Q: What is your background as a theatre practitioner and playwright?
Erin Shields: After high school in Hamilton, I studied acting for three years in a conservatory program at Rose Bruford College of Speech in Drama in London, England, and then moved to Toronto. It was incredibly difficult to break into the acting scene, so I decided the only way forward was to start writing and performing my own material.
The first play I wrote was called Hotdog, a one-woman show about a vegetarian who eats a hotdog. (It all goes downhill from there!) I self-produced the show and toured it to fringe festivals across the country, which was an incredible experience.
The following years I collaborated with my theatre peers (Andrea Donaldson, Maev Beaty, Alan Dilworth, Brendan Healy, Gideon Arthurs and many more who are still working in theatre today) to write, act and produce my own shows with my company, Groundwater Productions, in festivals like Rhubarb and the Fringe. My breakout play was If We Were Birds, which Alan Dilworth directed for the Summerworks Festival in 2008. It was picked up by Richard Rose and played at the Tarragon Theatre in 2010.
Since that time, most of my work has been as a playwright rather than an actor. I have written shows for larger theatres such as Shaw, Tarragon Theatre and the Segal Centre, but continue to write small-scale pieces as well. In 2014, I moved to Montreal, where I live with my husband and daughters. Most recently I premièred a piece in Montreal in both French and English with a site-specific company called Théâtre à corps perdus.
Q: When did you first have the idea to adapt Paradise Lost as a theatrical piece? How did it find its way to Stratford?
ES: While I was forging my way as a young theatre-maker, I decided to do a part-time degree in English literature at the University of Toronto. In my third year, I took a course exploring John Milton through an intertextual study of Paradise Lost and scripture. My professor, Dr. Paul Stevens, is the person who really cracked open Paradise Lost for me. He approached the text with respect, but also a healthy dose of irreverent humour, and his passionate, often provocative, lectures led us on a journey through the text.
We did not work chronologically but rather thematically, examining the Old Testament from a Protestant perspective in an attempt to comprehend Milton's relationship to the Bible. Professor Stevens facilitated an in-depth investigation that linked the texts so completely I often felt as though I was observing a dialogue between the texts - not only noting the Bible's influence on Paradise Lost but also the impact Milton had had on a contemporary reading of the Bible. At the completion of that class, I knew my curiosity for both texts had only just begun.
Paradise Lost stayed with me long after that course. The theatrical potential beckoned to me, and I wrote a couple of pieces before this one, using Paradise Lost as source material. Finally, I decided I was ready to take on the whole poem, and proposed a contemporary theatrical adaptation to the Stratford Festival.
I reached out to the Director of New Plays, Bob White, about my idea for the adaptation, and he asked me to prepare a two-page description of the project, which was then green-lit for a first-draft commission. For about ten months, I worked on the first draft (which was more like a third draft by the time I submitted it), then sent it back to Bob. The Festival then offered me a full commission to finish the play. We had a couple of workshop readings along the way.
Q: What were some of the main challenges you faced in creating this theatrical interpretation of such a dense work of literature?
ES:Paradise Lost is often held up as The Greatest Work of English Literature. So … that was intimidating. Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost and therefore dictated the epic poem, so I decided the best place to start would be to read the text aloud - in some manner channelling the way in which it was originally written. Like Shakespeare, Milton's text resonates in the body, so reading it aloud gave me a deeper understanding of the text. As I worked to contemporize the poem, I made choices about which elements of the text to stay close to and which elements to veer away from. I gave myself permission to bend the story and language - staying true to what I felt to be the drive of Milton's work, but freeing up the details.