Western performances keep summer tradition alive

Frank Neufeld // Western News

Jo Devereux teaches literature and drama in the Department of English and Writing Studies.

While innumerable celebrations are being held this year around the globe – not to mention at The Globe in London, England – to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, here at Western we are continuing a venerable theatrical community tradition that began, if not 400 years ago, at least nearly 40. This July 13-23 the Department of English and Writing Studies will present its 36th annual Western Summer Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, with two community directors appointed by the newly established Theatre Studies program.

Shakespeare’s plays began their long lives, not as texts to study, but as performances to watch, mainly in outdoor theatres. In Canada, the fact that summer’s lease hath all too short a date is just one reason why outdoor summer Shakespeare productions are especially appropriate, even in sunny Southwestern Ontario. Although over the years Western Summer Shakespeare has had to contend with uncertain weather, pop-up thunderstorms, mosquitoes and mud, as well as loud buses, emergency vehicles, air-conditioning units, and wedding parties taking photographs beside the stage, among other occupational hazards, natural and man-made, the effort of putting on a Shakespeare play on our lovely, bucolic campus each summer has been and continues to be more than worth it.

The first play Western Summer Shakespeare produced was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened Aug. 4, 1981, two years before the first Dream in High Park (1983), making Western Summer Shakespeare the longest running outdoor summer Shakespeare in Canada. I have fond memories of that first summer Shakespeare because I was the producer and was also in the cast, playing the small (though pivotal) roles of Moth and Snug the joiner. At the time, I had just completed my first year as an undergraduate student in the old English and Drama program and was fortunate enough to be part of a project funded by an Ontario government grant for hiring summer students.

Fast forward to 2008, when the Department of English considered cancelling the Summer Shakespeare, which by then had been running annually and putting on many different plays from the Shakespeare canon for more than 27 years. The chair at the time asked me if I would like to direct the show and keep the tradition going. I said ‘yes’ and have continued to direct Summer Shakespeare through last year. The plays have mostly been comedies, especially festive ones that lend themselves to the gorgeous outdoor summer setting, but we have also produced romances and tragedies. Since the early days of this longstanding Western tradition, not only tragedies, comedies and romances, but history plays have also been performed, with great success.

Over the years, the stages, like the plays, have alternated. That first Western Summer Shakespeare in 1981 was performed in the old Ivey Business School Garden (where International and Graduate Affairs Building [IGAB] now sits). After a few years, we tried other outdoor campus venues, including the front steps of University College (UC) and the top of UC Hill, and off-campus locations, like the Lawson Museum on Western Road. From the early 2000s onward, we mainly used the courtyard behind UC, but last summer, owing to the pending renovations of the building, we moved to the grassy knoll with the Carolinian forest behind IGAB.

Each venue has had its advantages. The courtyard, with its three walls and upper windows – which we sometimes used in shows (for example, in The Merchant of Venice, in 2010) – called  to mind outdoor Renaissance theatres and the inn yards that served as performance spaces before the first permanent theatre structure, James Burbage’s The Theatre, was built in London, England, in 1576. When we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the hill in front of University College in 2008, we could truly say with Peter Quince, “This green plot shall be our stage.” Last summer, the woods behind IGAB became the Forest of Arden in our As You Like It.

Being in a natural setting, we have frequently had animals become part of the production – rabbits, groundhogs, voles and weasels, as well as many birds. Moments before the show started in 2012 (Winter’s Tale), a hawk swooped down over the stage and grabbed a squirrel, while the audience gasped in horror. I wished (not very kindly to the squirrel, I’m afraid) it had been just before one of the nights we did The Taming of the Shrew (2009), because of all the falconry imagery in that play – or it might have suited King Lear (2013) equally well.

Last summer, in the new venue behind IGAB, during a rehearsal for As You Like It (which has lots of deer imagery) one weekend afternoon, an actual deer bounded across our stage, and the cast and crew hoped that we could cue the deer during each night. Alas, the deer evidently preferred not, though it or one of its friends or relatives did show up to eat a lot of apples off the tree on UC  Hill during closing night.

Along with the campus wildlife, we have, of course, had numerous people from Western and the wider community involved as cast members of Western Summer Shakespeare since its inception. Kind support from the Department of English administrative assistants, facilities management and security has helped us enormously. As well, the London and area community has provided voluntary assistance to our production crews, especially in the vital roles of costumers, publicists, fight directors, choreographers, stage managers, composers, musicians, makeup artists, poster designers and other professionals, all of whom have generously given their time and talents to help us produce the best shows we can.

Perhaps most important of all, the audiences from our local community and beyond have been faithful and enthusiastic, often the same people coming to the shows year in and year out. We are so grateful to them: they have gamely put up with heat, cold, rain, wind, humidity, noises, wild animals, bugs, moving chairs inside, moving them outside again, helping in so many ways to turn the whole enterprise into a joyful and entertaining shared community event for everyone.

This summer the wheel comes full circle and I am returning to the role of producer of Western Summer Shakespeare which, under the auspices of the new Theatre Studies program, is continuing its tradition of community involvement. Meanwhile, two directors from the London theatre scene, Jennifer Hale and Kaitlyn Rietdyk, will bring their ideas, energy and expertise, as well as their connections to the wider London arts community, to the show. These talented women are both veterans of Western Summer Shakespeare – Hale having played Helena in the Dream, Kate in The Shrew and Portia in Merchant; Rietdyk having played the Duke in Merchant, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.

Much Ado About Nothing will run July 13-23, on the hill behind IGAB, and we invite everyone to come see the show. Both the present and the future of Western Summer Shakespeare look very bright, and that’s why – even though, as Feste the wise fool in Twelfth Night says: What’s to come is still unsure – we’re looking forward hopefully to the next 36, or even 400, years.

Jo Devereux teaches literature and drama in the Department of English and Writing Studies, directs the department’s fall theatre productions, and is the author of The Making of Women Artists in Victorian England, forthcoming from McFarland (Fall 2016).