Great effort put in to put on Shakespeare festival

The tent raising crew, Lyric Theatre board members and Shakespeare festival actors pose for a group photo in front of the tent in Riverside Park, June 28.

The raising of a large tent in Swift Current’s Riverside Park was an exciting moment for Lyric Theatre Artistic and Executive Director Gordon McCall.

A large mobile crane was used to gently unfold the Arabesque style tent while a small crowd of onlookers watched the process, June 28. It will be used for the Lyric Theatre’s Great Southwest Shakespeare Festival that starts in late July.

“It was a really, really happy moment for a lot of reasons,” he said. One is that the tent is going up and when it goes up it looks majestic. It's a sign that we're going to go ahead with the festival and that we can bring people together again after this long COVID winter, as I call it, and so it was a very exciting and fulfilling moment. And it was a feeling of togetherness in the community, because the City has been so helpful in helping us get restarted with their infrastructure support.”

This tent is similar to those used by the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan Festival in Saskatoon, of which McCall was the founding artistic director. He felt this structure will add to the audience experience at the Great Southwest Shakespeare Festival.

“I worked in them for several years, and one of the beautiful aspects of these tents is that it's clear spanned,” he said. “There's no restrictions for the eye in the tent. There are no posts going up in the centre or anything like that, and it's got a very high ceiling. So it got a real feeling of expanse inside the tent.”

He added that this tent will stand up well to high winds and its attractive appearance is almost a reminder of the distinctive shape of Calgary’s Saddledome arena. The tent was purchased by the City of Swift Current and is available for use by the Lyric Theatre for the annual Great Southwest Shakespeare Festival.

“Before COVID actually I knew this tent was becoming available,” he said. “It's a used tent, but it's in great shape. So I approached the City about the possibility of purchasing it, which they've done, and we should probably get at least 10 years out of it, five for sure. So the expense is going to be well worth it.”

He views the tent as a signal of the City’s confidence in the significance of the Great Southwest Shakespeare Festival as a signature cultural event in the community that can attract people from the region and further afield.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on the Lyric Theatre and brought all live events to a standstill. The Great Southwest Shakespeare Festival will be the first major live event hosted by the Lyric Theatre after the lifting of provincial restrictions on July 11.

The informal, outdoor nature of the event means that patrons are asked to bring their own lawn chairs, because only a limited number of formal seating is available.

“It is the same tradition we established in 2019, which is you bring your own lawn chair,” he said. “So it's a more relaxed, picnic style kind of thing, but we have to restrict the space, because if everybody settle down as if they're at the beach they would take up too much space. And so we do a little outline on the grass for people to know where we put the seats and then we help them manage it.”

There will be an effort to accommodate those who might still be hesitant to return to public events after the pandemic. People are welcome to still wear mask, if they prefer, and there will be a sanitation station outside the tent. There will also be a section where seating can be more widely spaced to accommodate a need for physical distancing.

“We can't socially distance every seat, but we are going to create a section,” he said. “We are going to have masks available and we'll have hand sanitizer available for people, and we'll say it's your option to wear a mask or not. We also have good ventilation in the tent.”

Tickets are now on sale for the 15 performances of Twelfth Night between July 23 and Aug. 21 and the six performances of Midnight Macbeth between Aug. 12-21. Tickets are available at Pharmasave in Swift Current or online through the Lyric Theatre website at: www.lyrictheatre.ca

McCall felt the two plays will provide a good choice for audiences between a more lighthearted performance and a more intense experience.

Twelfth Night over hundreds of years has come to be known as Shakespeare's most popular romantic comedy, and it is a play for all members of the family,” he said. “It is accessible. The story is about mistaken identity and it has some real hilarious moments in it, and then also, as with every one of his plays, has a good lesson about life and love and family.”

The key characters in Twelfth Night are the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are separated during a shipwreck. McCall still uses the original text of the play, but the location has been changed to provide a contemporary setting.

“In Shakespeare's time it was a storm at sea,” he said. “In our time it's a COVID storm and they survive, where a lot of others didn't, and they come to a new place that is COVID free. It's the new world after the end of COVID.”

This COVID free area is located in southwest Saskatchewan and the Illyria in Shakespeare’s play is a dance hall and honky-tonk bar in this adaptation.

“So it's going to be a country western feel to the whole production,” he said.  “We think the audience will really enjoy it. We're going to have country music and we're going to maybe have a little bit of line dancing. It's maybe, because none of us are professional line dancers. So we have to see what we can do.”

All six performances of Macbeth will take place at midnight, which will add another dimension to this tragedy about an ambitious Scottish nobleman who murders the king for his throne.

Macbeth has witches and various things, it's a spooky kind of play,” McCall said. “It's a tragedy, not a comedy, and to do it at midnight just seems appropriate – the witching hour.”

He has shortened this production of the play, based on other productions he has seen elsewhere, to keep it to 90 minutes without an intermission.

“The beautiful thing about Macbeth is it's what we call a straight-line play,” he said. “It begins and it goes right for the target from the beginning. It has great momentum to it, and it doesn't have a lot of subplots or extraneous aspects to it. So we can streamline it. My goal is that you come at midnight and you're out by 1:30.”

The Great Southwest Shakespeare Festival will include a summer day camp for youth. This camp is free and open to youth aged 10 to 12 on a first-come-first-serve basis.

“We can participate in developing the youth of our community with respect to culture, theatre in particular, and Shakespeare in particular,” he said. “We still use many of Shakespeare's words in our conversations. We just don't recognize them as such, and why should we, but he has come down through the generations through hundreds of years and is still very vital in our understanding of the human condition. So I want to pass this on to young people to invest in them their opportunities to use their own imagination to create, to be amazed and entertained by the works of this playwright.”

Each weeklong camp can accommodate up to 15 participants. It will take place at the festival tent in Riverside Park. The first camp will be from July 26-30 and the next camp from Aug. 2-6.

Each camp will be supervised and taught by experienced local teachers Nancy Bridal and Shaun Spence. There will be acting games and exercises, and camp participants will explore the world of Elizabethan England and Shakespeare’s plays through costumes, props, food, flowers, garlands and other fun creations. They will also create their own mini-Shakespeare play for presentation on the final day of the camp to family members.

The application deadline for the youth camp is July 16. Apply by sending an e-mail to to Nancy Bridal c/o thelyrictheatre@gmail.com

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