A Shakespeare Festival With a Secret Weapon

Actors onstage at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver

Titania, Bottom and the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream share the stage with west-coast nature’s backdrop at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE BACKDROP’S the thing.

Oh, there are the plays, of course, but everyone’s got a summer Shakespeare festival, it seems. Many, like Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach, have very nice locations: in parks, next to lakes or rivers or in inventively repurposed old buildings.

Bard’s nice location is in tents on the grass at Vanier Park, a lovely point of land at the head of False Creek, a waterway popular with sailboats, yachts and kayaks that leads to English Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It’s magnificent in summer at dusk, when the sun sets behind the Coast Mountains. Great place for a festival, too, and Bard on the Beach, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in the park in 2014, knows it.

Location isn’t everything, though. There was another Shakespeare festival in a tent here before Bard, in the early 1980s, but it only lasted two seasons. It made two mistakes. One, a common error among theatre groups, was expanding too quickly. Partway through season two it went broke.

The second was not having the stroke of genius that Bard co-founder and artistic director Christopher Gaze did: from the first performance in 1990 he opened the tent at the back of the stage and let west-coast nature provide most of the scenery.

“I think that was a game changer,” says Gaze, himself a veteran actor who trained with Bristol’s Old Vic in England before coming to Vancouver in the 1980s. He had performed at the earlier Shakespeare festival and so knew what an untapped asset the Vanier Park location offered. “We have this backdrop here that is extraordinary. It is sensationally beautiful.”

It is also often another character in the play, or at least a mood deepener. For Macbeth, as the plot grows darker so does the night sky. For The Tempest, the heavens’ changing colours become part of the spells being cast. For Romeo and Juliet the chill of the evening air creeps into the tent like the dankness of the lovers’ tomb.

The inspired backdrop helped Bard survive its fledgling years and grow, slowly. Today the season runs from early June through late September, with four plays in two tents: the 742-seat main stage and a 240-seat space for Shakespeare’s less-popular efforts plus non-Will works. The budget has grown from $35,000 to about $5.5 million, making it Canada’s second-largest Shakespeare festival after Ontario’s Stratford Festival, which has ten times Bard’s budget and is North America’s largest.

Occasionally, letting nature frame the action can have extreme results. Gaze remembers a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that had to be stopped when a violent storm rolled in from the ocean, drowning out the actors and nearly submerging the audience. When the show was halted the actor playing Oberon ran to the back of the stage and leapt, most theatrically, into space. (Unseen mattresses broke his fall.) Just at the moment he became airborne, a huge, jagged bolt flashed in the sky—and silhouetted him. “It’s an image I’ll never forget,” says Gaze. Shakespeare lit by lightning. Brilliant.



For more information on the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival visit its website at

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