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International: Stratford Festival – theatre by the Great Lakes

Sarah Afful (centre) as Rosaline with Josue Laboucane (left) as Costard and Ijeoma Emesowum as Maria in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, this year. Photo: David Hou
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When he took over as the Stratford Festival’s artistic director in 2013, Antoni Cimolino inherited a huge deficit along with a mandate to tell stories about characters that do not necessarily reflect what Canada is today – or ever really was. On the other hand, Cimolino also inherited from his predecessor Des McAnuff a festival of enormous resources.

Company profile Stratford FestivalBased in the Ontario town that gave it its name, Stratford is now a multimillion-dollar operation with four permanent venues, a first-rate acting conservatory, a legendary history and a pool of top Canadian actors, directors, designers and playwrights to draw from.

It may be too early to judge, but the early returns – both artistic and economic – on Cimolino’s tenure are looking solid. Not only are Cimolino and Stratford finding creative ways to redress the built-in gender imbalance that comes with producing classical texts, but he is also populating Stratford productions with a diversity that has won the praise of critics.

Since Cimolino took over the artistic planning of the festival, business has been undeniably strong. In 2013, audience attendance rose by 9%, from 432,000 to 480,000, and although there was a slight dip in 2014 (down to 462,000), so far it is trending up again this season. All of this has generated a C$2.5 million (£1.24 million) surplus, virtually eliminating that inherited deficit of C$3.4 million (£1.68 million).

The 2015 Stratford line-up is a mash-up of some of Shakespeare’s greatest hits – Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Taming of the Shrew and The Adventures of Pericles – along with She Stoops to Conquer, Oedipus Rex and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, plus a new adaptation by Canadian playwright Michael Healey of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s satire The Physicists and lavish musical productions of The Sound of Music and Carousel.

Jonathan Goad plays Hamlet. Photo: David Hou
Jonathan Goad plays Hamlet. Photo: David Hou

There is also a new play – Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife – which tells the story of Henry VIII’s wife Katherine Parr, which has sold so well that Cimolino has had to add extra performances. It is a large ambitious line-up therefore for a festival that receives just 4% of its C$60 million (£29.7 million) budget from public funding.

“Stratford has to steer that middle course between adventurous and watching the box office,” says theatre critic Martin Morrow. “You have to be a bit [Toronto commercial producer] David Mirvisch and a bit adventurous artistic director at the same time. So I don’t envy the person who has to run the theatre.

“Cimolino does bring a bit of adventure to the festival. McAnuff was a flashy director, but in the choices Cimolino has been making as a programmer – he also is a very good director – things have been consistently interesting since 2013.”

That observation admittedly comes within the context of Morrow lamenting, a wee bit, the fact that Stratford has always tended to embrace far more traditional interpretations of classical works than theatres such as the UK’s National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“The British theatre ethos is different,” says Morrow, “because there’s more competition. There are so many productions of classical plays, let alone Shakespeare, that you’re constantly trying to find something fresh. Stratford doesn’t have that same sort of competition. It’s too big to be really adventurous too fast.”

Members of the Stratford Festival company in The Adventures of Pericles. Photo: David Hou
Members of the Stratford Festival company in The Adventures of Pericles. Photo: David Hou

On the other hand, Stratford actor Haysam Kadri, who was part of the festival company for six years, argues that Stratford’s willingness to experiment varies according to whose vision each production follows. “It depends on the director, on their vision, on the person they’re bringing in. Sometimes it’s daring and sometimes it’s bold. Sometimes it’s solid and safe. On the whole, the RSC is a little more theatrically daring, but you have to go on a case-by-case basis.”

Some of the more daring productions of the past few years include an experimental presentation of The Taming of the Shrew from former National Arts Centre artistic director Peter Hinton, Tim Carroll’s critically mauled 2014 presentation of Romeo and Juliet using original practices, and a pair of 2014 duelling presentations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from directors Peter Sellars and Chris Abraham.

For Cimolino, a Hamilton native who – like many Southern Ontario natives – was introduced to classical theatre through a high-school field trip to Stratford and ended up having a significant acting career there in addition to directing and performing his executive duties, Stratford and all that it stands for remains embedded in his artistic DNA.

Through an ambitious project of filming every Shakespeare production, screened in cineplexes across North America, to overseeing the company’s Birmingham Conservatory, which gives young Canadian actors first-rate training in classical acting, to running a playwright’s lab that nurtures new work on site at Stratford, to directing a pair of shows at this year’s festival, Cimolino has the country’s national theatre running on all cylinders.

Stratford FestivalHe admits that he does find the artistic-director side of his brain having long thoughtful conversations with the general-director side. “I’m sure every artistic director at every theatre feels this way. By the time you work out that perfect season, you find that you can’t afford it. The good thing is that I’ve had enough experience on both sides of the equation, that now I’m able to work with our executive director and somehow find a way to make what we need to do work and get some exciting stuff happening programming-wise.”

He says there is also no question about the quality of productions, in terms of either performance or production.

“Stratford represents what Canada is famous for, which is that we’re really good at doing stuff technically. The productions are often impeccable – it’s hard to fault a Stratford Festival production. It’s a well-oiled machine. You’ll never see poorly designed sets or poor lighting, and the acting will always be at a certain calibre.”

For Hennig, the opportunity to create strong women’s roles for a festival where these have always been in short supply is exactly the direction the festival needs to point itself in to remain relevant for the 21st century. “It’s a good strategy,” she says. “Places like Stratford and other classical theatres need to keep on opening their perspective and challenging their preconceptions, of casting, of directors – of the gender imbalance [on our main stages]. And they need to keep on seeking equity themselves. Which I know they do.”

Cimolino – who recently had his contract extended four years – has no plans to slow down his gender-rebalancing act. Next season, for the first time, the majority of directors at Stratford are women, including Carey Perloff, artistic director at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, long-time Stratford presence Martha Henry, Toronto’s Weyni Mengesha, one of the hottest names in Canadian theatre, in addition to National Arts Centre artistic director Jillian Keiley, who will direct an As You Like It set in Newfoundland.

“I think that play will have a strongly different point of view,” says Cimolino, “because it’s being directed by a woman – and that’s great. That’s fresh.”

For more information on the Stratford Festival visit stratfordfestival.ca

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