When you live in an area with a village called Stratford on the Avon River, you have the perfect location for a Festival to celebrate the enduring theatrical works of the Great Bard, William Shakespeare. In 1998, a committed group of theatre lovers in the Gloucester area staged the first Shakespeare on Avon Festival in Stratford.
This month the committee is preparing to host its thirteenth event at the Gloucester Recreation Centre, for Shakespeare lovers and school groups from near and afar making their annual pilgrimage.
The weekend Festival includes five public and schools’ performances of Tantrum Theatre’s production of the Bard’s classic comedy As You Like It, an Elizabethan banquet, market stalls, music, local food and wine, medieval jousting, dancing and archery.
The main event is the Saturday evening performance, which includes the Elizabethan banquet and at the Friday performance a ‘Ploughman’ platter will be served. Patrons are encouraged to come dressed for the part in Elizabethan attire.
The local GACCI (Arts Council) Players always delight audiences with their own special comedic interpretation of something vaguely Shakespearean, this year tackling Romeo and Juliet and, as a further innovation, opening the Festival with a special Thursday night performance.
Retired English teacher Leone Hooke has been a member of the organising committee since its inception and has seen the Festival grow in popularity and size.
> What do you think makes Shakespeare’s work so enduring and continuing to appeal to modern audiences?
What eventually dawns on people is that the themes in Shakespearean plays are universal, and, while language and costumes may change, human beings still have the same concerns, obstacles and issues that human beings have always had.
We have probably been helped in getting this across by the relative youth of the performers in most of our productions and the adaptation of plays so that, while modern themes are brought in, the plays remain true to the original scripts. Director Carl Young’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year was a good example of this.
> The Festival has certainly grown over the years, but has it changed essentially since it was held at Stratford?
There are two major changes since the Stratford days. Firstly, we no longer perform in the marquee; it just proved to be too cold for patrons in winter. We have also replaced the banquet at the Friday evening performance, to reduce the cost for patrons.
Secondly, the Schools’ Day doubled in size to become two Schools’ Days. There has always been much interest in the surrounding regions, and this has continued to grow. Schools consider this a good introduction to Shakespeare and with the performance, sausage sizzle lunch, and workshop session afterwards, a ‘good day out’ for students.
> What were the reasons for relocating to Gloucester?
If it rained, the Stratford School grounds, where the two [dining and performance] marquees were located, were dreadfully churned up by the vehicles delivering and removing them – not to mention the human traffic. In the end, the school had playground areas that were unable to be used until the grass grew again in the spring time.
Deciding that this was not a fair thing, we relocated to the Gloucester Showground, using two of the pavilions for the dining experience, and situating the marquee down on the flatter terrain of the show ring. This involved a bit of a walk down the hill, and also the ground was not really flat, entailing much more attention to detail where setting up the stage was concerned.
The next move was to the Gloucester Park, near the Netball courts, but after the electricity supply ended up under water one year and the Schools’ Day had to be cancelled, we relocated to the present position near the Recreation Centre. Here we will hopefully stay! > You’ve enjoyed strong support from the local community, volunteers and business houses in Gloucester …
Gloucester is always very supportive of any community effort, and service clubs, business houses and individual volunteers have been wonderful in their continued support year by year.
The whole Festival is a voluntary project, supported by the Gloucester Shire Council and its Tourist Committee, and many, many hours of voluntary labour go into putting it all together each year. The local community also shows up in large numbers for the events of the Festival. > We understand that the Schools’ performances sold out early this year.
Yes. It’s unfortunate that some schools miss out. While we have many regular supporters amongst the schools who attend [one Newcastle High School has attended every Schools’ Day since the inception of the Festival] word spreads, and other schools are added each year. We have had schools attend from as far afield as Gunnedah, Armidale, Tuggerah and Port Macquarie.
> You’ve had a close association with the Newcastle University Drama Department?
Newcastle University provided a production each year for the first three years of the Festival and was instrumental in getting the Festival off the ground. They were also affordable – we operate to cover costs – and they were delighted with the opportunity to provide a ‘different’ type of performance space and experience for the students in its Drama Faculty. They also have to do other things, of course, so left us for a while, but returned in 2006-7.
Also, many former students from Newcastle University have returned to Gloucester in productions brought to us by other Newcastle theatre companies.
Gloucester High School has many students who leave here to study at Newcastle University, and the previous two years saw one of our own Gloucester High students, also a Newcastle University Drama and Education student, performing in the Festival productions of 2009 and 2010. > What have been some of the highlights for you over recent years?
Seeing the Schools’ Days grow and grow, and schools coming back year after year. I have also seen some exciting and innovative productions and been part of a hard-working volunteer Shakespeare Committee, which always manages to have a great deal of fun in the process!
We have also had some wonderful feedback from adult audiences who attend, and discover in the process that many of them, also, are returning year after year – often in groups. This year we were delighted to have an early booking for a busload of 52 people.
The core of our voluntary effort, however, is the Committee itself, which rarely numbers more than ten and which copes with all aspects of the Festival: theatre company engagement, choice of play, accommodation and on-going liaison, fair and markets organisation, food and catering requirements and personnel, hall and dining decoration and hiring, Schools’ Days organisation and attendance, enlistment of volunteers for special tasks, liaison with Council, sponsors, Visitor Information Centre and local wineries, publicity, displays and advertising and follow-up expressions of appreciation.
And last, but not least, being part of a whole-community effort. Gloucester has always been impressive in this regard!
The Shakespeare Festival kicks off on Thursday 19 May with major performances on Friday and Saturday 20 – 21 May at the Gloucester Recreation Centre.
Bookings can be made through the Gloucester Information Centre on (02) 6558 1408. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Roger Marmion