It was a tragedy for theatre lovers. In January 2014, high winds caused a rip in the canopy of Edmonton’s Heritage Amphitheatre – the largest outdoor amphitheatre in western Canada – and repairs could not be completed by the city until late July, days after the Freewill Shakespeare Festival was scheduled to end.
The revered Hawrelak Park venue had been home to the Free Will Players for more than 25 years. The abrupt eviction meant they had to act fast or face a potentially devastating fate.
“We thought of cancelling,” says Marianne Copithorne, who has been involved with the festival for 16 seasons as an actor, assistant director, guest director and, more recently, artistic director. “But some of our funding agencies insisted that we go forward or they would not support us after that.”
They were already months into planning the 26th season. Dates were fixed, costume and set design had commenced, casting nearly complete (save for student roles) and time spent sourcing an alternate outdoor venue was time lost executing an outstanding performance.
They were forced to move the festival indoors and drop their usual programming from two plays to one. A dozen seasonal positions were cut, including those in direction and stage management, and $186,000 was scratched from the budget. Inside the Myer Horowitz Theatre for The Taming of the Shrew, attendance plummeted from 13,832 in 2013 to 4,405 – almost 70 per cent less – while box office revenue fell from $188,000 to $80,000.
Despite the major financial hit and the injured morale, Copithorne looks back on the decision to persevere; “I think it was a really good thing, because it made us feel like we were survivors, like we were warriors.”
But they’re more than warriors. Like Copithorne, the heroes who, in this story, are tasked with scraping the festival back together are a primarily female cast – managing director Cadence Konopaki; festival production manager Tiana Tolley; costume designer Hannah Matiachuk; and set and props designer Megan Koshka, among other female members.
It’s a far cry from the Elizabethan age, when Shakespeare wrote for all-male companies and male actors portrayed female characters despite their Adam’s apples and the stubble on their chins.
IT IS THE WOMAN’S PART
Signing a predominantly female team was not premeditated. Although the underrepresentation of women in theatre is a typically heated subject, the Edmonton women fighting to keep the festival afloat are arguably – and quite simply – the best people for the job.
“When I go in for an interview, I don’t feel I’m being judged as a female,” says Matiachuk. “I think it’s about your artistic ability, and your ability to work well on a team.”
And these particular team members click with each other. “We understand the other person’s role enough to be sympathetic, and we are always able to compromise well,” says Konopaki. “My job is to go back to the board and make sure I don’t run this company into the ground. And the rest of the team has to work with the money I give them.”
Balancing creativity with dollars typically causes friction between artistic direction and administration, but co-operation and straight-up determination has been key. This year, staffing has been restored to its pre-2014 level, and the working budget has returned to the $600,000 mark. While the annual festival fundraisers took place earlier this year, the company has also introduced added initiatives like VIP tents for internal events (like children’s puppet shows and programmed date nights) and external corporate bookings.
“You have to find a way to get the creative value that you want by looking at things differently and getting on with it,” says Copithorne. “You take that person [you’re working with] and you shake them and say, ‘Let’s go!’ Let’s do our best and move on. I don’t really know any other way to operate.”
It’s not just an act of mental strength. “For me, it’s about the minimum requirement of lifting 50 pounds on set,” says Tolley, who has been working production for the festival for eight seasons. “During an interview with our site co-ordinator, I asked if she could, and she said, ‘Yup!’ and picked up the table.”
When Tolley prepares the stage to battle the elements, it’s something she relishes. “I dare it to rain.”
Preventative measures like waterproofing – from paint and sealant to strategic placement of electrical cables and rust-resistant materials – are well-rehearsed. The set – this year a vision of emerging theatre designer and recent University of Alberta graduate Koshka – must seamlessly transition from one play to the next, a matinee to an evening performance, a comedy to a tragedy. Similarly, the costumes are planned months in advance and often built from scratch. Matiachuk, a University of Alberta Master of Fine Arts theatre design student, will design them for the second time, her first time in the park. (Last year, she co-designed the costumes alongside Narda McCarroll and served as a wardrobe assistant.)
At the festival this year, the head of lighting is a woman, the props master is a woman, and there’s several more. “I think that’s pretty encouraging for females out there looking to get into the profession,” says Matiachuk. “I don’t think the competition is between male and female [and] I wouldn’t say that being a female is a deterrent.”
“Especially not in Edmonton,” says Koshka.
ONCE MORE INTO THE BREACH
So, why didn’t audiences fill the seats last year in the temporary indoor locale? The magic of the festival is its al fresco ambience, and so prior to the unstable 2014 season, they comically promoted the positives.
One poster read: “100 percent less mosquitoes!”
“No rain!” read another.
But no shine, either.
Shakespeare lends itself wickedly to Alberta’s sometimes-volatile summer weather. The ladies of the Free Will Players recall a tornado warning and an airborne tent during Titus Andronicus; the foreshadowing of Desdemona’s untimely death in Othello amidst a spidery electrical storm; the crack of thunder marking a famous King Lear monologue (“Blow winds and crack your cheeks!”); and perfect blue skies, a warm breeze and fairy-like dandelion seeds floating through the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
That kind of drama is hard to replicate, a thrill for both the players and the audience. “Designers are so jealous,” says Copithorne, “because they’ll never be able to recreate that backdrop.” That backdrop might lure in a group of friends born and raised in Edmonton, or a non-English-speaking family of 12; a ticket holder pulling in $200,000 a year (that’s eight per cent of them), or a young man saving most of his change for the bus ride home on a Pay-What-You-Will night. The festival’s mandate is accessibility.
“We’re doing it for them regardless of their education or economic situation,” says Copithorne. “When I’ve watched audiences laughing – really laughing – it’s the most joyous thing there is. They really get it.”
The excitement around returning to the Heritage Amphitheatre is palpable. “I volunteered for a few years selling beer at the beer tent and watching it from the back of the park,” says Koshka. “And then to be able to be on the inside, which is my favourite place to be, to be able to facilitate a vision – I’m super excited and thankful.”
For some, the pending success of the 2015 festival is more than just selling tickets. There’s an emotional attachment to the park. Tolley, who plans to bring her three-and-a-half year-old daughter, Hazel, to rehearsals, says: “Everyone who works for this festival loves the festival. You wouldn’t give up your summer for just any gig.”
From children running and moms nursing on the hill, to grey-hairs and hipsters sipping cold beers in the sun, the expectation – and hope – is that the turnout will be better than ever.
The set at the park this season will be constructed for Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Coriolanus – the latter is a first for the festival and had to be cut in 2014. And, in the perfect kind of paradox, the As You Like It heroine, Rosalind, the wordiest of Shakespeare’s female characters, masquerades as a man.
“I’m optimistic,” says Konopaki. “We’re still recovering in terms of a financial position, and I think people still understand that. So, the ability for them to donate is in that ticket sale.”
“They’ll find us again,” adds Copithorne. “We’re going home.”
* Portraits (in order of appearance): Marianne Copithorne, Tiana Tolley, Megan Koshka, Cadence Konopaki