York theatre students rock the summer stage

What better way to earn credit towards your theatre degree than by working as part of the team for one of Toronto’s most beloved outdoor theatre traditions?

For the fifth consecutive year, the partnership between Canadian Stage and the Department of Theatre in York’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design allows students to hone and showcase their creative skills alongside professional theatre artists in the Shakespeare in High Park (SiHP) productions.

Production Images from King Lear and Twelfth Night by Cylla von Tiedemann

This season, King Lear and Twelfth Night will play under the stars on alternating nights in the High Park Amphitheatre for an anticipated audience of 30,000. SiHP will make 2017 a summer to remember for the students and recent grads onstage, behind the scenes and on the creative team.

The two shows are the thesis projects for Alistair Newton and Tanja Jacobs, who are completing York’s MFA program in Theatre – Stage Direction in Collaboration with Canadian Stage.

“Alistair and Tanja direct these two iconic works with a theatrical gusto that gives great scope to their contemporary readings,” said Canadian Stage Artistic & General Director, Matthew Jocelyn.

Newton re-imagines Shakespeare’s monumental family saga King Lear from a female perspective, with a woman in the title role.

“Lear excavates the depths of the human experience, managing to comment with heartbreaking clarity on hubris, madness, loyalty, honour, love, the dangers of absolutist beliefs, and perhaps above all, that redemption is possible,” Newton said. “My concept for the play adds an investigation of the relationship between gender and power, and the redeeming power of femininity in a male-dominated world.”

Jacobs sets the role reversal and romantic misadventure of Twelfth Night in the 1970s with an American soul-inspired soundtrack. With a nod to the films of Billy Wilder and Wes Anderson, she places the action in an island hotel, where the characters play out their hijinks and social fantasies with painfully hilarious results.

“The celebrity culture of the 1970s appears so hopelessly naïve compared to the toxic possibilities of the current climate,” Jacobs said. “There is something fragile about it that is ideal for comedy.”

Undergraduate theatre student Adam Bromley was hired as an intern assistant director to work closely with Jacobs. Other interns on the creative team include fourth-year theatre student Samantha McCue and recent grad Jamin Daniel (BFA ’17), who worked with the costume designers for Twelfth Night and King Lear, respectively.

Many of the costumes for both shows have been constructed on campus in the Department of Theatre’s state-of-the-art wardrobe shop. Nine undergraduate production students have been adapting patterns, cutting, sewing, steaming and fitting costumes since May as part of an independent study course supervised by Sylvia Defend. For Twelth Night, the students are building bellhop vests and hats, maid tunics, caps and aprons, and for King Lear they are creating Elizabethan petticoats, skirts and accessories.

“It’s been really fun and I’ve learned a lot,” said second-year student Julian Iacob. “[I’m] making connections and learning new things, and seeing my work on a big stage is just really cool.”

Claire Hill’s innovative set design. Photo by Aaron Kelly

The adaptable set serving both shows was designed by Claire Hill, an MFA candidate in York’s graduate program in Design for Performing Arts, as part of her thesis project. SiHP is the largest production she’s ever designed for.

“I’m a bit of a theatre Swiss army knife,” said Hill, whose 10-year professional theatre career before York spanned everything from scenic carpentry to administration. She chose to pursue graduate studies to develop her design craft under the mentorship of York professors, whose talents she describes as “unparalleled”.

Claire Hill’s concept drawing

“Working on SiHP is an incredible opportunity,” Hill said. “[Directors] Tanja and Alistair are such amazing artists with such different visions, and creating a set that can suit them both was a compelling challenge. Twelfth Night is especially dear to my heart. I love the characters, and it was the first Shakespeare play I saw performed in High Park. This project feels like coming full circle.”

Having recently completed York’s four-year Acting Conservatory program, Kristiaan Hansen is equally enthusiastic about SiHP. The York auditions for the shows took place last December, and he and freshly-minted graduate Hannah Wayne-Phillips (MFA ’17) learned in February that they’d landed roles in the cast. Hansen plays the Duke of Cornwall in King Lear and Antonio and the Captain in Twelfth Night. Wayne-Phillips is Regan in King Lear and Maria in Twelfth Night.

Above: Right, Hannah Wayne-Phillips in King Lear. Centre, Kristiaan Hansen with Hannah Wayne-Phillips. Right, Kristiaan Hansen in Twelfth Night.  Set images by Cylla von Tiedemann

“The two shows are completely different worlds, both aesthetically and in what they teach,” Hansen said. “In Lear, I’m a ruthless and ambitious duke, and Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy. It’s been a great chance to explore my range as an actor.”

One of things he most appreciates is his artistic colleagues. “The cast is divine,” said Hansen. “They are all such generous mentors in sharing what they know. I’ve grown so much through this experience.”

Some of that mentorship comes from other York theatre alumni talent on the SiHP team: King Lear assistant director Sadie Epstein-Fine (BA ’16); actor Richard Lee (BFA ’00), playing the Duke of Albany (King Lear) and Orsino (Twelfth Night); fight director Simon Fon (BA ’16); apprentice stage manager Cole Vincent (BFA ’16); and assistant wardrobe head Natalie Voorn (BFA ’16).

“My friends and family are all coming to the show,” Hansen said. “I’m excited for them to see me, and I’ve always loved Shakespeare in High Park. I know it’s going to be a great night out!”

King Lear opens July 13 and continues to September 2 on alternating nights with Twelfth Night, which opens July 14 and continues to September 3.

Admission is pay-what-you-can or $25 for reserved seating, for info or to purchase tickets visit canadianstage.com/online/.