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U of T alumna Erin Shields’s adaptation of Paradise Lost to première at Stratford Festival

Playwright Erin Shields: "My courses at U of T became very important sources of inspiration for me" (photo by Sabrina Reeves)

University of Toronto alumna Erin Shields, an award-winning playwright, will see her adaptation of Paradise Lost première at the Stratford Festival this summer. 

Shields, who graduated from the department of English at U of T in 2008, is now a playwright living in Montreal. Her plays have been translated into various languages, and produced at the Shaw Festival, the Tarragon Theatre and many other theatres across Canada.

In 2011 she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language drama for If We Were Birds. She has also been nominated for numerous awards, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the K.M. Hunter Artist Award, and five Dora Mavor Moore Awards. She recently won a Montreal English Theatre Award for best new text for her play, Instant.

Shields says she loves the communal experience of both making and watching plays and sees theatre as a radical antidote to our ever-increasing isolation from one another. Most of her work is a reimagining of established narratives through a contemporary lens. 

Professor Paul Stevens, chair of the department of English in the Faculty of Arts & Science, who inspired Shields on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, will be joining her in a panel discussion about original sin as part of the Stratford Festival’s Forum Events.

Shields spoke to Wajiha Rasul of the department of English about her adaptation of Paradise Lost

What made you interested in Milton’s work?

I was raised in the Anglican church and was always captivated by the stories – particularly the stories in the Old Testament. They were full of drama and action and fear and violence. I would pore over a copy of an illustrated children’s Bible, taking in the screaming sinners escaping the flood waters, a terrified Isaac with a knife pressed to his neck, King Solomon holding a naked baby by its ankle threatening to cut it in half and, of course, Eve biting into the apple with the wily serpent looking on. That first story, in particular, captivated me as a child. Was it possible that every human came from Adam and Eve? What exactly was original sin and how did it work? Could I really be blamed for something someone else had done?

In my third year studying English literature at the University of Toronto, I enrolled in a course to study John Milton through an intertextual study of Paradise Lost and scripture. My professor, 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. 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. 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.

Why Paradise Lost?

Paradise Lost stayed with me after that course. The theatrical potential beckoned to me and I made a couple of pieces, before this one, using Paradise Lost as source material. With the support of the Ontario Arts Council, I co-directed (with Lisa Pijuan-Nomura) a 13-artist, multidisciplinary interpretation of Paradise Lost. Through theatre, modern dance, puppetry, stand-up comedy, flamenco, bouffon, tabla, electronic music, storytelling and spoken word, we led 13 artists in an integrated investigation of the text. The piece was presented in a cabaret-style event at Lula Lounge in Toronto. Five years later, I wrote a one-woman show which examined the idea of original sin from a feminist perspective. Finally, I decided I was ready to take on the whole poem and proposed a contemporary, theatrical adaptation to the Stratford Festival.  

What different perspective will your adaptation of Paradise Lost offer?

Adapting a classical text, as I have done many times before, is an act of interacting with an author who is no longer alive. I work to understand author’s intent and, at the same time, consider my own relationship to the material, examining the text through my own Canadian, contemporary, female lens. It is a process of negotiation between staying faithful to the author’s intent and asserting my own opinions. The choices are both big and small. Milton, for example, transformed the Garden of Eden into an English garden. I have transformed it into a Canadian wilderness, specifically the woods of Northern Ontario where I spent my summers as a child. The mighty pines, the Canadian Shield, the blueberry bushes, the cry of the loons on the lakes – this is my paradise.

Milton’s portrayal of the gender dynamics between Adam and Eve are a reflection of his time. My Adam and Eve are a reflection of mine in that I have endeavoured to create an equitable power dynamic between them, an equality which is ultimately undone by the fall and Eve’s punishment. Also, my rebellious Satan is female and she speaks to directly to our contemporary secular audience, telling this iconic story from her perspective, contextualizing it for our time.

Your adaptation of Paradise Lost will première at the Stratford Festival – what does it mean to you?

When I was 11 years old, my parents booked tickets to see The Merchant of Venice at the Stratford Festival. Before seeing the play, my father thought it would be a good idea for us to read the play together aloud. Each night, my father and I would sit in the living room and he would patiently listen to me stumble through the text. Of course I played Portia, so there were quite a number of big speeches to work my mouth around. We discussed the text as we went and little by little I came to understand what I was reading. The language was like a puzzle. I remember getting to the end of the courtroom scene and being astonished that Shylock was ordered to become a Christian. Despite what he had done, that consequence seemed completely unjust.

When we walked into the enormous festival theatre, I was blown away by the size of it. I felt so small and the stage seemed so large. As the play came to life, I was delighted to discover that I could follow along. I could laugh as Portia made fun of her suitors. I could feel Jessica’s desperation to get away from her strict father. I could feel the love between Antonio and Bassanio. When the play neared the end of the courtroom scene, I waited for Antonio to insist that Shylock become a Christian. To my surprise, that line never came. Why not? Did the actor forget his line? Or did the director agree with me that that punishment seemed too harsh? Whatever it was, I had noticed it. I had known the text so well, that I had noticed when something had been omitted. This made me feel empowered and completely in love with the theatre.

After that, we made a yearly pilgrimage to Stratford to see Shakespeare’s greatest hits. We continued to read the text aloud before we went, our cast growing to eventually include my three younger sisters. Seeing those plays was really the beginning of my love of theatre.

So yes, it is a big deal. It is a huge deal that one of my plays will première at the Stratford Festival.  

How helpful was your degree in English in pursuing your dream career?

My English degree was my second degree. I trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama (now the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance) in London, England, from 1996-1999. For the next few years after I graduated, I worked as an actor in Toronto and quickly discovered that in order to be consistently working, I had to make opportunities for myself. That’s how I started playwriting. While I’d loved my practical acting training, I felt I had missed the opportunity to read. To spend time with language and literature and intelligent professors who had spent a considerable amount of time thinking about language and literature. That’s why I decided to do a second degree in English literature. And I completed three years of that degree (I bypassed my first year because of my other degree) in five years.

Throughout my studies, I was constantly making theatre. My courses at U of T became very important sources of inspiration for me. Many of my early works are connected, in some way, to the reading and thinking I did for my degree. That is perhaps why many of my pieces today are contemporary adaptations of canonical texts.