A Tale of 2 Festivals
Stratford and Shaw are the twin peaks of Canadian classicism
By Robin Breon
For a large cadre of theatre critics and arts journalists, covering the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the Shaw Festival has become a rite of spring. Just as surely as the rude Canadian winter surrenders to the coming warmth of summer, the miracle of these twin sancta sanctorum renews itself annually—and for many who labor in the theatre, these institutions represent two great tabernacles of the art form.
Hints of religiosity aside, the theatre is very much a temporal experience, and the mature cultural product emanating from these two titans in Ontario is a result of much toil, creative tension and, upon occasion, turmoil. That product—from Stratford’s impeccable star-cast renderings of the Shakespearean repertoire, to Shaw’s high-spirited explorations of its namesake’s oeuvre, to both fests’ respective offerings of old and new works with Bardic or Shavian resonances—draws a combined annual audience of some 784,000 ticket buyers (in 2011); employs thousands of full- and part-time theatre professionals (with concomitant service personnel of every stripe) and has, over the years, moved from what might have been referred to in the old days as summer repertory to bustling, full-time programming from April though November. Total combined earned revenue of both organizations (sans corporate sponsorships, government grants or individual donations) came in at about $55 million in the 2011 season.
“To understand the success of Stratford and Shaw (as they are commonly called in these parts), one has to start with the two towns that live cheek by jowl with the festivals,” believes Colleen Blake, who is retiring as executive director of the Shaw Festival this spring.
Blake knows whereof she speaks. One of Canada’s most respected arts administrators, she spent the first 18 years of her professional life at the Stratford Festival, working her way up from stage manager, to production manager, to director of production and, finally, six years as producer. Subsequently, she spent 17 years as executive director of the Shaw Festival under two artistic directors, Christopher Newton and (presently) Jackie Maxwell, an experience she calls “exhilarating, frustrating at times, challenging—but always interesting.”
Blake’s analysis: “Stratford, Ontario, was always an agricultural and blue-collar kind of town. When Tom Patterson [founder of the Stratford Festival] began promoting the idea of starting a theatre company dedicated to the works of Shakespeare in the early 1950s, he was really thinking about economic development for the area as much as artistic success, which is always a kind of ephemeral thing even in the best of times.”
By contrast, the Shaw Festival’s home base, Niagara-on-the-Lake, a 114-mile drive to the east, is “a much different community—old money from Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., and over the years a significant investment in the wine industry that has really paid off with tourists—two million a year come just on day trips,” Blake says. Indeed, this once-sleepy small town (settled in 1781 a stone’s throw from Niagara Falls) is also the site of North America’s oldest golf course and a major battle in the War of 1812. No wonder it caught the attention of newly minted venture capitalists seduced by the notion that this intersection of art and commerce might be a profitable investment.
These days, disgruntled local burghers complain about the “Disneyfication” of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s ambiance while shopkeepers rejoice at the crowds. One can only imagine what kind of a play George Bernard Shaw would have written about the place were he privy to its goings-on over time.
While Niagara-on-the-Lake may be the more moneyed town, Stratford is the more storied. As the largest repertory theatre in North America, the Stratford Festival, particularly, has been documented and fictionalized, celebrated and satirized, in print and other media over its nearly six decades of existence.
True to form, the coming Stratford season is already making headlines: The festival announced in March that Antoni Cimolino will become its new artistic director at the end of the 2012 season, succeeding Des McAnuff. Cimolino originally came to the festival as an actor in 1988 at the age of 27, and, in authentic festival fashion, worked his way through a series of progressive administrative posts until being appointed general director in 2006. Today he oversees an annual budget of $60 million and close to 1,000 employees (the majority of them seasonal). His new position will entail programming four performance venues—the Festival, the Avon, the Tom Patterson and the Studio. In addition, the attached Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre (endowed by a gift of $5 million from the Birmingham family of Oakville, Ontario) trains six to eight students a year and now runs from September through February.
On a summer afternoon in Stratford, I’m looking for Cimolino. Following the raked walkway that winds upward behind the festival’s box office, past the receptionist’s desk and down a hallway, I find him in his office behind a small desk stacked with spreadsheets, scripts and family photographs. On this particular afternoon it is also strewn with bouquets—congratulatory offerings on the opening the night before of The Grapes of Wrath, which he directed.
The affable and exceedingly modest Cimolino was a popular choice for SSF’s top job. “You know, I had no idea when we moved to Stratford how my life was going to unfold,” he tells me. “It’s funny how, when you read back over the history of the festival, in the early days it was a real problem to find an artistic director who was willing to live in the town of Stratford all year round. It’s rural and a bit isolated in the wintertime, but the business of the organization continues nonetheless.”
That’s no problem for Cimolino. He, his wife (actor Brigit Wilson) and their children have settled in comfortably in this town of approximately 30,000, where just about everybody knows who they are. Stay at any bed and breakfast in Stratford, and your host will casually refer to her or his most recent conversation “with Antoni.”
That doesn’t mean the newly minted A.D. never gets out of town. This past February he traveled to Alberta to direct the Canadian premiere at Theatre Calgary of ENRON (British playwright Lucy Prebble’s play about corruption in the energy industry), for which he received rave reviews. In addition, Cimolino was recently honored for “distinguished and unique service” by the government of El Salvador for his work on the Suchitoto Project, a triangular partnership with the venerable nonprofit CUSO International and the government of El Salvador, aimed at “rebuilding and transforming an existing but fragmented infrastructure into a unified and self-sustaining center for theatre arts in Central America.” Cimolino has journeyed three times to the community of Suchitoto, about 30 miles from San Salvador.
“When we were asked to partner with CUSO on this project, we decided it was something that we really must do,” he avows. “At the festival, we had just mounted a very successful production of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, about a group of military despots who rape and plunder a small village, and how the village collectively finds its soul and rises up against tyranny. We thought we could do it in Suchitoto. Several technical and design people went down to work with the local community. The play was staged in contemporary dress with a result that was exhilarating and moving—and courageous,” he adds with emphasis. “This is a small community that had lost several people to gun violence in the weeks leading up to the performance.”
With the new appointment in mind, my next task is catching up with Des McAnuff. But arranging a meeting with the outgoing artistic director is like trying to pin down a bead of mercury. When we finally touch base by phone, McAnuff is in a New York City taxi, between back-to-back openings at the Metropolitan Opera (Faust) and California’s La Jolla Playhouse (Jesus Christ Superstar), where he twice served as artistic director, launching Broadway hits like Big River, Tommy and Jersey Boys. (Superstar, with much of its original Stratford cast, went on to open on Broadway in March.)
It was just when Stratford audiences were thinking they might like to see a bit more of him that McAnuff announced that 2012 would be his final season as the company’s full-time artistic leader. Is five or six years the right amount of time to stick with such a job? “Well, if you look at my predecessors—all eight of them—the average tenure would be about that,” McAnuff reasons. “I meant to stay only five years, but extended that by 12 months. There should be some statute of limitation on the job, although I would like to emphasize that I am certainly open to directing at Stratford in the future on a project-by-project basis, if they’ll have me.”
Of the two books published about the festival on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, one stressed the importance and legacy of artistic directors and the other focused on the company’s well-known actors. Which is more important—directors or stars?
“Good question,” McAnuff laughs. “Let me see if I can avoid answering it as best I can. Seriously, I think the most frightening thing about the A.D. job is planning a season—audiences do not buy tickets right away anymore, they wait and buy later. They buy online. The pressure is enormous, and missteps reverberate with the box office. Audiences like stars. With 70 percent earned income as a breaking point, the box office is important. This, of course, leads to more conservative programming choices, while at the same time we know that creating great theatre art requires taking risks.”
With that, McAnuff calls out, “Hey, Sergio!” Having arrived at his destination, he exits his taxi and heads off to a production meeting with his longtime choreographer of choice, Sergio Trujillo. A road company for Jersey Boys is being deployed and there is work to be done.
Something of a competitive dynamic exists between Stratford and Shaw, and Colleen Blake explains it this way: “The Shaw Festival has a little less than half of Stratford’s budget (about $27 million), and if you took all of the available seats at Shaw’s four performance venues, they still would not fill up Stratford’s Festival Theatre, which has 1,826 seats. Plus, GBS the playwright has now been all but removed from school curricula, so we have real marketing challenges to attract that demographic.”
She contrasts this undertaking to the momentum behind Shakespeare festivals, which have been “popping up like mushrooms” around North America in the past several decades, along with tourist attractions like Shakespeare’s Globe in London that have turned the Bard into a brand name.
“There are two areas where I believe the Shaw Festival excels and distinguishes itself,” Blake continues. “One is in the area of intellectual content and the dramaturgy that goes into each season of plays—they challenge audiences but don’t forsake entertainment value. The other is the development of the acting ensemble itself. There have been many times I’ve gone to Stratford to see a show because one of their leading players—or an important star—was taking on a major role, but I often found that as one looked to the more marginal roles, the talent became thinner.”
As an example of intellectual content, Blake points to the Speed of Ideas conference mounted by Shaw in July 2011. Organized by artistic director Jackie Maxwell and literary manager Joanna Falck, it was subtitled “Shaw in the 21st century” and included prominent directors, playwrights and actors from the Shaw company, as well as high-profile outside speakers Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks and the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington.
The conference came none too soon. That same month the Globe and Mail drama critic, J. Kelly Nestruck, felt compelled to write a full-page apologia for the festival’s raison d’être after right-wing talk-show pundit Glenn Beck mounted a ferocious attack on GBS’s politics and satirical posturing, calling him “a monster.”
Nestruck could have saved himself some time and newsprint had he just sat down with Kushner, as CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel did at the conference (the interview was taped for her radio show “Writers and Company”). Kushner moved breezily beyond some of GBS’s more reactionary views, noting that “the Fabian Society, of which Shaw was a member, had some interesting ideas, but they were only an intellectual watering-down of Karl Marx’s thinking. If people are interested in socialist ideas, I would suggest they go to the source and check out works like Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, which Marx wrote in 1844 before moving on to works like Capital.” (The title of Kushner’s latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, is an homage of sorts to Shaw’s treatise The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.)
Asked what he thought of GBS’s relevance today, Kushner answered: “As much as I like Oscar Wilde, I would rather have written Saint Joan or Man and Superman than The Importance of Being Earnest.” Then, throwing both hands to his face in an exclamation of disbelief, he backtracked: “Oh, my god, did I really say that? Actually, I would have been happy to have written any of those plays!”
Critic Billington concurred that “as a scourge of capitalism and as an anarchic humorist, Shaw still has much to teach us.” He went on to say that the challenge is to find “expressive ways of staging the plays” for a 21st-century sensibility. In this respect, Billington was much impressed with Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s treatment of Shaw’s rarely produced On the Rocks, a breakaway hit of the season. “His adaptation short-circuits all of Shaw’s wordiness and cuts right to the chase and the action,” Billington judged approvingly.
(Ironically, Healey himself is presently in the middle of a dust-up with Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre Company over his portrayal of an unnamed sitting prime minister of Canada in his new play, Proud. A lawyer on the Tarragon board of directors advised against producing the play, citing the potential of libel and defamation charges. Healey responded by obtaining his own legal advice and recruiting theatres nationwide to stage readings that raised funds for an independent production, which has been scheduled for September at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre. Healey himself will portray the prime minister.)
When Maxwell introduced Suzan-Lori Parks at Shaw’s Speed of Ideas confab, it marked a watershed for the festival. The 2011 presentation of her Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog, under Philip Akin’s direction, marked the first time a play by a black playwright has been presented by the festival (it was also the play’s Canadian premiere), and the first time a black director has been hired there. When a member of the audience suggested the plays of GBS were ethno-culturally specific and sometimes didn’t lend themselves well to colorblind or nontraditional casting, Parks responded simply: “Why not?”
The rhetorical question rang out with no little degree of historical irony. In 1937, when the Federal Theatre Project asked George Bernard Shaw himself if it would be permissible to produce On the Rocks with an interracial cast, he readily agreed, adding: “So, far from avoiding Negro casts, you will be very lucky if you can get them; for Negroes act with a delicacy and sweetness that make white actors look like a gang of roughnecks in comparison.” That settles that.
Of the 11 plays presented at Shaw this past season, I saw 9 of them. I agree with my colleague Billington that Healey’s adaptation of On the Rocks was a standout and deserves productions elsewhere, as does the whirlwind one-act The President (re-mounted from 2008), a Ferenc Molnár farce that is very much within the “contemporary Shaw” mode. Morwyn Brebner’s adaptation of the latter work, which portrays a militant communist transformed into a budding capitalist in the space of one hour, is an uproarious miracle of political incorrectness. The lively mounting of My Fair Lady by American director Molly Smith (with musical direction by Paul Sportelli) was also a great delight.
What can we anticipate in 2012 at Shaw? For the first time since the inauguration of the Festival Theatre in 1973, GBS has been unceremoniously yanked off of the main stage. Shavians will have to be content with Misalliance (at the Royal George) and The Millionairess (at the Courthouse). The musical will be Ragtime, a dicey bet to fill the big house. Personally, I’m looking forward to French Without Tears (Terrence Rattigan), Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge), A Man and Some Women (Githa Sowerby) and Helen’s Necklace (by Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette, in an English version by John Murrell).
At Stratford this past season, I saw 9 of the 12 productions. A strong acting ensemble plus a star (Brian Dennehy) enlivened two of them: Twelfth Night and The Homecoming. Other standouts included the aforementioned The Grapes of Wrath and Superstar, plus a gender-bent Richard III (with Seana McKenna). To my mind, McAnuff’s Twelfth Night is the best thing he has done so far at Stratford and would have been a far more appropriate choice than Superstar to show off the young, dynamic company that now headlines Stratford’s U.S. tour.
On to Stratford in 2012: Speaking of namesakes, the Bard has also been downsized, from four plays last season to only three this year—Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline and Henry V, all with strong ensembles. American actor Aaron Krohn has been rewarded for his fine work in last season’s The Homecoming and will return as Henry V; in other notable casting, Yanna McIntosh and McKenna will hold forth in Elektra. The premiere of Morris Panych and Marek Norman’s musical Wanderlust looks interesting, as does Christopher Plummer’s solo show A Word or Two. The Pirates of Penzance, directed by the U.S.’s Ethan McSweeny, should fit snugly in the Avon. VideoCabaret leaves its funky digs at Toronto’s Cameron House and takes up residence at the Studio Theatre with The War of 1812, bringing Michael Hollingsworth’s excellent work to a wider audience, and Paul Thompson’s Hirsch will undoubtedly continue to burnish the Stratford legend.
The heralds of a new season are with us once again: Let the plays begin.
Robin Breon is an arts journalist based in Toronto. He is a regular contributor to Aisle Say, an internet journal of stage review and opinion.