Cue To Cue- A Conversation with Christopher Gaze

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1961

Laurence Olivier once said that “in a great city, or even in a small city or a village, great theatre is the outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture“. 

There is no better proof of this than in the umbilical connection between Vancouver’s thriving culture and bourgeoning theatre scene. Here on Cue to Cue we’ll regularly feature in-depth previews and reviews of the shows that create the face of Vancouver theatre, as well as interviews with the local artists behind it all…

I don’t want to alarm you, but it’s already June.  The sun is shining, there are smiles all around, and behind closed doors (in most cases) a show is opening and waiting to be seen by a sun-kissed audience.  Some of the highlights for this week include the Big-Bone Equity Co-Op production and Vancouver Premiere of Fourty-Deuce on until June 24th at Little Mountain Gallery, Itsazoo’s site-specific Bridge Mix on at at Metro Parkade on W.Pender St. until June 25th, and United Players’ Our Class on until June 26th.   Bard on the Beach has begun previews for their 22nd season (and first season in their new tent) with As You Like It (which opens this week).

A few weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Bard’s Artistic Director Christopher Gaze.  He is a legend.  Beyond his status in the theatre community, he is extremely kind, generous of spirit, and well-spoken.  Whether it be the many theatre artists that are his peers, the cultural boards he holds a seat on, or in the crowds of the audiences down in Vanier Park, the fan base is large.  It is little surprise that his repetory company has become one of the best in the country, and continues to be a leader in the development of local young artists.  Christopher took some time to speak with me at the Bard offices and the conversation was insightful, passionate, and at times candid.  Recommended reading for artists, lovers, and the in-between.  Enjoy!

Christopher Gaze (photo Yukiko Onley)

How would you describe this season?

I think it has a good blend, a good balance of risk, and ease, and delight.  So, there’s something really there for all punters.

We had an opportunity with this current season, perhaps, to change the program what with the difficulties we got into with our mainstage theatre last year.  And we considered other plays that maybe were even more celebratory, fun and comedic, but we stuck to our guns.  As You Like It was already programmed, and we stuck to it.  And having David Mackay direct it, you know that the comedy will be there.  David has tried to find the heart of it, which will make it beautiful, so it’s not just light and easy.

Is there a different kind of excitement when you program the lesser performed/seen shows?

There’s drama.  There’s challenge in the histories, especially Henry VI.  We’ve done lots of plays of Shakespeare over the years that, I think, nobody has seen, but let’s say 2 percent of our audience might have seen before like in Stratford, England, or Ashland or something like that.

But, the rare plays are an opportunity for people that really admire Shakespeare.  I just spoke to the acting company for this production and I said, “You are going to get the opportunity as actors to be in a play that 99.9 percent of actors will never get to be in, including me.”  So it’s kind of exciting for them. Then to finish with the thrill and excitement of the really great work Richard III–fantastic!

After 22 years how do you keep things fresh when you are programming a season from the same canon of works?

It’s tempting more and more to go for productions that really work.  When you pull off a production of Shakespeare, really do it well and you know it, it’s really tempting to bring that production back.  I’m desperately trying to resist that temptation because I think it’s exciting for our audiences to see a play that perhaps they only saw five or six years ago, but see it again and say “Wow, it’s like I never saw it before.  It’s just so different and so interesting–things about it that I never heard before, but now I’m hearing.”

We’ve had this noble goal of getting through the canon by year 25.  That guides me and others who I consult about programming.  But it would be a recipe for suicide to shove in three plays you’ve never done before.  Choose a season of rarely done Shakespeare works, and it’s going to kill the Festival.  Why do that?

So, I suppose I try to be as canny as I can in programming. Smart, challenging where we can be challenging, and take a risk where I feel we can.  I feel a very strong sense of fiscal responsibility.  I feel a–I think I’m a born marketer.  It’s not my job, but I think it just love it.  And it comes out of enthusiasm.  I want everyone to come have a good time and share it all, you know?  You need to get a good balance, that’s all it is.

Why do you think people are able to watch Shakespeare, sometimes the same play, over and over?

I think as Rosalind says in As You Like It when she talks about love, “my affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal.”.

That’s why some people go to university and teach it for a lifetime and never get tired of it.  It becomes a sort of spirituality in its way.  It’s about love and it’s about understanding, it’s about kindness, trying to fathom whatever we are.  It gives such exquisite insights.  It’s irresistible, especially when it’s wrapped up in such fabulous words.  He’s terribly good at what we can find hard. We find it hard to express our love or our thanks or whatever it is.  He gives it to you, and it’s wonderful to either read it or to hear it and to understand yourself a bit more.

It’s like going to see another Boheme, a Traviata.  It’s Beethoven’s Fifth.  It’s gorgeous.  It becomes a tradition in your life.  “Give it to me again.”

Why do you think Bard on the Beach has had so much success in Vancouver?

It takes a lot to keep people in Vancouver from going outside.  I think we were ready in Vancouver for al fresco entertainment like Bard. There was a sense of whimsy to the idea–it’s so West Coast.  It is perfectly named, Bard on the Beach.  It just makes you smile to think of it.

It’s just an idea that just hit our audiences right.  Could this work in Toronto?  Sure.  But I think we’ve found a beautiful way of presenting Shakespeare.  More than that, I think we found a beautiful way of doing it really well.  The ease of our theatres, a sort of festival feeling, it makes every night, every performance an event.  And people love that.  We love events.

And tents are naturally celebratory places.  We rent them for celebrations, for weddings and so on.  I think including the natural world is great, because Shakespeare when he wrote those plays it was open up above their heads, which included the natural world.  We include it in the backdrop because we’ve got so much to look at.

Douglas Campbell used to say one of the nice things he felt about Bard was that “If I’m watching you on stage, in your conversation, glancing about, doing your thing; When I’ve had enough of looking at you or I need a rest, I can just go to the distance, if it’s still light, and take that in for a minute and let my eyes relax, and then come back to you better than before”.

And in an environmentally controlled theatre, you can’t do that.  I’m stuck with you.  The lights are on you.  And that might be a great pleasure, but still.  Here you can watch that boat going by over there.  That gave me 25 seconds off, and then I’m back with you again.

Here in Vancouver we don’t really get eaten alive by bugs like one might across the country.  We can wear lots of clothes when it’s cool or as little as possible if it’s very hot.  It’s just–there’s an ease to it.  You can stay with the night, as opposed to coming inside a theatre at eight o’clock at night, on a gorgeous day.  The gorgeous day is in our theatre.  That’s part of the Bard experience.

With the new tents there’s reserved seating compared to the years of lining up for your seat. So you think that will change the Bard experience?

It’s going to make a massive change.  The whole Bard experience is going to change right now, and it’s time—oh god, it’s time!

I know many people enjoyed the lining up.  It became a tradition for people.  But, I think it eliminated a lot of other people who just couldn’t be bothered.  I’m not good at lining up for things, personally (I’m glad I didn’t have to).

So, I think the reserved seating–I’ve been thinking about it over the last little while–is actually going to be bigger than the fact that we have a new theatre and the beauty of that theatre.  At last when people buy their seats they know that whatever it says on their ticket that’s where they’re sitting.  They’ll arrive when they want to arrive.  There’s going to be a lot of new people coming now.  They’re just going to be wowed by that theatre.

They’ll be nothing like it anywhere that I know of in this country, truly, and I believe that there’s going to be thousands of people that will come based on the fact they don’t have to line up anymore.  You still get the Bard experience and not the hardship of the lineup.

What else is new in the tents this year?

We’ve always had wonderful feedback on our Tuesday night when we did the Talkback Tuesdays telling people about the play before the play.  Now we do that every night, at half an hour before the show begins.  You will attend, if you choose, and for seven or eight minutes someone will stand there and say, “This will get you in the door.  This will get you going.  Pay attention, and you’ll do well.  You’ll get so much more out of it.”

I think we’ll start to change the Bard experience for all those people that are nervous.  There’s a lot of people thinking, “Oh, boy.  She’s dragged me down here.  I’m not going to enjoy this,” and then, we can help.  We can help!

Everything about Bard just got even better.

Beyond the beautiful backdrop, how do you keep it about the work?

The physical things about our arena are great. The key to the whole thing, however, is the quality of the work.  That’s what will sink you finally.  If we ever have a rough season, it’ll be because we just didn’t deliver.  Fortunately, we keep delivering.  We do good work.  I mean, it’s for others to judge, but I’m a pretty good judge of it after all these years.

It’s certainly the question or the challenge I lay down before all the directors and actors when I engage them–have a go, be good, be bold, be as good as you can be.  This is the summer of our lives.  Make it the best.  It’s not just a job where you get paid.  Sure, that’s part of the deal.  Survival is a big part of our lives.  However, let’s make it more than that.  Let’s make it fantastic!  So, that’s the challenge.

What other theatre gets you going?

The best actors and theatre people are the ones that take risks, but have had good training to be able to pull it off.  I think of the theatre not as an elite society–but if you’re a baseball player, if you’re a ballerina, or an opera singer, they work like bastards to be as good as they can be every bloody day, throwing balls, practicing God knows what.

I enjoy actors who are well trained, are well centered and deliver clear, inspired performances.  That excites me.  I’m getting more and more particular the older I get.  I’m focused on the way they stream words together, and whether I can hear them or not.  I don’t just mean hear sound, but hear definition of words.

I feel that Bard is the sort of maximum test for an actor because it’s a difficult arena, it’s not acoustically controlled.

I just look for good work, and it can be delivered in the oddest spots.  I love spotting young talent.  That’s the lifeblood of our industry.  Where is it?  Where are these diamonds?  I see it.  I want it.  I want them for us.  So, it’s a wonderful thing to unearth talent.  It’s the most beautiful thing about our work these days, for me.  Who’s next? Where are the new girls?  Where’s the next Jenny Lines?  Where’s the next Bob Frazer?  Who is it? But it’s bloody hard.

If you were to leave it all behind, what would you do?

Well, I think part of me could be very tempted to perhaps keep a little tiny studio home here and go and have a farm.  I’d like to be a farmer, I think, and grow things.  I’d like that.  A bit of the natural world–a bit like Duke Senior in As You Like It.  I’d like that.

I’m interested in life.  I’m interested in people, which would make farming a bit of a fantasy.  I have a lot of city stuff going on.  I’m on a lot of boards.  And to actually claw my way out of that would be hard.  I do enjoy being connected and being a part of the sort of cultural fabric of the city.  I enjoy that.  I enjoy contributing.  I enjoy mentoring and trying to bring people on and inspire them because I genuinely feel that I’ve been very fortunate.  I’ve landed on an idea that has afforded myself, and now fortunately, many other people a living, a very nice living.  I live well.  I put a lot in, and I get a lot out.  I’m a lucky guy.

And I’d like to share that with actors because most actors don’t cross over into this world, the administration, and the arts management.  The arts management ain’t easy, I’ll tell you that for nothing.  You have to know so much.  You have to work with boards, and sometimes it’s not easy.  You want to run.  They don’t want to run.  And I don’t want to stop now.

I was 59 on Thursday.  I have no intention of stopping for quite a long time, as long as I can feel useful.  I don’t want to be here if ever I feel that everyone’s actually looking at me saying, “Put that little old bastard down”. I would go, I would go.  I’d try and go before then.  But, I’m in. I think I’m good for a while.

Why did you ultimately choose a life in the theatre?

Because I love it.

When I was a boy, I wasn’t very successful in anything.  just wasn’t particularly interested in school.  I loved sports, and I love sports now.  But, I was really interested in plays.  When I went to school years ago, a boarding school in England, we did a Shakespeare every year.  That just lasted six weeks or so, but I lived for that.  I don’t know why I loved it, but I did and–but I was good at it.  At last, people said, “Wow, you’ve got a wit.”  For God’s sake, everyone won everything else.  So as my teens went on and I was in the National Theatre, everything was reinforcing–not that I was brilliant, I’ve never been brilliant, but that I had something.  Reinforcing that I could play in a company of players.

What was the turning point that brought you to this particular path?

I’ll tell you the turning point in my life, the Bard on the Beach turning point, before that name was even considered.  My father died in 1988, and I think in the early part of ’89, my wife at the time, her sister, and her mother were heading off to Australia but I was destined to stay with the lads.

I remember sitting with my father-in-law at the time(he died about three or four months ago), really laughing about the arts.  He looked at me, and said, “Well, where’s it all going, Chris?  Where’s it all going?”  And I said, “Well, I don’t know.  I’ll just sort of grind it out.”  I felt a change coming in myself.  I felt I either need to move to Stratford, sort of the centre of theatre in Canada, I need to become a Canadian actor and deal with the fact that I had two young boys, and just say see in you nine weeks, darlings, and go off to Halifax or Edmonton or wherever it was, or I needed to give it up.  The last option was unthinkable.

I don’t know if I said all this to him, I can’t remember that.  But, I think he just looked at me one day, and he said, “Oh, come on, Chris.  It’s no use flogging a dead horse,” which really meant, “Your career is a dead horse.”  He didn’t know what he was saying in terms of how insulting that was, really, and I loved him.

But I thought about flogging a dead horse.  “Now was the time” (after my father’s death, mortality, and the question of what I was going to do with my life were very much on my mind).  And so, that’s when I started.  And I’ve been in these tents–this will be the 26th year for me, actually–22nd for Bard, but I’ve done four more than that.  And I thought, “We just have to do it,” and that’s what drove my agenda and the rest of the story. I’m very attached to a beautiful little phrase that I’ve discovered.  “Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it.  Boldness has a genius, magic and power in it.”

That was the seminal moment for me to be bold.  And when you’re bold, life changes and you commit yourself.  You have to commit yourself.  That’s when great things happen.  That happened in 1989.  And here we are today.

Thank you so much!

Great pleasure.

 

As You Like It opens this week with The Merchant of Venice, Henry VI, and Richard III following (respectively).
Next week we feature the weekly highlights as well as in-depth previews of some great work. ‘Til then! @vancouverplays and cuetocue@vancouverisawesome.com