Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Sunday Read: Ian Farthing on The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival

THE ST. LAWRENCE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – the little Festival that could!
Ten years on
by Ian Farthing
If you’d said to me 10 years ago that I was going to be the artistic director of a successful outdoor Shakespeare Festival in small town Eastern Ontario, I would have just laughed in your face. At that time I had never even set foot in Ontario, was a total city boy and had not even had the opportunity to work on a Shakespeare production professionally. Shakespeare? In Prescott? Ha!
But one day a friend called me up from the UK to say that a mutual friend of ours was directing a show in Canada and I should audition. Being a Brit, she had no idea that travelling from my home in Vancouver to Toronto was almost as far (and certainly almost as expensive) as going back to the UK. Long story short, I ended up going for the audition, landing the gig and spending my first summer working at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Prescott, ON. 
After a couple of weeks’ of heart-searching consideration, I accepted and my life changed.

That summer was a total and utter joy. The setting of the outdoor amphitheatre on the banks of the St. Lawrence River was stunning. The actors were embraced by the community so warmly - rarely a week went by without another party or BBQ for the company. I was lucky enough to be invited back the next year and then in 2006, I received a call from the Chair of the Board asking if I’d be interested in becoming the new Artistic Director. After a couple of weeks’ of heart-searching consideration, I accepted and my life changed.
This year's Midsummer Night's Dream
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Festival has undergone a remarkable expansion – going from one play each summer to a repertory season of two mainstage plays and a Sunday Series of complementary concerts, comedy events and readings, an education program and off-season events. Attendance has increased by over 400% in these first few years. The success sometimes feels unreal and every year-end feels like a miracle when we break even.
But there’s no denying that it’s a struggle. Prescott is a small town of 4200 people, 30% of whom are on welfare. All the major industries that used to make Prescott a thriving town have slowly disappeared over the past couple of decades. How do you attract big business sponsors to a small town with an audience of a few thousand? Big companies such as Stratford, Shaw or CanStage have huge budgets for their productions, their marketing and their fundraising. They have the social cachet to attract the large donors. There aren’t a lot of philanthropic millionaires around this section of Eastern Ontario!

We don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on sets, but we have the glorious God-given scenery of the St. Lawrence, the sun going down and the moon rising as the backdrop to our productions which give it a unique charm. 
We don’t have an enormous costume shop, shoemakers or expensive fabrics, but we have a professional designer working with dozens of enthusiastic volunteers to create some pretty amazing costumes each year (winning the Rideau Award for Outstanding Costume Design in 2010). When these wonderful volunteers come to the show, the pride and connection they feel with the productions is tangible.

We focus closely on text work to create strong, clear storytelling.
Without the aid of technical wizardry, we have to rely on the basic tenet of theatre – telling good stories well. The relationship between the actor and audience is the most important one in theatre and our riverside amphitheatre helps to create an unusually intimate connection for an outdoor venue. We focus closely on text work to create strong, clear storytelling. One of the greatest compliments we’ve received is one we’ve heard over and over again: “Who wrote the modern adaptation?” Of course, no one. It’s all Shakespeare. But if you have good actors and good directors, the language all makes sense. Shakespeare wasn’t written to be read or studied – it was written to be heard, seen and experienced. Funny how things make more sense in performance than on the page…
This year's Othello
But probably the biggest reason for the Festival’s success is the community of Prescott. For the first few years there was a core group of hardy supporters and a large number of cynical doubters. Now there is a palpable sense of excitement when the Festival gets rolling at the beginning of June: “We know summer’s begun when the actors arrive,” says Suzanne Dodge, a former Mayor of the town.

Because we have such a large number of active volunteers (nearly 200 each year), there is a sense of ownership in the community. This isn’t some hoity-toity, artsy-fartsy theatre. This is their Festival and that is reflected in the relationships the town has with the actors, who are also billeted in local homes. One actor has stayed with the same family for the past four years and they jokingly refer to him as their “favourite son”. 
Playwright John Lazarus wrote the following a couple of years ago: 
“The first time I went to see these people, in their inaugural production of The Tempest in 2003, I took one look at the simple outdoor venue by the riverside – the Kinsmen Amphitheatre in Prescott, for heaven’s sake – and settled in for what I expected to be an amateur production, or at best another example of the kind of half-amateur and half-professional work that we see a lot of in this region. What I discovered instead was absolutely first-rate professional Shakespeare: funny, skillful, accomplished, highly original and often deeply moving. I’ve been back faithfully ever since. I’m a fan.” That’s a story we’ve been hearing over and over and which we hope will spread to new audiences far and wide. 
Now here we are celebrating our 10th anniversary. I’m truly humbled and honoured to be associated with this little gem – and this city boy is even growing to appreciate everything life has to offer in a small town.

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