Shakespeare by the Sea, Halifax's beloved outdoor theatre company, has faced some serious challenges since staging its first show on Canada Day, 1994. Some challenges---such as the scarcity of funding---are faced by all arts-sector groups. Others, like the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Juan on the company's home in Point Pleasant Park and the untimely death of co-founder Patrick Christopher-Carter in 2005, are unique.
Despite these roadblocks, the show goes on under the determined guidance of Elizabeth Murphy, co-founder of SBTS and wife of the late Christopher-Carter.
"I always know there's going to be a next season," says Murphy, then she corrects herself. "No. I never know there's going to be a next season, but then I think, 'That's what I thought last year,' and here we are."
There were two seasons in particular where a company of lesser fortitude might have considered folding: The first was in 2004, the first summer after Hurricane Juan had stormed through Point Pleasant Park, uprooting nearly three quarters of its trees. When the park reopened in June, so many trees had been lost around the Fort Ogilvie site, the noise from the container port and parking lot would interfere with shows. However, the Cambridge Battery site was left virtually untouched and the shows continued in front of supportive crowds.
The second was in 2006, when the season began without the guidance of Christopher-Carter. In a particularly Shakespearean twist, the weather mirrored the mood of the cast that summer, raining out show after show. Despite the difficulties of continuing while grieving, Murphy felt that a hiatus would sound the death knell for the troupe and brought on actress Jennie Raymond as co-artistic director for the year.
"That was the year we were just trying to hold the company together," recalls Murphy. "There's no way I could have done it without Jenny. Together, we made sure it went forward."
SBTS is a labour of love for Murphy and her salary reflects this. But she is looking ahead to a day when someone else will need to be paid more money to do the job she does now. It is an ongoing struggle to find the right financial formula, with a fluctuating operating grant from the province plus corporate and audience donations, to make the company financially sustainable.
The idea of making theatre affordable and accessible by asking for audience donations rather than setting ticket prices is one of SBTS's founding philosophies, which Murphy refers to as "the Patrick principles."
Other principles include staging the productions through company collaboration rather than through a directorial dictatorship, remaining true to the author's text and intentions and mentoring many emerging artists.
When casting this year's production of Othello, Murphy immediately thought of SBTS alumni Troy Adams who had moved to Toronto. Adams, a Dalhousie theatre graduate, was a young actor who benefited from a summer in Shakespeare by the Sea backin 1995.
He says that SBTS is doing an even better job now of giving young actors a place to grow and learn than in the past, in part because the cast is more diverse in ageand experience.
"The first summer I was here, I think all the actors were Dalhousie graduates," he says. "We all had the same background. But when you have a more eclectic mix and broader influences, it makes the experience even more enjoyable."
An enjoyable experience for the cast seems to translate into an enjoyable experience for the audience. That, in turn, supports the overriding "Patrick principle"---to develop an audience that loves theatre in general and the works of Shakespeare specifically.
"There are so many people right here in Halifax who think that Shakespeare is something to be afraid of," says Murphy.
"We're here to show them just how fun it can be, how it can be raunchy and how it plays with your mind. And, our shows are staged so that even if you don't get every word of the text, the physicality relays the message. That's the cornerstone of what we do here, and that's not going to change."
Shakespeare by the Sea(various shows) Tuesday to Sunday at Cambridge Battery, Point Pleasant Park, 7pm with weekend matinees at 2pm, suggested donation $15, shakespearebythesea.ca