Outdoor setting enlivens actors, audience at Victoria Shakespeare fest

What: 29th Annual Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival
Where: Camosun College (Lansdowne campus) and Saxe Point Park (Esquimalt)
When: July 4-27 and Aug. 1-3
Tickets: $26 for single tickets ($21 for students and seniors) or $48 for a festival pass ($38 for students and seniors); children 12 and under are admitted free.

All theatre companies, no matter the size or stature, face one big challenge: getting bums in seats. Producers of the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, held outdoors over a five-week period starting tonight, grapple with one more hurdle, however.

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Weather.

Thanks to the temperate climate in Victoria, bad weather isn’t usually a problem at this time of year — the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival has only had to cancel three performances in eight years due to rain or wind, according to artistic director Karen Lee Pickett.

But a surprise downpour on Tuesday, hours before the festival’s first preview, managed to keep Pickett on edge.

Selling tickets amid such circumstances is never a problem for the festival, now entering its 29th year. The enduring appeal for fans is having the opportunity to enjoy live theatre in an outdoor setting, Pickett said.

“There are real-world things that happen that you have to incorporate or roll with. So that makes it exciting for the audience as well as for the company.”

Performances of Julius Caesar and Two Gentlemen of Verona will be held at Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus (July 4-27), with a second run of performances of Two Gentlemen of Verona at Saxe Point Park in Esquimalt (Aug 1-3).

Both sites are spectacular, which always gives everyone involved extra energy, according to Pickett.

“It’s a completely different context than working indoors. Director can use the space, which can be more vast than even the largest theatre. But there are real-world things that can happen. We have animal visitors — deer and such — that sometimes appear in the plays, or a prop can blow over.”

The festival’s less-experienced participants sometimes need time to adjust to the surroundings. It’s trial by fire for seven members of the festival’s junior company of players, ages 13 to 18 — the highest involvement since the festival began the junior company program in 2014.

For Pickett, watching junior members act alongside veterans with several decades of experience in the cast of 30 this year reminds her why the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival has become one of the longest-running theatre festivals of any kind in the city.

“Our company is really made up of a lot of levels. We have professional actors, we have actors who are professional actors but who have not gone on to pursue it as a profession, and we have a lot of community actors. We also have a lot of students, from the University of Victoria and the Canadian College of Performing Arts, who are in their early careers. There is a lot for these kids to learn, and they are learning not only about being in a professional context, but they are also learning about something that is unique to outdoor theatre.”

The upcoming edition marks the third year of performances at Saxe Point, dubbed by organizers as The Bard Across the Bridge. The move was made in partnership with the Township Community Arts Council, which expressed a desire to offer live outdoor theatre as part of its ever-expanding list of summer programs for Esquimalt residents.

Pickett said she’s been blown away by the response from Esquimalt, which allowed the team to spread the festival over two weekends in a five-week period.

Not only does moving the festival to another outdoor context make it more fun, she said, it’s an opportunity to reach out to a different audience. “There are people in Esquimalt who are very supportive and community-minded, and there is a built-in audience that goes to things they wouldn’t necessarily go to if they were in Victoria. Because they are in Esquimalt, people come out.”

The festival tries to pair one of the Bard’s best each year with a lesser-known production. Last year, it was Pericles, while this year’s underdog is Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s smallest-scale plays.

The presence of Julius Caesar on the program is expected to bring out hardcore Shakespeare fans, Pickett said. “It’s interesting to do any play with a strong political philosophy in today’s world,” she said. “I think it’s great to look at these works in that light.”

Shakespeare never shied away from controversy in his work, and the festival tries to present his plays in a way that honours his legacy, she said. “Many parts of Shakespeare are fun, and many are complicated and dark and difficult. We don’t shy away from that. I’ve observed over the years that our audiences appreciate that. It’s a lovely night out, and you can enjoy the atmosphere, and that’s a big piece of what we do for sure. But there’s a reason we’re still doing these plays. There is a lot to mine from them.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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