Bard’s bet on the Beatles brings in big ticket sales

Attendance record allows annual Shakespeare festival to expand 2019 acting troupe

Bard on the Beach’s production of As You Like It featured 25 Beatles songs, the licensing of which complicated staging the play but delivered record-setting attendance for the annual Shakespeare festival | Submitted

For the Bard on the Beach production team, licensing 25 songs from the Beatles’ discography for a reimagined take on Shakespeare’s As You Like It might have felt like forever and a day.

“It was definitely a risk. It’s not inexpensive to license the Beatles’ music,” said Claire Sakaki, executive director of the annual outdoor Shakespeare festival in Vancouver.

“The various people that own the Beatles’ songbook are notorious for being very careful for who they license the music to.”

The risk paid off for organizers who spent more than 18 months negotiating with the rights holders (Sony Music Entertainment Inc. owns 19 of the 25 songs used), who may have needed some persuasion to embrace the play’s radical reboot, which swaps pastoral France for 1960s Vancouver.

The festival logged more than 108,000 attendees from June to September – a record for the company and up 8% from a year earlier.

“Bard did a first-rate undertaking and it was a huge success and deserving of recognition,” Rick Antonson, former CEO of Tourism Vancouver, said in an email. “They continue to be motivating to all of us in the field.”

Antonson is in the midst of adapting his 2012 book, Route 66 Still Kicks: Driving America’s Main Street, into a musical featuring as many as 29 songs from the 1950s to the ’80s.

He said it’s not surprising it took Bard organizers a year and a half to secure the licences to songs – his own play has already faced refusals from rights holders for many of its chosen songs.

“I can tell you that gaining the creators’ trust for discussions is a lot of work and requires providing considerable background regarding the scene in which the song will be used, plus the dialogue of characters coming into and out of the scene and so forth – all required in order to ensure they understand how their work would be incorporated with our work,” he said.

But Bard’s record-setting ticket sales will allow the festival to boost its typical company of between 25 and 30 performers to 42 actors when it celebrates its 30th season next year.

The 2019 season will deliver the festival’s first-ever production of Coriolanus, the return of its spaghetti-western version of The Taming of the Shrew last seen in 2007, a South Asian reimagining of All’s Well That Ends Well and an adaptation of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.

“We very much wanted to celebrate the last 30 years and our past but also look forward to what Bard will be for the next 30 years,” Sakaki said. “When we talk about the next 30 years, we need to ensure that we have an audience for the next 30 years and beyond.”

That means using much of the non-profit’s resources on education programs aimed at young people, sending performers to 200 classrooms throughout the school year and supporting theatre arts programs to train aspiring actors.

Sakaki said she’s very clear to people inquiring whether she and her colleagues at the summer festival get to take the winter off; the answer is no. And among the issues they’ll be addressing over the next seven months is how to adapt to wildfire smoke blowing into the city with more frequency during the summer.

“It [wildfire smoke] turned right before it got to a place where it was going to be dangerous for people to perform. We altered what we could in terms of trying to reduce the physical exertion of some of the actors. And we stayed in close contact with them … the days that the smoke was quite bad just to see how people were feeling,” she said.

Other outdoor festivals were not so lucky.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival revealed in late September that it lost US$2 million as a result of cancelled performances due to wildfire smoke.

“Thankfully we did not have to cancel any shows,” Sakaki said. “But it’s very concerning to us and we’re looking at what to do because I can only assume this is something we’re going to be dealing with on a more regular basis now.”