Credit: Doug Shanks
COVER STORY: Centre StageThere are three things that Vancouverites can count on every summer: panic that the rain will never stop; panic over the two weeks of blistering heat; and glimpsing the next generation of the city’s most promising thespians at Bard on the Beach.
Over the course of its 22 years, Bard has cultivated a reputation as one of the best theatre festivals in Canada, and one of the most challenging training grounds for any actor. They offer four Shakespeare or Shakespeare-related works every season (this year’s offerings: As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Henry VI War of the Roses, Richard II) on the Mainstage and Studio Stage with two casts divvying up the productions. The company’s comprised of a loose core of established veterans who permeate Vancouver’s professional theatre scene, but it also features some relatively new faces. You may not know their names yet, but you will.
With a few seasons already under their belts, Ryan Beil, Amber Lewis and Charlie Gallant are laying the foundation to become the next generation of Bard powerhouses, following in the footsteps of innovators like Meg Roe, Alessandro Juliani, Kim Collier and Colleen Wheeler, to name a few. WE sat down for an informal round-table with the young trio to discuss their love of Shakespeare, behind-the-scenes shenanigans and the summer-camp vibe.
Tell me about your first season with Bard.
Ryan: I’d been trying to get a place in Bard for four or five years, from theatre school until I had a successful audition process. I’d grown up in Vancouver watching this so it was definitely a career milestone my first season and, I don’t know, just the discovery of what an amazing event it is. What an amazing gig to get to come every summer night. Mind-blowing, cool, career milestone. There you go. (Everyone laughs)
Amber: It was amazing. It was really a dream come true in a lot of ways, because it’s an outdoor production and there are amazing people to work with. People lined up every single night to see the show and it was sold out houses. It was an honour.
Charlie: For me I was at theatre school at Studio 58 and I’m from New Brunswick and so coming out here, all I heard from all my theatre friends was “Bard on the Beach is this fantastic festival! It’s amazing, you gotta go. The Shakespeare productions are incredible!”... Then I was in a show in January of my graduating year in 2007 and Christopher Gaze came to see it, as well as Dean Paul Gibson, and they gave me an audition based off my performance in that show. And, I was lucky enough, as soon as I was done theatre school, to jump into my first paying job, which was Bard on the Beach, which is — I didn’t know how cool that was until maybe a couple years later, but nonetheless, I was still kinda dumbfounded that I was working and getting paid for it! (Everyone laughs)
Is there an associated pedigree with Bard you wanted to attain?
Ryan: Certainly I think Bard employs the best actors in the city, if not this half the country or the entire country. I absolutely feel there’s a pedigree and a level one would like to get to.
Amber: I definitely see it in the rehearsal room. I’m still fascinated watching everybody’s work. Sitting there going, “My God, this is amazing!” To get to see actors work through things, lose lines, and try to find those lines, it’s a fascinating process and every one is so fantastic at what they do.
Why did you want to do Shakespeare?
Charlie: Even in high school, I was always obsessed with Shakespeare, I don’t know why. I think it began with a book I had to study in grade 11 or something like that. I don’t know what play it was we were going through, but it was a really good passage, a really good monologue. It might have been Richard II and I was just so captivated with all these things that I’m now learning as an actor that you have to endow Shakespeare with. You have to use what he’s given you as well as — you know, ’cause it’s poetry but how do you speak it, how do you do all this other stuff? At that time, I didn’t have the tools to read it, but at the same time, when I would read it in my head, it was just fantastic stuff. It was saying things I could never, myself, conceive how to express that. That carried through 10 years until finally I was able to have a chance to act it.
Ryan: It’s a multi-faceted challenge for an actor to try to achieve, number one, the extraordinary language, the beautiful crazy amazing wordsmith that Shakespeare was, to tackle that, but then the stories themselves are so compelling, when you finally get into them. The characters are three dimensional, flawed and everything and all of that is seen from beginning to end. Fusing all of that is the ultimate challenge.
Amber: Like Charlie, when I was in high school, I just always connected to Shakespeare. I didn’t know what it meant — like, I would speak the lines and I wouldn’t exactly know what I was saying, but I felt cool saying it. (Everyone laughs) And then later on, through theatre school, I realized there was a freedom in the classics, but specifically Shakespeare. Because of the heightened language and the potency of the words that he uses — we don’t have the vocabulary they used to back then, so there’s a freedom there. As actors, we open our bodies and have, hopefully, an athletic approach to playing in a big space, and then we get to embody this language we would never speak on our own.
Was there an intimidation factor coming on board? Who were you most intimidated by?
Amber: I actually find Ryan Beil kind of intimidating.
Ryan: No! (Laughter from everyone)
Charlie: Yep, I found Ryan Beil intimidating.
Ryan: Well, I’m intimidated by both of you guys. (A chorus of “awws.”) So, what was the question?
Was there someone that intimidated you at Bard, or a veteran in particular you wanted to learn from?
Ryan: I could listen to veteran actors talk about their careers and what they think until the cows come home. I’m big into that. I think it’s a profession where you get better at it, learning from others as the years go by. Those years of experience, to have some of it wash off on me, was pretty incredible. I was just intimidated to hold up my end of the bargain.
Charlie: The first couple days, I didn’t really know anybody by face yet, ’cause I hadn’t seen a lot of them in person before. I hadn’t introduced myself. It was just so evident from the first time we had the table read on day one, who the veteran actors were. I could have closed my eyes. You listen to their voices and how they handle the words and how they connect with it. It’s a slap across the face of like, ‘Yep, these guys are the top,’ you know? And then you realize they’re incredibly friendly, so the intimidation factor sort of went away. It becomes about, well, I was hired, this is the level, how do I not stick out like a sore thumb? (Everyone laughs)
Amber: I felt sort of insecure and then having to talk to myself, like, ‘Okay, you just have to pretend that you belong.’
Fake it til you make it?
Amber: Yeah, exactly. That kinda works. The artists in the company, I mean everyone has strengths... For me, it’s looking at different artists and trying to absorb some of their individual magic.
Are you still considered “youths” as it were?
Ryan: I hope so.
Amber: That would be nice.
Ryan: Every year there are newer people coming in, but I consider myself a youth in the world of theatre and acting. I would still call myself a rookie.
Charlie: I do, mainly because I still feel like I’m replaceable within the company. Vancouver’s a big place, and there are incredibly talented actors who could be my double at times... I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve fought my way back into the company for my fourth year. That keeps me feeling young. Or something. (Laughs)
Ryan: And it’s easy to be hungry for Bard.
Amber: It’s easy to not get in as well. Every year we audition... It’s still competitive.
What has been your silliest Shakespeare moment? It hasn’t all been perfection, I’m assuming.
Ryan: No, my first year I was dressed up — this isn’t the moment — but I was dressed up like a little boy in a sailor suit and a blonde wig. That in itself is kind of silly. But David Marr was dressed up as my mother, and there was a ball of yarn and knitting sticks involved and there was a rake and a lollipop, and somehow in the confusion we’re all supposed to come together and run away and the twine got around the rake, so we couldn’t drop it and the other actor had to pause and negotiate twine off a rake as he was trying to hold the emotion in his face and his voice, the anger. But everything we did drove the audience to more laughter.
Charlie: Since it’s Bard on the Beach, things can happen that are very funny off stage. The tent is open, you can see outside. One night in Romeo & Juliet, as people got killed off, they had to stay onstage facing out into the night. It was dark and some guy came by with his dog, it was a little pug, and it had a necklace on that would glow and flash, so you could follow where it was going and we have fences around the site that are green, so at night you can’t see them. This dog is just running around, having a great time, yelping, its owner’s having fun with it, and then it suddenly runs into the fence and ‘grrrrrrrrr!’ the whole fence shakes and makes this noise and then this little red thing just stops and falls sideways and there’s like seven of us just staring out looking at and the shoulders start going up and down from laughing. Things outside can effect us on stage because of the outdoor environment.
Ryan: Yeah, like when a party boat goes by and you’re doing a serious scene and it’s like, ‘Can you dig it, Vancouver?!’ Othello’s just found Desdemona dead and there’s a DJ swearing into a microphone.
Charlie: And, within half a second Christopher Gaze is out on the rocks waving his fist.
In my mind, this is like an adult summer camp.
Amber: Does that mean, like, we all get naked together? (Laughter from everyone)
Ryan: ’Cause then yes. Yes.
Bard on the Beach begins previews June 2. Tickets and info: BardOnTheBeach.org