Recently we made our first trip for 2010 to the annual Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver, a beautiful, coastal city that we can reach with a one hour drive from our home in the Fraser Valley. We attended a performance of Antony and Cleopatra and have made bookings to see the other three plays that are being performed this season. They are Much Ado about Nothing, Falstaff and Henry V. Bard on the Beach became an annual event in our lives 17 years ago. It was born in 1990, which makes the 2010 season its 21st – so the Bard has, indeed, come of age.
Its founder and Artistic Director is Christopher Gaze, an English born actor who moved to Canada in 1975. After working for some years with the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the Lake in Ontario, he moved to Vancouver in 1983. He saw in Vancouver an opportunity and location to bring Shakespeare plays to the public in a substantial and spectacular manner. In 1990 a rented marquee tent was erected in Vanier Park, the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream was put on and seen by approximately 6,000 patrons. It was all done on an “ambitious” budget of $35,000. The Bard was born and the first season indicated that Christopher had brought to birth a winner.
With the backing of some corporate sponsors and enthusiastic support of a growing army of fans Bard on the Beach has become a headline success. The one rented tent became a family of tents, including the Mainstage tent that seats an audience of 520 people and the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage tent that accommodates an audience of 240 people. A four play programme seems to have become the standard each year and in 2009 attendance exceeded 90,000. Bard on the Beach gave itself the mandate “to provide quality Shakespeare productions that are accessible and affordable.” In our opinion the terms of this mandate have been met and exceeded. Thirty or more actors are involved every year and the total workforce numbers around 100. The Bard operates as a not-for-profit organization and is recognized as the most successful not-for-profit Arts organization in North America. We are proud it has happened here.
Christopher Gaze is a very personable man. He mingles freely with the crowds, talking easily with the patrons. I always think he has been blessed with a face that has a built in smile. While standing in line with others waiting for the main gate to be opened we have seen him arrive on his bicycle. Somehow, that seems so appropriate and one is not surprised to see him do this. In the Mainstage tent, just prior to the start of the performance, he ambles casually on to the stage, welcomes everyone in a manner that makes us all comfortable. He makes a few announcements, one of which prompts us to check that our cell (mobile) ‘phones are switched off and he then ambles off the stage – the performance immediately begins.
The rear of the stage in the Mainstage tent is open, providing a back drop view of the skyline of English Bay and the north shore mountains. Vanier Park is situated by the sea at the entrance to False Creek from English Bay. This makes for a unique situation as there can be occasions when, as a tense scene from a play is being acted on the stage, the audience will be treated to the view of the mast of a yacht that will glide silently across the backdrop as a boat sails into or out of False Creek.
Bard on the Beach has expanded beyond the production and presentation of Shakespeare’s plays. There are combination evenings that include music, food and a splendid viewing location for the annual, international fireworks competition that takes place in English Bay, Vancouver. There is also the “Young Shakespeare Acting Programme” in which 250 or more young people have the opportunity to train with the professionals who are performing in the plays. Special school matinees are scheduled to introduce school students to the heritage Shakespeare left us. Grace and I have attended some of these matinees and have been so encouraged by the way the students have clearly enjoyed the performances. When properly presented, Shakespeare is not so difficult to understand as some think.
When Grace and I moved to Canada (also in 1975) we wondered (on reflection, rather snobbishly I am afraid) how effectively Shakespeare’s plays could be performed in North America. Our experience in the U.K. of Shakespeare had included Stratford-upon-Avon and the Old Vic in London. Visits in the late 1970’s to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon soon straightened us out on that matter. We enjoyed excellent performances there. Bard on the Beach has produced, in our opinion, some of the best presentations of Shakespeare’s plays that we have ever seen, anywhere.
Thank you Christopher and your accomplished company.