By C.L. Shoemaker, July 6, 2023
Bard on the Beach, Western Canada’s largest professional Shakespeare festival, is doing something rather unique. They’re offering free workshops and educational training to teachers, students and artists. Let me reiterate that fact. An internationally recognized Shakespeare theatre company is running training workshops for free, no strings attached.
It all started with the compassionate hearts of Bard on the Beach volunteers and a tip jar. The bar and concession volunteers felt it unfair to accept gratuities while others, working as ushers or cleaners, weren’t tipped. Thus, the concession tips were allocated to a celebration for the volunteers at the end of the season.
In 2009, when it was discovered that some Young Shakespearean hopefuls didn’t attend Bard’s Shakespeare summer program for youth, due to financial limitations, the volunteers decided to help. They donated their collective tips and created a new scholarship, the Bard Education Bursary Fund, to help students attend the summer program free of charge.
After a few years, the fund outgrew the Young Shakespeareans program. The donations were beyond what they could physically offer in terms of student spacing. Bard was thrilled with the outpouring of support but needed to redirect the excess income.
Bard in Your Neighbourhood
In response to the flood of generosity, Director of Education, Mary Hartman and the volunteers collectively decided that Bard would utilize extra donations to cover the costs of other programs; this decision permitted those with financial limitations the freedom to attend a variety of workshops. Schools could apply for subsidies for Bard In The Classroom workshops and residencies. The fund also made it possible to begin, Bard in Your Neighbourhood, a new program offering free workshops and residencies in partnership with community organizations. When Bard for Life, a recreational Shakespeare performance program for adults, was launched in 2016, the bursary fund made it accessible to all applicants.
The volunteers’ tip jar had exponential effects across Bard Education.
With so many people registering for the free and subsidized programs, it was impossible to overlook the impact of accessibility. Bard branched out, through other funding means, to offer more programs gratis. The resulting programs were Riotous Youth, a paid internship, and Bard Youth Fest, a community-minded mentorship program that trains groups in Shakespeare presentation.
When I asked Hartman about Bard’s work in the community, she graciously offered to provide more details.
Bard in the Classroom offers two workshops: a curricular session for students and a professional development program for teachers. Both programs pair students with a Bard teaching artist who leads an active exploration of Shakespeare’s plays.
Bard in the Classroom, Professional Development for School Teachers, is designed for educators. The workshops focus on inviting play into the classroom through games and activities that encourage educators to connect meaningfully and creatively with students through Shakespeare’s language, stories and characters.
For students, Bard offers Shakespeare: In Action, a Bard In The Classroom workshop that brings artists and theatre experts into schools. The workshop considers Shakespeare’s writings by play or topic, examining the plot, language and imagery. Bard also offers schools A Shakesperience, a 45-minute presentation that focuses on favourite Shakespeare scenes, providing students with a chance to ask questions.
But Bard’s small concession tip jar isn’t finished its magic yet. Instead, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, also providing the seed money to cover the initial year of Bard In Your Neighbourhood. Bard In Your Neighbourhood works with community groups to offer free, full-length Shakespeare workshops to underserved children and youth at no cost.
Bard on the Beach’s Shakespearean Fun is Not Just for Kids.
Bard for Life is another unique educational program where Shakespearean fun is not just for the kids. The workshop is open to adults of any age and has proved quite popular with retirees. Bard For Life also offers bursaries to ensure that everyone can participate regardless of economic situation. The workshops are conducted by Bard artists who direct participants in an abridged play or provide a class on monologue mastery. Bard offers three workshops per year running fall, winter and spring.
Unconnected with the bursary, Bard has three other free programs funded solely through donor family subsidies, generous gifts and other forms of donation. These sponsored programs include Bard Youth Fest (Richardson Family funding), Riotous Youth (Y.P.Heung Foundation and RBC Emerging Artists Project) and Bard Studio.
Bard Youth Fest teams a Bard artist with a community group to coach them through their own 30-minute Shakespeare presentation. The Bard artist spends 20 hours maximum with the group, from September to November, guiding them through a cut version of a play and advising on interpretation and performance. On November 24th all the teams gather at the BMO theatre center to present their productions. Past participants include schools, local art council programs, and community groups. Bard Youth Fest is so beloved, that after its initial year, which was funded through the bursary, it is now fully supported by donors.
Bard’s Riotous Youth program is a post-secondary training and paid internship program initiated in 2013 that is without fees. It is designed for young adults interested in a theatre career and offers training and experience in teaching artistry, Shakespeare performance, and special events. As Hartman notes, Riotous Youth is a wonderful training ground in acting, theatre education and public speaking. The interns take classes and work on their own Shakespeare showcase performance piece with a mentor from the professional company. Thus, the education program at Bard feeds back into itself. Actors teach students and interns, the older interns help teach younger students, and the younger students grow up to become interns, lovers of theatre and actors.
The final and most stunning educational offering from Bard on the Beach is Bard Studio. The program was started with the sole desire to give back to the theatre community by providing free drop-in classes for theatre professionals. Running Mondays from February until March, the Bard Studio offers classes in voice, movement, acting, monologues, status in Shakespeare’s time and more. Vocal, drama and movement coaches conduct the classes.
Giving Back While Developing Better Actors
When I inquired why Bard would go out of their way to offer free classes to any actor in the Vancouver or surrounding area, Hartman observed that actors need training but often can’t afford the fees or the time. When they’re in a show they don’t have free time for the training, and when they’re free, they’re not employed and thus, can’t cover extra costs. As Hartman observed, “professional artists … don’t have money to spare for their training. So, [we said] let’s see if we can do it for free.”
Bard prides themselves on the fact that they offer classes gratis and pay their teaching artists generously: “It’s a competitive rate. We pay all our teaching artists, and we pay them well,” said Hartman, adding “And a lot of them are … brilliant teaching artists.”
For Bard it’s a win-win situation as they’re able to give back to the acting community, develop better actors and teachers, all while reaping the future benefits of well trained, confident, inspired artists.
From that initial moment of volunteer generosity, Bard has continued the giving tradition, challenging actors, artists, parents, students and anyone who loves theatre to give back to the educational programs. As Hartman noted, funding for programs comes from many sources: “there are individual donors who are behind a program and really want to support and develop it, and they’re giving us major gifts to support that. In some cases, it’s grant funding proposals to support specific programs like Bard In Your Neighbourhood. In some cases, it’s corporate sponsorship, and in some cases, we piece it all together.”
The annual bursary, initiated by the compassionate spirit of volunteers, has provided Bard with the capacity to offer Shakespeare access to everyone. Thanks to Bard’s generous volunteers and the festival’s resourceful educational team, Bard patrons, students, artists and theatre fans of all ages can experience the benefits of a healthy, thriving, educationally focused Shakespeare festival.
The best lesson from Bard’s generosity and growth: put out that tip jar, select a charitable focus and start changing the world.
Corrie Shoemaker Corrie Shoemaker is an assistant professor (TRU), author (historical fiction, mystery, children’s lit, poetry) and an award-winning playwright with an undying love for theatre. She grew up steeped in the works of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She was thrilled to work with the Stratford Festival of Canada and Bard on the Beach (Vancouver) when researching Canadian identity on the Shakespeare stage for her PhD. Corrie has written for Stratford Festival Reviews, Vocamus Press, Guelph Mercury Tribune and Marjorie Magazine. She’s currently writing on Shakespeare productions and costume design, Video game narrative structure and the history of Nancy Drew. You can follow Corrie at The Write Stuff: Literature with Charm.