“Some Are Born Great, Others Achieve Greatness”: After 20 Months in Production, Reuben Stewart and Jack Burrill bring Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the Stage

Friends and artistic partners Reuben Stewart and Jack Burrill bring their production of William Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ to the Lindsay Little Theatre Stage in Lindsay, Ontario at the end of July after 20 months in production due to delays from the Covid-19 pandemic. (photo by Jessica Scott)

After over a year of inactivity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many theatres across Ontario are finally beginning to come out of the darkness and, once again, are preparing to take the stage for the first time in over a year.  While the odd theatre company, here and there, were able to find occasional opportunities to do small shows, this is the first time in a long time that many theatre companies have been able to regroup to put together outdoor shows to low-capacity audiences.

But for Jack Burrill and Reuben Stewart, two nineteen-year-old performers from Lindsay, Ontario, getting their production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in front of an audience has been a twenty-month odyssey which is finally about to come to fruition.  In production since November 2019, what started as a high school production has become an all-consuming obsession for the boys who refused to give up when COVID shut down their show.  Now, nearly two years since they began production, Twelfth Night finally opens on July 30th at the Lindsay Little Theatre.

Seated in the empty darkened theatre space at the Lindsay Little Theatre, far away from the bustle of the actors outside who are preparing for the evenings dress rehearsal, Jack and Reuben exude a number of different emotions between them, including excitement and optimism, but also a bit of nervousness.  Jack is not only director of the show but plays Sir Toby Belch, and his friend and artistic partner Reuben is the producer while also playing the role of Malvolio.

Jack and Reuben’s friendship began when they met each other during the Sears Drama Festival in early 2019.  Jack was directing and performing in an original play he wrote, Sun in the West, and Reuben was selling tickets.  However, a solid friendship formed when the pair discovered that they both had a mutual love for the works of William Shakespeare.

“What really connected us as friends was our love for Twelfth Night,” Rueben tells.  “We used to binge the production of Twelfth Night that Jack has on DVD.  It’d be the nights where we would have a glass of rum and watch it and that’d be the evening.”

Twelfth Night was the play that got me into acting,” Jack says to me. ”I read it in Grade 10 English, and I loved it.  As part of the class, we had to perform a scene from it, and I played Sir Toby.  The teacher told me I was great, and I knew I wanted to be that character and do as much as I can with this.”

“Compared to all of Shakespeare’s other work, the characters in Twelfth Night are so eccentric,” Jack continues.  “It’s funny, but it also has a lot of themes that touch on society and relationships now.  In a performance aspect it’s just a play, but as my favorite it’s because there is so much there, and it’s so funny.  As a literature nerd I love it.  There is so much to dissect.”

Students at I.E. Welden Secondary School, the friends performed  together in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, but it was a trip to Stratford, Ontario which opened their eyes to the importance of Shakespeare in our modern word.  “When I went to Stratford, I saw how all the seats were filled and how much people loved Shakespeare,” Jack recalls.  “But when I got home people I was around would say ‘I don’t like it.  It’s stupid.  I don’t get it. Why do we learn it?’ But to myself I think it’s awesome.  I don’t think people want to take the time to understand why it’s important, and why it’s still taught.  It still has themes and meanings that are still important today.  I feel like I have this mission to have more people to understand that, whether I need to teach it or direct it or perform in it. I want to reinstall a love in Shakespeare in everybody.”

It was after this trip that the Jack and Rueben convinced Mr. James Simmons, the supervising teacher for the drama program at the school, to allow them to stage Twelfth Night.  With Jack and Reuben at the helm of the show, Mr. Simmons adapted the production to be told as a homage to the John Hughes teen dramadies of the 1980’s.  Starting production at the school in November 2018, Jack and Reuban assembled a cast of their classmates and started work on the show.  But what nobody could have known at the time is that the original production of the show would not ever be seen.

“I feel like I have this mission to have more people to understand that, whether I need to teach it or direct it or perform in it. I want to reinstall a love in Shakespeare in everybody.” (Photo by Jessica Scott)

To put in perspective how close the original production of Twelfth Night was to hitting the stage, I was working as an arts and theatre journalist when the COVID pandemic shut theatres down in March 2020,  and Jack and Reuben’s production of Twelfth Night was the next show on my schedule to preview before my career as a reviewer was halted.  As the boys explained it to me, they went on March Break and were to return to school to go into full dress rehearsals, but they never went back to school and the show was put in a state of limbo.  But, with an optimism that somehow, and some time, they would get the show back on the stage again, while theatre companies everywhere were shutting down their shows, Reuben, Jack and the cast of Twelfth Night kept rehearsing weekly over the on-line gaming platform Discord.  But while this version of the production stayed together throughout the summer, with the school year over and no end to the pandemic in sight, by August of 2020 the cracks started to form within the group.

“We rehearsed almost every week from the closure of the show until about August, and then everybody started to lose hope.” Jack recalls. “But for Reuben and I, and a couple of others, stopping just didn’t feel right with us.  We stopped for a little while, but Reuban and I just felt like we couldn’t leave this.  We were too close to going on stage.”

“The love for the play in particular kept us going,” Jack continues.  “There was this weird unrest about it.  I just couldn’t sit until it was done.  Months after I would lay awake thinking about it.  This was a show people needed to see, and a show we needed to put on.  I felt so unfinished and unsatisfied after all the work we had poured into this show.  Throwing away all that was like throwing away a lifetime.”

No longer a school project and now a passion project, Jack and Rueben decided to regroup their resources again.  Although the majority of their company had now bailed ship, they still had three performers who committed to stick with them – Nathan Scott in the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Sarah Chisholm as Olivia and Jeanne Truax as Feste the Jester.  These three dedicated performers have been Jack and Reuban’s constant support and companions during the full extent of bringing the show to the stage, and their commitment and perseverance should also be noted and praised.  When Twelfth Night opens at the Lindsay Little Theatre, Nathan, Sarah and Jeanne will also be looking back at twenty months in this production.

From school play to passion project, Rueben Stewart, Jack Birrill and friends Nathan Scott, Sarah Chisholm and Jeanne Traux have been dedicated to bring Twelfth Night to the stage throughout the entire pandemic. Together they have been in production for 20 months. (Left to right) Producer Rueben Stewart as Malvolio, Nathan Scott as Sir Andrew, director Jack Birell as Sir Toby, Sarah Chisolm as Olivia and Jeanne Traux as Fester the Jester. (Photo by Jessica Scott)

But now the challenge was finding a theatre that would commit to allowing the boys to stage the show at their facitility.  During a time of uncertainty when stages were still dark, with some theatre’s struggling to stay open or folding completely, finding a group that would put faith in the boys and their vision proved challenging.  Jack and Reuben turned to The Lindsay Little Theater, where they had appeared together in a production of The Heart of Robin Hood in 2019 (Jack played Robin Hood, Reuben played Prince John), where former LLT president Kathryn Wooldrige-Condon took them under her wing and championed them to the theatre’s board of directors when they prepared a proposal to bring Twelfth Night to LLT at some undetermined time.

“It took us nine months to prepare to bring this to LLT, and we brought it to the board and killed it, and they took us on,” Reuban remembers.  “But it felt like we were on Dragon’s Den.  But now we are here.”

But during this part of the saga, life threw the boys another curve ball when Reuben’s family moved to Atlanta, Georgia for his father’s job.  Yet, despite the geographic challenge, Reuben still stayed committed.  “I moved to the States for six months while all this was happening, and we were doing on-line rehearsals.” Reuben explains.  “During the pitch meeting with LLT I was still in Georgia, and it was done over ZOOM so that was awkward.  Everyone was in freezing cold weather while I was enjoying the sun.  But it was a really weird thing to go through, and Jack really had to do a lot of the heavy lifting at first, to make sure that people were still on board, and ensure that everything was still going, because I could only do so much over the phone.  But we did it and its going great.”

In the months that followed, despite uncertainty exactly when the show would happen, the boys had to nearly recast the entire production despite being in a lockdown and start conducting on-line rehearsals again.  With Jack reassuming his role as director, he was working with primarily a group of people who had never done Shakespeare before, which brought on its own challenges.  “For the first bit I had to teach a lot of people Shakespeare.,” Jack tells. “A lot of people had never done it, so I became their teacher during the on-line rehearsals.  But we have a great cast of people who want this show to happen, and they are all doing a great job getting the material down.  I am so thankful for everyone involved and their dedication to this show.”

With numerous controversial reopening and shutdowns in Ontario, the future of the production kept being an emotional rollercoaster.  The company hoped to get the show staged in March 2020, but another shut down dashed their hopes.  “I completely lost my mind by this point” Jack admits.  “I felt like I had PTSD.”

“I completely lost my mind by this point. I felt like I had PTSD.” (Photo by Jessica Scott)

But by June things began to look better for the show.  With mass vaccinations becoming a reality, the complete company got their first shots.  Reuben returned from Georgia and with a group of theatre volunteers, an outdoor stage was designed and behind the theatre that could host a limited audience under Ontario’s health guidelines.  By the end of June, for the first time since March 2020, in person rehearsals were finally being conducted observing government related safety protocols, and when tickets went on sale set at 25 seats only in conjunction with Stage 2 safety procedures the entire run of the show sold out within days.

“I remember checking Eventbrite every few hours” Reuben says of the ticket sales.  “I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

Visiting the set-in early June, I was struck by the passion, the dedication, and the professionalism of the entire cast.  The buzz of excitement of the company who have been hungering to do theatre again was addictive, and everyone involved share in the passion of Jack and Reuban’s vision.  But most of all, while I had myself questioned writing about the theatre anymore, my love for the theatre returned by being back amongst LLT’s company.

Then, in early July, the Ontario government put the province into Stage 3 of reopening, allowing LLT to add another twenty seats to each performance.  At this writing there is up to another 120 additional tickets available for the show.

So, with Twelfth Night finally coming to fruition, what happens for Jack and Reuban when its over?  “Have you ever seen Nany McPhee or Mary Poppins?” Jack says with a smirk. “We have a theory when the show is over it’ll be a little like that.  We will take our final bows and then dissolve into fairy dust.  We’ve satisfied our life’s purpose.”

“But in reality, there is going to be a lot of tears,” Reuben says.  “In one sense there will be a lot of relief because it’s been a lot of work, and we’ve been carrying it for two years.  But it’s become such a huge part of our lives, so there will be tears.  I already know I’m going to ugly cry.”

“I actually haven’t thought a lot about the end, because I dread what I’ll feel when it’s over, or if I’ll feel at all,” Jack adds.  “I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to mentally process it.”

But when Twelfth Night finishes its run on August 8th, the story doesn’t end for Jack and Reuben.  Both boys have been accepted to the same program at Centennial College in Toronto where they are going to continue to study theatre together.

“We’re kind of like The Odd Couple. He’s Felix and I’m Oscar. That is us. ” (Photo by Jessica Scott)

“As of today, we’re officially roommates” Jack says with a laugh.

“Yeah, it’s terrifying”, Reuben quips.

“We’ve joked about it,” Jack continues. “We’re kind of like The Odd Couple.  He’s Felix and I’m Oscar.  That is us.   But we’ve lived together before.  Reuban lived at our place for a few weeks when his parents were still in Georgia, and I quarantine at his place when the pandemic first started.  So, I think it’ll be okay.”

Two friends connected with their love for the Bard, Jack and Reuben’s dedication to their production of Twelfth Night has been filled with hope, perseverance and dedication to their art and vision.  Their commitment to this production, and for never giving up on it, is a true testament to their love for the theatre, and to this show.  It is with this fire in their hearts that they are sure to continue with much success as their theatrical training continues.  But no matter what the future deals them, keeping Twelfth Night alive during the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic is a crowing achievement to their theatrical journey already.

At this writing tickets to Twelfth Night at Lindsay Little Theatre are still available.  Visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/twelfth-night-by-william-shakespeare-tickets-157087493923/

About the author

Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post, CNN.com, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.