Christopher Gaze: The Bard sell

Christopher Gaze helped turn Vancouver's Bard on the Beach into one of the most successful Shakespeare festivals in the world. But with bold expansion plans and a fundraising campaign, he's not resting on his laurels

Christopher Gaze, founder and artistic director of Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival: “[a mentor] saw that opportunistic burning desire in me to do something in a leadership way in the theatre. That's why he said go to Canada. You'll find it's a glorious country for people who have big ideas”

It's a beautiful summer day on Vancouver's waterfront. Christopher Gaze is sitting at a picnic table. But don't think for a minute he's relaxing.

The 62-year-old artistic director of the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival has his eye on every coming and going, as delivery trucks start to arrive to set up for a fundraising dinner timed to coincide with the last night of the city's Celebration of Light fireworks festival.

Gaze, a classically trained actor who came to Canada from England at the age of 23, founded Bard on the Beach 25 years ago. Two decades later, it's clear the festival is still very much his baby.

“He leads the artistic mandate of this company, but he absolutely has an in-depth understanding of the business side of things,” said Claire Sakaki, who recently left a management post at Toronto's acclaimed Soulpepper theatre company to become managing director of Bard on the Beach.

“He knows our budget inside and out.”

Gaze grew up in the middle-class enclave of Surrey, near London. His father managed the family building business, W.H. Gaze and Sons. Despite being “the last Gaze,” his father never pressured him to join the business.

“My father was all about the freedom of being who you were and what you wanted to do,” Gaze said.

Gaze attended the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and came to Canada on the advice of Scottish actor Douglas Campbell, a founding member of the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

“He saw that opportunistic burning desire in me to do something in a leadership way in the theatre,” Gaze said.

“That's why he said go to Canada. You'll find it's a glorious country for people who have big ideas.”

Despite professing to have no interest in business, Gaze said his father's mentorship did rub off on him.

“He shared with me intimate details of his own affairs in business that many fathers are very shy to [share] with their children, to tell them how much they had, what the opportunities are, where they went wrong,” Gaze said. “His books were open to me.”

That business savvy has helped Bard on the Beach grow from its humble roots and become relatively self-sustaining: nearly 75% of the festival's revenues come from ticket, merchandise and alcohol sales, government grants represent 1.5% and the festival's youth theatre program brings in 2% of earnings. Fundraising covers the rest.

The high percentage of revenue from ticket sales is unusual for Canadian theatre companies, as are the robust audience numbers, said Sakaki.

“The audiences are often at 80% [capacity] and above, often at 90 or 95%, and that's … not the normal.”

The festival's success contrasts sharply with the first two western Canadian Shakespeare festivals Gaze performed in.

“I was part of the Northern Lights Shakespeare festival in 1980 and 1981 in Edmonton,” Gaze recalled.

“I saw the success of it for the first year, and the second year their program became much wider and they expanded it all and essentially blew it up – they couldn't do it anymore.”

In 1983 Gaze came to Vancouver, where he acted in another summer Shakespeare festival – located, as Bard on the Beach is today, in a tent in Vanier Park. Like the Edmonton venture, that festival also fizzled after a patch of poor summer weather and an overly ambitious expansion.

“The Vancouver Shakespeare Festival died with debt in 1984,” Gaze said.

With those two examples in mind, Gaze started Bard on the Beach in 1989 and put on the first play, the crowd-pleasing A Midsummer Night's Dream, in 1990.

“I just thought, what am I going to do? Just bash around as an actor? It seemed like a flimsy way to make a living and a life and provide for a family,” said Gaze, whose two sons were born in 1981 and 1983.

From the beginning, he made sure the tent was open at the back so audiences could take in the view of False Creek.

The festival started small and was structured as a co-operative during the first two years of operation. That meant that everyone involved in the company got an equal cut of the box office revenue. In 1990 Gaze took home just $1,200.

Christopher Gaze, with the head of Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream, reflects on a Bard on the Beach season two decades past | BIV files

 

It also meant wearing many hats: Gaze and company members not only acted in the plays but cleaned toilets, bartended and took turns sleeping overnight at the site to prevent theft.

In 1992 Gaze and the festival's board members ditched the co-operative model, causing a rift within the company.

“That group that I had asked if they'd like to help me do this – I had directed them in a play in 1989 – we had major disagreements about how this company should be run,” Gaze said. “So we split in November of 1990.”

The festival that started with one play, 6,000 audience members and a $35,000 budget is now a different beast. More than 89,000 people attended the festival in 2013 and its yearly budget stands at around $5.5 million.

Gaze points out several other markers of the festival's success: guidebook publisher Lonely Planet included it in a list of top 10 Shakespeare festivals in the world, and last year Bard was listed as No. 4 on a TripAdvisor list of top Vancouver tourist attractions.

The festival has also developed a well-oiled fundraising machine. In 2010 Bard on the Beach raised $2.3 million in seven months to buy and install a larger tent. Gaze credits Vancouver developer Bruno Wall – “frankly a prince of the city, in my view,” he said – for the success of that campaign.

The festival is now raising another round of cash for a new capital campaign, a production and administration facility it will share with the Arts Club Theatre Company. Bard on the Beach and Arts Club need to raise $3.5 million to match contributions from the City of Vancouver ($7 million) and Canadian Heritage ($2.5 million).

“We had nearly 1,000 people here last night, we'll have nearly 1,000 people here tonight, and you might be thinking, ‘Where's he putting all that money?' And I can tell you that every cent of it is designated and we need a great deal more to flourish and be successful,” Gaze said. “We have to raise more money.”