Entertainment Local

Teen Shakespeare returns to Granville Island

By Brian Paterson

Maggie Stewert as Juliet and Finnegan Howes as part of Carousel Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet. (Emily Jane King Photo)

Maggie Stewert as Juliet and Finnegan Howes as part of Carousel Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet. (Emily Jane King Photo)

The year 1990 was a good vintage for Shakespeare in Vancouver.

Not only did Bard debut at the Beach, but Carousel Theatre launched its inaugural Teen Shakespeare Program. Now in its 27th year, the annual training program has become a summer staple, giving young thespians a crack at Will’s immortal words and audiences the chance to experience them a fun, laid back setting.

“Every year we take a Shakespeare play, edit the original language down to about 90 minutes with intermission, and perform it outdoors on Granville Island in Ron Basford Park,” says Carole Higgins, Artistic Director of Carousel Theatre for Young People. “It’s an amazing — and free — opportunity for families to introduce their young ones to Shakespeare.”

Performances begin on Friday, July 28 and this year’s production feels especially appropriate: the great tragedy of cosmic fate and teenage love, Romeo and Juliet.

“It’s wonderful to see teens bring this particular story to life, to see these characters played by young people who are the very ages of the characters.” Higgins says. “There’s a wonderful freshness that’s brought to the language that’s almost indescribable. It’s really inspiring.”

The program seeks to ignite lifelong appreciations for Shakespeare by creating accessible encounters for actors and audiences alike.

“I think many young people’s first experience with Shakespeare is in English class and can be really dull (though there are certainly some wonderful teachers),” says Higgins. “But Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read silently from a book. It was meant to be heard.

“Shakespeare wrote fabulous action plays. I think this is sometimes forgotten because the language can feel like a barrier. But once you hear it out loud, rather than see it on a page. It’s all very understandable.”

To make it to the stage, the 15 cast members had to undergo a rigorous training process, overseen by the head instructor Mike Stack.

“We see this as a pivotal training ground for the next generation of theatre makers,” Higgins says. “We take them through the same timeline as a professional production. We have a very competitive audition process in January, callbacks in February, and casting by March. Edited scripts go out in late May — and the company shows up for first rehearsal in July, going all day Monday to Friday in a compressed three-week rehearsal period.”

Given the intensity of the training, it should be no surprise that the program boasts a star-studded list of alumni, including Bard on the Beach and Arts Club regular Alessandro Juliani, past Stratford Festival actress Jennifer Paterson, Vancouver West-End MLA Spencer Chandra-Herbert, and even Higgins herself, who participated as a young actor back in 1992.

In addition to providing a training ground for new talent, the company ensures it can attract new Shakespeare fans, too. Anyone can attend. Performances are free (or $5 for a reserved, premium seat) and Carousel often disregards what might be thought of as “traditional theatre decorum.”

“It’s outdoors, so if a young person needs to let off some steam and run up and down the boardwalks, they can do that.” Higgins says. “People bring babies and strollers. We even welcome dogs, so long as they are leashed. We try to make it a fun, relaxed environment, and a fun, relaxed approach to Shakespeare.”

Romeo and Juliet runs July 28 to August 12. Info at www.carouseltheatre.ca.