Todd Moe heads down to the waterfront for a conversation with artistic director Ian Farthing and some of the actors for their thoughts on this year's productions of Othello and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
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Ian Farthing is the artistic director of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival. He says that on its tenth anniversary, the festival is now the largest outdoor professional Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.
“If you’d said to me 11 years ago, ‘Ian, you’re going to be running a Shakespeare festival in a small town in eastern Ontario,’ I would’ve just laughed in your face. But it’s funny how life turns out, and here we are,” said Farthing. He’s been involved with the festival for nine years, and this is his seventh summer as artistic director.
“It’s just been so exciting to see the growth of the festival, not only in terms of numbers of audience that are coming, but also in the artistic excellence that we’re achieving here and the quality of the actors we’re able to attract from across the country,” said Farthing. This festival is the biggest summer event in Prescott, Ontario. Farthing said, “It’s funny; you walk around town and the locals say, ‘Once the actors arrive in town, summer’s here!’ It’s associated with summer in Prescott now.”
The festival is putting on two main productions this year. Given that this is the festival’s tenth anniversary, Farthing wanted to celebrate, and therefore programmed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He says that this is possibly Shakespeare’s most popular play. He said, “It’s a fun romp, it’s great for all the families, so I just thought that would be a great way to have some fun this summer and celebrate our birthday.”
The second play will be the tragedy Othello, which Farthing describes as “a complete contrast” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “We’re ready for it,” said Farthing. “One of our actors, Quincy Armorer, has been here a number of years, and I’ve been waiting for the right time for him to play this role and this was it. We’re tying the production in with the bicentennial of the War of 1812-1814, loosely.”
Farthing explained that there are some parallels between the play and the war. The play is set in the city of Venice, which was dependent on the waterways for trade. Prescott was similarly dependent on the river during the War of 1812. The military presence in the town is also similar. Farthing added, “An interesting little fact which I just learned this year is there was actually a black regiment in Upper Canada in 1812 which came to Fort Wellington later in the war. So the presence of a black general in Canada at that time is not as odd as it might seem at first glance.”
“Of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, this is the one that I think is most accessible because it’s not about kings and princes, and kingdoms and politics. It’s about a love story gone wrong between two people who we can relate to very closely,” said Farthing. “Race doesn’t come into the production so much as exploring what is it that turns somebody’s love for someone awry? You know, when do we believe what our friends are saying to us and how do we let that affect us? I think that’s where we find a lot of resonance in today’s society.”
The productions take place right on the waterfront. Boats and wildlife pass by as the actors perform, and are occasionally improvised into the performances. Farthing said, “That’s part of the charm of outdoor theater. You never know what’s going to be thrown at you, and it makes each performance unique. And that’s one thing I also like about performing Shakespeare outdoors here in Prescott. It’s not stuffy; it’s very accessible. Something about being outdoors and being close in proximity to the actors which just makes the stories come alive and it’s particularly great for kids to come and experience Shakespeare this way.”
This year, the festival increased the age for free admission for children to age 14 and under. Farthing says that the festival wants to expose children to theater, Shakespeare and language in general, and they want to make it affordable for families to come and watch.
Quincy Armorer is an actor who has spent numerous summers with the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival. “Well, to my friends I’m like, ‘I’m working hard, so you all better come and see it!’ said Armorer. “It’s just a fantastic evening out. You are entertained, you will laugh, you will enjoy the wonderful elements of the open air right here by the water. Even if you think Shakespeare’s not your thing, it’s so accessible here.”
Armorer has worked with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and is artistic director at the Black Theatre Workshop in Montreal. He’s waited years to play the title role in Othello this summer. “This is one of the roles that, as we say, has been on my bucket list for a long time,” he said. “I didn’t know when it was going to come my way, but I would probably always be looking for it until it came. And so the opportunity to get to do it here is great.”
Othello is a rich, complex and challenging role, according to Amorer. He says that this type of role is why he got into the business, and said, “It’s a lot of fun but it’s a lot of work; a character like Othello goes through the full range of emotion. It’s an emotional roller coaster, you know; he’s happy and in love, and he’s the general who’s secure and confident. And then a seed of doubt is planted in his mind, and he’s got doubt and fear and revenge and pain, and it covers everything. It’s really hard and amazing. I’m loving it.”
James Earl Jones and Paul Robeson have played the role of Othello in the past and left big shoes to fill. Armorer says that he’s been reading the book that James Earl Jones wrote about Othello after playing the role seven times. “I feel like I’m in good company. I’ve got a lot to live up to, but the good thing about playing this part is that you’re already working with great material. The play is just so great and so solid, and Ian is directing it and he’s great,” said Armorer.
Armorer has worked with Farthing before. They’ve developed a shorthand in terms of communicating, which he says has been very helpful. “The actors playing my wife Desdemona and the villain Iago are also friends of mine that I’ve worked with before,” said Farthing. “In a lot of ways, not that it’s been easy, but working together with each other has been easy. We were able to come in at a level of complete comfort with each other so that we were completely free to explore, which was really, really great.”
Ron Klappholz is another actor, and this will be his second season at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival. He’s a 23-year-old Ottawa native and a graduate of the acting program at the National Theatre School of Canada, or NTS. This summer, he will be playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“It’s a really great community, not just the artists here, but the actual town itself. They’re very welcoming and it’s a beautiful place to rehearse,” said Klappholz. “It feels like a second home here. They open our homes and they feed us too, so it’s a great place to work.”
Klappholz says that he’s a fan of Shakespeare. According to him, there is a very strong focus on the classics at NTS. These included Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Thomas Middleton, Jacobean and more. “There was a huge, huge focus on the classics because they say, if you can do the classics, you can do anything,” said Klappholz. “If you can tackle that muscularity and that intention and that drive and that stamina, then everything else it a piece of cake.”
Warren Bain made his professional acting debut four summers ago with the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival and is happy to discuss the famous playwright’s relevance to 21st century audiences. Bain said, “It’s such an exploration on these really tangible themes and these raw emotions. It’s very much relevant. We all know the feeling of jealousy. We all know the feeling of being overcome with love. We all know the feeling of being not liked by somebody we know, we know the feeling of being really, really liked by somebody we know and how that makes us feel. It’s the exploration on those big feelings that are really tangible and gripping.”
Bain encouraged people to bring a deck chair and come to the festival to see the productions. “What I tell my friends is that it’s a beautiful community with a stunning amphitheater that’s right on the water. It’s beautiful to spend an evening outdoors, listen to lovely, lovely words and watch people have fun,” said Bain. “Come have fun, play with us, we’ll have a good time and you’ll have a good time and we’ll leave smiling.”