A warm embrace of theatre

A Midsummer Night's Dream continues until Sept. 5. Photo: Jesse MacLean

For 28 seasons, Shakespeare by the Sea has endured wild weather, fire, and countless other challenges.

But COVID-19 was something new.

“Like all arts organizations, we were hit hard by that,” says Drew Douris-O’Hara, director of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. “As an outdoor theatre company, we are in a situation where we could adapt to the changing circumstances with a lot more dexterity than a lot of traditional theatre companies … As we expected, the first thing to come back kind of in full force or something that looks like close to full force is outdoor theater.”

With eight different contingency plans and a third lockdown in the spring, Shakespeare by the Sea finally opened its latest production, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, on July 30 (continuing until Sept. 5). For the production company, having the opportunity to perform this play in front of 250 (safely distanced people) at Point Pleasant Park was amazing.

For Douris-O’Hara, A Midsummer’s Night Dream has personal resonance. It was the first play he acted in, and this production is the first one he’s directed with Shakespeare by the Sea after many years as an actor and various assistant director roles. Way back when, this play was his introduction to theatre.

“I find that there is a wonderful symmetry in that I am starting the next chapter of my life and career with this beautiful play,” he says. “I have a long relationship with the play, and I am constantly amazed by how the play continues to surprise, fascinate me and how much more this 500-year-old play has to give me. It’s truly one of the great gifts of my life in the theater, so I can’t get enough of it.”

For this production, Douris-O’Hara collaborated with composer Shanoa Phillips. They first met two years ago to create an original score for production with the main focus of turning magical elements of the play into music.

“We wanted to support the show with a score that goes throughout so that even when the fairies aren’t on stage, there’s magic present throughout the show,” he says. “What we’ve done together is gorgeous, fresh, and it puts a new perspective on the play. It has this feeling of the magic of the fairies always being there.”

Douris-O’Hara says credits eight actors in the production with much of that magic.

“It’s such a talented group; they amaze me every day,” he says. “I come to work, and we play, and what they come up with is so inspiring.”

The outdoor stage at Point Pleasant Park complements the experience.

Photo: Jesse MacLean

“I always tell people, there’s something about watching a play outside in the open air that is impossible to re-create,” he says. “What you’re seeing are the actors in front of you interact with real things, so when there are birds in the sky to when there are dogs on stage, we see them. A live experience creates this unique atmosphere and extends when the sun goes down and the moon comes up. That’s the lighting of our play. You couldn’t possibly build a better scenic design, and that I think it’s incredible.”

One of the recent missions for Shakespeare by the Sea is improving access to live theatre, especially for marginalized groups.

“We’re finally coming to grips with the inequity in the way that we work and in the works that we put in front of audiences,” he says. “We have been engaged in fruitful and lengthy conversations about who gets to make that work, what that looks like, so that extends naturally to our work is accessible to as artists and in the audience. It was really important to us to put a diverse company on stage, and it has been a priority for years, but we’ve taken real steps in that this year, and we’re never going back.”

A Midsummer’s Night Dream isn’t the season’s only production.

The By the Sea Series runs until Sept. 12, and the company is hosting other local productions during the season. Hello City (By the Sea) takes over Cambridge Battery on Monday nights, headlined by improv group Hello City. Keep Good (Theatre) Company will present the world premiere of its gritty fairy tale Adventures from Aug. 25 to 29.

“It’s a one-person show loosely based on Peter Pan, where the main character is a tree performed by Anne Marie Kerr, who is one of Halifax’s most treasured theatre artists,” Douris-O’Hara says. “That’s going to be a late-night show, which is cool.”

Shakespeare by the Sea will also host Gale Force Theatre for A Tale on Two Wheels. And rounding out the season will be the return of Halifax Fringe festival, running Sept. 6 to 12 at Cambridge Battery.

Douris-O’Hara hopes that the season, and particularly A Midsummer’s Night Dream, will fill a void and introduce theatre to new audiences.

“When we were programming a show to come back out of the pandemic, to put in front of an audience that hasn’t seen plays in two years, we were thinking about the (children) who haven’t seen their first play yet,” he says. “What is their introduction to the theatre going to be? We have to play catch up; we’ve missed people who haven’t seen their first play yet. That’s, that’s what’s so special about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a warm embrace, and that’s been the mantra throughout the process. We want this play and this experience to be a welcome home and a warm embrace.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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