The Bard Visits the Mill
Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls…
Step right up to see the amazing, zany, dark, chaotic and upside-down farce: The Comedy of Errors.
At the end of a perfect summer afternoon last year, I plunked down my lawn chair at The Alton Mill and, as the day turned to dusk and the stars grew bright, I enjoyed a charming outdoor performance of The Taming of the Shrew by the Humber River Shakespeare Co.
This summer the company will return to Caledon for two nights at The Alton Mill and two nights at Dick’s Dam Park in Bolton during their four-week tour of The Comedy of Errors.
“This is one of Shakespeare’s earliest pieces,” says Kevin Hammond, the company’s artistic director. “It is an energetic farce, but the complexity of some of the characters elevates it from a traditional farce. I think it will create a really great park show full of lovely crazy characters and crazy moments.”
Now, before anyone backs away from the thought of a hoity-toity “Shakespeare for intellectuals” soirée, it’s worth a closer look at this talented team and their mandate.
“I truly believe that there is nothing ‘precious’ about Shakespeare’s plays,” Kevin says. “They were written as popular entertainment. They are full of spirit and joy and excitement and not meant solely for upper-class people.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls…
Step right up to see the amazing, zany, dark, chaotic and upside-down farce:
The Comedy of Errors. Come one, come all, and prepare to be tickled with laughter, baffled by coincidence, stunned by strangeness, and delighted with disaster at the hands of strange visitors, burlesque dancers, fortune tellers, and magicians.
— Humber River Shakespeare Co. website —
Performed in the open air as in Shakespeare’s day, the company takes advantage of picturesque outdoor environments by using minimal and unobtrusive sets and, wherever possible, no electricity. All productions are pay-what-you-can and, because the area is not roped off in any way, people are apt to wander by during an evening stroll and remain to enjoy the performance.
Artistic producer Sara Moyle came up with the idea for the company in 2008, a year when many summer theatre organizations faltered for various reasons. An avid hiker and outdoors person, Sara frequents the Bruce and Humber Valley trails and, in her journeys, realized that few of these communities had professional theatre organizations serving them.
“I thought what a great idea it would be to set up a theatre company and take Shakespeare – which I love and has been part of my life for so long – to the communities,” she says with a genuine and contagious enthusiasm.
Sara approached Kevin with the idea and two weeks later the ball was rolling. Both Kevin and Sara bring a wealth of experience to the project. Sara is a seasoned classical theatre actor and Kevin’s credits as a director include five years for Toronto’s Shakespeare in the Rough and co-founder of Toronto Shakespeare Workout.
“As a director of Shakespeare in the park type of productions, Kevin is unique in the fact that he never shies away from the truth of the story and the dark side of the story,” Sara says. “We don’t dumb it down – so to speak – but show it in all its glory.”
Initially the plan was to be exclusively a summer company.
“One show – two weeks – and then close it,” Sara recalls. But the demand has been enthusiastic from the start, with communities asking for return visits and winter programs.
Now in its fourth year, the company is moving in two directions. “There is a very strong classical theatre bent to what we tour,” Kevin says, “but at the same time we are exploring the historical human richness in the communities that we live in and visit.”
This interest has developed into a partnership with Toronto and Region Conservation which, in 2009, commissioned the company to create and present a series of theatrical vignettes illustrating the human history of the Humber River from 1615 to 1954 in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Humber’s designation as a Heritage River.
Each project they delve into and research opens doors to more ideas, more potential stories and more interesting historical possibilities.
“At some time we will definitely do a Hurricane Hazel story. It’s a story that needs to be remembered,” Sara says. “We keep accepting projects because we are so eager to learn and have new experiences.”
Their spring Sonnet Show, held in the historic Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke, has just wrapped up for the fourth year. A fundraising event for the company, the sonnet show consists of five new fourteen-minute all-Canadian plays inspired by a Shakespearian sonnet.
The plays are written in fourteen days and produced and performed over the course of one afternoon. The combination of Shakespeare, historical vignettes and compact tourability also makes the company a natural for school performances.
“We have just finished workshopping our ‘theatre in education’ piece, which will start touring this fall,” Sara says. The piece will be a “‘trunk” show, where they bring a Victorian trunk on stage and everything required for the production – including costumes – emerges from it. This simple storytelling makes the show accessible for almost any venue. Schools appreciate the quick set-up time and the convenience of not having to bus children to a theatre.
Along those lines, Kevin and Sara have also developed Chamber Shakespeare, a tour-friendly theatrical production of Henry V. The group of five actors should be able to play anywhere – community centres and theatres, town halls, barns and even vacant storefronts during the winter months.
The company has already performed A Christmas Carol as a trunk show for several years. Originally a staged reading, the production of the Dickens’ classic now involves five actors performing twenty-two characters, aided by masks, puppets and costumes.
I attended last December’s production of A Christmas Carol at The Alton Mill. In a small space with a capacity audience of about eighty-five, the company was mesmerizing. Only a couple of feet – sometimes less – from the audience, they spun the classic tale of Scrooge in a flawless non-stop whirlwind, despite a mere three days of rehearsal. When they return to The Alton Mill this winter I’ll certainly be in the audience to witness the changes they plan to bring to an already stellar production.
Ensemble work is key to presenting these shows, says Sara. “The ensemble spends a lot of time together on tour and we are always communicating closely with the audience, so it requires a different kind of cast cohesion and a different understanding of where you are.” Each project is unique and actors audition for the parts; however, they like to retain a core of actors who have been through the process and are familiar with the distinct culture and the trials they encounter.
Certainly being a team player with strong improvisational skills at the ready comes in handy in outdoor theatre. Each venue is not only comparable to a new theatre, it is tantamount to working with an entirely new set. There are no wings in which to relax and regroup, and the audience is apt to watch those supposedly “off stage” as much as those on. In last summer’s Alton Mill production a window in the walled foundation that served as the theatre became an impromptu entrance and exit for one actor – a change that might have unnerved less seasoned performers.
And then there is mother nature to contend with. As the sun set during last year’s production at a Caledon East location, Sara recalls that a flock of mosquitoes “the size of helicopters” descended, flying around the actors’ faces and into their mouths during the climax of the show. Although the performers persevered, the audience became increasingly uncomfortable and eventually the mosquitoes began to drive them away.
“Ideally we would have a rain or shine location in every venue,” Sara says. However an indoor space is not always available, as is the case at Bolton’s picturesque Dick’s Dam Park, where the company will launch its season in early July. Canada’s unpredictable weather might even be considered an integral part of the complete outdoor theatre experience.
“We don’t come and put a theatre in your park,” Kevin says, “we make the park our theatre. We arrive, we roll out a tarp, we put on costumes and we tell a story for two hours.” Bring a lawn chair, maybe an umbrella and bug spray. The company will take care of the magic.
- The Humber River Shakespeare Company will perform The Comedy of Errors at Dick’s Dam Park in Bolton on July 6 & 7, and at The Alton Mill on Friday July 15th and Saturday July 16th at 7:00 pm. as part of the Mill’s Cuisine Art Festival.
- A dinner/theatre package is offered both evenings by The Millcroft Inn in Alton. Performances begin at 7 pm.
- In addition, the company will perform the play at several other locations in Toronto and York Region throughout the month of July.
- For the full performance schedule or to join the mailing list, visit humberrivershakespeare.ca
- The company is always looking for new community partners and performance venues.