Q&A with Rona Waddington, artistic director, St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival

Antony and Cleopatra, St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, Prescott, Ontario.Every year, the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival presents a summer season of plays in an outdoor amphitheatre on the shore of the St. Lawrence in Prescott, Ontario. This year, the two main productions are Antony and Cleopatra and a world premiere musical version of The Three Musketeers.

Why did the festival choose those shows, how are they coping with the rainy weather and what’s new at the festival in 2017? Just before the festival opened on July 8, I caught up with its busy artistic director, Rona Waddington, to find out.

What led you to choose these two plays for this season?

We had done Julius Caesar last summer for the first time in the festival’s history, and it was such a big hit. Antony and Cleopatra is actually the sequel to Julius Caesar, so the story continues.

First, we saw that people had an interest in that story and that time period. And the second thing is that it’s such an epic love story. Antony and Cleopatra are like the ultimate modern power couple, in a way. They both ran empires. They fell in love. Their love brings them together, and then politics tears them apart. It’s just such a great story.

With The Three Musketeers, we had been thinking for a couple of years about expanding beyond just Shakespeare, but expanding to the family of Shakespeare—so classics from more than just the Shakespearean canon.

Alexandre Dumas, who wrote the novel The Three Musketeers, had himself said how heavily influenced by Shakespeare he was in his storytelling, so he’s a natural person to turn to. And The Three Musketeers, it’s a beautiful story of friendship and how friendship can transcend any social barriers or political structures or anything like that. Also, it’s a really fun show, family oriented.

I read many adaptations of it, but most were written for indoor theatres—as in, “Then someone appears in a shaft of light.” We don’t have that type of thing in this theatre. So we decided to do an adaptation that would be built for this stage and these people. That’s what we worked on through the winter: commissioned original music for it, turned it into a musical. That adaptation is a world premiere, and it was built to go into an outdoor theatre.

Is this the first musical that you’ve done?

No, it isn’t. We’ve done a couple in the past. We always have a strong musical element, because our audience loves music and Shakespeare loved music, and he often put music and songs into his plays.

The Three Musketeers, St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, Prescott, Ontario.

All of the sounds are created by the actors, so we have to hire actors who can also play musical instruments. Our company is multi-talented that way. A lot of them are actors and musicians, and they play without any kind of electric plug-in.

That’s an interesting constraint that many people wouldn’t have.

Well, sometimes, constraints are blessings. At first, you think, “Well, we’re limited by this and that.” It’s our job to figure out how to make that a benefit to us, as opposed to a limitation.

Do all of the actors appear in both of the shows?

Our cast of professional actors, which is a cast of 12, double in both shows. And then we have extras: We have 10 extras in Antony and Cleopatra and eight extras, who are different extras, in The Three Musketeers. They’re fantastic. We have this big space, so it looks good to have that number of people on stage. In other theatres, that could look cramped.

Has the rainy weather been a problem? You’re quite close to the water, so did you have any flooding?

The theatre itself wasn’t flooded. The marina, from where we get power for certain things, was flooded, and so that was a challenge. But what was very challenging was that we rehearse outdoors.

Antony and Cleopatra, St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, Prescott, Ontario.

It was cold and rainy, as you know—not to complain, because everyone suffered through that. On the 12-hour days, it just poured all day. But we hire actors who like to be outdoors, who are campers, who just aren’t afraid of heat, rain, wind, whatever. It was challenging, because you naturally move more slowly in the rain, and there were sequences we just simply can’t rehearse in the rain, like all of the swashbuckling sword fights in The Three Musketeers.

So, yeah, it has its challenges, but I would have to say, they were about as good humoured a gang as you’re ever going to get. One of the days just evolved into a puddle-stamping party, where we were all jumping in puddles and splashing each other, because we were all soaked, anyway!

I wanted to ask about the two other shows, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and Annie.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare will be on our main stage and it’s a professional production. It’s us adding a third show. We’re trying it for a week. It was the longest-running comedy ever in the West End in London. It’s really funny.

Annie: The Musical is a community show. It’s our outreach to the community, to give the community an understanding of what goes into putting on a show, and it doubles as a fundraiser for us. I direct them in a show in St. Andrew’s Church. So that’s an amateur endeavour.

These are brave people, many of whom have never been on stage before. They do great! It’s one of the most fun things to do because you really see people evolve—people who thought, “Oh, I didn’t know I could sing” or “I didn’t know I could do this.” We have a couple of very strong local amateur actors in the lead roles.

I don’t know when you sleep.

Right now, I don’t!

This interview has been edited and condensed. All photos courtesy of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival.

If you go

The shows are 90 minutes long, with no intermission. The productions run rain or shine, unless there is thunder and lightning. Children 14 and under are admitted free to The Three Musketeers and Antony and Cleopatra. For more details on the shows and schedules, as well as tips for what you should bring to a performance, go to the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival website. The two main plays run until August 12, followed by The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) from August 15 to August 20, and Annie: The Musical on August 25 and 26.

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2 Responses to Q&A with Rona Waddington, artistic director, St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival

  1. Fraser Laschinger July 19, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

    Both plays are really, really good. An exciting evening (or afternoon) at the theatre.

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