SHAKESPEARE BY THE SEA - A look back and a look ahead at the outdoor theatre festival now in its 23rd season
There’s a growing body of research out there that suggests a walk in the park can soothe the mind and even lead to a creative breakthrough. It certainly did for a group of Dalhousie University theatre students in 1994, whose casual stroll through Point Pleasant Park one spring day sparked a question: Wouldn’t this place, a 75-hectare park on the southern tip of the Halifax peninsula, be the perfect spot for an outdoor Shakespeare theatre festival?
It would, it turns out, and plenty agreed with them. That Canada Day weekend, they performed Twelfth Night four times to 3,000 people at the park’s Cambridge Battery, and Shakespeare by the Sea was born.
The company grew rapidly from there, attracting up to 25,000 people per year near the beginning and experimenting with different formats, such as one show one summer and eight shows another. “That initial excitement evened out, though,” says Co-Artistic Director Jesse MacLean, “and as time went on we found it that it works well to do three shows — one family show and two Shakespeares — in July and August, the format we have now.”
Since that Canada Day launch in ’94, Shakespeare by the Sea has gone on to present 80 professional productions and 24 premieres of new works to over 330,000 audience members. For the past seven or eight years, those audience numbers have held steady at about 10,000 per year.
This year, Pinocchio (July – September 4), As You Like It (July 1 – September 3) and King Lear (August 5 – September 2) round out the lineup, and like the first year of the festival, they’ll all be staged at Cambridge Battery, which is about a 10-minute walk from the Tower Road parking lot. Admission is by donation, and though the suggestion is $20, no one will be turned away.
With Pinocchio, expect a big family musical with a twist, says MacLean. “Last year, for example, we did Sleeping Beauty, and it was a 1980s time travel musical. So sometimes the adaptation is not something you’d expect.” He’s remaining purposely coy about the content of their take on the story of the puppet-turned-real-boy, partly because when I talk to him they’re still developing it in the rehearsal process, but he does say that it’s set in the Italian countryside and features original music by Halifax-based composer Garry Williams.
As You Like It may not be Shakespeare’s most famous comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night probably take that title), but it does have some of the Bard of Avon’s most quoted lines, including “all the world’s a stage” and “too much of a good thing.” The story follows Rosalind as she flees persecution in her uncle’s court and her attempt to find safety and love in the Forest of Arden.
King Lear, on the other hand, is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, some even calling it the greatest tragedy ever written. It depicts Lear’s descent into madness after dividing his kingdom among his three daughters — Goneril, Regan and Cordelia — based on how much they love him. “And there’s a heightened sense of reality with this family drama,” says MacLean, “because Lear is played by Paul Rainville, his daughter Catherine is playing Cordelia, and his son Simon is playing Edgar.”
For 22 seasons, Shakespeare by the Sea has been a hit for locals and tourists, and MacLean doesn’t see that changing any time soon. That doesn’t mean his team won’t have their share of challenges to deal with, however. The biggest one in recent years, which continues, was the 2014 fire at the company’s Park Place Theatre, an 82-seater near the entrance to Point Pleasant Park that worked as a rain venue. It remains closed for productions.
“The process to get it back open is extremely slow,” says MacLean. “It’s a city-owned building on federal land, so we’re basically caught in the system. But we’ve started a capital campaign, and there’s a little bit of work that’s going to be done this fall to start the process, so we’re hopeful it’ll open soon.”
In the meantime, Shakespeare by the Sea will keep doing what it does best: giving people a chance to get outside, have an experience with others and reflect on the human condition. “There really is something special about having a shared experience and then having a chat about it on the way out of the park,” says MacLean. “For me, that’s the best part as a director — seeing people digest it after. If it’s a tragedy, maybe working through some emotions; if it’s a comedy, maybe they’re laughing, saying ‘I needed that.’”
And who knows? Maybe, like the founders of this fest, a visit there is just what you’ll need for your next creative breakthrough.