Villains and Heroes: An interview with the founders of Villain’s Theatre

Don’t miss your chance to see The Villain’s Theatre production of The Spanish Tragedy, on now through Sunday. You’ll find more information below.


In a city full of small, admirable theatre groups, The Villain’s Theatre (formerly Vile Passéist) has a unique perspective. Artistic Director Dan Bray and Artistic Producer Colleen MacIsaac co-founded the company eight years ago with the goal of exploring works from the early-modern period; their mandate then was to produce Renaissance plays that…wait a minute…weren’t Shakespeare. (Radical, yes.) Since then they’ve begun to produce fully original, more modern works as well as adaptations, but always inspired by the era.

Hence the name change two years ago. Vile Passéist was not only difficult to pronounce and remember, but didn’t express the evolution of the company. “We just found it was really alienating”, says Dan. “Sometimes people are afraid to come to one of our shows anyway, because they think they won’t understand it. And that’s the last thing we want, because we’ve found people are often surprised at how much they understand, and how easy the plays are to follow.” As they moved away from more traditional productions, a less academic, more playful – and slightly darker – name seemed more suitable.

Colleen MacIsaac and Dan Bray

Colleen MacIsaac and Dan Bray

In the past year, that evolution has manifested itself in two particularly striking shows. Arden, adapted by Bray from an anonymous 16th century tragic comedy, was staged memorably in the murky depths of Keith’s historic Brewery. “Think Renaissance Fargo”, said the official press, and that wasn’t far off. The incredibly atmospheric intimacy of the space was well-matched with some dynamite performances. (Although MacIsaac as Black Wil and Gordon White as Shakebag pretty much stole the show.) Their next major production, Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women – adapted and directed by Keelin Jack – was especially bold, a brutal bloodbath of a play filled with ill-fated affairs, power plays and entanglements.

And last night, The Spanish Tragedy opened at Bus Stop Theatre. It’s another Bray adaptation, this time of a revenge tragedy by Thomas Kyd, complete with ghosts and betrayals and more bloody murder. As Dan says, “part of the reason that these plays fell out of vogue [with the Victorians] in the first place was because they were too scandalous or too sexy or too violent or too scary. There’s all this extra spice to it.”

Although Shakespeare was the star of the Renaissance/early-modern era, he wasn’t the only literary genius in town. The collaborative spirit of the age meant that playwrights often borrowed from, worked with, and inspired each other. Dan: “Shakespeare wasn’t writing in a vacuum. Like Halifax, the community in Elizabethan England was so collaborative, that everything he wrote was a response to something else, or it inspired other things, and that’s what I love. Everything was connected, and you get such a richer understanding. It all gains so much colour and texture when you understand it all together.”

That spirit of collaboration and cooperation inspires MacIsaac and Bray. “We’ve both had really positive experiences with the Halifax theatre community”, says Colleen. “Something we’re pretty committed to, is providing opportunities for people to have points of access.” That means making sure that new artists have an opportunity to audition, or to be seen in public readings. In a small artistic community where everyone knows all the regular players, that’s an important foot in the door. “When we were starting, other theatre groups in town were so generous to us, in terms of support, or their interest, or coming out to shows. We want to make sure that we’re also paying that forward.”

The Spanish Tragedy/Photo credit: Stoo Metz

Feminism is an undercurrent in all of Villain’s works, not only in cross-casting (The Spanish Tragedy features an all-female cast), but more significantly in how they adapt works from a less-enlightened era. Colleen says: “With these plays, you’re confronted with so much misogyny, not only in the scripts themselves because of the time that they were written, but also in the choices you’re making in casting, the choices you’re making with adapting…what slant are you going to take when you tell the story, what things are you going to focus on. You have a choice to either just ignore that, or to comment on the state of the world today, on issues that are still affecting us today, and it’s really unfortunate and really awful that so many of these themes are so prevalent in today’s society.” Not that modern plays are exempt from misogyny, either. “It’s nice to be able to take these plays that were written 400 years ago and say, see, we’re still doing this, but we can move beyond it.”

And speaking of progress, what’s next for the Villains? As Colleen says, “Before, we were interested in contemplating these works from the past, and now we’re really interested in using them to move ourselves forward, both artistically and in terms of what we can say about the world we’re living in.” For Bray, that means developing his work-in-progress, Fox, inspired by Ben Jonson’s Volpone but also by the modern-day reality of Canadian sexual assault trials. MacIsaac has written a play called The Blazing World, which is based on a 17th century proto-science fiction novella by Margaret Cavendish (a philosopher/poet/playwright far ahead of her time). Some of Cavendish’s more outrageous elements (Zebra people! Zombie army!) may or may not make their way into the final draft, but I won’t give them all away here. We’ll just have to stay tuned, and maybe attend one of Villain’s many mid-season events to listen for clues. In the meantime, do yourself a favour and see The Spanish Tragedy. You’ll be surprised how much deliciously dark, bloody fun you’ll have.


The Spanish Tragedy is on now through Sunday, November 20th, at the Bus Stop Theatre on Gottingen. You can check showtimes and buy tickets here, and find out more about The Villain’s Theatre on their website. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for news about upcoming events and performances.

About the author

Kate Kirkpatrick

A Nova Scotia native, Kate chased the bright lights of other cities for a while, but eventually found her way home. She's the minder of all things Halifax Bloggers. And yes, she loves this town.