrett Bass (Mark)
Credits: Writer/Producer/Editor: Kathryn Orsmbee; Writer/Director: Destiny Soria; Production assistants: Rebecca Campbell, Katie Carroll; Marketing: Nicole Williams; Dramaturg: Clare Thomson
Duration: Ongoing

The follow-up series, Weird Sisters, is more confidently filmed and performed than the first series. It features a new cast and a change of style, with much more camera-consciousness, the central conceit being that the story is being filmed by social psychology student Imogen, with the characters providing her with vlogs. It describes itself as a loose adaptation of Macbeth, focussing on three women roommates – a radio broadcaster, an artist and a law student, each of them residents in the town of Shakes – who gradually reveal that things are rather stranger than might first appear, as they admit to their connections with the supernatural. Having established that they are modern versions of the three witches, the connection with Macbeth rather fades away, which is a disappointment – and a missed opportunity. The series is ongoing, so maybe more connections with Macbeth will emerge. It would give the work more direction and purpose.

These web series productions represent a consideration commitment from amateur teams on a minimal budget, and are reinventing Shakespeare. That’s quite an achievement, and more of us should be taking note (sadly Weird Sisters has attracted few viewers so far). It’s just worth remembering that the more use you make of Shakespeare, the better the outcome is likely to be.

The Town’s the Thing play list
Weird Sisters play list
SHAKES website
SHAKES YouTube page
SHAKES Tumblr site

Lovely Little Losers

Date: 2015
Source: Lovely Little Losers
Cast: Reuben Hudson (Stanley Balthazar Jones), Jake McGregor (Benedick Hobbes), Bonnie Simmonds (Freddie Kingston), Caleb Wells (Peter Donaldson), Jessica Stansfield (Meg Winter), Harriett Maire (Beatrice Duke), Pearl Kennedy (Hero Duke), George Maunsell (John Donaldson), Phodiso Dintwe, Mouce Young, Ella McLeod, Daniel McBride, Kalisha Wasasala, Bronwyn Ensor, Robbie Nicol
Credits: Creators: The Candle Wasters; Writers: Claris Jacobs, Elsie Bollinger, Minnie Grace, Sally Bollinger; Directors: Elsie and Sally Bollinger; Producer: Minnie Grace; Production Designer: Claris Jacobs; Trailer Editor; Editors for the Series: Claris Jacobs, Elsie Bollinger, Minnie Grace, Sally Bollinger; Sound Director: Sarah Jessica Golding; Cinematographers: Claris Jacobs, Harriett Maire, Sally Bollinger; Production Runner: Calum Gittins; Clapper Loader: Elsie Bollinger, Jen Smith, Minnie Grace, Shannon-Mae Read; Lighting: Shannon-Mae Read, Sally Bollinger; Motion Graphics/VFX: Carlo Grunwald
Duration: 84 videos (including trailer)

The most imaginative, ambitious and successful works of Shakespeare on video at the moment are being produced by the Candle Wasters, a four-women creative team from New Zealand. Their first production was the multi-episode Not Much To Do, an updating to Much Ado About Nothing set among high school students in New Zealand. Lovely Little Losers, ingeniously structured as a sequel to the first series with some of the same characters (so you can find out what happened next to Beatrice and Benedick), adapts Love’s Labour’s Lost to the same twenty-first century New Zealand setting, with everyone now at university.

The set-up is that four students (three male, one female) at a Wellington university share a flat and have complicated personal lives, each being losers in one way or another. To impose some order on flat life, they decide to establish some rules, which include a curfew and a ban on all relationships, the central conceit of Love’s Labour’s Lost being that four companions deny themselves the company of women. The unfolding series then shows how impossible it is to live by such rules. The story is told through a series of vlogs and musical interludes, alongside accompanying social media feeds, in which the various characters reveal the thoughts and feelings natural to a generation accustomed to sharing everything and living in the presence of cameras.

The series takes a while to get going, riffing on the characters, and when the complication is added of the flat rules (in episode 14) it feels as forced and unlikely as does Shakespeare’s original. Certainly some among those of the series’ many followers were puzzled, as YouTube comments indicate, but once the premise has been established the series works through the assorted dilemmas and their resolution with wit and style. Every video trick in the book is used, usually self-referentially so, with the series building on lessons learned making Not Much To Do. One does think that the omnipresent camera pushes at the barriers of what even a twenty-first century student might be prepared to tolerate – to a degree that maybe one of the flat rules that might have been imposed could have been a ban on being filmed.

The contrivance of the situation is more than made up for by the freshness of the performances. The students are no more annoying than students have always been from Shakespeare’s time onward, and are played with a vivacity and conviction – by skillful cast – that clearly strikes a chord with followers of the series. The Shakespeareaness lies not only in the plot borrowing and in the use of his songs and sonnets, but in the forensic exploration of love and desire (straight and gay), and in the substitution of visual conceits for literary conceits. As with Not Much To Do, it shows how one way forward for Shakespeare in an online age is to free the plays from the two hours’ traffic of the stage and to break then down into their constituent parts, letting each of these take on a life of their own through sharing.

Lovely Little Losers ran throughout 2015, with eighty main episodes (each 3-5 minutes long), three extras and a trailer. You wouldn’t want to watch the whole thing in one go – it can get a bit samey (all those scenes in the one flat) and cute – but of course you’re not meant to. It’s there to be followed in fragments. The sequel to this sequel, Bright Summer Night (adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream) begins on July 8th…

The Candle Wasters
Lovely Little Losers YouTube playlist
Facebook account
Kickstarter page
Cast and crew links

Nothing Much To Do

Date: 2014
Posted by: Nothing Much To Do
Cast: Harriett Maire (Beatrice Duke), Pearl Kennedy (Hero Duke), Jake McGregor (Benedick Hobbes), Matthew J. Smith (Claudio), Caleb Wells (Peter “Pedro” Donaldson), George Maunsell (John Donaldson), Holly Parkes (Georgia “Verges”), David Hannah (Hugh “Dogberry”), Tina Pan (Ursula), Jessia Stansfield (Margaret “Meg” Winter), Reuben Hudson (Stanley Balthazar Jones), John Burrows (Robert “Robbie” Borachio), Lucie Everett-Brown (Cora Petunia Anderson), Alex MacDonald (Leo Duke)
Credits: The Candle Wasters (Claris Jacobs, Elsie Bollinger, Minnie Grace, Sally Bollinger); sound director Jessi Golding
Duration: 83 videos

BardBox returns, after a four year hiatus, because there is so much good and interesting original Shakespeare production continuing to appear online, and the best of it needs documenting. A prime example is this delightful dramatised vlog the creation of a four-women creative tram from New Zealand called the Candle Wasters. Set in and around a New Zealand high school, it presents a modernised take on Much Ado About Nothing in the form of a vlog, with the various characters taking to the camera to share their thoughts with us.

Above is the first video in the series, in which Beatrice self-consciously introduces herself in standard vlog manner. In subsequent videos we follow the two stories of Hero and Claudio, and Beatrice and Benedick. In keeping with the multiple-viewpoint approach, there are different YouTube channels for the different characters. Beatrice and Hero share Nothing Much To Do; Benedick (Ben) speaks to us through benaddicktion; and Ursula makes videos for us via the Watch Projects channel. There are also Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Tumblr pages, and so on

This is an exceptional undertaking, absolutely in tune with its times. The parts are winningly performed and the plot and themes of Shakespeare’s plays credibly translated to twenty-first century New Zealand. It makes the transition of the sexual politics of Shakespeare’s era to the preoccupations of modern times seem not too forced, and it finds space for both the light and the dark, even if it is happier when things are happy. Compared to the complicated and rather heavy-handed attempt by the Royal Shakespeare Company to embrace the social media era with its Midsummer Night’s Dreaming of 2013, this seems unforced, a logical way of retelling what Shakespeare has to say, through the media and method most likely to be appreciated by its target audience. It also ably demonstrates how online video can free us from the stage by breaking down the received narrative and exploring its constituent parts afresh. This is why Shakespeare belongs on YouTube.

The Candle Wasters have gone on to translate Love’s Labour’s Lost into Lovely Little Losers, and have promised their own take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, entitled Bright Summer Night, for later in 2016.

The Candle Wasters
Nothing Much To Do YouTube channel
benaddicktion YouTube channel
Watch Projects YouTube channel
Playlist of all episodes
Wikipedia series entry
Other Not Much To Do channels (Facebook, Twitter, Tumble, Instagram etc)

Hamlet – the video blogger

Date: 2007
Posted by: LivingPassion
Credits: Filmed by Stefani Waters
Cast: Stefani Waters (Hamlet)
Duration: 4.32

American student and vlogger Stefani Waters decides to make a switch from reporting the personal to the camera to reciting Shakespeare. She gives readings of the soliloquies ‘I have of late, but wherefore I know not’ and ‘To be or not to be’ from Hamlet, in the same confessional mode as she does for her regular vlogs. The renditions are fine, every word heavy with meaning, the eyes at time engaged with the camera, at other times needing to look away. How curious it is that speeches that were designed for delivery to a theatre filled with people work so naturally in this intimate one-to-one setting. But it’s not really curious at all. The theatre for Shakespeare was only a means to an end, which was to speak to an audience. The more we experience Shakespeare outside the theatre’s narrow confines the better.

YouTube page