Under the big top: after two years Freewill Shakespeare Festival is back in the park

Freewill Shakespeare Festival setting up in the Heritage Amphitheatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The geese are milling around backstage in the greenest of green rooms. A crew is planting marigolds on the route between the gate and the stage. The mosquitos are working out their ensemble numbers. Sound cues are floating through the air….

Yes, after two summers on the road the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is back home. Back with a cast of 15 human actors (and assorted squirrels), many of them new to the company, in two alternating high-contrast productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure For Measure. And the artistic director, in his signature ball cap, is sitting at a picnic table with his laptop pre-rehearsal, at the top of the rise above the seats in the Heritage Amphitheatre.

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“It’s a hard space to do a show in,” says a smiling Dave Horak, who landed his Freewill gig in 2020 at the very pandemical moment the 33-year-old company had to shut down its big-cast full-length outdoor Shakespeares there. “But as soon as we’re back here we just realize what a unique and beautiful space it is… Being in a big tent so we can run rain or shine! There’s nothing like it in the city!” 

“I’m really hoping Edmonton audiences come and see how much of an event this is!”

There’s poignance attached to this joy. For two years, in a test of agility, the resourceful company has been on the move, light on its feet, with moveable, small-cast Shakespeares in unexpected locales. Last year’s Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth played backyards, parks, and communities, and even went to the Fringe, and they sold out all their performances everywhere they went. “We didn’t have to cancel any shows, for weather or COVID,” says Horak. “Surprisingly it all went off with a hitch.” 

And in its travels Freewill gathered new fans. “Our informal surveys showed that the majority of audiences had never seen our big shows in the park….”

Dave Horak, Freewill Shakespeare Festival artistic director, overlooking the stage pre-rehearsal.

Now Freewill is back in the river valley park where it was born, roughly the same size (and budget of about $650,000)  … for a single summer. Next year, the city plans to close the entire park for three YEARS (unbelievable but true) for renovations. And Freewill will be hunting down another locale, “another park where there won’t be as much space, and doesn’t have a tent…” So, to experience Edmonton’s much-loved outdoor Shakespeare festival in its full fun glory — big set, big cast, concession, puppet versions of the shows, seats under a canopy — the moment is now (June 14 through July 10). 

This summer’s pair of alternating offerings are both called “comedies,” which goes to show how elastic that term can be. Horak directs the romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which counts as Shakespeare’s most popular, and produced, play. He chose it to balance it with Measure For Measure, a so-called “problem comedy” that’s something of a rarity. Nancy McAlear’s directs Freewill’s first ever production of it.

There are Dreams aplenty in the Freewill archive. Horak himself was in the last one, which alternated with King Lear in 2013. “I was one of the fairies, Moonshine I think,” in the comedy where mortals and magic sprites, lovers and courtiers and artisans collide in the woods. In fact, in 1988, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was Horak’s first Shakespeare ever — as one of the stage-struck rustics, bellows-mender Flute who plays Thisbe, in Dream’s always riotous play-within-a-play — as a Mount Royal student actor in Calgary’s outdoor Shakespeare that inspired our own festival a year later.

“I’ve never wanted to direct it,” he laughs, “because I’ve done it! As a teenager, as soon as a band I loved got popular I stopped listening to it…. But if I ever was going to direct Dream, I’d want to do it outside.” 

Director Nancy McAlear (right) in rehearsal with actor Kijo Eunice Gatama. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz.

Measure For Measure was McAlear’s choice, an unusual one, and she’s been waiting for the moment for a long time. Ever since she was a theatre student here building props for a Tim Ryan small-cast production a couple of decades ago at the Fringe, the play has fascinated her. Later the Toronto-based actor/director was supposed to be in a university production that didn’t happen. “It’s one of those plays for me; it’s always been in my head.”

“It is a weird play!” says McAlear. “That’s partly what I like about it…. The comedy is so base Shakespeare; the drama is so dark.” The play veers from big-city brothel to nunnery to courtroom. The story wraps around a corrupt justice system, ambiguous political leadership, the knotty moral problem of a virginal heroine who has a chance to rescue her brother from a death sentence for fornication by sleeping with a judge. 

Any play that makes a director wonder ‘what do I do with this?’ is intriguing, says McAlear, who hasn’t been at the festival since acting in the 2015 pairing of Coriolanus and As You Like It. With Measure For Measure she started with an image (the facade of a building sliding off to reveal the toxic ruin beneath) and the problematic ending, and worked backwards. The setting? “the not-so-distant future.” 

As both McAlear and Horak point out, the world has taken care of Measure For Measure’s continuing relevance. Things seem to be spinning backwards into the past, as the rise of the hard right and the Roe vs. Wade overthrow attest. As Horak notes, “there’s nothing about the plot that’s inconceivable now…. You think it’s fantasy, and … whoa!”  

As for Dream, there’s been no shortage of interpretations in the last 400 years. “For me, it’s been pulled apart and done so many different ways in many great and important versions, from Peter Brook to Julie Taymor, I didn’t know what to do with it,” says Horak, who sets his production in “a fantastical post-apocalyptic kind of world; the world has fallen, something has happened.” 

Freewill Shakespeare Festival artistic director Dave Horak (left) in rehearsal with Ian Leung and Nadien Chu. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz

But he was at pains to keep things light and fun in his production, he says. “We’ve been working on really playing silly and goofy. Which has been hard this last little while.” He’s been in productions of Dream where there are more edges, he says. The raw material is there: marriage is problematic, people get drugged, the patriarchy is strong. The play, after all, opens with a captive bride and death threats. There’s jealous rage; there’s talk of climate change and the drift towards chaos. “All valid,” says Horak. “But that’s not this one. We haven’t shied away; the text is there…. If we pull it off, it’ll seem very light and easy, But that’s been hard.”  

Of his concept of the fairies Horak says “I flipped it around a little bit” There are versions where the fairies are leather-bar toughies; sometimes they’re acrobats, or malicious demons, or winged sprites in ballet dresses. Horak’s idea, as he explains, is that “the fairies come from the audience; they are the audience, and they look like regular people… but they have magic. They are magic.”

“I don’t want to get too sentimental, but being back after so long without an audience … the audience really is the magic.”


Freewill Shakespeare Festival 2022

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure For Measure

Directed by: Dave Horak, Nancy McAlear

Starring: Priya Narine, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Troy O’Donnell, Meegan Sweet, Dean Stockdale, Nadien Chu, Moses Kouyate, Michael Peng, Dayna Kea Hoffman, Brett Dahl, Ian Leung, Vince Forcier, Ruth Alexander, Sarah Gale, Kijo Gatama

Running: June 14 to July 10 (A Midsummer Night’s Dream even dates and most matinées; Measure For Measure odd dates and July 10 matinée)

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com or at the gate



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