Young actors thrive in Bard on the Beach's passion-filled Romeo and Juliet

Andrew Chown and Hailey Gillis find a dream gig in the annual Shakespeare festival's stunning setting

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      It’s easy to take Vancouver for granted—until you talk to someone who’s spending the summer here for the first time.

      Such is the case for Andrew Chown and Hailey Gillis, the young Ontario actors taking on the title roles in Romeo and Juliet at Bard on the Beach this year—a gig they both describe as “the dream contract”.

      “When I was hired, everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, Bard is the best gig in Canada,’ ” Chown relates, sitting in one of Bard’s oceanside tents, having biked to the site like a true Vancouverite.

      “For me to see this every day...” he adds, surveying Vanier Park beyond the work crews erecting the elaborate red-and-white tent village. “Where else am I going to see this, witness the sunset, every day?”

      “We were saying yesterday that it’s so nice to breathe fresh air, because so often during tech time in a theatre you feel like you’re in a cave for two weeks—like, ‘Am I a vampire?’” his energetic, dark-haired costar says, jumping in. “It’s so nice to stand there and say, ‘That’s the ocean, those are mountains,’ and to breathe this fresh, fresh air and say, ‘I’m awake. I’m ready.’ ”

      It’s more than just the setting of Bard’s open-air main stage that has the pair so pumped to be here for the next three months. They’re working with director Kim Collier, whose 2013 Hamlet was one of Bard’s most unforgettable productions, as well as a cast full of acclaimed Bard on the Beach veterans, like Scott Bellis, Dawn Petten, Anton Lipovetsky, Jennifer Lines, and Andrew McNee. And, of course, they’ve scored the lead roles in one of William Shakespeare’s best-loved plays—the story of feuding families keeping two star-crossed lovers apart, a tale that still reduces everyone from hormonal high-school English students to veteran theatregoers to tears.

      “I think I first connected with the text—not an actual performance, but the book in my hands,” says Gillis, who remembers the play from school in Grimsby, Ontario. “When I was reading it I was trying to figure out who I was independently, and I think that’s what Juliet’s going through—trying to figure out who she is separate from what she’s grown up with.

      “She’s kind of battling these feelings that don’t connect with these feelings that she’s been taught. I think that was maybe it: ‘to thine own self be true.’ That’s what I connected to when I was younger—and just the beauty of the language.”

      Chown, a National Theatre School grad, laughs and says his first exposure to the play was also at school—but in a renegade movie version. “I had a teacher in Grade 6 who was pretty zany and probably played us films we weren’t allowed to see in our school,” he says. “One of them was the Leo DiCaprio Romeo & Juliet, the Baz Luhrmann film.

      “I don’t think I ever connected with Romeo that much before. I never empathized with him because he was the lover and Mercutio’s cool,” he adds, referring to Romeo’s witty pal, and then recalls with a grin: “Actually, when I was auditioning I was brought in for Romeo with Kim, and she said, ‘So you’re auditioning for Romeo?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I think so, though I guess every young man wants to be Mercutio.’ ”

      Of course, Chown’s attitude has changed—and the actors say this show fires up the passions big-time. Gillis says Collier is emphasizing the way some characters direct those passions into beauty and love, while others channel them into violence and hate.

      “Also, this production is timeless: it’s period-influenced, but it’s not set in any specific time or place,” Chown says, referring to the scenery, designed by Pam Johnson, that mixes the classic and contemporary. “So it is for all time: these feuds still exist in the world today, and if we place it in a specific setting, which you can do very beautifully, it allows the audience to say, ‘Oh, those people and their problems.’ I like the idea that this is saying we’re all culpable and we all have this capacity for violence and for hate and—to be completely cheesy—the only actual solution is the possibility of love.”

      The biggest challenge, both actors say, is to maintain that fresh surge of first love in every show they do at Bard this summer—sometimes even two times a day, when there are matinees.

      Brian Linds’s immersive sound design is one production element that helps keep Chown focused.

      “Also I’m noticing, if I’m talking about her eyes, then I really have to look at Hailey’s eyes—I have to see them,” he adds. “I love that: always expect the scene or the play or the moment to go a different way than it actually goes. Like if we play the tragedy right off the top, then it doesn’t work; when I fall in love with her and marry her I have to truly believe that we’ll make it.”

      The key to the work, they end up agreeing, is getting the audience to that same place of belief—even if they know what’s to come.

      “Everyone who comes in to see the show knows how it’s going to end, but if the show’s done well, then they forget halfway through and think, ‘They might make it,’ ” says Gillis. "That’s the tragedy. I go through that too: I go, ‘Maybe… Maybe in this one the ending won’t happen.'”

      For now, that place of hope is where Gillis and Chown are really going to live for their summer in Vancouver. And anchoring their first professional Shakespeare play on a main stage in one of the most scenic locations in the country, they don’t need to worry about where they’re going to head next.

      “I’ve been riding the wave of whatever happens artistically, and I know everything I’ve done so far, all my training, has happened so that I can do a show like this, so I can take on a part like this,” says Gillis, who has garnered praise at Toronto’s acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre. “This is big material and a dreamy, beautiful, juicy girl that I get to be for three months.”

      “This is an incredible gift to get this role, to work with these people and this director, at this location and I think a healthy mental attitude for me is to live in the now,” adds Chown, before heading into rehearsals in a nearby tent. “So I’m really grateful for that, and hopefully, that overwhelming gratitude is the thing to focus on.”

      That, and those magnificent views.

      Romeo and Juliet runs at Bard on the Beach’s BMO Mainstage from Friday (June 3) to September 23.

      Hailey Gillis and Andrew Chown.
      David and Emily Cooper