Midsummer Night’s Dreams

Edmonton’s beloved Freewill Shakespeare Festival celebrates 30 seasons

Looking back on 30 years of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, one of the best-loved and longest-running festivals in Edmonton, it’s tempting to look to the Bard himself for words appropriate to the occasion — after all, there’s a William Shakespeare quote for everything. But as pithy as a line like, “What’s past is prologue,” from The Tempest, may be, we’re going to have to respectfully disagree in this case. Three decades of Shakespeare in the park, and all the ups and downs that come with it, is no small achievement. And it deserves to be celebrated.

What began, in 1989, as an off-the-cuff, pass-the-hat operation run by a ragtag group of recent grads of the University of Alberta theatre program has become a staple of the city’s cultural scene, an The Comedy of Errors performance, 1989 annual double bill of high-end theatre delivered in the casual openair surroundings of Hawrelak Park. Combine those factors, and the experience is hard to beat. As current managing director Julie Haddow puts it, “Where else are you going to go to see a squirrel steal your popcorn and run across the stage?”

The festival’s current path was in many ways decided by those early years, as the nascent Free Will Players dreamed up a run of clever and inventive reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s texts. Early productions introduced football players to Much Ado About Nothing, neon Day-Glo paint splatter to The Comedy of Errors, and motorbikes — some of which crashed accidentally en route to
the stage — to The Taming of the Shrew. Props and costumes were occasionally fished out of dumpsters.

“It was literally beg, borrow, or steal,” says Troy O’Donnell, a founding member of the company and current artistic associate. That energy and infectious kitchen-sink approach also helped solidify the festival’s mandate of creating works that are accessible to all audiences, regardless of education or income level.

Marianne Copithorne remembers the enthusiasm of those early performances, too — first from the point of view of an audience member, then as an actor and director. Since her onstage debut as Lady Macbeth in 1999, Copithorne has helmed countless shows (including this year’s production of Hamlet) and has served as the festival’s artistic director since 2009. Over that time, she’s seen the festival’s production values rise dramatically. The stage itself has been expanded, and cast members now wear microphones. The festival’s lights and sound equipment are much improved, too, thanks in part to a recent grant from Edmonton Community Foundation. But what hasn’t changed is the pleasantly frantic pace at which each show is put together: “Twelve eight-hour days of rehearsal, three days of tech, and then we’re into previews,” Copithorne says, so quickly that it feels like a mantra.

Then there’s the weather, the festival’s ultimate double-edged sword. On good days, the setting sun adds a layer of natural beauty that simply can’t be replicated in a traditional venue. But when it goes south — as it did in 2014, when strong winds tore a hole in the Heritage Amphitheatre’s canopy, forcing the festival to cancel the entire run of one show outright and move the other one indoors — the elements can feel downright vindictive. The 2014 season was no Tempest in a teacup: That year attendance plummeted 70 per cent, and struck a blow to the festival’s status as a summer mainstay. Copithorne still admits to gluing herself to the Weather Network’s radar screen as soon as it’s time to move down to the park each spring. But she also knows that no matter how bad it gets outside, audiences, at least, will never let her down. “Edmontonians just seem to know: ‘Well, either it’ll clear up, or it won’t. But we’ll give it a go,’” she says. “Even in the worst of conditions, there’s still 100 people waiting to get in, with their umbrellas. They’ve got their blankets and their supplies, and they’re ready to roll.” There’s a reason the festival bills Mother Nature as “ambience director” in its programs, after all.

Unpredictable as it is, that push and pull of the natural environment is a key factor in the success of the festival over the years. On one hand, Copithorne says, it’s a battle to keep viewers’ attention aimed at the stage, when there are so many potential distractions in the background.

“We’re constantly competing with motorbikes ripping around the park, and paddleboat announcements: ‘Boat 29, your time is up,’” she says. At the same time, that idyllic outdoor location is what differentiates Freewill from pretty much every other place you can watch live theatre in Edmonton. It’s also frequently incorporated into the productions, with actors wandering in character through the background, setting up tents on the grass, and even sitting in empty seats before officially making their entrances. O’Donnell, meanwhile, estimates that 80 per cent of the people who recognize him on the street end up sharing a weather-related festival memory. “Those are the things that really make an impression on the audience,” he says.

As its name implies, Freewill is a hybrid experience, part theatre and part festival — and it’s the festival aspect that it’s hoping to build on for the future.

“If you looked at our past marketing it featured a lot of pictures of the actors in amazing costumes on this amazing stage,” Haddow says. “Unfortunately that doesn’t really attract the people who aren’t Shakespeare lovers, our new approach is to appeal to both Shakespeare fans and festival lovers.”

Since coming on board in 2015, Haddow expanded the ancillary parts of the festival, adding more themed events like wine and beer tastings, date nights, and even puppet shows. She knows all
Edmontonians will love the performances. So the question becomes how she can get them down to the park, and what else they can do once they’re there.

Thirty years is a long time for anything, let alone an annual festival. But to quote the Bard again, this time from Othello: “Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.” The Free Will Players would no doubt agree.

The 2018 Freewill Shakespeare Festival presents Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors June 19-July 15 in the Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park. You can find tickets here.