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A summer sojourn with Shakespeare: The Freewill Shakespeare Festival set to return for 29th season

“There’s always something about Shakespeare,” says Julie Haddow, managing director of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. “Even when it’s rainy and dark, you can still be sitting outside with a beer and enjoying the show.”

Each summer, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival brings to life two fully realized Shakespeare productions for Edmontonians to enjoy outdoors in the heart of the river valley. The event takes place at the Hawrelak Park amphitheatre, and is put on by the Free Will Players theatre company. Last year featured productions of Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. This summer is the festival’s 29th year, and will run from June 20 to July 16.

This is Haddow’s third season as part of the festival. She credits much of the success and longevity of the festival to the talented board of directors — some of whom have been with Freewill since its beginnings in 1989 — as well as the volunteers and long-time fans.  

“We have a good base of volunteers that come back every year,” Haddow says. “But we also have many people who have been coming to the festival for many years. We’ve done surveys and found out that there have been people who’ve been coming consistently for 10 or more years.”

One way Haddow says the festival tries to keep people coming back is by making Shakespeare relevant to a modern audience. She explains that “although (Shakespeare) is Elizabethan, we do try to make it more contemporary.” In the past, this has meant finding new interpretations of the classic settings, themes, and characters.

To keep the festival up and running, the theatre company hosts annual fundraisers, and earlier this month was the main ones of the year. The event, which was called “The Bunch of Love,” saw guests purchase tickets to enjoy a pre-festival teaser, as well as take in performances, an auction, and a meal. Haddow notes that without fundraisers, the festival wouldn’t be able to reach their mandate or offer the same quality of each year.

“We’re happy with all the people that came down to support us,” she says. “Especially in the winter when we don’t have a lot of income coming in.”

A couple features of the festival the fundraising particularly helps with are the “pay what you will” nights, and “free student Sundays.” These allow attendees to pay what they can to see the performances or watch free of charge. Haddow explains that the money raised at events like “The Brunch of Love” help give as many people as possible the opportunity to enjoy the festival.

“This is an effort to really open professional theatre to the community. All sorts of people attend the show from children to older adults,” she says.

This year’s festival will be staging The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Merchant of Venice. Haddow mentions that something special about the lineup is that Ashley Wright, the well-known Edmonton-trained actor who has worked on many productions across the country, will be directing Merry Wives of Windsor. In addition to the plays, the festival is also going to include other special events such as puppet shows, wine nights, and date nights.

Looking back at her time with Freewill Shakespeare Festival, Haddow states that it’s the atmosphere that is her favourite part of it all. She expresses that The Bard is something anyone and everyone should take the opportunity to enjoy — especially outside on a warm, midsummer’s night.

“It’s not uptight. It’s a laid back and fun experience,” she says. “The people are great, the actors are great. I think if people haven’t come, they should. Everyone should give Shakespeare a try.”

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