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40 years on, Shakespeare in Toronto’s High Park keeps casting the magic of open-air theatre

The Sunday Magazine9:47How the Dream in High Park set the stage for outdoor theatre in Canada

When Guy Sprung launched an outdoor theatre program in Toronto’s High Park 40 years ago, the dream was to bring accessible Shakespeare to all.

“I believe in theatre for the people. That’s what has always been my mantra,” said Sprung, founding director of Dream in High Park, an annual showcase of William Shakespeare’s plays in Toronto’s west end.

“I didn’t want the kind of monochromatic Shakespeare with expensive tickets at Stratford [Festival in Ontario]. I wanted something that was affordable and was distinctly ours and for everybody in Toronto.”

So in the early 1980s, Sprung went looking for the perfect place to stage a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He envisioned a spot where audiences would walk through the woods — “so you can smell the trees a little bit” — before arriving at the stage.

A black and white photo shows people sitting tightly packed on a hill.
Thousands of people watch a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Dream in High Park in 1983. Guy Sprung, the show’s director, says the theatre event regularly saw nightly audiences of 2,000 people. (Canadian Stage)

In July 1983, in a small clearing off the park’s main road, Sprung and a cast that included Canadian actors Lucy Peacock and Peter MacNeill performed for an audience of around 3,000 — roughly the capacity of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Elizabethan England. A typical night could see 2,000 visitors.

“All we had was a basin with grass and trees,” said Peacock, who played Hermia in that debut production. 

“We all remember the poison ivy, I think, and the mosquitoes and the heat. And of course, we were all dressed in Elizabethan something or other and wondering, whose idea was that?”

Over its four-decade run, Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park has featured some of Canada’s biggest performers, including Paul Gross and Diane D’Aquila, at its forest amphitheatre.

Black and white photo of three men toss another man into the air.
Actors rehearse for the debut 1983 performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at High Park in Toronto. (Canadian Stage)

Returning to Dream’s roots

Open-air productions of Shakespeare go back centuries, to the days the playwright was staging his own works in London.

The Globe Theatre, built by Shakespeare’s theatre troupe, opened on the Thames River in 1599. The theatre had no roof and was a place for all Londoners — not just the wealthy.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and Dream in High Park is billed as one of Canada’s “largest and longest-running outdoor professional theatre events.” 

For its 40th anniversary, director Jamie Robinson — whose first professional gig was in a High Park production of Romeo & Juliet — is taking Dream back to its roots.

A group of performers in a large rehearsal space perform.
Performers rehearse for the 2023 production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as part of Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park in Toronto. From left to right: director Jamie Robinson, Steven Hao, Louisa Zhu, on the floor, Julie Tepperman, Aaron Willis, Vincent Leblanc-Beaudoin and Angel Lo. (Althea Manasan/CBC)

His production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream imagines the kind of world we want to live in.

“How do we want to see our future?” said Robinson. “Is it a chaotic world where forest fires are normal, and all of these things that we’re seeing in our face are normal?”

“Or do we want the future that is very hopeful and dream-like, but also very happy?”

Two actors hold hands as another, in the background, looks on at them.
From left to right: actors Shelly Antony, Louisa Zhu and Steven Hao rehearse a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Althea Manasan/CBC)

He says outdoor theatre, and Dream in particular, offers audiences — even those who may not frequent stage shows — a Shakespearean experience.

“It brings back what I think Shakespeare had in his audiences, in Elizabethan times in England, where you came as an event. It was as normal as going to a sports event,” he said.

“It’s kind of a breeding ground for just reinventing theatre, especially coming out of the pandemic where we all are craving being together again.”

Celebrating nature with theatre

Similar open-air companies have popped up around the country since Dream in High Park began in 1983.

Winnipeg troupe Shakespeare in the Ruins started in 1993, and Halifax’s Shakespeare by the Sea began entertaining audiences in Point Pleasant Park the year after.

And in Vancouver’s Vanier Park, Bard on the Beach has used British Columbia’s Rockies as a backdrop since 1990.

Woman on stage in a purple dress holds a martini glass. A banner in front of her reads "Dame Frances Presents Superstar Wrestling Tonight"
Actor Jennifer Lines starred as Dame Frances in the 2023 Bard on the Beach production of As You Like It. In the background, the Rocky Mountains are visible beyond English Bay. (Tim Matheson/Bard on the Beach)

“We’re in a park that overlooks the sea … the mountains are directly behind that and the sun is going down. So these are the natural beauty of our natural world, which Shakespeare talks about a lot,” said Christopher Gaze, the company’s founder and artistic director, who began his career in outdoor theatre a decade before starting Bard.

“You get this extraordinary backdrop behind the actors, ever changing. You might see a kite flying up here for a while. You may see a sailboat going by.”

Pre-pandemic, Bard on the Beach would welcome 100,000 people each year, Gaze says. Part of its success is the “casualness” of outdoor theatre, which invites audiences for more than just the show.

Theatre patrons walk in and out of the tents at Bard on the Beach.
Theatre patrons walk in and out of the tents at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver. (Tim Matheson)

Earlier in the festival’s run, Gaze would ask visitors how they enjoyed the show. Often, they praised the beauty of the surroundings rather than the performance itself, somewhat offending Gaze. 

“But now I understand,” he said. “A lot of people come and see our shows that perhaps don’t normally go to theatre, but they come because of the experience,” which can include a pre-show picnic and catch-up in the park.

‘It’s always packed’

Using the natural world as a stage is part of the magic that comes with programs like Dream in High Park.

The stage originally sat between two red oak trees, forming a kind of proscenium arch over the space, Sprung said.

For a show like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which takes place in the evening, watching the world around you progressively dim becomes a part of the show.

“We would delay the opening so that dusk and dark happened at a certain point in the play,” said Sprung of the company’s earlier shows. “You’d go from light in the play to dark in the play.”

Black and white photo of actors performing at the High Park amphitheatre with lights strung from trees overhead.
Part of the magic of outdoor theatre is that as the scene in a play moves from light to dark, so can the natural environment as the sun sets, says Guy Sprung. In this photo, actors perform on stage in the 1983 Dream in High Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (M Toma/Canadian Stage)

MacNeill, who played Bottom in that original production, fell in love with the atmosphere nature creates.

“Depending on the natural sounds and the natural light, I can remember evenings when the moon came up just at the right moment — turned the whole place into really a magical forest kingdom,” he said.

And as moisture rose in the night air, so, too, did the voices of the actors, Sprung said.

“You could whisper and, you know, the entire audience could hear it. It was absolutely effin’ magical.”

A permanent amphitheatre now sits on the site where Sprung’s Dream began, typically welcoming about 1,000 seated audience members. 

A group of 13 people pose outdoors.
The cast of Dream in High Park’s 40th anniversary performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is pictured during rehearsal in July 2023. (Althea Manasan/CBC)

Robinson’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened Friday night. For the director who was inspired by Dream in High Park as a teenager, it’s a program that brings out exactly the kind of audiences he wants to see.

“It’s everyone from the city, from outside of the city, who come to this park and fill that amphitheatre,” he said.

“It’s always packed, and it’s why I continue to do theatre today.”

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