Over the past three decades, the cast and crew of Shakespeare By The Sea (SBTS) has been bringing the Bard’s famous works to audiences around the capital city and surrounding areas.
It all started on a cliff out in Logy Bay in 1993. With the pounding surf and lush meadows providing a fitting dramatic backdrop, a group of Memorial University theatre students affectionately called “Dick’s Kids” (after the late Memorial University English professor, actor and mentor Richard Buehler) launched a production of The Tempest. Directed by Tony Chadwick and starring Buehler, Sean Panting, Petrina Bromley and Aiden Flynn, the idea was to try outdoor theatre while shining a light on local talent.
“The original show was done with $500, a pair of tights and a cash box. We try and keep that spirit alive as best we can,” says Sandra Mills.
Today, Shakespeare By the Sea is the longest running outdoor summer theatre event in St. John’s and has performed such classics as Macbeth, King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing all over the local map, including Logy Bay, Bowring Park, the courtyard at the Murray Premises, the LSPU Hall, and the World War Two bunkers at Cape Spear.
One of the things that SBTS has done best over the years is nurturing emerging young artists and giving local talent a space to grow and thrive. Their list of alumni is impressive and includes many local artists who have gone on to have further success in theatre, TV/film, music, and on the Broadway stage, including Petrina Bromley, Mark Critch, Robert Chafe, Aiden Flynn, Amelia Curran, Damhnait Doyle, Allan Hawco and Krystin Pellerin. The co-founder of SBTS, Danielle Irvine, is now a celebrated and sought after director who is also the Artistic Director of Perchance Theatre, which produces and presents classical theatre with a focus on Shakespeare from their new home in Conception Harbour.
“All these names in theatre that people will recognize from Stratford Festival and beyond, they kind of got their start working with the festival…so it’s really become a stepping stone for a lot of people,” says Mills, who’s risen in the ranks of SBTS since getting involved in 2013, first as an actor, then as a board member, director, and now general manager.
“At the same time, we have people doing their first theatre show – this is the first time they’ll ever be on stage. And they get to work with a lot of established artists and people who’ve been working with the festival for years, along with these new students who are building up their resumes. It really is an opportunity for all actors, regardless of their experience and their ability.”
This accessibility is one of the main ingredients of SBTS’s success, Mills says, “and making sure that productions are as accessible as possible in terms of not just people attending, but that everyone has the opportunity to audition, to perform, to take part in the festival in whatever manner they want to.” She also points to accountability, camaraderie and of course, all of the volunteer actors and others who help pull the productions together each year.
“Our core value is ‘All hands to the pump’ and if you do join the festival in whatever capacity that is, the expectation is that everyone pulls together. This festival could not be possible on the back of one person individually or even 20 people individually. It has to be done with everyone working together,” she says. (This is especially true during exceptional times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the SBTS team came together virtually to keep the festival going. More on that here.)
This year, SBTS is ringing in its 30th anniversary in fine style with a six-week run that includes the productions Much Ado About Nothing (Fridays and Saturdays at 6pm from July 7- 22 at Cabot 500 Amphitheatre, Bowring Park), an original piece called Picnic In the Backyard by local playwright Bailey Jackson (Sundays and Mondays at 6pm from July 23 – August 7 at Anglican Cathedral Grounds, 16 Church Hill), and Romeo and Juliet (Fridays and Saturdays at 6pm from July 28 – August 12 at Harbourside Park). Admission is either free or by donation. (Click here to learn more.)
In addition to ArtsNL and the City of St. John’s, Mills says a number of community partnerships have been key to SBTS, including Newfoundland Power, Downtown St. John’s, Geo Centre and Memorial Conference Services, Fortis Inc., and Persistence Theatre. The Lantern, who they rent rehearsal space from, has also been “amazing” to work with, she adds.
To help mark their three decades in operation, SBTS also launched a “$30 for 30” campaign on the Ides of March to assist with their fundraising efforts. And on July 31, a special fundraiser and reunion dinner will take place at the Royal Canadian Legion in Pleasantville, hosted by local actor and SBTS alum Steve O’Connell (click here to purchase tickets). Everyone is welcome to attend, Mills says.
“He’s going to be our emcee for the evening and it’s just a casual dinner, stories, dancing afterwards. So it’s going to be a really fun night.”