Q&A with Christopher Gaze

Christopher Gaze | BCBusiness

The founder and creative director of Vancouver’s celebrated annual Shakespeare festival, Bard on the Beach, shares his plans for the 25th-anniversary season and reflects on the event’s humble beginnings, and where it is headed next

This year Bard celebrates its 25th anniversary. What’s in store?
We held back A Midsummer Night’s Dream for this season. It’s such a triumphant, magical sort of play. We started with Dream 25 years ago and we’ll do it again. Dean Paul Gibson will direct it; he directed it for us seven or eight years ago, and he’s going to refresh what he did before. We’ll do that on the BMO main stage and with it, Meg Roe, who directed The Tempest for us about five years ago in our little theatre, is going to expand her production of The Tempest, because BMO is three times the size of the little theatre—740 seats.

The Vancouver Opera, in collaboration with UBC Opera Ensemble, have four performances at the end of August and beginning of September. I’m doing a retrospective—it’s a performance, if you like—just memories of Bard. It’s not a play; it’s just me, chattering on. I’m just doing five performances of that. I’m there almost every day, introducing the plays every evening and welcoming everyone, which I hope to be about a hundred thousand people.

Bard was established in 1990 with a $35,000 budget and has grown to a budget of over $5 million. How have you managed this growth?
It’s nothing simple, but with expert help—a lot of it volunteered—wisdom that we have sought and used to our advantage, growth as you well know is not easy to handle. We’ve had capacity seasons where we’ve sold every ticket. Our main challenge in the last decade has been in the last three years. We moved from a 520-seat theatre—which wore out for us—to a 740-seat theatre. Managing that capital campaign, managing new budgets, which were created because once you have a bigger facility, you have more people, there’s more expense in putting it up, there’s more expense in taking it down, there’s more expense in maintaining it. We just needed to develop and grow quite quickly and that growth has taken up a lot of time for a lot of people—their thoughtfulness and wisdom has seen us through it. But it hasn’t been easy.

When you started in 1990, did you envision growing to something this grand?
No, I didn’t. I believed it could be successful, but if you had asked whether in 25 years’ time would it be a $5-million festival, I couldn’t have seen that. But the nugget, the seed of it, I believed in. And fortunately so did a lot of other people.

Do you think you would have found this same success in another Canadian city?
I think that Vancouver is perfect because the weather is kind of perfect for what we’re doing. You needed to give it time to grow organically and not force it, and that made the difference here in Vancouver. It works in Vancouver because in the summertime people like to be outside here. Vancouverites like to be outside in the evenings and Bard allows you to be outside, but be protected outside.

Does the community’s support play a significant role in Bard’s success?
I think so. How is it that Vancouver embraced Shakespeare? I think it’s because it’s grown on people over the years. The first decade was just steady as she goes. We managed budgets very well and the audience got used to coming. They got used to trusting us—that it wasn’t going to be odd, or incomprehensible, or airy-fairy, or academic. It was going to be accessible, thoughtful, inspirational, fun, dangerous—it was going to be dynamic. The credit lies with the 90 to 100,000 people that care every year. Their loyalty has made all the difference.

What have been the most crucial financial pillars of support?
The main money, of course, comes from selling tickets and what people spend on-site. Corporately, we’ve had dedicated sponsors from both large companies and small for decades, and very often that support has remained constant. We are very underfunded compared to other arts organizations from our annual grants from the city and the province. You look at other arts organizations of comparable size in British Columbia and in Canada and chances are they’re way more supported from the levels of government.

The City, of course, has really embraced Bard on the Beach, especially with our capital project to move into the 162 West 1st theatre centre. We’ll move in in a little less than 18 months’ time with the Arts Club. About 45,000 square feet, where there will be a production centre, offices—there will even be a theatre that the Arts Club will have and we will perform in in the winter. We will expand to perform in the winter in probably 2016. The City gave it to us for $1, but they’re also providing $7 million to help kit out the interior we need—it’s over $13 million to do that. We very much hope that Canadian Heritage (Canadian Heritage is a government ministry) will provide $2.5 million and then we’ll fundraise for about $3.3 million between the Arts Club and us.

How do you see Bard’s role in the local arts community?
In the ecology of theatre in Vancouver and British Columbia we are, without overstating it, a pretty important part of it. We provide hundreds, if not thousands of weeks of employment for a lot of people in a year. Our actors at Bard often get contracts of 25 weeks. Most theatre companies would offer up to five weeks, possibly eight. Look at the Vancouver Opera, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. They all get paid because they come and play at Bard, and so on. It really enriches the community. I think the very existence of Bard has really helped many cultural and artistic institutions here in the city.

Are there any dream partnerships in Canada that you’d like to work on?
I think a closer collaboration with the Stratford Festival or with Soulpepper in Toronto, with the National Arts Centre—those will be the sort of relationships that we’ll be seeking in the coming months and years. It’ll be a good cross-pollination to have those audiences see what we do in the West, and vice versa, and for our performers and designers and directors to work in different communities across Canada. It’s good for them, it exposes them to different theatre scenes and it just makes it all better.