It is a grey afternoon when The Coast reaches Drew Douris-O'Hara, Shakespeare by the Sea's artistic associate, by phone, but his words give all the Vitamin C the cloudy sky outside can’t. “It's like an understatement to say I'm excited to see a live audience again. I would say that it feels like I'm breathing again for the first time,” Douris-O'Hara begins, when asked how it feels to be part of SBTS’s latest season, running from mid-July to September 12 in Point Pleasant Park.
“Even having this conversation: to be back doing the work that theatre artists do together: It is such a collaborative art form. I feel like it's very difficult to put into words the significance of being able to gather—both as an ensemble and to gather an audience to witness the play. It really, truly happens in the transfer of energy between people. And without that, it kind of doesn't happen at all.”
After a year indoors—and after SBTS taking last summer off because of the pandemic—Halifax needs the fortifying, fresh air rendition of The Bard’s verses more than ever. But, of course, COVID-19 has complicated things this season, making it harder for an organization to get its ducks in a row.
“So, as you say, it's hard to get all your ducks in a row: Well actually, the process for us—and I think for a lot of other arts organizations that I've been in consultation with—is we have very many ducks in very many different rows,” Douris-O'Hara says with a laugh. “The process of the last couple of months has been about planning and re-planning. And the one word I hear from every artistic leader I talk to is contingency. We as an industry have become quite expert at creating contingencies and pivoting—but those pivots can take a long, long time. And they involve a lot of risk—financial risk—for organizations that are chronically underfunded in the first place. It's really not a safety net for most arts organizations, so we're just scraping by.”
Much like Lady MacBeth with her bar of soap, though, Douris-O'Hara and the rest of the Shakespeare crew aren’t giving up. Instead, the latest version of planning and pivoting they’re undertaking is an attempt to even out crowd numbers to comply with COVID gathering limits. “We’ll see crowds of 750 people sometimes in the last two weeks of the summer,” he says, a cresting audience size that builds from opening night onwards. “But this summer, there's going to be very strict gathering limits. So we won’t be able to have 750 people. So, if you are reading this article and you are one of the people who love coming on the last weekends of the summer, you have two options: Come earlier or buy a ticket, because we’re not going to be able to accommodate two thirds of those audiences.”
Douris-O'Hara and his fellow artists are as devoted to their mission as Hamlet was to his, and he’s quick to explain why Halifax needs to be, too: “If you want art to happen in your town, we are just hanging on right now. You can't wait ’til next summer. If you wait ’til next summer, we may not be there. That’s the reality—not just for us, but that’s for all arts organizations in the province and probably across the country. Now is the time. If you wait, it may be too late.”
Luckily for us all, it’ll be a pleasure to do so, with SBTS’s summer 2021 season offering the fan favourite A Midsummer Night’s Dream as its sole production. (Jacob Sampson, a two-time Merritt Award winner and SBTS favourite, will star as Bottom in the show—in case you needed a clincher on why it’s a sure thing.) Rounding out the fun at the Cambridge Battery this summer is the “By The Sea” series, which sees other live performance groups using the space—including the likes of improv royalty Hello City—taking the stage with original programming.
“There's a magic to seeing and hearing a show and the poetry in the open air as the moon comes up behind the actors and the wind dies down at night, and the birds’ chirping picks up,” Douris-O'Hara says. “There is magic to that experience that is impossible to recreate and also kind of impossible to mess up too badly. When you’re in that space, it’s really like: Surely this was meant to be.”