There is Much More to this Shakespeare than Culture
Ah, it’s finally summertime! You’re making plans to go camping on a lake, watch the sunset on the beach, hike to a mountain vista, or perhaps…stay in for a night in the city? Sure, why not? It’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park-Time, and I’m so excited!
Aside from hiking, the summer treat that thrills me the most is Calgary’s outdoor presentation of Shakespeare in the Park (SITP). Many cities around the world feature this outdoor theatre experience for the whole family, and here it is produced by the Drama Department of Mount Royal University and Theatre Calgary.
Now, if you are not “into Shakespeare” and can’t imagine sitting through an evening of it, please hear me out. I am not the type of person who gravitates toward the theatre, nor am I a student of Shakespeare. So what draws me to SITP?
First, it’s outdoors. When the weather report shows pictures of smiling suns I make plans to head downtown with my lawn chair, picnic supper, and a friend who has never been to SITP. The visually stunning venue is Prince’s Island Park in the Bow River where it flows alongside downtown Calgary. It is a short walk across the pedestrian bridge from a parking area and beside colorful Eau Claire Market, which features hanging baskets of multi-colored flowers, a wading pool full of children in their swim suits, street performers, wildlife and a fountain.
After receiving a program from one of the young volunteers, you set up your lawn chair near the top of the hill, or spread your blanket nearer the stage, surrounded by a park full of lush grass and enormous shade trees. Or, if you want to be right in front of the stage, you can reserve a spot up front. During the performance the sun gradually drops low on your left, but just as it starts to shine in your eyes, the poplars block it.
Instead of packing your own picnic, you can pre-order a creative dinner basket of food from the nearby River Cafe, the listed options including such words as hummus, seasonal, red-fife ciabatta, organic, Portabella, arugula, brie, hand-rolled, house-made, and goodie-filled. If you didn’t bring your own food or order it, or you want a treat during the intermission, the little Bard’s Bistro at the top just behind the lawn chairs provides drinks and simple snacks of popcorn, hot dogs and ice cream. When was the last time you were able to enjoy a double-scoop of Rocky Road during a theatre intermission?
I always look forward to some very un-Shakespearian costumes and music incorporated into the wholly-Shakespeare dialogue. During a recent performance, for example, the costumes were 1930’s wear, and the prop transitions and scene entrances featured music by Queen. The previous summer costumes included pink hoop skirts with embroidered kitty cats, bobby socks and oxfords, and fifties’ music.
Although very entertaining, I find that the acting is not the only activity attracting my attention. During the performance I enjoy watching the myriads of skateboarders, bikers, dog-walkers, and roller-bladers that pass by. Many of them are curious to find out what the crowd and music and laughter are all about and they’ll stop to watch a few minutes of the performance before continuing on. It gives me a thrill to see so many people enjoying the warm evenings in so many ways.
It’s fun to keep an eye out for the comings and goings of the actors and actresses to the backstage area. There is only one “building” that houses the entire production—a two-story set which is ingeniously versatile—and sometimes I catch the performers trying to escape unnoticed by walking slowly in a wide arc away from the stage and through the trees in order to get to the hill above and behind the audience.
A new scene often begins with several players speaking their opening lines as they skip down the steep grassy pathway in the midst of the audience. Scenes also often end with actors leaping off the stage and sprinting up that same center path until they are out of sight behind the snack shack. The whole thing charms me no end.
Since one of the annual sponsors of SITP is the Calgary Flames Hockey Team, once or twice during the breaks in action the director will shout out a trivia question about a Shakespearean play, and the first person to run up the hill and tell the answer wins tickets to a Flames game.
The payment for the performance is “pay what you will,” with a suggested donation of $25, and you can drop money in a box at any time before, during, or after the play. But I hold on to mine until the end, when the actors and actresses meander through the blankets and lawn chairs with a donation basket and chat with members of the audience. I like to tell them face-to-face how much I enjoyed the play and thank them for an all-around full and satisfying evening.
This summer features A Midsummer Night’s Dream June 27th to August 10th, Wednesday through Sunday evenings at 7 P.M. and weekend matinees at 2 P.M. (note that there are no performances July 25-29).
Wherever you live, check out your own performance of Shakespeare in the Park. I promise that if you do, you will have a new appreciation for the theatre. Who knows? You might even admit to your friends that you are into Shakespeare!