Bard: Inside a Creative Family

Now that my short writing contract with  Bard on the Beach is over,  I feel like the foster child who was sent back: forlorn. Writing gigs aren’t usually like joining a family, but this one was. Like most large families, the Bard family is noisy, friendly, confusing, and teeming with characters of all ages, sizes and temperaments. Unlike most large families, Bard is disciplined, and fully absorbed in the production of four major plays. One of them, Elizabeth Rex, a Shakespearean spin off by Canadian playwright, Timothy Findley, is a rarely performed gem. Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Measure For Measure complete this year’s season, brilliantly summarized by John Burns, Editor of Vancouver Magazine at

I first realized that I was, if only briefly, part of a family, when the head of the marketing department, Heather Kennedy, met me at the door of the SFU Goldcorp building where the rehearsals take place and launched into a detailed history of the old Woodward site. She lost no time introducing me to other members of the marketing department and the Artistic Director and pater familias, the avuncular Christopher Gaze. Of course, I knew that he has been a pillar of theatre life in Vancouver for over two decades; I didn’t know how utterly unassuming and charming he is in person. No airs, just a warm smile and genuine interest in the person in front of him. At one point, while a member of the marketing department and  I were giggling hysterically over an inside joke, he came over, clearly wanting to be part of the fun. As indeed, he is.

I attended each of four production meetings, all unrolling in the same fashion.

Act One: after everyone has assembled in a big circle and made brief self introductions, Christopher sets the official tone: friendly, articulate, and focused. He outlines the big picture of the enormous creative challenge at hand, tells a little story to illustrate his point, and  introduces the director with a flourish.  After the director has laid out his/her vision for the play, the production designers, the ones I am writing about, make their presentations.

Act Two: first up, Set Designers Pam Johnson and Drew Facey. With lovingly constructed and quite detailed cardboard sets, Pam explains the aesthetics and dynamics; how the set evokes and supports the play and the actors for Hamlet and Twelfth Night, right down to tiny topiary trees and moveable screens. Drew Facey happens to be on a beach in Thailand, so the director, John Murphy, explains the Measure For Measure set–no problem. The deep nave stage is perfect for the intimate Studiostage, and Drew has come up with a simple design that evokes New Orleans as well as the medieval barn where the Queen seeks and finds ‘distraction’.

Act Three: the Costume Designers, Nancy Bryant for the Mainstage, and Mara Gottler for the Studiostage. Both hand out exquisitely rendered original designs done on full page, heavy drawing stock. Costumes signal the character as much as the lines they speak, and in these drawings, they vividly come to life. Most of the Bard costumes are constructed, stitched and stored  in a huge room in the basement of the building.  There, a dozen or so experienced seamstresses work at long tables with sewing machines, beside racks of carefully labelled, half finished creations. Swatches of shimmering fabric, hats, shoes, and dummies give the room a cluttered, homey atmosphere. Actors come for fittings, consultations and changes are made and then, back to work. It’s all work of course, but it feels more convivial than the usual work place. As you would expect from a family business.

Act Four: last but certainly not least, the Sound Designers give a foretaste of their musical ideas and explain what they are trying to achieve. As different as their music, Torquil Campbell (Hamlet), Jeremy Spencer (Twelfth Night), Benjamin Elliott, (Measure For Measure) and Patrick Pennefather (Elisabeth Rex), set the mood with considerable flair. All of them are young as well as accomplished; Campbell is the son of a famous Shakespearean actor couple and fronts the band Star, Spencer is a professional composer in Calgary, Elliott is both an actor and a musical director with Bard, while Pennefeather is something of a musicologist.

Act Five: break and retrenchment with first read through of the plays.

Bugging these busy, brilliant people for information so I could write about them sometimes made me feel like the proverbial youngest child  trying to keep up with older siblings. But in spite of crowded schedules or being somewhere else entirely, they made time when they really had none. They told me what I needed to know, corrected my errors and treated me like an equal.  I was part of their creative family for an exhilarating four weeks, and I will miss them. I can’t wait to see the result of their combined talents when the Bard season officially begins with Twelfth Night on June 12.

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