Canada loves Shakespeare! With a whopping 15 annual festivals and dedicated theater troupes, you can enjoy the Bard’s work from coast to coast. While the style and venues all differ, these remarkable organizations have a few things in common. They’re all dedicated to making the works of Shakespeare more accessible and their productions are very community minded. And while all faced serious challenges in 2020 due to COVID-19 (and nearly everyone had to shutter live performances), by 2021, they were back, modifying productions to account for the pandemic and bringing Shakespeare back into their communities once more. These are the Shakespeare festivals to check out on your next trip to Canada.
1. Bard On The Beach, Vancouver
Western Canada’s largest not-for-profit professional Shakespeare festival is indeed on the beach at Vanier Park in Vancouver, British Columbia. Talk about gorgeous views! Bard on the Beach has been going strong since 1990 and now has two performance tents. Festival attendees can expect Shakespeare plays, related dramas, and special events every summer. Like many Shakespeare festivals, this festival’s mandate is to provide affordable, accessible, high quality Shakespeare productions.
2. Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, Victoria
There must be something in the (ocean) water in British Columbia, as both of the province’s Shakespeare festivals have deep roots. The Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival has been delighting audiences since 1991. The festival normally offers two productions a season and tickets are $25 for adults. The company’s not afraid to tackle some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays in addition to crowd favorites, as the inclusion of Cymbeline in 2021 demonstrates.
3. Freewill Shakespeare Festival, Edmonton
Formed in 1989 as a pass-the-hat style not-for-profit organization, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival typically offers two productions a season, with shows running from June to July. While this Alberta festival still uses a by-donation model for its public performances, it also has expanded to include private performances for groups and special events. If you’re not able to attend a full production, keep an eye out for The Free Willies. The Willies are a mix of local actors and musicians who come together to put on free 20 minute shows that mix music, comedy, and Shakespeare at parks, markets, and other hot spots across the city. How fun is that?
4. Shakespeare On The Saskatchewan, Saskatoon
This long-standing Shakespeare festival puts a strong emphasis on community involvement — and community fun. The festival’s beer and snack kiosk is playfully named “Sir Toby’s Tavern,” and has a Tudor-esque design. Additionally, there’s a dedicated Community Events Area on the festival grounds that hosts everything from culinary events (like Chefs On The Saskatchewan), Irish dancers, and spoken word poetry. On the main stage, offerings range from Shakespeare’s best known works to locally written productions.
5. Shakespeare In The Ruins, Winnipeg
When a location is described as being in “ruins,” visitors might not expect much, but Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Shakespeare In The Ruins is offering accessible, affordable productions in Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park. The monastery moved several decades ago and fire damaged the remaining buildings but they were stabilized and given a new life as a heritage park that’s perfect for community-minded plays. The Shakespeare In The Ruins team also works in a second unconventional location: Stony Mountain Penitentiary. It brings Shakespeare workshops into the prison’s classroom to help inmates earn a high school drama credit.
6. Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, isn’t just the biggest and most famous of its kind in Canada. It’s one of the best in the world! The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has the distinction of being North America’s largest classical repertory theater company, presenting a dozen or more productions a season in four different venues. While its work carries a special emphasis on Shakespeare’s plays, it also produces a selection of classics, contemporary dramas, and musicals. The company has been creating non-stop buzz ever since it debuted in 1953 with Alec Guinness in the title role in Richard III.
7. Company Of Fools, Ottawa
Since 1990, Ottawa’s Company of Fools has offered 90-minute “torchlit” Shakespeare productions to more than 35 community parks in and around Ottawa. Its “foolish” approach to storytelling means pairing Shakespeare’s text with physical theatre techniques of slapstick, mask, and puppetry. Shows are pay-what-you-can and all are welcome (including dogs — a rarity at these kinds of performances). The special focus on community extends to use of a tent shelter and table for neighborhood associations at the productions so local groups can showcase their activities.
8. St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, Prescott
This small town outside of Ottawa, Ontario, may not have the same big city oomph of other Shakespeare festivals but it has some pretty huge bragging rights of its own. In 2014, the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival was the only Canadian theater to present Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s international touring production of Hamlet. Its waterfront amphitheater location is pretty spectacular, too. The nearby Shakespeare Garden showcases many plants and flowers featured in the playwright’s work.
9. Shakespeare In The Ruff, Toronto
Toronto’s Shakespeare In The Ruff hopes to change people’s perception of the Bard. As it states on its website: “Shakespeare can be boring. We’re here to change that.” That starts by making its work as accessible as possible, using a pay-what-you-can and/or no-charge approach to event admissions. The group often reinterprets Shakespeare with a more radical, modern edge. Past productions include As We Live It and Portia’s Julius Caesar.
10. Repercussion Theatre, Montreal
In a typical summer, more than 13,000 people take in a show from Repercussion Theatre’s Shakespeare In The Park program. Since 1988, this professional, not-for-profit theater company has been offering performances across Montreal. It is just as busy behind the scenes as well. After an all-female production of Julius Caesar in 2016, Repercussion is now committed to ensuring that its Shakespeare In The Park team (from directors to actors) is comprised of at least 50 percent women. And to ensure maximum accessibility, the company has partnered with Plank Design to offer live subtitling in French and English via an app at each performance.
11. Bard In The Barracks, Fredericton
Fredericton’s dreamy Botanical Garden is the perfect setting for the whimsical works of Shakespeare as seen by Bard In The Barracks. It’s the latest in a number of downtown locations that started with Barracks Square (hence the original name). Tickets normally cost $20 but there is a $5 discount for seniors and those who self-identify as being unwaged or underwaged. In other words, if your financial circumstances mean you would benefit from a discount, you get one — no questions asked.
12. Loyalist City Shakespeare, Saint John
Working within the Saint John Theatre Company, Loyalist City Shakespeare produces one production of Shakespeare a year — but it’s known to get involved in all kinds of fun theater events. It’s not afraid to mix things up like 2021’s production of the Shakespeare Variety Show demonstrates.
13. Shakespeare By The Sea, Halifax
The largest outdoor summer theater festival east of Montreal, Halifax, Nova Scotia’s, Shakespeare By The Sea offers outdoor theater in summer at Cambridge Battery, a former military gun battery that dates to 1862. The company also operates the nearby Park Place Theatre for rainy days, off-season use, special events, and productions. It supports a number of other theater efforts, from the Fringe Festival to improv productions. If that’s not enough, it even sells its own coffee beans, a blend called “Sleep No More.”
14. Shakespeare By The Sea, St. John’s
Yes, there is a Shakespeare By The Sea in St John’s, Newfoundland, as well as one in Halifax. While they’re unrelated organizations, they do share a passion for Shakespeare, as well as a penchant for historical locations. This festival dates to 1993 when it was organized by a group of ambitious English students at Memorial University. Since then, the festival has become rather famous for its use of stark natural landscapes (everything from Logy Bay to the crumbling World War II era defenses at Cape Spear).
A Bonus! Driftwood Theatre’s Bard’s Bus Tour
Sometimes you go to see Shakespeare… and sometimes Shakespeare goes to see you! Toronto’s Driftwood Theatre group runs the Bard’s Bus Tour. This summer touring theater has been visiting Ontario communities since 1995, bringing the gift of Shakespeare to communities that otherwise wouldn’t have a Shakespeare festival.
While you are in some of the areas that highlight Shakespeare, don’t forget to see other towns and sights: