Night after night, Christopher Gaze, charismatic creator and Artistic Director of Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, leaps up on stage – first in the large tent and then in the small one – to welcome sold-out audiences to each of the four Shakespeare plays that Bard produces every summer.
“I consider it a pleasure and a privilege to share my passion with others,” he says. And it’s clear his passion hasn’t diminished over the 27 years of building the festival, now one of the largest professional theatre companies in Canada.
Born in Surrey, England in 1952, Christopher came to Canada in 1975, acting at the Shaw Festival in Niagara and at other theatre companies in Canada and the US before moving to Vancouver in 1983. Having experienced tented festivals elsewhere, he was attracted to the idea of creating an outdoor Shakespeare festival on the Kitsilano waterfront against the backdrop of the city, sea and mountains.
“I’m an optimist, so I always believed it could be done,” he says. “And I think we’ve hit the jackpot with our location. This is such a spectacular city, so of course people want to be outside enjoying the natural beauty of the setting, especially while watching a topnotch Shakespeare production!”
The setting is a great attraction, but it also presents challenges. Despite wonderful synchronicities – the lovely sunsets during Romeo and Juliet or the thunderstorm and rain that have appeared when King Lear cries, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” – the weather has not always been friendly.
There have been notable trials like after the closing night of Macbeth in 1999, when a huge wind caused havoc with the electrics and Christopher had to park his car at the Bard entrance with headlights shining on Bard village, so people could buy their coffee and wine at the concessions!
Or the thundering storm that produced horizontal rain with water cascading over the raked stage during A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1991. Christopher waved the actors off stage and the show was ended with Oberon leaping into the air, illuminated by lightening as he fell to the ground behind the tent. Fortunately, this dramatic moment was ultimately felicitous, resulting in a call from Cathay Pacific the next morning announcing the Bard’s first big sponsorship.
“The show must always go on,” says Christopher, “both as a tradition and as a matter of business and salaries. We can’t afford to lose an audience because we have expenses to honour and actors to pay. So, we must always find a way to make it work.”
In 1990, the Festival was opened in a rented tent in Vanier Park with a budget of $35,000. Now in its 28th season, the annual budget is over six million dollars, employing up to 30 actors, hundreds of seasonal and full-time staff, and attracting over 100,000 audience members each summer.
Bard’s dedicated group of approximately 250 volunteers contribute over 20,000 hours of service throughout the season, and Christopher can’t say enough about their commitment.
“They’re probably more fervent about it than I am!” he says. “They certainly have a sense of ownership of the work and are wonderful ambassadors for the festival.”
Young people are attracted and nurtured through the Young Shakespeareans Program, which provides opportunities each summer for hundreds of young people to train with company artists on the Bard stages. Other outreach and educational programs include Bard in the Classroom, Bard in your Neighbourhood and Riotous Youth workshops for young people, students and teachers. All of this is a part of nurturing future audiences and encouraging a love for the performing arts.
Christopher likes to refer to everyone at Bard – the actors, directors, board members, technical staff, volunteers and audiences – as “the Bard Family.” At the centre of the family is “the trinity,” comprised of Claire Sakaki, Executive Director, Dr. Jim Bovard, Board Chair and Christopher as Artistic Director.
“It’s a wonderful working relationship,” he says. “It’s as good as it gets.”
A keen conversationalist who looks much younger than his years, Christopher has a vibrant energy. He credits his commitment to physical activity and personal fitness to his wife, Jennifer.
“I first took up running because I was chasing after Jennifer,” he laughs. Running marathons became an activity he loved, and he and Jennifer ran the New York marathon together in 2002. When problems with his knees forced him to give up marathons, however, he found other activities to replace running.
“We do a lot of walking,” he says. “Other women take their dogs for walks, but Jennifer takes me. And we walk fast!”
Although he moderates his activities as needed, Christopher always makes a point of staying fit.
“If I have a meeting on the fourth floor, I avoid the elevator and climb the stairs.” Cycling and walking are important pastimes for the Gazes. They have cycled around Sicily and Tuscany, and walked the Camino in Spain. Clearly, Christopher’s personal life is as vital and vigorous as his theatrical life.
It would be an understatement to describe Christopher as a man of many parts: he’s an actor, a director, a leader, a fundraiser, a facilitator and a man who makes impossible things happen. His many honours include Canada’s Meritorious Service Medal, Honorary Doctorates from UBC and SFU, the Mayor’s Arts Award for Theatre and the Order of British Columbia.
At the heart of all his work is a love of Shakespeare, which he describes as “the zenith, the finest of theatrical drama.” At Bard, he has played innumerable roles including Malvolio, Richard III, Lear, and Falstaff. He has also played female roles, including his first Shakespearean role when he was 14 as Ursula in Much Ado about Nothing and the Duke in The Comedy of Errors, who cross-dresses as Queen Elizabeth I.
“My favourite roles were Bottom and Puck,” he says. Bottom, the man who could play all the characters; and Puck, the mischievous magician in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It’s not surprising. Mastery and Magic! That’s what Christopher Gaze is all about. That’s Bard on the Beach!