Outdoor theatre connects enthusiasts of the bard to his roots at The Globe
The onset of spring and summer means that another season of outdoor theatre beckons.
For both long-time enthusiasts and newbies, there is nothing like it – feeling the sun set in a park or public place as you set up a blanket or folding lawn chair, or sitting down for an evening of theatre in such unique neighbourhood venues as barns, corner shops, old town halls or vaudeville places – experiencing a real sense of community.
Those behind the companies that create these performances point to a pay-what-you-can system as part of the reason why they have been successful. It’s local and affordable, making this an art form that is accessible to a lot of people.
For 25 years, Driftwood Theatre Group has brought the works of William Shakespeare to people across Ontario. The company is ramping up a tour of Shakespeare’s popular comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a scheduled Ontario tour from July 19 to Aug. 18 (27 dates in 25 communities).
Many of these companies bring their own perspective to the material. This year, Driftwood has developed a musical adaptation using Shakespeare’s text.
Shakespeare in the Ruff, about to embark on its eighth season in Toronto’s Withrow Park. Last year it performed Portia’s Julius Caesar to critical acclaim in a production that had women at the centre of the production – using 50 per cent Shakespeare and 50 per cent new writing.
Ruff is run by a collective of five people working part-time year-round, and 20 through the summer months.
“We will bring our lens of reinvention to the table as well,” co-artistic director Kaitlyn Riordan says.
Those who run Driftwood say they founded their company on the principle of “theatre for everyone,” and that’s not just the audience. It’s theatre for the volunteers, technicians, creators and artists as well.
“We still see opportunities for Driftwood to continue to expand into those communities with little or no direct access to professional theatre,” says D. Jeremy Smith, Driftwood’s artistic director. “Our goal is to fill the gaps and to make sure that everyone has access to theatre.”
All would agree part of what they are doing is a tip of the velvet cap to Shakespeare's original intention: to perform outdoors. Shakespeare’s own company built and operated a theatre open to the air, called The Globe, on the bank of the River Thames in London.
While there is more control working indoors, bringing the production outdoors means vast possibilities when talking audience experience.
“That unknown quality brings with it extraordinary energy,” Smith says. “You literally never know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. That’s exciting in a way that your traditional theatre experience can’t be. And when the great outdoors gives you the organic magic of a great sunset, a heavy fog, or a distant lightning strike, it adds immeasurably to the experience.”
Riordan says it’s even more meaningful because Shakespeare had so many references to nature in his writing.
“To hear a character speak about the wind and feel blowing through your hair in the same moment is a more visceral way to experience the story,” she says
Canadian Stage has been hosting Shakespeare in High Park for 37 years, making it Canada’s longest running outdoor theatre experience. This year’s run is scheduled from July 4 to Sept. 1 and features Much Ado About Nothing and Measure For Measure. Last year, more than 35,000 people attended.
Shakespeare in the Ruff will be performing The Winter’s Tale from Aug. 14 to Sept. 2.
The longevity of outdoor Shakespeare companies such as these says a lot both about the outdoor theatre experience as well as our ongoing interest in Shakespeare’s works.
“As we become more technologically obsessed, and very screen focused, opportunities for people to be together in a group, experiencing a common experience, becomes much more important,” says Brendan Healy, artistic director of Canadian Stage. “You can see that in live Shakespeare. You see families coming together, all sharing the same experience, as opposed to one kid on a computer, another kid on their phone, and someone’s watching TV.”
Healy, who grew up in Montreal and references the High Park Shakespeare shows as something that left a big impression on him growing up, points to the diversity of the crowd he encountered in the park.
“The pluralism of our city is really reflected in our audience,” he says.
Live performances are a great entry point to the theatre, he adds, and a great way to discover the art form.
“Sometimes theatre can be intimidating to people,” he says. “This is not an intimidating experience.”
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