Shakespeare by the Sea began with the dream of presenting great theatre in Point Pleasant Park. In 1994, Patrick Christopher Carter, Elizabeth Murphy and Jean Morpurgo invited a group of young actors from the Dalhousie Theatre Program to perform Twelfth Night in the park, and to their great surprise, over 3,000 people attended the run.
To mark the beginning of the company's triumphant 20th season, Murphy reminisces with Kate Watson, The Coast's theatre reviewer since 2006.
KW: Tell us a little about the beginnings of SBTS.
EM: First of all I was trained as an actor at UBC and graduated from there. Then worked as an actor my whole life, moving to Toronto in the late '70s, including three seasons with the Stratford Festival. After that I moved to Halifax from Toronto, sight-unseen in 1988 with my husband, Patrick Christopher Carter, who was taking a teaching position with the Dal Theatre department. I explored Halifax and the surrounding areas and of course Point Pleasant Park. Both Patrick and I were surprised that there was no outdoor Shakespeare. One evening we were sitting in a restaurant on Quinpool and we looked at each other and said, "let's do Shakespeare in the park." Sitting across from us was actor Ruth Madoc-Jones who we invited into the conversation and she said yes. And of course, Jean Marpurgo was on board from the beginning and for the two early seasons. We checked out a number of Patrick's students (John Beale, Ben Stone, Irene Poole, Amanda Parsons as well as Josh MacDonald) and everyone was interested. So I started to explore, and this was all before amalgamation. I presented it to council, as well as the Point Pleasant Advisory Board and we were given the go-ahead. This was in the middle of May, 1994. By July 1st we were opening Twelfth Night. This part of the history is now legendary: We decided to start at 7pm. There were no people in the Cambridge Battery by 6:30. Then a few dribbled in and we had about 30 so we decided to go ahead. All of a sudden there was an influx of people---taking us up to about 700 who didn't know where the Cambridge Battery was and who had trouble parking. Over the weekend we played to 2500 people and decided it was a good thing to keep going.
KW: Any fond memories from the early days?
EM: I've always loved this company and especially the actors who have been such a huge part of keeping it moving forward. I do remember before we had a van---and before we had permission to drive into the park---carrying all our costumes and props from the upper parking lot to the Battery, all of us loaded down....the cast helping and everyone being excited to be a part of something new.
Another really fond memory was meeting with Larry Uteck when he was the councillor. He was so interested in helping us go forward because he believed this was good for Point Pleasant Park and Halifax. He supported us from the start and brought on his wife Sue, who later became a councillor, who has supported us equally ever since. The building that is now Park Place Theatre was an empty restaurant/ice cream stand---it lost its attraction when the container port area was landfilled and built. Larry got us half of the building. Eventually we got it all and it gave us a home and we still operate from there.
Also, the first production we did of Hamlet, a peripatetic event that wound up in the Prince of Wales Martello Tower. James Fowler played Hamlet, Irene Poole played Gertrude, Patricia Zentilli was Ophelia, Neil HIcks was Laertes, the wonderful Jenny Raymond played a guard that seemed to double as Hamlet's alter ego. She never spoke a word but was totally eloquent. These actors were a tribute to the Dalhousie Acting Program. The show was the brainchild of Patrick Christopher Carter and it remains, to this day, one of the most amazing theatrical experiences of my life. It was a first in so many ways. During the run of that show we had a hurricane...not like Juan, but severe. The show was happening inside the Tower and the police arrived to tell us we had to evacuate the audience. Patrick drove into the park with the rented van, with trees falling all around, with the police. They walked into the performance and Patrick, in his inimitable style, announced, "ladies and Gentlemen we are not actors, this is a real policeman and we must evacuate you from this building and the park". He then proceeded to drive the audience out six or seven per truckload until it was all done. This was pre-cell phone days, so inside the tower, nobody knew there was a storm.
KW: Any road blocks you had to surmount?
EM: Too many to go into, but like all theatre companies, money is always scarce and you can't hire enough actors. We had a battle with Canadian Actors Equity (under the previous executive director who shall remain nameless) who almost gave me a heart attack with the vicious attacks. All over now, but I do believe that stress was part of what helped Patrick to die so early. CAEA has a new executive director and the relationship is excellent. The major block was Patrick dying suddenly and regrouping [after that]. I think the reorganization of the company served to put it on a stronger path and as we go into our 20th season we're looking to the future and how to make the company sustainable for another 20 years.
KW: How many shows have been mounted?
EM: 67 plays, 1436 individual performances, 294,053 audience members, 294 artists and staff.
KW: How do you choose the season?
EM: Mainly we look at actors and who is ready to play which role. It takes a long time to find three shows that have a good fit together. When we did Othello it had Jeremy Webb and Troy Adams. They were both superb and ready. Last season was a really good balance but this season is even better. The audition process is always an eye-opener and we meet actors who we want to hire for the next season and they sit in the back of our minds and emerge as we plan. We also look at shows that we want to direct. I did Merry Wives last year and I loved the production. I wanted Tom Smith to do Falstaff and he was wonderful. Jesse MacLean is directing Hamlet this year with Rhys Bevan-John who is simply ready for the role. They are both very excited. The family show is something we discuss all season and the right one comes out of those year-long discussions. There's a lot of talk between Jesse MacLean and me, we go over all the details of the season millimetre by millimetre until we finally say: "OK, decision time" and then we move on it quickly...no looking back.
KW: Looking back over all the shows, can you pick a favourite?
EM: My favourite show will always be the one I'm working on. Highlights of the past seasons for me would be the first show I directed at SBTS---The Taming of the Shrew with Suzy Crocker MacLean and Anthony Black. I loved Othello and am very proud of that show. The first Robin Hood was a revelation, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderelly---too many to say "favourite". I love watching Jesse MacLean's work grow so beautifully.
KW: Any actors who stand out? Any funny stories about them?
EM: The amazing Irene Poole as Lady Macbeth. She was far too young, but perfect. Suzy Crocker MacLean as Kate. I miss her as an actress a lot because she is such a wonderful company member and someone who people gather around, as well as being one of the most available actors I have ever worked with. Troy Adams as Othello. He is one of the most talented actors and wonderful human beings. And of course, Tom Smith---words fail me! They all work really hard during the season. The funny stuff happens after hours, and my lips are sealed.
KW: Is there any play that SBTS has not done that you would love to do?
EM: You bet. Anthony and Cleopatra, and I think it is getting close, and King John.
KW: SBTS has always been very innovative when it comes to props and costumes. Why is that? How do you think this makes the shows attractive to audiences?
EM: We have had the great good fortune to work with very talented women who have designed the costumes (Sarah Haydon Roy, Cathleen McCormack, Marlee Bygate) They have gathered the fabrics, re-cut the second-hand jackets and dresses, sewed on the bits and pieces and made the shows look wonderful for almost nothing. I think this is attractive to the audiences because the actors believe their characters, believe their clothes and together a powerful integration occurs that pulls the audience into the shows.
KW: Have there been any audience comments that have really stood out over the years?
EM: After so many seasons we are thrilled that people still stay, "I understood Shakespeare. Thank you". That's a great reward for us.
KW: Tell us about this season. Why have these plays been chosen for such an important year?
EM: Hamlet has been on the back burner for a while and when Rhys Bevan-John did the Poe show for us [Nevermore: The Halloween Visions of Edgar Allen Poe] and it was a slam-dunk. He was the right actor and Jesse MacLean was eager to direct the show---a wonderful first for two young artists. I've wanted to revisit Much Ado About Nothing for a while and it fits well with Hamlet. Snow White is going to be a wonderful re-creation and it too was due for a revisit, especially with the talent of Jesse MacLean directing and Jeremy Hutton composing original music.
KW: Where do see SBTS in another 20 years? Does the future look bright?
EM: I've always been pessimistic about the future of SBTS. It seems to cling to life on such a small raft. But this year I'm beginning to realize that with a little reinvention, a little creative architecture, we just might make it for another twenty years. I'll be looking down from my angelic cloud with a big smile.
Snow White, Sunday, June 30, 7pm, Cambridge Battery, Point Pleasant Park, Season runs until September 1, for show details see shakespearebythesea.ca, $15/$25