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All the west's a stage: from the Prairies to the Rockies, Shakespeare's popularity continues to grow.

From Winnipeg to Vancouver, professional theatre companies are fitting costumes and rehearsing lines as they prepare to tread the boards in William Shakespeare's name for yet another popular season. Across the West, May through September, there's much ado about Shakespeare.

Summer Shakespeare festivals have been a tradition on the Prairies since Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan launched its first production in Saskatoon's lovely river valley 23 years ago. Calgary's Shakespeare in the Park has been drawing audiences to Prince's Island and Mount Royal College's amphitheatre for two decades. Edmonton's River City Shakespeare Festival has been running at Hawrelak Park's hillside amphitheater since 1989. Winnipeg started its promenade-style Shakespearean productions in the ruins of a Trappist monastery in 1994. And the massive success story of Vancouver's Bard on the Beach began 18 years ago.

So, it's Stratford shmatford, thou thinkest? Not really. It's more a matter of what can be done there can be done here too, and with its own distinctive flair.

While it's true that "the play's the thing," for western Canadian Shakespeare companies, the setting is almost as important. From Vancouver's breathtaking view overlooking English Bay, the backdrop for the largest professional Shakespeare festival, to Winnipeg's intimate-scale Shakespeare in the Ruins--where scenes are presented in different areas within and without the lush environs of the conservatory in Assiniboine Park--each company chooses one of the prettiest spots in their town.

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You might expect that 391 years after Shakespeare's death our love affair with the playwright's words would languish. But last year, Bard on the Beach broke its own box office record when 80,000 people filled 94 per cent of the seats for its 17-week run. Winnipeg regularly sells out its 50 performances, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is back again due to popular demand, with the addition of an aerial dancer to play Puck, swooping down from the rafters in the conservatory's jungle room.

"The growth in popularity for Shakespeare is amazing; it's going on throughout North America," says River City's artistic director, John Kirkpatrick. "It's especially true for the outdoor festivals. It's how Shakespeare wrote the plays to be presented. It's a great experience for families, and bad weather doesn't deter them. I've seen lineups of 400 people in the pouring rain." This June the Edmonton festival takes the giant step of producing its first musical, a "fun, funkadelic" version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

What, ho! Shakespeare as a musical? Well how about The Taming of the Shrew as a spaghetti western, or the rarely staged Timon of Athens in contemporary dress, both in Vancouver? Bard on the Beach's founder and artistic director, Christopher Gaze, says taking such dramatic licence gives audiences a new way of looking at Shakespeare. "I'm a traditionalist, but if the actors are always in Elizabethan dress, the audience is always stuck in the same time period," he says. "While you must tell the story well, updating the time and place lends more relevancy and immediacy to the production."

As audiences grow, so does our appetite to learn about and participate in Shakespearean theatre. Companies are satisfying the hunger with outreach programs, educational programs in schools and public lectures. In Saskatoon, for example, positive response to their entertaining, irreverent preshow chats, tying pop culture to Shakespeare, prompted the producers to add more for this year's Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar, says artistic director Mark von Eschen. Calgary's theatre day camps for teens are being expanded and a similar program for seniors, called Project Lear, is being introduced.

Martin Fishman, artistic director in Calgary, says the company is dedicated to making Shakespeare totally inclusive. Macbeth, As You Like It and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) are free, and a free half-hour show is taken to any organization that requests it. "We're also the only company with a student and professional mix, with a big emphasis on mentorship," Fishman says.

Why such ado about Shakespeare? "His themes are timeless," says Debbie Paterson, artistic chair of Winnipeg's company. "The constant is the human condition. We still fall in love the same way, still feel loss and betrayal the same way. In Shakespeare, we recognize the intimately familiar in situations that are less familiar."
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Author:Thistlethwaite, Sheila
Publication:Western Standard
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Apr 23, 2007
Words:702
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