If all the world’s a stage, the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival can lay claim to one of the most unique around.

Not only is it the only Shakespeare Festival in South Eastern Ontario, but its picturesque setting at an outdoor amphitheatre with the mighty St. Lawrence River as the backdrop harkens back to the bard himself. Its venue situated along the harbour in Prescott showcases one of the world’s greatest rivers, just like the Globe did in London. That riverside setting combines with the high calibre performances for a remarkable theatre experience.

Ingrid Bjornson, General Manager of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, notes that having the outdoor amphitheater overlooking the river gives actors and the audience a feeling of being part of the things in life that stay constant.

Constant, indeed. The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival is celebrating 20 years this season and has already embarked on its rousing milestone bill in Prescott. Bjornson said the anniversary celebrations will include the return of some of the most beloved Festival actors in its history. The line-up is coupled with a historical book highlighting two decades of the Festival, as well as an anniversary gala. In all, reaching the two-decade mark is noteworthy for the festival and its supportive rural community, Bjornson said.

“Marking a 20-year anniversary is an achievement for any theatre company,” she said. “Theatre is a fragile and precious art form that fights for its place in the world. The Festival has reached this milestone, not in a city but in a small Eastern Ontario town… and with Shakespeare, the only Shakespeare Festival in Eastern Ontario.”

Snapshot Of The 20th Season

From comedy to a love story, betrayal to mystery the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival has summer arts and culture wrapped up in a bow. 

Twelfth Night is currently being staged and runs until July 23, with Richard Sheridan Willis directing. Evening shows start at 7 p.m., and Saturday matinees are at 1 p.m. Shakespeare’s fun-filled comedy full of mischief and delight!

This Shakespearean favourite will be followed by the Festival’s production of Patrick Barlow’s wildly successful adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. This fast-paced comedic adventure runs from July 30 until August 13 and will be directed by returning festival favourite, Zach Counsil. Think a Hitchcock masterpiece with a dash of Monty Python – hilarity for all ages!

The Festival is also welcoming Ottawa’s A Company of Fools. Although the companies have a long association, this is the first time the Fools have performed in Prescott. They will present The Tempest on July 26 for one-night-only. A shipwreck, a deserted island. Betrayal. Revenge. Magic!

The season’s final play is presented by Toronto’s Guild Festival Theatre. It returns to the Festival with The Red Priest, a bittersweet love story written by Governor General Award-nominated playwright, Mieko Ouchi. It opens on August 17 with a four-day run to August 21. A poignant love story featuring enchanting music, an enigmatic countess, and the genius composer, Vivaldi!

Bjornson said that part of the Festival’s intrigue for actors and audience alike is a sense of unpredictability and continuity in every performance, due to the outdoor venue. “The ever-changing weather, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, and birds that we share the space with us, the whistle of the Via-Rail trains, the light over the marina and on the river, and the great ships that glide past give the Festival an overall sense of being part of the present, past, and future,” she said.

Looking Back On The Bard…

The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival began to take shape in 2002 after a small, self-produced, touring production of Romeo and Juliet was brought to the area, according to Festival information. The community was charmed by the idea of having live theatre in its midst and it was agreed that the company could utilize the outdoor amphitheater for a full production of The Tempest the following summer.

In the summer of 2006, the theatre expanded to two mainstage Shakespeare productions, a full Sunday series, and an education program. In 2014, the SLSF had the distinction of being the only Canadian theatre to present Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s international touring production of Hamlet for two sold-out performances. From there a team of local volunteers was recruited to perform as crowds and soldiers in the 2014 productions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, facilitating work on a scale that had not yet been seen, as well as a series of community productions as fundraisers for the Festival that exclusively featured local amateur actors.

Almost a decade later, the Festival is still going strong, with a loyal community eager to welcome back the Bard after a pandemic-induced hiatus.

Proud Community

With no other professional outdoor theatre in the St. Lawrence Seaway area, Bjornson said the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival fulfills a key role in the artistic life of the region. She noted that the Festival is firmly embedded within the community.  “Our volunteers and our Town are deeply supportive of our ‘Shakespeare’.”

To commemorate that special connection, a new book highlighting the Festival’s 20 years is now available. Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On – 20 Years of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival captures the theatre’s creation, its remarkable rise, and coming of age in Fort Town. “The extra appeal is the story is told through the heartfelt voices of actors, directors, volunteers, supporters, and festival lovers,” Bjornson said. The book features their stories, photographs, season posters, and the list of all the cast members over the years and all proceeds go to the festival. Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On – 20 Years of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival is being published by former Prescott mayor and festival fan Suzanne Seguin and Lighthouse Press.  

In terms of where the festival goes from here, the Bard by the river has plans to continue and even add a few elements of intrigue along the way. One thing’s for sure, the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival will continue its legacy of presenting award-winning, professional productions in a beautiful riverside amphitheater for all to enjoy – because the time of life is short!

Talking about tickets? Get details on the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival’s 2022 season by visiting www.stlawrenceshakespeare.ca or call the box office at 613-925-5788.