After one summer’s hiatus, Mount Royal University’s summer offering, Shakespeare in the Park, is returning to Prince’s Island Park in a new — and improved — form.
Theatre Calgary now shares the reins with the university in presenting the 25-year tradition, which remains a pay-what-you-can venture.
“When I heard they were going on hiatus, a light bulb went off. For five years I had been looking to expand the company in terms of education. It was a fast and clear thought: ‘Here’s an opportunity we have to follow up on,’” says Dennis Garnhum, artistic director of Theatre Calgary, adding that this venture now makes their company a year-round concern.
And, not surprisingly, Mount Royal was keen to explore the connection.
“From the first phone call, they were instantly interested,” Garnhum says.
Shakespeare in the Park had its last outing on Prince’s Island in 2010. There were three shows on the bill that year, including Othello, Much Ado About Nothing and a play newly attributed to Shakespeare called Double Falsehood.
This summer, however, there is only one show on the agenda — A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Because this is the first year of the collaboration, we are doing one play and doing it well,” says Garnhum.
From an audience member’s perspective at least, there had been some confusion over the past few years as to Shakespeare in the Park’s mandate. While the program’s professed aim has always been to provide opportunities for emerging artists from local, post-secondary drama programs, a trend developed in recent years that saw experienced, professional actors occupying the lead spots.
And that is something Garnhum wants to set straight.
“The whole point — the only point — for this project is to put emerging artists front and centre. This is a project for them,” he says, adding that the entire company of 14 actors and three stage managers consists of recent graduates from six different Alberta schools: Mount Royal, the University of Calgary, Rocky Mountain College, the University of Alberta, Grant MacEwan University and the University of Lethbridge.
“We want emerging artists to develop and grow here in Alberta, and stay committed to this province,” Garnhum says.
Garnhum and his team selected A Midsummer Night’s Dream to “re-launch” the program because, as Garnhum says, “It’s the perfect outdoor play.”
For those in need of a brief Bard refresher....
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set around the wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. These human royals are mirrored in the fairy world by Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Fairies. There are also four young lovers in the picture: Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius.
In true complex Shakespearean fashion, Hermia has been told by her father that she must marry Demetrius, when, in fact, she wants to marry Lysander. Helena is in love with Demetrius, who used to love her, but has switched his affections to Hermia.
As a result of the mischievous fairy Puck, and his misapplication of a magical love potion that makes the recipient fall in love with the first thing they see, both Lysander and Demetrius end up chasing Helena. Also because of Puck’s foolery, Titania falls in love with a weaver named Nick Bottom, whom Puck has turned into a donkey. Got that?
“It’s one of the greatest plays written, in that it has everything: comedy, tragedy, joy. It asks you to use your imagination and believe in your dreams,” Garnhum says, adding that the Shakespeare in the Park production is set in modern times with “modernesque fairies,” a choice he says helps show off the young artists in the best possible way.
Obviously, with an organization like Theatre Calgary standing behind the project, one can expect a new level of design accompanying the show, a suspicion Garnhum confirms.
“You’re going to see a different aesthetic, a simplicity to the production. There will be some acting among the trees. There will be all new costumes created in our shops, everything needed to bring the emerging artists forward,” he says.
As such, Mount Royal and Theatre Calgary are even importing top acting coaches from the likes of The Stratford Festival to help guide the cast, and, for this production, the artistic director of Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, Michael Shamata, directs the show.
Garnhum says Shamata is known for his outdoor productions of the Bard and that he was also selected to direct because of his skill in working with young artists.
“This is a gorgeous, daring experiment,” says Garnhum. “This summer is all about seeing what works and what is most important, most vibrant. All future decisions will be based on what happens here this summer. Calgarians need to come and support us and tell us what they think.”