You might not expect a company specializing in 400-year-old works to be on the leading edge of diversity hiring and women’s equality.
William Shakespeare, after all, wrote all his roles for men—including his female ones.
But as it prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary this summer, Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival finds itself sitting proudly at the forefront of change. Not only is the organization run by a woman, executive director Claire Sakaki, but she reports that around 75 percent of its year-round staff are women, with a number closer to 50 percent when you count its summer production teams.
The coming anniversary season plays out that theme robustly on-stage: all four works are told through a female protagonist, including Shakespeare’s Coriolanus—whose title role, a male Roman leader, is played by a woman (Moya O’Connell). In addition, the fest is staging an India-set All’s Well That Ends Well whose creative team is more than half South Asian (including Diwali in B.C.’s Rohit Chokhani, who codirects with Johnna Wright).
“Twenty-five or 30 years ago, Bard on the Beach did very traditional stagings of things—you very rarely saw anything outside of a traditional Elizabethan setting,” Sakaki tells the Straight over the phone from the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres conference in Saskatoon. “I feel like Bard has really grown up with the community, in a way. It was a small organization with [artistic director and founder] Christopher Gaze selling candy in the concession all those years ago. And so many of those artists that were integral to the company in those days are still with us, but there are more women and more diverse actors.”
Sakaki stresses there’s always more that can be improved. But so far, that diversity and a push for contemporary interpretations have helped the fest build bigger audiences than ever before. Last year, Bard celebrated a record season, with 93 percent full houses and an extended run of its Beatles-infused As You Like It—a musical rendition so successful that it will soon be produced in Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Chicago.
For the summer 2019 season, along with All’s Well, Bard will produce a spaghetti-western-style The Taming of the Shrew. It’s also moved beyond just creating works by the Bard of Avon; this year it’s adapting the hit film Shakespeare in Love to the stage.
“It’s our job to take 400-year-old stories and make them relevant,” Sakaki says. “Audiences want to see these beautiful classic stories told in a new way.”
When Sakaki came to the company five-and-a-half years ago, she had been raised on the classics, but was excited to bring them into today. Coming from Toronto’s acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre Company, she was curious to work with a park-set festival that’s unique in this country. Not only does Bard earn an unheard-of 70 percent of its overall revenue from ticket sales (many nonprofit theatre groups sit in the mid-20s, with some aggressive companies hitting the 60s), it also carries its own structural demands.
“It’s a really interesting business model, creating a mini village every summer in the park and then tearing it down again at the end,” Sakaki says, then adds with a laugh: “I initially thought, ‘Oh! Tents! Tents are easy!’ But tents are very hard!”
From there, Sakaki has not only helped push for more contemporary retellings of Shakespeare’s work, but also driven the expansion of education programs in schools and community centres, and pushed to establish the Bard Lab in 2015-16, where new scripts can be developed. The first show from that experiment was commissioned for last year’s season—Lois Anderson’s all-female adaptation of Lysistrata, Bard on the Beach’s first stab at Greek theatre and a resounding success that packed houses.
As the progress continues and Bard enters its fourth decade, Sakaki thinks she’s figured out some of the keys to success at the Shakespeare festival.
“It’s a community that’s been so supportive of what we’ve done,” she says. “Our artistic team has really taken all that I said about who our audience is and paid great attention to both pleasing and challenging our audience.”