I remember many years ago sitting in Trident Cafe on Argyle Street talking to Elizabeth Murphy, Patrick Christopher and the late Jean Morpurgo about their dream to stage Shakespearean plays outdoors in Point Pleasant Park.
It seemed like a wonderful but elusive idea for a city where new creative projects were (and still are) hard to fund. However, I underestimated the steely determination of this trio.
Now, 28 years later, Shakespeare by the Sea is an award-winning institution attracting over 10,000 people a summer to the Fort Oglivie site in Point Pleasant Park and Elizabeth Murphy – its guiding light – is retiring.
She leaves the company – to announce its season April 23 – in good hands with Jesse MacLean, former co-artistic director, taking the helm as artistic director.
Murphy, who started out as general manager before becoming co-artistic director, has built and sustained Shakespeare by the Sea through many highs and lows: the sudden death of her husband, Patrick Christopher, during the 2005 season, a 2014 fire at the Park Place Theatre, many rained out nights, shows cancelled due to high heat, a drought, a long-horn beetle infestation, a hurricane, a pandemic. This woman has never lost her faith, charm, warmth or ability to get the show to the stage.
Many people have stepped up to help her. According to a news release, Jennie Raymond, an actor from the early days of SBTS, saw the 2006 season through after Christopher’s death. Tom Gordon-Smith, the acting company’s “comedic powerhouse” became a technical director to help behind-the-scenes.
With MacLean, Murphy worked to develop the Park Place Theatre, the company headquarters and an 85-seat black box theatre, and the Studio at Shakespeare By The Sea, the year-round education and training program founded by studio director and resident artist Jade Douris-O’Hara and her husband, artistic associate Drew Douris-O’Hara, who started acting with Shakespeare by the Sea as a boy.
Murphy was born in England, moved to Vancouver with her family at an early age and studied theatre at UBC, according to the release. Before coming to Halifax she had a long career on stages across Canada, including at the Stratford Festival.
She acted in several SBTS shows including roles as the Duchess of York (Richard III, 2004), Volumnia (Coriolanus, 2004) and The Countess (All’s Well That End’s Well, 2007).
She has directed over a dozen plays including the Merritt award-nominated shows Othello (2008), Twelfth Night (2010), Much Ado About Nothing (2013) and I Am My Own Wife (2015). (This year the company is up for 15 Merritts — to be announced April 11 — over two productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Fat Juliet, a co-production with Eastern Front Theatre.
To honour Murphy SBTS is starting the Pass It On Fund to support the salaries of emerging artists in the professional summer season company. (Pass It On | 2021 (shakespearebythesea.ca)