“All the world’s a stage,” especially in the summer months.
VICTORIA HAS HAD a summer Shakespeare Festival for 26 years now, an impressive legacy of success. Let’s begin with a little bit of historic context. Theatre Inconnu’s founder and artistic director Clayton Jevne began presenting Shakespeare plays in the summer of 1991 in collaboration with actor/directors Ian Case and Tariq Leslie. The first Shakespeare Festival took place in Inconnu’s small space in Market Square, then moved to a tent in the Inner Harbour. It was there, in the late 1990s, that I first saw Jevne perform, in the title role of King Lear.
A few years later, Jevne chose to move away from producing the festival and in 2003 actor/director Michael Glover took over. He established the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival (GVSF) as a non-profit society and created a board of directors. The newly-constituted festival staged The Taming of the Shrew in Centennial Square, and in subsequent years, performed in the theatre and on the grounds of St Anne’s Academy.
Glover now works at Camosun College, so in 2005 he brought the GVSF to that location, where the Festival has been held outdoors on the campus ever since. Glover has appeared in a number of productions over the years, but stepped down as artistic director in 2014. Karen Lee Pickett, local playwright and actor, was hired as Festival producer in 2012, and she was selected by the GVSF board to take on the artistic direction as well.
Pickett’s strategic plans over time have been to continue to professionalize the festival through increased sponsorship and funding. This enhanced budget has allowed her to attract more professional actors to the Festival, and to have them mentor young actors-in-training. These young actors are often theatre students at the University of Victoria or the Canadian College of Performing Arts.
Her focus has been on capacity building, the creation of a repertory season in which an ensemble of actors play in both shows, and a collaborative Shakespeare education program for students carried out last fall with staff at Craigdarroch Castle. Pickett sees lots of room to grow more educational programs over time, especially given the strong positive response to this pilot project from the teachers and students who participated in it.
I sat down over coffee with Pickett and this season’s directors, Kate Rubin (Macbeth co-directed with Pickett) and Janet Munsil (Love’s Labour’s Lost). Rubin directed Merry Wives of Windsor in 2013 and Munsil directed Twelfth Night last year. I asked them about their approaches to this season’s pairing of plays.
From left: Kate Rubin, Karen Lee Pickett and Janet Munsil (Photograph by Monica Prendergast)
“We’re describing this season as moving from the nitty-gritty to the pretty,” jokes Pickett. The dark and nightmarish world of ancient Scotland in Macbeth, with its clan wars, opens up to the light and romantic world of courtly love of Love’s Labour Lost. Quite a contrast for the actors in both plays, never mind the night-to-night shift in design from the bleak Scottish moors to the rich palaces of Navarre (a small kingdom between France and Spain, the setting for Shakespeare’s comedy).
Pickett and Rubin shared their collaborative approach to co-directing “the Scottish play” Macbeth: “We are finding our way in rehearsals,” says Rubin. “My work is relational and character-driven; I use movement exercises to unpack the scene, while Karen Lee’s expertise is in the language. One of the ways we differ is she will look at the lines to determine what is happening, and I will look at character dynamics and how to crack that open.”
The production is set in a non-specific but “pre-kilt” warrior era of ancient Scotland—still tribal, pagan, and adhering to matrilineal lineage. In this world, women were warriors too, so the production features a female King Duncan and sons, although Pickett has decided to keep the play’s original pronouns. “There is so much in this play that is masculine, so our choice was to keep pronouns male, even with women actors. We’re not hiding the fact that they’re women, just as they are not ancient Scots. We can get into a weird space when we try to play another gender, so these are clearly women in these traditionally male roles.” This production of Macbeth will also feature live drumming and a vocal chorus to support the military and supernatural elements of the tragedy.
I then asked Munsil to tell me about her vision for Love’s Labour’s Lost. “This is a world that is super-saturated with romance,” says Munsil, adding, “The production has a Regency feel to it, inspired by artist Maxfield Parrish. We have pastel lanterns, big urns of flowers. The princess and her posse are in beautiful flowing gowns. I’m thinking of them as ballerinas, versus the men, who are Romantic poets.”
Munsil notes that the play is “in the mood for love but does not end happily,” and is constructed as a kind of pastiche “whose plot is revealed in the first 150 lines, then the rest of the play is made up of frivolous displays of romantic love, interrupted by death.” She views these courtly young people as typical adolescents who are “mostly absorbed in their own story, but into the mix is thrown some brilliant linguistic gymnastics, such as the love poetry the boys write.”
Designer Carole Klemm has the challenge of creating simple and adaptable sets that will work for both plays. Rubin tells me that for Macbeth the look will be natural and organic, playing off the trees and rocks that surround the outdoor stage at Camosun. Klemm is creating a large triangular pagan symbol that will anchor the play visually, woven from branches. This will contrast with the brighter and more colourful look for the comedy.
Pickett reflects that for her, one of the main changes that has moved the Festival forward artistically has been adopting the repertory company model. Doing both shows asks a lot of actors who have day jobs, but she sees the company forming close relationships: “The trust level is so high that they can take risks.” Alongside the post-secondary theatre students, this year’s ensemble has a couple of teenage actors playing smaller roles in Macbeth.
Audiences will see experienced actors such as Trevor Hinton, playing the title role of Macbeth, working alongside talented emerging actors. The audience also has the pleasure of seeing these same actors tackling very different roles in each play.
I finish up our engaging conversation by asking how these 400-year-old plays might connect with 21st century theatregoers. Rubin and Pickett talk about how Macbeth makes a strong commentary on the dangers of tyranny that (unfortunately) has contemporary resonance given these troubled political times. And Munsil acknowledges the power of a Shakespeare comedy to lift an audience out of their lives and into the very real pleasures of watching the pitfalls and frivolities of young romance.
The Festival previews on July 6 and runs until July 29. A new joint initiative with the Esquimalt Township Community Arts Council, Bard Across the Bridge, will host additional performances of Macbeth August 3 to 5 at Saxe Point.
Take a look at the GVSF website at www.vicshakespeare.com or buy your tickets at www.ticketrocket.co. Bring a blanket and some mosquito repellent and get your dose of summer Shakespeare.
Monica saw Susie Mullen perform in her final GVSF show as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night last summer. That production, directed by Janet Munsil, received the Victoria Critics’ Choice Award for Best Ensemble. Susie Mullen died this January at the age of 66. She was a powerhouse of an actor, and was a great pleasure to work with and to see on stage. She is much missed.