INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER GAZE

by Lichen Tilley

Now that Bard on the Beach is underway at Vancouver's Vanier Park (June 15 to September 25) and celebrating its tenth season, it seemed timely to find out about the talented creator of this successful Shakespearean festival. Christopher Gaze, artistic director and founder of Bard on the Beach may be recognizable from the Bard's characters he has played over the past decade, but as a person, he is a bit of an enigma.

Energetic and eclectic, this year he is playing Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as he did in l991. In the past, he has also played Adam in "As You Like It", Stephano in "The Tempest", Malvolio in "Twelfth Night", Christopher Sly in "The Taming of the Shrew", Falstaff in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" -- a character he enjoys; Cornwall in King Lear, Holofernes in "Love's Labour's Lost" and Richard in "Richard III". He has also directed several of these plays.

Having worked as an actor for 25 years, his roles in other venues are equally extensive. Gaze has performed in practically every major centre in Canada, as well as in the USA and in England, where he originally studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

After graduating, he was hired by Douglas Campbell, whom he admires and whom he regards as his mentor. He worked in English repertory theatre and moved to Canada in l975. After three seasons at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, he moved to Vancouver in and has continued his acting career through film, radio, commercials, cartoons, voice-overs and, of course, his primary love, theatre.

Besides narrating for the VSO and performing at Christ Church Cathedral, Gaze is a popular public speaker. As artistic director of Bard on the Beach, he has been largely responsible for the immense increase in festival attendance -- from 6,000 in 1990 to 45,000 in l998.

I managed to catch him on the phone at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning just prior to a preview performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". He had a meeting later in the morning; and the following day his harried schedule was to include a 1 PM performance of the play; a 4 PM graduation speech at a local school; and an 8 PM address.

He had run out of milk and had not had his morning coffee when I called, yet his manner was gracious; his voice, mellifluous. I was interested in learning more about his personal life and his reactions to local issues. Because my shorthand is rusty, what follows are his <somewhat> abbreviated responses to my questions.

Q. Why did you move to Vancouver?

A. I visited and decided it was a glorious city. I moved here in l983/84.

Q. What is it about Vancouver that you appreciate?

A. The setting, of course. The people. The ambience. I love Kitsilano, where I live - the nearness to the water. I would like to live on the waterfront, but I am quite close to it now. This city is so beautiful!

Q. What are some of your favourite spots in Vancouver?

A. I enjoy going to the Kingshead at 1st and Yew - their chicken wings and English ale are superb. I like Bishop's Restaurant but do not get there often. I particularly like the Village Green at Spruce and Broadway; and Romeo's at Cypress and Cornwall. I enjoy a pub setting with a good mug of ale.

Q. What about Vancouver buildings and architects? Do you like Erickson, for instance?

A. I think Erickson is conceptually brilliant, but I am not a fan of concrete and glass. I like heritage buildings - buildings that show their history.

Q. Vancouver does not "do heritage" well, does it?

A. No. It is a shame to see some of the older buildings coming down and character-less boxes being put up. No, I do not think local government nor developers appreciate the beauty and potential of age.

Q. Would you consider getting into local politics?

A. I would probably not. I simply do not have the time.

Q. What do you do for relaxation when you do have time?

A. I like to read. I read American novelists...from Steinbeck...to Dick Clancy.

Q. What else do you do for relaxation?

A. I love sports. I would like to do a cricketing tour to Barbados..or spend the summer in England following the world cup. I play field hockey and I enjoy tennis, hockey and golf. I would love to go to Wimbledon and to Ascot but I am too busy in the summer.

Q. What are other activities you would do if you had time?

A. I would take a sabbatical and go to Cambridge to study English literature.I feel I don't have sufficient knowledge. I would like to have the time to study in more depth. A good education is important. Or perhaps Oxford, because it is beautiful, old, revered, and knowledge is in its walls.

Q. Are there any "roads not taken" in your life?

A. Roads not taken? No, I don't think so. There is more I want to do. I want more out of life. I have good health but want more of it..want it to continue. I have worked with wonderful people but would like to do more of it.

Q. Do you not have any regrets?

A. I regret that my father died. I regret that my marriage did not last. I regret the damage or hurt I may have caused in my lifetime...those sorts of things. Generally I am a positive person. "Carpe diem" is an attitude I appreciate.

Q. What do you enjoy?

A. I love the finer things in life. I would enjoy an extravagant lifestyle. I appreciate good service. I enjoy driving my '97 Jaguar Van den Plas. I appreciate grandness.

Q. What would you have been had you not become an actor?

A. I have always liked playing the "mine host" role. I would probably have been content being a publican...owning a pub. I think I would have been pretty good at it.

Q. Are you technologically inclined? Do you like computers?

A. No, I do not operate a computer. I haven't had much time to learn.

Q What would you do with the Ford Theatre?

A. Remodel it. It is not useful. It would need to be remodeled. The front of the house is too small. I would turn it into a real theatre that meant something to the community. It could be done.

Q. If asked to be the artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, what would you do?

A. First, I would get it out of its present building. I would get it out into the community. A professional theatre should be community theatre. I would like more people to walk through it, or perhaps, to have lunch at a restaurant in the lobby ...have a quick quiche or a coffee..be able to.mix with the actors. I would like to take it out of its current isolation. I would do the same with the Ford Theatre. With a decent budget, it could do very well. Theatre should be accessible. The building itself should have lots of volunteers, a community of people within it. Theatre should not be an ivory tower...nor for an elite audience.

Q. What do you think of community theatre in Vancouver?

A. There are some fantastically good actors here.

Q. Do you consider yourself an actor or a director?

A. An actor. I love acting...the costumes...the stage...the theatre when it is dark.

Q Do you come from a theatrical background?

A. My mother encouraged me in acting.. She was involved in the local drama society. So was my father. We lived in Guildford in Surrey. I remember walking into the village hall prior to a production, with its black coverings, its lights, its building sets. It excited me. Also, my schooling encouraged my interest in theatricals. It was common to put on plays.

Q. What makes an actor want to act?

A. Need? The desire to please? Appreciation. Taking a bow at the end -- that is inherent in an actor's makeup. The enjoyment in telling stories and in childish play acting.

Q. Are you a method actor or do you work from outside using technique?

A. I just do it I am untechnical, unmethody.

Q. Then how do you develop a character?

A. My training was excellent. I went to the Bristol School of Acting from 70 - 73. I learned to project my voice, to stand up straight, to look nice on stage. They provided very good training. However, I must admit, I like exploring different parts of self and exploding them out. As for technical tricks, sometimes I wear tight shoes in order to walk a part.

Q. Which do you prefer working in - -movies or theatre?

A. Theatre. The play's the thing. Although I will be performing in Toys of Glass - which is an upcoming movie of the week. I do prefer acting in theatre to movies but I have done much of both. I also enjoy working with children, They are so enthusiastic and true. I love doing the VSO Christmas concert as narrator. This is my 7th year.

Q. What do you think of actors who are popular but tend to play themselves?

A. I have a friend, Paxton Whitehead, who argues it is possible to play a number of characters the same way.

Q. What is it about Shakespeare that attracts you?

A. Shakespeare was energetic, quiet, introverted, attractive, probably in and out of love, enigmatic...brilliant! Harold Bloom said Shakespeare invented us . I think that is a super statement.

Q. How do you react to Hollywood's recent rediscovery of Shakespeare? Did you like Mel Gibson as Hamlet?

A. Gibson was fine. I didn't think Glen Close was terrible. I think Kenneth Brannagh is great. Actresses such as Emma Thompson do an excellent job.

Q. Did you see "Shakespeare in Love"?

A. Of course and I thought it was witty, clever, yes, I enjoyed it. Light but fun.

Q. Which are your favourite movies?

A. The Sting. The African Queen.

Q. If you could put together an acting dream team, whom would you choose?

A. Douglas Campbell, my mentor, Nigel Hawthorne, Judy Dench, Kenneth Branagh...but also I'd like to include the people I work with now. They are extremely talented. Sometimes one can want too much and it becomes too potent a cocktail.

Q. If you were to invite any four Shakespearean characters to dinner, who would they be?

A. Falstaff, because he was fun loving, melancholic. He delights in being "down and beaten", recovers and finds a way of turning the whole situation around -- both in Merry Wives and in Henry V -- somewhat like.Chaplin who was evocative and survived the rigours of humanity. I love his character. Ummm... Kate and Petruchio - just to see if they are still a couple.Hamlet, of course.

Q. Would you like to expand the festival?

A. No, but it would be fun to have a smaller studio to work in.

Q. What do you account for the success of Bard on the Beach?

A. An acting troupe needs to do things well. Ours is successful at this. The production is outside. The mountains of the North Shore make a wonderful backdrop. It is a moving cyclorama. The theatre is not airconditioned.

We can have our cake and eat it too. There is easy access and the venue is generally accessible. The plays are well done. They are affordable. Audiences enjoy pageantry and costumes. We try not to obscure Shakespeare by cleverness. Shakespeare is the greatest playwright; his works are joyous and are a gift to all of us. .

Q. If you had the funding, what would you do?

A. Tour in winter. I would like to take the company around the country. Perhaps do an international tour...

Q. Who came up with the name of the festival?

A. I cannot take credit for the name...ummm...can't remember who originally suggested it, but the idea for the festival was mine.