The Bard for beginners

Shakespeare by the Sea Festival enables budding thespians to get onstage outdoors

Published on July 15, 2014

One of the best parts about being the editor of an alternative newspaper in St. John’s is you have a direct line to all the great arts and cultural things the city has to offer.

The downside is you never get to take part in any of them.

Since The Scope shut down last December, Elling Lien — co-founder and editor of the free monthly publication — has been doing all kinds of things he never quite found time for in the seven previous years: going to shows, taking up art projects and what he considers his most exciting endeavour, acting in Shakespeare by the Sea Festival’s summer production of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” opening Friday at Tattoo Field, next to the Signal Hill Interpretation Centre.

Although he has a degree in English literature and a longtime love of Shakespeare, Lien had never before considered auditioning for a play, but admits he’s always found the festival intriguing.

When a friend mentioned he was going to audition, Lien said he would, too.

“I’ve always loved joking around and performing with friends, and really love being in front of people, so I thought, why not just do it?” Lien said.

“I spent the day before reading the plays and the next morning I auditioned, and (my friend) didn’t even show up.”

Lien will play the role of military man and scoundrel Parolles in the production.

“He’s kind of perfect for me, because he’s ridiculous,” Lien said. “Also, he’s a soldier-of-fools kind of character, bundled into one. He’s semi-serious, which is fun for me, too, because I like playing the fool, but I also want to see what I can do otherwise.”

Recruiting non-theatre people is part of Shakespeare by the Sea’s mandate, and chairwoman and artistic director Jenn Deon said among the 70 or so people who come out to audition every year, many have never before stepped on a stage. It’s an automatic hint for her that they’re likely to be good.

“I’ve never not passed anybody who’s said to me, ‘I’ve never auditioned for anything before in my life,’ because, invariably, they have been thinking about it. You can imagine how scary it is to audition, especially if you haven’t done it before, and we’re their first try — they’re going to come and audition for Shakespeare? They’ve obviously got something inside of them that they recognize.”

The annual Shakespeare by the Sea Festival is unique in North America. A volunteer company doing six shows a season is unheard of, Deon said, and actors such as Krystin Pellerin and Allan Hawco got their start as cast members with the festival.

Deon attributes the festival’s long-term success to its unwritten policy: no divas and no jerks.

“I think that carries across,” she explained. “Yes, we work hard to do a good show, but it’s not at the expense of our volunteers. It’s with respect and gratitude for what they bring into the festival.”

This year’s festival includes two “main-stage” shows: “All’s Well That Ends Well,” directed by Paul Rowe, and “The Taming of the Shrew,” directed by Deon with a mostly women and one-man cast. “The Taming of the Shrew” opened July 6 in Bannerman Park and runs Sundays and Mondays until Aug. 11.

There are some obvious challenges with outdoor theatre that don’t come with performing plays in a space with four walls, including traffic and, especially in the case of Signal Hill, wind. The festival has developed some tips and tricks over the years to contend with the elements, and Deon said the trade-off is worth it.

“When you’re in an outdoor space, you can walk up and talk to your audience,” she said. “You can totally dispense with the artificiality of a theatre space. We are here in the outdoors, sharing a story together, and when I talk to you as an audience member directly, not only is it so you can hear me against the wind and in an outdoor space, but it also brings you into the action and gets you engaged with me as a character, and hopefully gets you on my side.”

Lien said this may be the start of a new stint in theatre for him.

“I’d definitely consider more theatre after this. I’d love to,” he said. “I think for everybody who has some kind of inkling that they would like to get into theatre or spend some time thinking about Shakespeare, this is an excellent way of doing it.”

As well as the two main productions, there are four second-stage shows: “The Curious Case in the Colony: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure,” written by Chris Hibbs and directed by Dave Walsh, running in the Newman Wine Vaults on Fridays and Saturdays until Aug. 16; “Shake it Up!” by Brendan Kelso and directed by Janet O’Rielly, running at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market every Saturday until Aug. 16; “Shylock,” by Mark Leiren-Young and directed by Alix Reynolds and Ian Campbell, running at the Guv’nor Inn Sundays and Mondays until Aug. 18; and “Tales and Tunes of Newfoundland” with Kelly Russell, Mondays at the Crow’s Nest Officers Club until Aug. 25. More information can be found online at

Twitter: @tara_bradbury