Living an actor’s life: Catherine Rainville untangles Twelfth Night with the Company of Fools

Left to Right: Catherine Rainville, Mary Ellis, Tamara Freeman, Garrett Quirk, Kate Smith, Kate McArthur. Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

Ottawa-born actor Catherine Rainville has a thing for William Shakespeare. How that happened, she’s sometimes not so sure.

Now based in Toronto, Rainville has been working solely in Shakespeare for the past six years, performing in Richard III, King John, Taming of the Shrew Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It, King Lear and more. She’s designed or directed other Shakespeare productions. And now she’s back in her hometown, playing Viola in A Company of Fools’ outdoor production of the gender-bending romantic comedy Twelfth Night starting July 2.

Ask Rainville – who is 31 and whose father is veteran Ottawa actor Paul Rainville – why she’s so drawn to Shakespeare, and she initially demurs.

“I totally have the same question and I’m not sure I have a clear answer.”

Once she starts to drill down, though, she does unearth some reasons for her passion.

With Shakespeare, “You have to be very dexterous, make the text work for you    There are certain challenges that come with Shakespeare because of the poetry, the iambic (pentameter), but there are so many opportunities within that to find different ways of playing it.”

She says she also relishes taking older texts and applying them to our contemporary mentality and politics to see what still stands up.

Rainville is particularly enamoured of Shakespeare when the work is presented in stripped-down fashion, in the manner of Shakespeare BASH’d – the upstart company she works with in Toronto that performs in bars and similar venues  – and A Company of Fools, which performs its annual summer shows in parks all over Ottawa.

When it’s a bare-bones production, says Rainville, “It’s intimate and that makes it accessible. It takes it off that pedestal. I like being able to look in the audience’s eyes when I’m doing a soliloquy, and I think Shakespeare lends itself to that very well.”

She believes that shows by companies like Shakespeare BASH’d and A Company of Fools are also a good introduction for folks who don’t normally go to theatre. “With the Fools, we’re already having so much fun, so how can an audience not get wrapped up in that?”

Despite her adult love of Shakespeare and the stage, Rainville resisted theatre when she was young, throwing herself instead into gymnastics, competitive diving and the like. But then, in grade seven, she played Hot Box Waitress in the classic musical Guys & Dolls. She had no lines but earned lots of laughs from the audience and was hooked.

She studied theatre at Ottawa’s arts-focused Canterbury High School and then at George Brown College in Toronto.

By the time she was ready to act professionally, she’d grown fond of Toronto (“I hated it at first: No one looked you in the eye”) and established artistic connections there.

By contrast, “I didn’t have a lot of contacts with the Ottawa theatre community other than the older generation because of my dad.”

Rainville, whose older brother Simon is an actor based in Halifax, says her parents were supportive of their children’s career decisions despite the precariousness of work in the arts.

“They encouraged us and still do, but for any parent it’s hard – they know the hardships.”

For her, those hardships include holding down a full-time administrative job in Toronto while shoehorning in busy rehearsal schedules. At one point, she tacked on a bar job to help pay the bills.

Regardless of workload, Rainville thrives on the relevance and depth of character in works like Twelfth Night (her father played Sir Toby Belch in a joyously inventive production of the play at the National Arts Centre in 2016).

The play – in which Viola, shipwrecked in Illyria, disguises herself as a man and then tumbles into a crazy love triangle involving herself/himself, Duke Orsino and Countess Olivia – lends itself naturally to the gender discussion which occupies us in 2018, says Rainville.

And Viola is, for the actor, a fascinating character who finds a way of navigating an uncertain world.

“I think she has a bit more of a sense of herself than some other women (in Shakespeare).”

Cast up on a strange shore, “She’s really smart: She lets things play out. If she’s going to make a life for herself, she has to get the lay of the land. She’s earnest and honest in a very chaotic world and she trusts her instincts are right, to do her best to make a life for herself. She’s quite brave.”

We could do worse in 2018 than follow Viola’s lead.

Twelfth Night runs July 2-Aug. 18 at parks in and around Ottawa. For tickets and more information:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.