Bard on the Beach celebrates 25 years

On its silver anniversary, the fest looks back on tent-raisings and landmark shows, and looks forward to a big new False Creek space

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      Twenty-five years ago in Vanier Park, everyone had to pitch in to raise the tent for the first Bard on the Beach show. Scott Bellis, then a 24-year-old actor at the start of his career, remembers pounding the rebar into the ground. But his duties didn’t end there that summer, when he took on the role of Flute in Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

      “We used to have to take turns sleeping there overnight for security. We had insurance for the equipment we had borrowed, but the insurance was only valid if someone was on-site 24 hours a day. So we had a little schedule, and I would have spent four or five nights sleeping there over the summer. We would just roll out a sleeping bag on-stage,” Bellis remembers, after rehearsal for a 25th-anniversary return of the play. The well-known Bard actor, who plays the donkey-head-wearing Bottom this time around, is sitting at SFU Woodward’s and laughing to himself at the DIY nature of it all. “I used to run out at intermission and sell T-shirts at the gift shop—in costume. Yeah, we used to have to go out and sell Coke and all that.”

      The performers had no awnings and no backstage behind the 250-seat tent; they had to run from their crammed costume tent to the main stage with umbrellas in the rain for that inaugural production of Midsummer.

      “We have all these young people working for us now and I hope they feel the way I felt when we got this thing going,” says Bellis, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Western Canada’s premier Shakespeare festival. “There was this pioneer spirit when we started. It sure feels like the excitement and positive spirit is still with us after all these years.”

      Bard on the Beach has changed a lot over that time, though it’s remained under the artistic direction of its devoted founder, Christopher Gaze. Today, its main-stage tent seats 742 people, and it’s added a Douglas Campbell Studio Stage that seats 240 more. About 89,000 people came to its shows in 2013. Its grounds are like a thriving tent village, a comfortable setting for merriment and mead. Its annual budget has grown from $35,000 in 1990 to $4 million, and it presents four shows per summer—with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and Equivocation on the roster this year. Bard has gained a reputation far beyond the Rockies, now drawing Shakespeare-festival hounds from around the world.

      But now, 25 years in, Bard looks situated to take another huge leap in its history. It has a new managing director, Claire Sakaki, brought here from Toronto’s acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre Company—Gaze calls her a “game-changer” in Vancouver. And Bard on the Beach is set to move into a brand-new space, shared with the Arts Club Theatre Company, at 162 West 1st Avenue in 2015. The Southeast False Creek site will include a new 250-seat theatre, as well as rehearsal halls, a costume warehouse, offices, and more.

      Gaze says the production facility, with its stage, could allow Bard on the Beach to have year-round shows. “We’re going to do a play in the winter and maybe do more,” the artistic director says, joining Bellis in the studio. In this week of moving between the tent, rehearsal here at SFU, and the office on West Broadway, Gaze has been run off his feet; the night before, he hosted a big benefactors party at his home. But, as usual, though rushing in, he looks perfectly put together in a tailored tan suit. “We’ll walk into it steadily and slowly—and then that space will be available for the community.”

      It’s all quite a difference from the spring of 1990, when Gaze was doing auditions in his living room. (That’s where he hired Bellis that first time.) By now, the story of Bard’s beginning is legendary in the local theatre community. Gaze, a grad of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School before moving here in the 1970s, had directed a keen group of UBC students in Under Milk Wood at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival in the summer of 1989. They had encouraged him to bring Shakespeare back to Vanier Park, where a similar fest had been short-lived in the mid ’80s. So with that rented tent, a Canada Council Explorations grant, and permission from the Vancouver park board, they staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an Equity Co-op production in the summer of 1990. Six thousand people showed up, many shows sold out, and the Bard on the Beach Theatre Society was born the following fall. The next summer, the company staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream again, adding As You Like It in repertory, and it kept up the rotating roster of shows each season through the ’90s.

      “I didn’t read any book about how to be a good artistic director,” says Gaze with a smile. “Through my experience with the Shakespeare festivals I was involved in, I saw the early success and early falls,” he says of events in 1980-81 in Edmonton and 1983-84 in Vancouver. “They were all great ideas and had good enthusiasm and great people. The reasons that I could understand that they failed was essentially because of expanding too quickly without a strong audience base—the ‘Let’s open up the purses and expand the season.’ I couldn’t divine the future but I just believed that if I did it steadily and slowly it could succeed.”

      Throughout the years, his company has seen several turning points. The late Douglas Campbell, a long-time Stratford Festival star and Gaze’s mentor, joined Bard in 1992 to direct Twelfth Night and became one of its guiding voices. (He died in 2009.) Other Stratford alumni, from Miles Potter to R.H. Thomson, followed. In 1992, Bard also got a bigger tent—520 seats, followed by the more intimate Douglas Campbell Studio Stage in 1999. And then in 2011, it got the new, big custom-built main stage that has risen in Vanier Park over the past few weeks.

      “I’ve never worked so hard,” Gaze says of Bard today. “I don’t mind that. We’re now getting 1,000 people a night between our two theatres, and just trying to sort out the grounds in Vanier Park requires all these adjustments. Putting up the tent, instead of taking two days, takes two weeks, then there’s storing it and cleaning it,” he says, marvelling at the fact the new structure requires a budget of $50,000 just to clean and repair it.

      All of this has come carefully, with Gaze building his stable of actors—now well-known names like Bob Frazer, Jennifer Lines, Colleen Wheeler, and Allan Zinyk. Timing has also been on his side. In the early years, the city, still blossoming post-Expo, was ready for more cultural offerings. And Bard on the Beach—the name in itself was fun—offered a quintessential West Coast experience, with its casual, open-air tent offering a backdrop of water, mountains, and sunset.

      But there are other, less tangible reasons Bard on the Beach has continued to grow over 25 years, through cutbacks, recessions, and more outside forces that have hobbled other arts groups. One of the main ones has been Gaze’s passion. “He’s so good at firing people up around it,” says Bellis.

      Reflecting on that drive, Gaze thinks back to the early days of the fest, when Brit-trained theatre icon Paxton Whitehead, former artistic director of the Shaw Festival (where Gaze spent three years) and Vancouver Playhouse, visited his house. Whitehead asked a simple question of Gaze: was this project important to him? “I said, ‘It’s more important to me than you’ll ever know,’” says Gaze. “And I remember thinking, ‘How did that come out of you?’ The words just fell out of my mouth. But that’s who I was in those days in terms of ambition.”

      Gaze, who can quote Shakespeare whenever it seems appropriate, instead conjures Germany’s Bard, Goethe, to explain. “‘Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it. Begin it!’ I think what I did was open a door and I walked through it, and as soon as I committed to it all manner of things changed. He knocked on the door,” he says, gesturing to Bellis, “Douglas Campbell got involved, Mara Gottler did the costumes, and that whole group from Milk Wood got behind it.”

      Bard on the beach’s other great success has, of course, been its setting. Bellis thinks the tent attracts something primal in us. And he should know: as he figures it, he’s spent half his life on Bard’s grounds, even bringing his own three kids down there in the summers as he raised them.

      “I think there’s something deeply seated in the cultural consciousness of Canada that has to do with players in a tent,” he says, pointing to the pioneer days when country towns wouldn’t have had their own theatres but could see visiting troupes. “And there’s something about the fact that it’s impermanent, too: at the end of September there will be nothing in that park. It’s like Brigadoon,” he says, referring to the famous musical named for a Scottish village that appears for only one day every century. “There’s something really magical about that. It’s like theatre itself: theatre is impermanent and doesn’t stay.”

      Of course, Bard’s outdoor setting has brought its challenges over the years, as well. Bellis remembers an “insect plague” when flying beetles hatched and invaded the tent, so badly the live band’s marimba player was squishing them with the mallets, he says.

      “Yeah, you’re working outdoors and there are bats that fly in and geese that wander in where the audience is,” he says with a laugh. “Then you get the ubiquitous party boats that go up and down False Creek while Juliet is trying to have her last speech.”

      And there is the weather. Bellis remembers clearly the second year of the fest, when during a downpour water pooled on a platform at the back of the stage, then ran down its raked surface toward the audience. Director Dean Gibson’s popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2006, re-visioned for this silver anniversary, began with a storm, too—just like the play, adding extra atmosphere, complete with thunder. Occasionally, to be heard, the performers would pause until the hard rain had blown over. Bellis can only remember one show in Bard’s history that had to be stopped due to weather, though: Hamlet, in which he starred at a young 28 under the direction of Douglas Campbell, in 1995 (one of his personal highlights of the past 25 years). “Nobody could hear me, so we called it a night and went to the pub,” he says with a laugh.

      Unpredictability is part of Bard on the Beach’s magic, he says. “It takes the event out of our control in a way that is sometimes quite beautiful; the fact that we are in an uncontrolled environment adds a degree of excitement. You have to be able to roll with the punches and adapt to what’s going on.”

      Adapting has been a big part of costume design at Bard, too, from durable fabrics that will last the season, to people sewing and cutting who know how to “cheat” a high-value look. Costume designer Mara Gottler, standing amid the busy hub where the costumes for Midsummer and The Tempest are being readied by a team that now numbers around 20 members, remembers her handful of staff using hula hoops to form the show’s skirts in the early days. Today, she says many of the gorgeously hand-sewn pieces still do not have lining.

      A close look at the spectacular outfits for this season’s playful, 25th-anniversary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream gives you a visceral sense of where the company has been—and, more importantly, where it’s going. Using the hit 2006 rendition’s original, era-clashing pieces as inspiration, Gottler and her team are making things bolder and more intricately ornate. “It’s edgier—we have grown up,” says Gottler, who’s a founding member of Bard. “Dean and I both have a strong image of where we want to go. I said, let’s go dark and edgy: I think we’re ready to go beyond mischief.”

      Taking influences from everything from haute couture (think Alexander McQueen and John Galliano) to circus performers at the turn of the last century, Gottler is adding layers of appliqué lace to the fairies’ tutus, using more leather, and playing with the idea of silver (for that anniversary) in the outfits of the brides and grooms at the end of the play. Kyle Rideout’s gender-bending Puck sports a leather vest and silver runners.

      Costuming may be the most visible symbol of how Bard on the Beach has gone beyond the Elizabethan into new territory. At the studio stage this summer, director Anita Rochon’s Cymbeline will even draw from the stark white uniforms of fencing.

      But it’s some of the Elizabethan shows that Gottler remembers best from over the years. King Lear in 1994, starring Campbell, was a turning point, she says. It required so many period costumes that there was nowhere in Vancouver to find all the pieces. She flew to Stratford to consider renting, but decided to try to convince her board that it was worth investing in building the costumes here, and then keeping them in stock.

      And then there was one of her favourite design experiences at Bard: last year’s Elizabeth Rex, a contemporary play set in Elizabeth I’s time, stylized with rich brocades, big panniers, and puffed shoulders. “I got to do the show I wanted to do. We used the colour dun, which is the death colour,” she says. “We really had to honour people who had died, including Douglas [Campbell].”

      Still, the sheer joy of creating this madly colourful Midsummer ranks right up there with that production. “I’m loving the experience,” Gottler says, standing in front of a lavishly sexy mesh-and-sequin-appliqué gown. “Everyone has come back for the 25th, and that spirit is here. That’s the wonderful thing about theatre,” she says.

      And that’s this year’s Midsummer: a nod to the early days of Bard on the Beach and a celebration of one of its biggest hits, but also a look at what the company is now and where it is going—leather vests, multilayered tutus, silver runners, and all.

      Back upstairs at SFU Woodward’s, just as Gaze is leaving, he answers a last question about programming Midsummer, one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, alongside The Tempest for the anniversary season. And he expresses surprise at getting emotional talking about it. The Tempest is also a returning work, first directed by Meg Roe in 2008 at the smaller studio stage and critically heralded for its magical, musical take, now given its big splash on the main stage. But there’s more to the decision, too.

      “There’s a beginning and an end,” Gaze says as he leaves the theatre to run across town again, referring to Midsummer and The Tempest respectively. “The Tempest, is Shakespeare toward the end of his life. There is a sense of his knowing he has to give it up and let it go.”

      “Let it go”? You get the feeling from Gaze that there is still simply too much passion, too much history, and too much time invested for him to do the same with Bard on the Beach for quite a while yet.

      Bard on the Beach runs in Vanier Park from June 11 to September 20.

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter at @janetsmitharts.