Every spring, the tents go up in Vanier Park at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge, and every fall, they come down. As far as summer Shakespeare festivals go, Bard on the Beach isn’t bad. It is the most expensive summer Shakespeare festival in Canada after the Stratford Festival in Ontario, but then, with four productions a year from mid-June to mid-September, it’s also the largest Canadian Shakespeare festival after Stratford.
Perhaps it is too large. Three years ago, the popular festival premiered its new, much larger main stage tent, which now has a capacity of almost 750. But the larger canopy was acoustically challenged, and the festival now has its actors wear mics, which irks me to no end. (Maybe it’s just me, but I like to know who is speaking while I’m watching live theatre, and that’s no longer possible when the voices are coming from a speaker above you instead of from the stage in front of you.)
Bard on the Beach used to be general admission, so you had to show up really early to get a decent seat. This was no different from any of Canada’s other summer Shakespeare festivals. What was different is you were always made to stand for a good chunk of time in what’s called the Bard Village ― a lobby area of sorts where vendors are eager to sell you wine or beer, snacks, or merchandise ranging from T-shirts and tote bags to, um, beach towels.
One year I was standing in this line, waiting (waiting, waiting…), when Christopher Gaze, artistic director of the company, stopped to chat to the couple standing right in front of me. He obviously knew them as they talked for a quite while ― I don’t remember what about ― but then the couple asked Christopher why the festival tents didn’t have assigned seating and why we had to wait so long before we were permitted to be seated.
Christopher looked around him, then said thoughtfully, “We want to create atmosphere.” The idea behind the wait, he explained, was to encourage you to chat with the people in front of you, or with the people behind you, and to give you time to make friends.
Balderdash, I thought, grumpily. You just want us to buy stuff.
(What I find particularly galling is that the Bard Village also sells pre-packaged picnics ― aka sandwiches and salads ― which is a total rip-off of Toronto’s Shakespeare in High Park. That festival creates atmosphere by charging pay-what-you-can for its general admission seating on a hillside and by letting you bring your own food. And your own picnic blanket. It’s the perfect venue for a summer picnic.)
But I digress. On this particular evening, I had an entire conversation with Christopher in my head. Maybe he heard me because Bard on the Beach now has reserved seating.
As for its theatre productions, I’ll just say this: I’ve seen some of the worst performances ever at Bard on the Beach, but I have also seen some of the absolute best Shakespeare ― the kind where you want the play to go on and on and on. And it’s the latter productions that keep me coming back. I never know what I’ll get.
Happy birthday, Bard on the Beach. Here’s to another 25 years!