As the Bard wrote in his pastoral comedy “As You Like It”: ”All the world’s a stage.” The folks at the Shakespeare By The Sea Festival (SBTS) have been living these words for almost three decades now, performing the playwright’s famous works around some of the loveliest locales around the St. John’s area, with the ocean and sky, meadows and seagulls’ cries adding a beautiful and dramatic backdrop.
But what’s a troupe of thespians to do when a pandemic prohibits audiences from attending their performances? You bring the performances to them, of course.
Since August, that is exactly what the SBTS team have been doing. But instead of performing against meadows and hilltops, they’ve been using modern technology, specifically Zoom, to bring the classics to their fans, using digital backgrounds to help bring the scenes to life.
This year’s performances include a Newfoundland, folktale version of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” (featuring a cast from across the country), as well as Shakespearean Shorts, a series of scenes and monologues, which are available to view until the end of this month.
“We moved the festival online, but then we also took advantage of the opportunity to do a deeper dive into a particular play that we’re going to reproduce hopefully in an outdoor setting next summer,” says Paul Rowe, Artistic Director of SBTS.
“We went all-in in terms of costuming, digital backgrounds, makeup, hair, that kind of thing. It’s not just an online reading, it’s a full-on presentational mode, but in that medium.”
In some cases, instead of digital backgrounds, the actors worked with whatever was available around them, Rowe explains.
“Zaren Healey-White and Dean Doyle actually made the costumes, got the microphones…and then they did Titania and Oberon from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in their backyard. They had their friends come in and film it in their backyard and mic them and everything, and it’s up online now too. And it’s fantastic,” he says.
While SBTS is a charitable organization that relies on volunteers for much of its work, Rowe says they were pleased to be able to provide some opportunities for students this year, hiring them on as stage managers. Coordinating and directing 40+ actors in an online space is no easy feat and while there were some unique logistical challenges to consider this year, the SBTS team was well up to the task.
“We would meet Monday to Thursday from six to nine o’clock, that was our rehearsal time…I’d sit down in front of my computer, everybody would log on that was required for that section and over the course of the evening, we’d rehearse everybody and off they’d go and do it again the next day. And then as we got closer to production, we had more and more people coming in and doing full runs,” Rowe says.
“And we were mailing costume pieces to people. We were couriering props and costumes across the country. We had one guy down in New Hampshire, so we had to courier his costume down to him and hope that with the mail…everything would arrive in time.”
Over the past couple of years, SBTS has been selling tickets via a pay-what-you-can model to help make the festival more accessible. This year, the productions are hosted online and in lieu of tickets, patrons can make a donation if they wish to help SBTS offset some of their costs. Rowe says while the biggest challenge this year was the loss of $12,000 to $15,000 in box office revenue (“We really had to be careful about our expenses, how we’re going to manage now, because we have year long expenses like insurance and storage and things like that,” he explains), “so far, we’re doing okay.”
Rowe says he’s grateful for all the support the festival has received and for everyone who has worked so hard to make it happen under such extraordinary circumstances. As their main sponsor, he adds, Fortis Inc. has been fantastic (“They came through for us this year really at a clutch time,” he says) and he would like to see the Fortis Amphitheatre outside of The Rooms play a bigger role as a performance venue in the future.
“It’s actually a really interesting performance space. We used it last year for ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and it was great. And we plan to use it again next summer for ‘Pericles,’ he says.
Rowe also gives kudos to Sandra Mills, General Manager of SBTS, “because without Sandra Mills, the festival wouldn’t happen.”
“When we get into festival mode, Sandra takes over in terms of running the festival. It’s very intense for her for that period of time,” he says.
“She does a great job.”
Click here to watch this year’s SBTS productions “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” and “Shakespearean Shorts.”