In his proto-rom-com As You Like It, the Bard of Avon famously declared that all the world is a stage. Several centuries later, some lesser writer suggested that, in fact, life is a beach. For the past twenty summers in Kits, both are correct.
The left coast’s outdoorsy answer to Stratford, Bard on the Beach has become one of the country’s biggest Shakespeare festivals and Vanier Park the place to see shows by the seashore.
Bard is the baby of a British thesp by the name of Christopher Gaze who decided what his adopted city needed most was solid servings of affordable Shakespearean theatre.
After scoring a modest Canada Council grant, Gaze founded Bard on the Beach as a non-profit equity co-op and staged a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a budget of $35,000 that attracted around 6,000 people over 34 shows. Two decades later, Bard boasts a budget of nearly $3.5 million, employs a veritable small army of actors, designers and technicians, and performs to nearly 90,000 souls a season.
It also now offers at least four plays for patrons to choose from; usually two tried, tested and true crowd-pleasers running in rep in the 520-seat open-ended Mainstage tent (which has ocean views, rugged mountains and regularly scheduled sunsets as the backdrop) and two rather more obscure selections from the canon inside a smaller tent.
“It is really two theatre companies, one that works the Mainstage and the other that works the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage,” Bard’s artistic director explained to in a recent meeting in the Elizabethan theatre troupe’s office in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex.
The current season sees The Comedy of Errors and the tragedy of Othello playing under the big top while Richard II and All’s Well That Ends Well take turns in the 240-seater.
The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s first stab at writing farce, is a perennially popular pick and one Bard has already performed twice before. “It’s big fun,” said the dapper Gaze, who still looks spry and has a twinkle in his eye at the age of 56. (Those of you with small children may also know him through moonlighting gigs voicing Turaga Vakama in the Bionicles cartoons or Fungus Maximus from the Barbie series.)
The latest version of this relentlessly goofy romp is directed by David MacKay, who called the shots behind last year’s critically-acclaimed interpretation of Twelfth Night, and stars Ryan Bell and Shawn MacDonald as a double-threat pair of long lost identical twins having various misadventures with unsuspecting spouses, would-be lovers, and disgruntled creditors. “It’s a great access point for people who either want a great night out or who are perhaps intimidated by Shakespeare,” said Gaze.
It is somehow surprising that this is only the company’s first staging of Othello, what the famous critic A.C. Bradley called “the most painfully exciting and the most terrible” of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
“There is simply a limited market of black actors on the West Coast,” Gaze admitted. “We generally cast about 95 per cent of our actors from the Vancouver area.”
Director Dean Paul Gibson had to head to Hogtown in search of a suitable Moor and came back with Soulpepper stalwart Michael Blake, whose recent roles on Toronto stages include a well-received As You Like It’s Orlando and George Murchison in A Raisin in the Sun. Naomi Wright plays the doomed Desdemona while Bob Frazer (winner of a Best Actor Jessie award last year for his turn as Petruchio in Bard’s A Taming of the Shrew) rounds out the leads as Iago, the streetwise scumbag skilled at playing the race card.
“There are extremely wonderful and able actors here. It’s a thrilling, dark, brooding, dangerous, magnificent piece,” said Gaze.
Meanwhile, in the smaller space, Rachel Ditor makes her Bard directorial debut with the somewhat smutty comedy All’s Well That Ends Well. The tale in a nutshell: Physician’s daughter Helena (Lois Anderson) magically cures the king of an illness and as thanks he rewards her with her choice of a husband. She opts for the reluctant Bertram (Craig Erickson), who announces he doesn’t have the hots for her and never will, unless she gets from him a ring he never takes off and gets herself with child by him as well. Shenanigans ensue.
Last but not least, Bard artistic associate Chris Weddell’s staging of Richard II, starring Haig Sutherland, will be the first installment in a three-year history series dubbed “The Kings” by Bard brass.
“Next year we’re going to do Henry IV I and II together and call it ‘Falstaff.’ I think it will be interesting for audiences to follow Hal and his two fathers – the Falstaff father and the Henry IV real father. The following year will be Henry V so audiences will see the progression of Hal. The following year again will be the Henry VI’s. We’ll probably call it ‘War of the Roses’ and we’ll squash that into an evening and then flowing in that same season into the great and astonishing Richard III.
Gaze expects to have completed the canon by 2025. “We could have done it sooner but this is a nice pace,” he said. There’s also the possibility of the odd production of works by playwrights not named William Shakespeare. In the past, Bard has put on both Tom Stoppard’s famous Hamlet offshoot Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shylock, Mark Leiran-Young’s one-man companion piece to the problematic The Merchant of Venice.
“So long as it is clearly and directly related,” said Gaze. “It won’t be an arbitrary thing, like ‘Let’s do Hay Fever or ‘Absurd Person Singular.’ I think down the road in the next few years you might see plays like The Lion In Winter, which would pair up nicely with King John. You might see A Man For All Seasons along with Henry VIII.”
Bard on the Beach is also more than just Shakespeare in the Park. The company has a variety of educational programs such as Bard in the Classroom – which sees an instructor visit 250 different schools during the off season in order to make Shakespeare “much more accessible, much more fun, and much more participatory” – and the popular on-site Young Shakespeareans programs, which sees several hundred kids between the ages of 8 and eighteen perform abridged versions of the plays.
The season is also peppered with such highlights as Bard-B-Q & Fireworks (which coincides with the annual Celebration of Light fireworks competition over English Bay), Chatterbox Tuesdays (featuring post-performance Q&A with cast members), several lecture series and even a wine & cheese night. Gaze, an opera buff and very much a believer in the “cross-pollination of the arts”, is particularly proud of the Opera & Arias nights, where the UBC Opera Ensemble, directed by Nancy Hermiston, and members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra will perform Mozart’s Così fan tutte on Aug. 31 and Sept 7-8. “[Hermisten] is sending out some of the best singers anywhere, who win the Met competition on a fairly regular basis,” said Gaze.
The million-dollar question for all arts-related organizations this year is how much effect the current recession is going to have on the bottom line. An unfazed Gaze seemed not to be overly worried about it.
“It’s not going to be bad for us but it’s not going to be as good as it was last year. We are seeing some slippage in corporate sponsorship and we’re seeing some advertising shortfall as well. Our tickets are on sale and so far we’re seeing everything keep up to last year and the year before that. So, God willing, the people will come. It would be easy to put another six dollars on the ticket price and have to worry much less about corporate support but that’s not what we’re about.”
While the strange times we live in these days have seen the once inconceivable fall of such titans as Big Auto and Big Banks, it still somehow seems impossible that – over four hundred years and counting – audiences will ever tire of the works and words of William Shakespeare.