Stratford Festival’s celebrity power

Can Stephen Lewis, Colin Mochrie and Tommy guitar school reboot the indebted festival?
Matt Alfano (centre) as a Russian Dancer with members of the company in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Stratford Festival's celebrity power
Cylla Von Tiedemann

“An Elizabethan lady comes on stage like a battleship. And then she starts saying things to her daughter that mothers have always and everywhere said to their daughters.” Romeo and Juliet director Tim Carroll was illustrating the power of what’s called “original practice” (OP)—staging Shakespearean plays as close as possible to the way the Bard himself would have—to make manifest “Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to be both strange and familiar.” But he could have been talking about the entire tenor of the Stratford Festival’s first season under new artistic director Antoni Cimolino.

The productions may be crowd-pleasing favourites—Romeo and Juliet, Tommy, The Merchant of Venice and Fiddler on the Roofamong them. But Cimolino, 52, plans to hit a refresh button for them all—and make the familiar enticingly strange—with what he calls “my own baby,” the Stratford Forum, a season-long series of talks, tours, interactive events and concerts.

Facing a $3.4-million deficit and a five per cent audience drop-off in 2012—only the latest in a continuous sequence of shrinking attendance since Stratford’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2002—Cimolino has responded aggressively. Determined to provide an endless cascade of talking points for theatregoers, he has expanded on an experiment that worked well for him two years ago, when he directed the festival’s Grapes of Wrath. “We put on the play at a time when income inequality and Occupy Wall Street were in the news, and when there were dust storms in Texas. We brought in migrant workers to speak to the audience, taking the opportunity to engage them more with the themes of classical theatre as they’re working in our world today.”

Carroll’s OP Romeo and Juliet slots seamlessly into Cimolino’s plans. Carroll’s is a very Canadian—moderate, that is—version of OP. For one thing, it doesn’t follow some of the more purist versions, as staged in Britain, which include Elizabethan pronunciation of the text, however much that might add to the demands on audiences already working hard to follow 400-year-old blank verse. Stratford’s compromise was to build a forum event around Elizabethan pronunciation in which Romeo and Juliet cast members will use scenes from the play to show the implications of using Shakespearean pronunciation for Shakespearean production.

In a much more important modernization, though, Lady Capulet, in her magnificent costume, does indeed glide on to stage like the pride of the Royal Navy, but she is played by a woman (Nehassaiu deGannes) and not by a boy. In Shakespeare’s time, and thus in recent British purist OP productions, young males played the female roles. Asked why not here, Carroll replies (indisputably) that “we had a perfect Juliet” in Sara Topham, “so the issue never arose,” which neatly sidesteps the potential reaction of the festival troupe’s female members to an all-male cast. (In Britain last year one women’s troupe responded by putting on an all-female Julius Caesar.) Then there’s the underwear issue. The British OPs associated with actor and director Mark Ryland, who, as Carroll notes, “wanted to feel Elizabethan right down to the skin,” featured the use of expensive, uncomfortable and hand-stitched undergarments. Stratford has taken a pass on that, too.

But neither such literally distracting issues or necessary updates (the presence of actual women) go to the heart of OP, Carroll says: its main virtue lies in the way it automatically aligns staging and script. “When a script calls for a sword, Elizabethan characters reasonably have one,” notes Carroll. The same can’t be said, he continued, about characters in a Hamlet set in, say, contemporary Toronto. “All directors are always looking for a satisfying production—well, here’s one, already laid out by Shakespeare.”

Everything new this year, whether it’s OP or a Stratford Forum event, Cimolino explains, is in aid of furthering founding artistic director Tyrone Guthrie’s ambition to make Stratford more than a night out, but “a break from ordinary life and a change from theatre in the city, where you go home right after.” It’s an experience that will, not incidentally, require multi-night stays in the small Ontario town. “Yes, you have to set aside time for Stratford,” not to mention money, Cimolino allows, “but you get something you won’t find elsewhere.” In terms of illuminating major moral issues of the day, he adds, “theatre can do things that journalists and academics cannot—provide empathetic understanding.”

Cimolino wanted his forum events to adhere to a theme—“communities divided”— that runs through Stratford’s current playbill and links his productions to contemporary Western societies. The key question then, he says, is “what happens to the outsider” in unsettled societies? Consider the fate of Shylock, Cimolino continues, “the despised Jew, and Othello—yet another ‘other’—and Mary, Queen of Scots,” Elizabeth I’s troublesome cousin, in Mary Stuart. But aside from that precondition, Cimolino was up for anything in his 100-plus events: “Anarchy rules.”

Priscilla Costello, “counselling astrologer,” will deliver a talk called “Astrology and Shakespeare: The Secret Key” to The Merchant of Venice on Aug. 1. John de Chastelain, Canada’s former top soldier and a key player in the Northern Ireland peace accords, “has been coming to Stratford for years,” the artistic director says, and was happy to sign on for “Ancient Grudges and New Mutinies” (June 15), in which the general will speak about the Prince of Verona’s role as peacekeeper in Romeo and Juliet. If that’s too austere, a team of comedians, including Colin Mochrie, will take the stage on Aug. 15 to improvise scenes based on audience suggestions that resonate with the 2013 theme.

Other glamour events include “Shylock Appeals” on Oct. 5, when the curious case of the pound of flesh will be retried before the chief justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin. Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN, will deliver a talk on “Disability, Disillusion and Self-Discovery” (Aug. 17), as revealed in The Thrill, Tommy and Taking Shakespeare. Or festival-goers could opt to lug their electric guitars along and learn some riffs from Pete Townshend’s score at Tommy Guitar School on July 20 and Aug. 24, although Townshend, who already dropped by the festival in late May, won’t be there.

Will the Stratford Forum, an expensive investment with a lot riding on it, succeed? The stars seem aligned. Ticket sales are already up six per cent, which bolsters its creator’s insistence that the demand is there. “I’ve seen our patrons drawn to events that go deeper into what they’ve seen on stage. In Stratford they sit about their B&Bs talking with other guests. This will give them more to talk about and more people to talk to,” says Cimolino.

And theatre’s grace note, that touch of the unplanned and unexpected that gives it its edge, runs through the forum events too, to judge from the opening act. The Shakespeare Slam, held in Toronto on April 23, the Bard’s birthday, featured singer Rufus Wainwright putting the sonnets to music and a debate over whether Shakespeare belongs to pop or to high culture. Adam Gopnik, New Yorker writer, took the high road. Torquil Campbell, of the indie band Stars (and son of renowned festival actor Douglas Campbell), arguing for the playwright’s pop sensibilities, segued from declaring “Falstaff was the Homer Simpson of his day” into a summation of Stratford’s problems as he saw them: “Tickets cost too much. And why? A panoply of issues: unionization; addiction to sets and costumes; no star system; too exclusive.”

Standing mid-stage moderating the debate, Cimolino, a fine actor before moving into management roles, allowed several responses to pass across his face before settling on a rueful but accepting, “I knew I was taking this sort of chance” look.

Gopnik, who signed on for a second Stratford Forum event—a $75 dinner and talk—was enthusiastic about his participation. “Antoni asked me for the slam to help launch the forum with a bang,” says the writer. “I was glad to. I love Stratford. My parents completed the cycle over 50 years”—meaning they saw every Shakespearean play—“and they would take me with them from when I was a child. All the traditional art forms face the same question today: why is going to a theatre still a good idea, why does it matter, when you can get all the plays you want on your iPad? Well, my kids are in Shakespearean productions at their school and they find that the language has changed, but the plays are alive—it’s all still echoed in their own lives.” Strange but familiar indeed.