Happy 4-5-7 Will! With news from the Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Graphic supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

But soft! We bring you birthday news. The playwright-in-residence at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival celebrates his big 4-5-7 today with with alternate plans for a second pandemic summer. Where there’s a Will there’s a way.

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“So, from that spring whence comfort seem’d to come/ Discomfort swells,”as a sergeant tells the king in Act I scene i of Macbeth,  Alas, as COVID continues to ravage the land, Shakespeare’s much-tried resilience, which regularly shrugs off the wind and the rain (not to mention the gull and the mosquito, and every size and shape of director’s concept and budgetary fluctuation), is being tested again.

After the heartbreaking cancellation of the 31st annual Freewill Shakespeare Festival last year — just after artistic director Dave Horak landed the job — the 2021 edition of Edmonton’s much-loved outdoor summer festival will happen, yes. And with the same pair of plays. But we’ll be seeing Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing in a radically different way, in unexpected locales. The current and ever-changing landscape of COVID escalation, safety restrictions and protocols has seen to that.

Outdoors in parks near you in July and August, you’ll see runs of Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing: The Pandemic Variations — small-cast hour-long moveable versions of “the plays we’ve been planning for, and dreaming out forever!” as Horak puts it. “That’s the plan. I am determined to do live outdoor performances.” Small, fun, outdoors, that’s the mantra.

The alternating large-cast full-length productions of the tragedy and the comedy on the Heritage Amphitheatre stage in Hawrelak Park, a Freewill tradition slated to run this year from June 15 to July 11, won’t be possible. “We left the decision as long as we possibly could, trying to be hopeful, looking at alternatives,” says Horak, permitting himself a sigh. “My entire tenure has been as a pandemic artistic director.”

Dave Horak, the new artistic director of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival.

“But we’d be in the middle of building the set now, and rehearsals were due to start in the middle of May. And we just had to make the decision,” he says. “It was really hard, after the devastation of the year, and everyone out of work.”

Postponing the Hawrelak Park dates till mid-summer, if the pandemic was on the wane, wasn’t possible in the heavily booked city-owned venue, Horak points out. “We looked at other spaces, but that wasn’t financially feasible.” Keeping the audience reduced to 15 or 20 percent and safely distanced in the 1100-seat Heritage Amphitheatre might have been possible, theoretically, though financially precarious depending on the restrictions of the moment. “It’s big, it’s familiar, and it has fixed seats,” and there’s safety in that.

But rehearsing a cast of 15 or 16 actors, with a big design and production team? That would be risky beyond repair. The festival was born three decades ago in the determination of a bunch of theatre school friends to do summer Shakespeare. One of Edmonton theatre’s bona fide success stories, it has evolved into a venerable civic institution with a $650,000 budget; more than 40 people are involved in a Freewill production.

“We looked at reduced casts; we looked at bubbled casts,” says Horak, a veteran of small theatre where ingenuity and resourcefulness count big-time over budget. I kept thinking ‘I produce indie theatre; maybe I can do it with five people, and go to Value Village for the costumes’….”

“We couldn’t make it happen…. There were tears around the (Zoom) board room table.”

The hour-long Freewill Shakespeares will travel to different parks this summer with casts of four or five actors apiece, safely bubbled. “Costumes, props, a little set…. The great thing about Shakespeare is he’s so malleable,” says Horak, who has a four-actor rap version of The Comedy of Errors (The Bomb-Itty Of Errors) in his resumé.

Small-cast versions of the tragedies are easier to come by than the comedies, Horak has found. Is it because characters gradually get killed or die off in the tragedies, but gather in big harmonious groups in the comedies? “The tragedies tend to have a strong through-line following a few characters,” he thinks, pointing to the one-actor Hamlets that dot Fringe history. “Whereas the comedies have multiple strands, so it’s trickier….”

“I do think we can figure out a way to make this happen,” says Horak. By the end of July, fingers crossed and vaccinations on the upswing, there’s real hope small gatherings outdoors will be possible. “Maybe we can go back to passing the hat,” as happened in Freewill’s early days.

“These shows will be super-fun, family-friendly. accessible…. And who knows? We might even capture an audience that wouldn’t go to the park for a two-hour play.”

Stay tuned, at freewillshakespeare.com.

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