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Our History

In 1989, a passionate group of recently graduated students collaborated to build the Free Will Players Theatre Guild (FWP). Their goal was to embody a cooperative, community-driven, pass-the-hat style spirit, bringing the works of William Shakespeare to life through an outdoor summer Festival. Over 35 years, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival (originally known as the River City Shakespeare Festival), has attracted over 409,000 people with 56 main stage productions, remaining true to the original text and spirit while accenting new interpretations for a modern audience. 

Located in the picturesque setting of Hawrelak Park, the festival unfolds under the enchanting 1100-seat, canopy-covered Heritage Amphitheatre. Over the course of four weeks, from late June to July, this idyllic outdoor venue becomes the stage for an immersive and unforgettable theatrical experience. The Freewill Shakespeare Festival is not just a celebration of artistry; it is also a significant source of employment, engaging over 50 dedicated individuals at the peak of the festival season. This diverse team includes actors, designers, stage managers, production managers, administrative assistants, publicists, and site/volunteer coordinators, all working in harmony to bring the magic of the Festival to life. Thirty percent of the FWP yearly budget goes towards artist fees, ensuring that the creative talents behind the productions are duly recognized and compensated for their invaluable contributions. 

Since 2020 and the closure of Hawrelak Park for construction in 2022, the Festival has had to become more creative in its outdoor performances, providing two small cast travelling shows in 2020, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot in the Crystal Palace Spiegeltent in 2023, and new touring productions across four parks in Edmonton for 2024. These challenges, along with reduced granting and audience return, have greatly impacted the financial stability of FWP but also highlighted the community-driven spirit that originally built this company and its ability to adapt to the changing environments of the arts in Edmonton. 

Through pay-what-will ticketed shows, affordable ticket ranges, and a long history of supporting youth and young creatives,  the Free Will Players Theatre Guild and the Freewill Shakespeare Festival strive to promote artistic excellence, community collaboration, and a steadfast dedication to making the arts accessible.

2023 Annual Report

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Past Posters of the Festival

FWP also recognizes that we can broaden our horizons and remain vital to the theatre community through commissioning new plays that are inspired by the life and/or times of William Shakespeare. To that end FWP commissioned the Governor-General award winning playwright, Vern Theissen, to write a play. The result was Shakespeare’s Will which was a tremendous success in Edmonton and went on to further acclaimed productions across Canada and the United States.

The Free Will Players/The Freewill Shakespeare Festival has been nominated for numerous Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Awards for excellence in Edmonton theatre. Award recipients include Chris Bullough (Outstanding Actor for his sensitive performance of the tragic title character in Richard III, 2008), Nadien Chu (Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role for her haunting and magnificent portrayal of Livinia in Titus Andronicus, 2010) and Belinda Cornish (Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Portia in Julius Caesar, 2012).

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