By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Many happy returns, Will.
True, the 32nd edition of E-town’s outdoor festival in his honour has, alas, been cancelled this summer, postponed till 2021, and for entirely good reasons. But there’s welcome news to be had nonetheless: In honour of Shakespeare’s birthday on Thursday the big 4-5-6, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival has a new artistic director.
He’s award-winning director/ actor/ mentor/ teacher Dave Horak. And he’d have been directing the Freewill production of Much Ado About Nothing, slated to alternate with Macbeth (directed by Nancy McAlear) and open mid-June in Hawrelak Park, had the world been a different, safer place.
“I know, it’s quite the time to jump into a job like this!” he laughs. He didn’t have to make the call to cancel at least, he says. Which by any standards would be a discouraging opening gambit for a new artistic director. His plans start with the aftermath. First up, “I’m really hoping we can bring everybody back for the two shows next year.”
Horak takes over a company with a $650,000 operating budget that turned the bright idea of six friends — newly graduated actors from U of A theatre school in 1989 — into a much-loved civic institution. A decade later, Freewill had expanded its audience enough to run two Shakespeares, a comedy and a tragedy, in rep. And Horak has expansion plans of his own, for a supplementary pairing of plays — with thoughts of “a venue change down the line” from the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park, where invasive and lengthy renovations are being planned by the city.
Horak’s appointment comes after more than a year in which the company neither had an artistic director nor announced that absence. His immediate predecessor in the gig was Marianne Copithorne, who left the company after a decade in February 2019. Like every Freewill artistic director starting with James MacDonald, she’d first been in the acting ensemble (a 1999 production of Macbeth). And so was Horak, who played the Fool to John Wright’s Lear in 2013, before returning to direct The Comedy of Errors in 2018 and The Winter’s Tale last summer.
But Horak and Freewill go way back — to the very start of the company and his days as a student actor in the now-defunct theatre program at Mount Royal University. “Shakespeare,” he says, “has followed me around … though I never thought I’d ever be running a Shakespeare company”
He was part of the company, half theatre students from Mount Royal and half from the U of A, who launched Calgary’s outdoor summer Shakespeare in the Olympic Plaza in downtown Calgary in 1988 — and inspired the birth of Freewill the next year. He was Flute, the bellows-mender-turned thespian in “a big circus-themed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Tom Kerr, late of the Stratford Festival. And it was a life-changer, Horak says.
“I was so struck by how really great those BFA actors (from the U of A) were,” he says of MacDonald, Annette Loiselle, and the rest of his cast-mates from Edmonton. “So confident and comfortable with the language. And so physical.… They were the reason I wanted to come to Edmonton and train at the U of A.” Which he did.
“It made me really love Shakespeare and working outdoors,” Horak says. “The Olympic Plaza felt so open. It wasn’t a destination; people discovered it….” He’s felt the same in Hawrelak Park on a beautiful summer night. “It feels so democratic somehow … such a different, special experience outside the confine of walls.”
“Of course it has its challenges too,” Horak adds. “You don’t get to do the fancy lighting; you don’t get to control all the elements…. But the actors and the audience are sharing the exact same space; they’re in exactly the same situation. And there’s something kind of electric in that.”
“Often somebody’s first experience with Shakespeare is outdoors. It really was mine….”
For his own company, the Sterling magnet Edmonton Actors Theatre, Horak has often chosen plays that approach the classics from oblique angles. In 2013, it was The Bomb-Itty of Errors, a four-actor rap version of The Comedy of Errors. Fat Boy was a contemporary take on Ubu Roi; Stupid Fucking Bird a Chekhov spin-off. And he brings that sensibility to his new gig.
One of Horak’s proposals is to expand Freewill programming into a four-play season instead of two,” he says. “Two mainstage Shakespeares, and two ‘response plays’, plays that respond to the Shakespeare plays. One example that’s caught his eye is John Fletcher’s 1611 A Woman’s Prize: The Tamer Tamed, a commentary of sorts on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But there’s a wealth of modern examples, too, musicals like Kiss Me Kate or The Boys From Syracuse. He points to Colleen Murphy’s The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, recently at Theatre Network. Stewart Lemoine’s Mother of the Year is a version of Titus Andronicus, too.
“Eventually, it would be cool to get local playwrights to write the ‘response plays’,” Horak thinks. “When I’m teaching (which he has done at MacEwan University, and will continue this fall at the U of A and Concordia), students are fascinated by the way Shakespeare plays resonate in popular culture…. It’s a big selling point of Shakespeare.”
“I don’t know when exactly that expansion can happen,” says Horak, whose recent credits extend to such adventurous indies as the Plain Janes (Fun Home), Bright Young Things (the rarely produced The Skin of Our Teeth), the Serial Collective (E Day), as well as the Mayfield Dinner Theatre (Lend Me A Tenor), and the Citadel (Every Brilliant Thing). But a change in venue, to enable two stages, is built into that thought, “whether it’s a covered tent or a more permanent structure.…
“Wouldn’t that be awesome, to build a real outdoor theatre down in the river valley somewhere? Where we could control the space and it would be ours? A great thing for Edmonton. After 30 years, it’s high time….” He laughs. “You gotta dream big, right?”
As for the Shakespeares we’ll see at Freewill, Horak has pitched plays from rarely produced corners of the canon, to be “balanced against a hit” with a recognizable name. He’s suggested “plays I’ve always wanted to do, like Pericles (a late rarely produced romance). Or Richard II: Every time I see Trump pouting and complaining I’m reminded of him, the baby king.”
And as for the artist roster, Horak says “I like the idea of an ensemble company, and great performers people recognize and remember. But I’d like to bring a diversity of new people into the festival — designers, performers, exciting new directors.”
“To create a more diverse artistic team, we need to reach out,” says Horak. “One of my other ideas is to expand the festival to the off-season…. Perhaps I’ll take some of the company members and do residencies in high schools and universities … maybe even tour hour-long Shakespeare with company members.”
Meanwhile, he’s keen to preserve “that feeling of an event, a unique experience” for people venturing forth to a park to see a professional production in a festive, informal, beer and popcorn sort of way. “When we go through a summer without a Fringe, we’re going to be so thirsty for our festivals…. I’m hoping there’ll be real public support. I’m going to have my fingers crossed that we see the value….”
The Freewill Shakespeare Festival returns to Hawrelak Park (“possibly for the last time” in that location) June 15 to July 11, 2021, with Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth.