How the Stratford Festival can avoid an encore

A little 2020 hindsight goes a long way.

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March 16, 2020 was the day the musicals died.

Rehearsals cancelled, and actors, designers and stagehands sent home for what they thought would be a few weeks, while a still mysterious virus began to surge through Ontario.

But the shutdown continued. Openings got delayed, then delayed some more, until eventually the unthinkable: the whole Stratford Festival season was cancelled, for the first time since its founding in 1953.

Tickets were refunded, credits applied, apologies issued, and the city spent the rest of the year as merely Justin Bieber’s childhood home, not William Shakespeare’s spiritual one.

Meanwhile, the theatres remained frozen in time on March 16, still set up for rehearsals that never happened.

“The daily calls were up, but all the people were gone,” says artistic director Antoni Cimolino, describing the scene as he returned to the theatres in the summer. “It was like a neutron bomb had hit.”

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The 2020 season was meant to be a triumphant one, with the long-awaited opening of the stunning new Tom Patterson Theatre and an ambitious program that included three world premieres (and also Spamalot).

I was curious how Stratford, a city whose livelihood revolves around live theatre, was faring, and what it would do to avoid an encore in 2021, knowing the uncertainty of a still-raging pandemic makes crowding hundreds of patrons, casts and crew into a cozy theatre for hours at a time an unrealistic option for the coming summer.

Cimolino says to expect a very different Stratford this year: shorter plays with smaller casts in breezy venues, where safe distancing and decent air circulation is possible.

Of course, even such measures may not be enough to stave off another season of crushing cancellations, which explains why no season announcement has yet been made.

“We are taking our best guess,” he says. “But everything over the next couple of months is going to be new, isn’t it? I mean, the rollout of the vaccine, the extent to which it spreads, how comfortable people are going back into theatres, what kind of protocols we need in place to protect people. All of that will be, you know, something we’re discovering in real time in the months ahead.”

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One thing definitely off the table this year is actors performing in repertory.

As Cimolino explains, “Last year, and every year up until this year, an actor at the festival would be in many plays. So during the day, you’d go from one company, one rehearsal, to the other, and then maybe back again, and maybe to a third, and you’d have a voice class and a costume fitting, and have a lunch with everybody in the green room.”

Such blithe mingling of social bubbles is an obvious no-no in the Covid times. If one actor gets infected in repertory, the whole company needs to quarantine.

“Until we all get vaccines in our arms, and we’re healthy again, that is a recipe for disaster.”

A scaled-back season will also be necessary after last year’s $20 million financial hit.

“We’ve been fundraising very hard to try to alleviate that,” concedes Cimolino. “But it’s still going to have a huge impact.”

He expects the extra safety measures — especially the need for small, distanced audiences — will mean another deficit in 2021.

But there’s another big reason why the program has to change.

“I realized, well, after the killing of George Floyd and the degree to which the pandemic had spread, we were in a different place,” says Cimolino.

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“I was directing Colm Feore in a production of Richard III that was all about Brexit, it was about the American election, it was about a king who set up a corrupt election in order to gain power. And that is so last year.”

That production will one day take the stage, along with other 2020 highlights, but not likely this year.

The pandemic “is a seismic event in world history,” Cimolino says, one that calls for a keenly observed response from the cultural community.

I ask for a hint of what he’s got in mind.

“I think it’s important that we have Shakespeare plays that are about the victory of love over hate,” he says. “I think it’s important that we have plays that represent inclusive viewpoints, a wider range of society, a wider worldview. I think it’s important to have plays that are full of joy, that have humour in them, but they’re really about life and death, really important things in our world.”

Maybe there’s hope for Spamalot after all.

Despite the loss of a year of great theatre, Stratford 2020 wasn’t all bad, Cimolino adds.

“This was the first summer off many of us had for many years,” he says. And the tourists still came to town, though they were mostly daytrippers.

When the season was first delayed, organizers brilliantly subbed in a free online Shakespeare Film Festival, featuring high-quality filmed versions of 12 plays, part of a project Stratford has been committed to since 2013. It became an unlikely global hit.

“Suddenly they were the thing we had up our sleeve that we could share with the world,” Cimolino says.

“Over the course of those 12 weeks, we had 1.2 million views of those films” from more than 60 countries.

Those films are now part of the Stratfest@Home streaming service that launched in the fall for $10 a month. Much of the programming on offer is high concept yet silly — including Dan Chameroy’s zany Leer Estates, the Early Modern Cooking Show and Rebecca Northan’s improvised Undiscovered Sonnets — but that may be exactly what the Stratford superfan needs to tide them over until whenever it is the live experience resumes.

Queued up next for home audiences is the Up Close and Musical series of solo concerts from performers including Cynthia Dale, Chilina Kennedy, Marcus Nance, Vanessa Sears and Kimberly-Ann Truong.

Perhaps the musical is not quite dead yet.

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