After being forced to cancel its season last year, Shakespeare by the Sea’s artistic associate Drew Douris-O’Hara says the theatre company knew they had to do something in Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park this summer.
We landed on A Midsummer Night’s Dream because as a company we believe what people want and what people need from the theatre at this time is a warm embrace. – Drew Douris-O’Hara
But with pandemic restrictions continuing to throw a wrench into the company’s plans, as it did for so many other arts groups, the result was a trio of summer shows becoming a single show, with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream eventually chosen to take to the outdoor stage.
“We landed on A Midsummer Night’s Dream because as a company we believe what people want and what people need from theatre at this time is a warm embrace, and that is exactly what Midsummer is,” says Douris-O’Hara. “It’s Shakespeare’s most magical epic fantasy adventure romance and that’s how we wanted to come back; with a big statement of joy and love.”
The company’s comeback doesn’t just come from the ability to mount shows again, though, as it will also play a big part in its future.
“The truth is that it is always a make it or break it like just about every theatre company in this province and across the country,” says Douris-O’Hara of Shakespeare by the Sea’s ability to weather the pandemic financially.
“We’re in as hard a time as anyone, but I will say that as an outdoor theatre company, we are in a better position than a lot of our colleagues to be able to adapt and adjust to the changing circumstances.”
What has helped was the timing of a secondary income stream launched mere months before the pandemic hit.
“One of the things that has kept us going as an organization was the launch of a whole educational department called The Studio,” says Douris-O’Hara. “The Studio has continued to be able to operate, so the organization hasn’t been entirely dormant. Our teen companies actually beat us to the park performing for a socially distanced crowd a couple of weeks ago.”
As one of The Studio’s instructors, Douris-O’Hara says he not only found it invigorating to see the company invest in its youth programming, but it also helped him personally during the pandemic. “As an artist, it’s really fed my soul for the last two years,” he says.
Continuing to help feed his soul this summer, Douris-O’Hara has taken to the director’s chair for the first time with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“I’ve been an assistant director three times over the last six years, so I certainly have experience on the other side of the table, but not with the big hat on. So this is really an exciting step for me,” he says.
It also happens to be the first play Douris-O’Hara performed when he began his career in the theatre.
“There is a wonderful symmetry for me making my directorial debut with A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he says. “It was how I got started, and how I’m starting the next chapter of my life.”
But rather than recreate a memory, Douris-O’Hara brings a unique vision to the play he performed those years ago with an original musical score played live on stage, emphasizing the magic of the fairies and a company of just eight actors playing 24 different parts.
“The amazing thing about Shakespeare’s plays is how flexible and adaptable they are,” he says. “It’s a very exciting playground for an artist.”
According to the director, it is nearly as exciting as watching Shakespeare performed under the night sky in Point Pleasant Park.
“When you get to the end of the night when the moon and stars are coming out and the greatest poetry ever written in the English language is being spoken by incredibly talented actors, you can’t go wrong,” he says.
Given the limited seating due to current pandemic restrictions, Douris-O’Hara is also encouraging audiences to purchase tickets in advance, saying there are no guarantees on the availability of seats for walk-ups this year.
“For the first time ever, we’ll be turning people away and that absolutely breaks my heart, but there’s really nothing we can do about it,” he says. “The message is to buy your tickets early to guarantee your spot or you’re going to be disappointed.”
For those who might wait too long to get tickets to the main event or those looking for something besides The Bard this summer, Shakespeare by the Sea will also present a special By The Sea series anchored by local comedy troupe Hello City.
“At the height of the pandemic last summer we partnered with Hello City Improv to bring a couple of shows to the Cambridge Battery,” explains Douris-O’Hara. “It was a perfect pairing for last summer and we’re really excited to make that happen.”
In addition to weekly performances from Hello City, the company will also welcome two other Halifax-based theatre companies: Gale Force Theatre and Keep Good (Theatre).
“It’s all about welcoming our friends in, to play with us and inviting audiences that we don’t know yet to come to the park and give it a try,” says Douris-O’Hara.
Shakespeare by the Sea presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its By The Sea series at Cambridge Battery in Point Pleasant Park from July 30 through September 5. Tickets are available now at Ticket Halifax or visit shakespearebythesea.ca for more information.