REFLECTING ON ELIZABETH MURPHY’S LEGACY WITH SHAKESPEARE BY THE SEA

Elizabeth Murphy remembers the moment she fell in love.

Reading Henry IV, Part I in Grade 9, she tumbled head over heels for the Bard. “I thought ‘What an amazing thing, what a glorious play,’” she recalls over a cup of tea in a North End café. “It began my interest in Shakespeare.”

Born in Salisbury, England, Murphy immigrated to Vancouver with her parents at 3.5 years old. From the start theatre filled her heart. “I danced with many scarves while my father played guitar and banjo,” she says. “I did my first play in Grade 1.”

Murphy parlayed her fascination with the stage into a career, studying in the pioneering University of British Columbia theatre program and acting for many years in Toronto. Among her credits was Theatre Passe Muraille’s controversial show I Love You, Baby Blue, in which actors appeared nude.

She spent three years at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where she met her husband, the late Patrick Christopher Carter. They moved to Halifax in 1988 when Dalhousie recruited Carter to teach theatre.

Murphy’s days were full of voiceover work, a Christmas show at Neptune Theatre, and getting to know her new home. The couple were walking through Point Pleasant Park when they discovered the Cambridge Battery. “And I thought, ‘I wonder if they do Shakespeare here?’” she says.

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Photo by Jesse MacLean

In May 1994, they joined with the late Jean Morpurgo to stage Twelfth Night in the park over the July 1 weekend. Among the actors they recruited were John Beale (now working in Toronto), Irene Poole (who is part of the company at the Stratford Festival), Dartmouth actor/writer Josh MacDonald, Steve Manuel, and Regina Fitzgerald.

But they weren’t sure if there would be an audience. At 6:30 p.m. on opening night Murphy remembers nervously looking out at about 20 people and wondering if they should cancel.

People had problems finding their way to the open-air stage but eventually more than 750 showed up to witness an unconventional take on the Shakespearean comedy complete with Elvis Presley songs and actors dressed in white.

After the show Murphy was holding a cardboard box while talking to a friend. “People started throwing money in it,” she marvels at the memory. “By the end of the night, we had $300. I thought it was an omen and we registered Shakespeare by the Sea Theatre Society at the Registry of Joint Stocks.”

Murphy became the general manager of the non-profit theatre company that has performed for more than 350,000 people since that first summer. She got the job by default: there was no money to hire anyone else.

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Elizabeth Murphy directs The Merchant of Venice in 2014. Photo by Jesse MacLean.

“I don’t think I would have been interested in being the GM of a theatre unless it was mine,” she says. “My interest in the position was because I believed in what the company could do for the city. I think having a theatre company that does Shakespeare is really important, because Shakespeare is like the wellspring of theatre. No matter how many times you do Shakespeare you find something new, because he’s writing humanity. Not a lot of places do Shakespeare and it’s imperative to keep that beautiful language alive.”

Twenty-five years later she’s still at the helm of Shakespeare by the Sea (SBTS), now co-artistic director with Jesse MacLean.

MacLean, a Cole Harbour native, was hired to work with Christopher Carter as an assistant director straight out of theatre school at Bishop’s University in 2003. His role with the company expanded after Christopher Carter died suddenly of a stroke in 2005.

The co-founders didn’t expect the company to be as popular as it was, quickly attracting a big audience, notes MacLean, who became co-artistic director in 2011.

Murphy recalls feeling like a rock star watching an audience of 2,500 during an early production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Jennie Raymond, Ben Stone, Ryan Rogerson, and Genevieve Steele, in which fairies flitted in and out of the woods.

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Matthew Kennedy (left) as Mercutio in the 1997 production of Romeo and Juliet.

The company has remained true to its core ideal of making theatre accessible to everyone, says MacLean, who directs most of the productions. He has even directed Murphy in All’s Well That Ends Well and Richard III.

Murphy has helmed a dozen shows over the years, including Othello in 2008 for which she was nominated for a Merritt Award for best direction. “It’s interesting to watch her approach directing from an actor’s point of view,” says MacLean. “Elizabeth has been there every day for the whole 25 years. The company is made of her blood sweat and tears. She’s had a lot of experience in Canadian theatre and her passion for classical theatre and Shakespeare is incredible.”

SBTS has launched hundreds of artists’ careers. “We’ve given out more than 350 artist contracts,” MacLean says. “Once they’ve been through a season with SBTS they are truly ready for anything. They get up there in the beautiful park in rain, mud and sun and make Shakespeare accessible to people.”

One of those artists is Patricia Zentilli. The Halifax native starred with the company in 1996 shortly after graduating from Dalhousie Theatre School.

That year the company, which included many of her classmates, staged Hamlet at the Martello Tower. Zentilli was Ophelia to Jim Fowler’s Hamlet and audiences were treated to the memorable sight of Zentilli, as the tragic heroine, clad in a long dress, half-perched on a rock, blonde locks flowing in the water about her while Loreena McKennitt played in the background.

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The 2003 company performed Coriolanus, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet, and Peter Pan.

“It was a very exciting way to do Shakespeare,” says the actress who was nominated for a Dora Award for her role as Audrey in CanStage’s Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Ted Dykstra. She also still has a loyal fan following from her starring turn on the TV sci-fi cult series Lexx.

Zentilli now lives in Edmonton with her husband (actor and director Farren Timoteo) and their seven-year-old-son, Leonardo. She recently wrapped a production of Mamma Mia! in Edmonton and credits her SBTS experience with jumpstarting her career by putting classical credits on her resume. She believes her turn as Ophelia led to an invitation to reprise the role at Neptune Theatre several years later, one of many Neptune roles including Of Mice and Men, Grease, and Nunsense.

This season opened on July 1 and includes a return to Alice in Wonderland (the company’s most-popular children’s show), Othello (one of Murphy’s favourite plays), and Twelfth Night (a nod to that first season).

The Unrehearsed Dream, a special one-night only completely unrehearsed performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is another nod to that first year. It closes the season on Sept. 2.

“It’s a golden season,” says Murphy. She’s starting to think about retirement, but it will be hard to let go.

After Christopher died, having the company meant even more. “It was life-giving, a reason to wake up and do something,” she says. “I still feel like it’s something I want to do every day. It’s a phenomenal thing to crave.” 

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