The Australian Shakespeare Company is back for its traditional Summer Season of Shakespeare Under The Stars at the Royal Botanic Gardens. The company have much to celebrate this year as it is the 30th year of performance in this unique and family friendly theatrical environment – it has indeed become a tradition for generations of Australians!
ASC Artistic Director Glenn Elston confesses the 30 years have snuck up on him. “I don’t feel like it has been a long time, I suppose it is because we keep putting on theatre and enjoying it.” There have been many highlights for the company over the years but what stays with Elston as one of the biggest is opening in Kings Park in Perth. “We were the first company to perform Shakespeare there and our company was a key player in initiating the change to its charter in parliament so that theatre could be performed there,” he says.
Elston explains that the company have gone to remote and regional cities, such as Darwin, Nhulunbuy and Thursday Island, and performed and run workshops. In 2003 they worked in Beswick falls in the Northern Territory and teamed up with Djilpin arts who they have now been working with for the last 16 years. An outstanding presentation has been Walking with Spirits with the late departed Tommy Louis. “The effect that this partnership has had on the community and performing for local communities has also been a huge highlight,” says Elston.
Elston lists other memorable moments as: watching Oberon, King of the Fairies, slip into the lake, and Lysander, stopping the show for a stage-invading possum and asking if he had an equity card! “We’ve dealt with so many events in the outdoors, from spiders to snakes to possums that continuously these outdoor moments always come up as highlights for myself,” he adds.
As anyone involved in it knows, show business is a fickle industry and longevity does not come about by serendipity alone, as Elston explains.
“The winning formula – since the company has always done family theatre, Shakespeare and other classics, we’ve been performing to what is a now a second and possibly third generation of audiences who have grown up with The Wind in the Willows. These audiences keep coming back – the combination of family theatre and Shakespeare, in an accessible manner, has meant patrons of all ages have been able to engage and take something away from our work.
We’ve also let our company grow with the changes happening in the world and industry. We’ve pushed ourselves to develop continuously to be part of today, and not yesterday.”
Elston’s name is synonymous with outdoor theatre in Australia. Springing from an idea that started in 1987 and involving 12 people, it is now the largest independent theatre company in Australia with the ASC now a summer tradition across the country.
And it all started because, Elston says, he had never read The Wind in the Willows as a child.
“When I went to visit two of my friends at their university, they were reading it to one another and I stopped to listen. The concept of reading to each other, I thought was really beautiful, so I made a point of getting the book for myself. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I actually read the book in London, where it was extremely cold. All I could think about was coming back to Melbourne and putting the show on in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The gardens, during my studies at The Victorian College of the Arts had become a haven for me. I just loved them, and I still do. I can’t think of a garden that is as beautiful as the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, and my desire to see The Wind in the Willows is what got it all started. I came back, and the opportunity arose very quickly. Two years later, we staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
What keeps me doing my job is the impact it has on an audience. Especially an audience who are watching a performance as a family, it is amazingly rewarding to see people watching something you have had a part in creating. I think this is also a reason why some of the performers keep doing it too.”
One of the most unique things that ASC offers is performing theatre without a theatre! “Though, we do work in traditional theatre spaces too, the work we do outside is what sets us apart from most theatre companies, because we take away what a theatre space imposes on patrons,” says Elston. ” Being outdoors has allowed us to make the world of our work much more vibrant and engaging. Instead of stepping into a theatre, our guests literally step into the world of the play, which we hope instills a sense of joy, as audience members go on an adventure with the act. It’s all for one and one for all.”
Summer, the Royal Botanic Gardens and ASC have a magical relationship that continues to hold value for Melbournians who flock, every year, to see the latest traditional or re-imagined work.
Elston believes it is because Melbourne, out of all Australian cities has one of the strongest theatre cultures. “We keep producing good products, which I like to think improve every year. The Shakespeare under the Stars is our version of the globe. It’s doing Shakespeare for the people in an environment that people can enjoy it the most, outdoors, in the sun. ”
This year the company will be staging Macbeth, with Nathaniel Dean as Macbeth and Alison Whyte as Lady Macbeth, promising a truly macabre setting as the Witches gather around their cauldron at dusk. The company has never done a tragedy during a summer season before performing them, instead, indoors during winter. However , since it is an anniversary year, Elston thought it would be good to do something different. “I think it is going to have a really great impact in the outdoors; we have a stunning cast who are bringing it to life!”
Elston’s prophecy is that in 30 years-time, the ASC will still be going. “The way our company is structured, it will survive. We are already entering different avenues and mediums, adding value to our current existence. We love being part of the education sector, and as this department grows we’re learning the significance of being able to bring our Shakespeare work directly into schools,” he says.
The ASC’s Shakespeare Under the Stars has contributed much to our summer; to our love of theatre; to our family values, and to our love of being in the great outdoors. It has become a valued tradition successfully drawing an enthusiastic throng to Melbourne’s historic Royal Botanic Gardens year after year. This year, The Wind in the Willows will once again delight young and old alike; Alice in Wonderland takes us into Carroll’s wonderful land of imagination and wacky characters; Shakespeare’s story about start-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, plays in March and, of course, the inclusion of Macbeth makes the season just that little bit special.
Says Elston, “Macbeth is one of the best plays Shakespeare has ever written. Our version is going to be a really stunning production – and I want people to be able to enjoy the gardens too, what we keep saying, however, is come experience this play, the way we intend it to be experienced: arrive early, bring a picnic, (with a bottle of wine), and take in the gardens before the sun sets and the fun begins.”
For all show info: https://shakespeareaustralia.com.au/shows-tickets/