Stratford Shakespeare Festival
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (formerly known as the Stratford Festival of Canada) is an internationally recognized annual celebration of theatre running from April to November in the Canadian city of Stratford, Ontario. Theatre-goers, actors, and playwrights flock to Stratford to take part — many of the greatest Canadian, British, and American actors play roles at the Stratford festival. It was one of the first and is still one of the most prominent arts festivals in Canada and is recognized worldwide for its productions of Shakespearean plays.
The Festival's primary mandate is to present productions of William Shakespeare's plays, but it also produces a wide variety of theatre from Greek tragedy to contemporary works. Shakepeare's work typically represents about a third of the Festival's offerings.
The success of the festival dramatically changed the image of Stratford into one of a city where the arts and tourism play important roles in its economy. The festival attracts many tourists from outside Canada, mainly those British and American, and is seen as a very important part of Stratford's tourism sector.
The Festival was founded as the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada, due mainly to Tom Patterson, a Stratford-native journalist who wanted to revitalize his town's economy by creating a theatre festival dedicated to the works of William Shakespeare, as the town shares the name of Shakespeare's birthplace. Stratford was a railway junction and major locomotive shop, and was facing a disastrous loss of employment with the imminent elimination of steam power. Patterson achieved his goal, and the Stratford Shakespearean Festival became a legal entity on October 31, 1952. British actor and director Tyrone Guthrie agreed to become the festival's first Artistic Director. On July 13, 1953, actor Alec Guinness spoke the first lines of the first play produced by the festival: "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York."
This first performance took place in a giant canvas tent on the banks of the River Avon. The season lasted six weeks and comprised just two plays: Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well. In the second year the playbill expanded, and included the first non-Shakespeare play, Oedipus Rex. The Festival Theatre was opened in 1957, and was deliberately designed to resemble a tent, in memory of those first performances. The Festival Theatre's thrust stage was designed by British designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch to resemble both a classic Greek amphitheatre and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and has become a model for other stages in North America and Great Britain.
The Festival runs from April to November, and has four permanent venues: the Festival Theatre, the Avon Theatre, the Tom Patterson Theatre, and the Studio Theatre. Although the Festival's primary mandate is to produce the works of Shakespeare, its season playbills usually include a variety of classical and contemporary works and at least one musical.
The Festival Fringe runs during the season, and features music concerts, readings from major authors, lectures, and discussions with actors or management.
Long-serving Artistic Director Richard Monette retired in 2007 after holding the position for fourteen seasons. He was replaced with an artistic team consisting of General Director Antoni Cimolino and Artistic Directors Marti Maraden, Des McAnuff, and Don Shipley. On March 12, 2008 it was announced that Shipley and Maraden would be stepping down, leaving Des McAnuff as sole Artistic Director.
The 2011 season features 12 productions four plays by Shakespeare, two musicals (one at the Festival, one at the Avon), and six other plays.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is listed as a Major Festival in the book Shakespeare Festivals Around the World by Marcus D. Gregio (Editor), 2004.
42nd Street – book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, lyrics by Al Dubin, music by Harry Warren
Henry V – by William Shakespeare
The Matchmaker – by Thornton Wilder
A Word or Two – by Christopher Plummer
The Pirates of Penzance – music by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W. S. Gilbert
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown – music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, based on characters created by Charles M. Schulz
Cymbeline – by William Shakespeare
Elektra – by Sophocles
Wonderlust – by Morris Panych, music by Marek Norman
The Hirsch Project – by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson
The Best Brothers – by Daniel MacIvor
MacHomer – by Rick Miller
Tom Patterson Theatre
Behind the Scenes: Christopher Plummer, in the words of his colleagues
It takes an army of artists working year-round to stage one of the world’s premier theatre showcases. Each Wednesday in this space, we go behind the scenes at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to document the journey from page to stage here and on our new theatre site, nationalpost. com/onstage. Today, Katherine Laidlaw finds out what it’s like to work with Christopher Plummer.
When Christopher Plummer walked into a Stratford rehearsal hall in April with Shakespeare’s The Tempest memorized in its entirety, expectations among his fellow cast members skyrocketed.
“At that first read, he came in fully off-book, essentially with the raw character in hand. It put a jump in everybody’s step. You know, okay, this is the ballgame that we’re playing,” says Dion Johnstone, a six-year veteran of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who is playing Caliban opposite Plummer in this season’s adaptation of The Tempest. “And then as soon as we started working on the scene work, virtually everybody from that point on was off-book, which I’ve never seen in a rehearsal process. Innately, everybody wanted to meet him at his level. He has this ability to raise the bar of the company around him.”
Plummer’s Stratford colleagues speak about the (at the time 80-year-old) performer — nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe this year for his role opposite Helen Mirren as Tolstoy in The Last Station and touted as one of the most accomplished actors in North America today — with reverence
Perhaps best known for his role as Captain von Trapp in the 1965 film The Sound of Music, Plummer has appeared in more than 100 movies and has acted on theatre stages worldwide.
He returned to his native Canada this year to appear onstage at Stratford as Prospero, a role that has generated national attention and served as somewhat a homecoming for the actor, who began at the festival in the 1950s.
He also returned as Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra in 2008, under the direction of Des McAnuff, also the festival’s artistic director. The two are now close friends, and McAnuff knew he had to have Plummer for Prospero. “He’s not only playing Prospero in the lead role of The Tempest, I dare say he’s one of the creators of the show,” McAnuff said. “I think we get along like a house on fire.”
As McAnuff and Plummer began piecing together the play, they courted cast members and extended personal invitations. Plummer paid Trish Lundstrom, now Miranda to his Prospero, a visit backstage after her role in Cabaret in 2008. “The best Sally Bowles! And I dated the first Sally Bowles,” he told her.
When Plummer accidentally knocked on Johnstone’s dressing room door last year after watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Johnstone said he was “instantly starstruck.” “He said, ‘oh, fabulous job. I hear you may be playing my Caliban next year. If so, I would be honoured, I’d be delighted.” Johnstone stuttered his acceptance.
Delightful isn’t a word that’s always been used to describe Plummer, which he admits. “I’m a lot easier to work with [now]. I’m a pushover, a sweetheart when it comes to my fellow players. I used to be a monster,” Plummer said last month in an interview with Maclean’s. “It was just too exhausting to go on being a prick.”
James Blendick, a 69-year-old actor in his 27th season at Stratford, who first met Plummer in 1967 working on Antony and Cleopatra, says Plummer has always been an actor with panache, but he sees less of the rambunctious party-boy he once knew at Stratford in the ’60s. “We didn’t have that many restaurants or bars in Stratford at that time. We used to spend a lot of time in each others’ homes or apartments, we tended to unwind with a bit of wine. We used to throw very, very good parties,” he said. “Some of us are older now, not as vigorous or [able to] take the spirits as generously as we used to.”
The town is a welcoming place for festival actors, having grown accustomed to their presence. But a marquee actor like Plummer is different, and is treated as such. “It’s a bit harder for him. His wonderful wife Elaine [Taylor] does most of that stuff [grocery shopping, and running errands for him],” said Blendick, who plays Gonzalo in The Tempest.
As cast members use words like “gentlemanly,” “classy,” and “witty” to describe him, it’s also clear Plummer is intensely focused on his work. The veto power McAnuff has as director with the rest of the cast doesn’t always apply to his star. Watching the pair wrestle to reach a consensus over details as minute as refusing to let a musical cue interrupt what Plummer felt should be a silent moment was teachable for the cast members, who then felt they could express their own concerns more freely.
“Chris felt when he summoned Ariel, it should be complete silence, it should be a mystical, magical moment. And he couldn’t get the silence that he wanted. They just weren’t seeing eye to eye on what that moment should be,” Johnstone said. “In the end, I think they covered the revolve a bit earlier and it afforded him a couple of beats of silence for him to come in.”
Blendick says the younger cast members feel a heightened pressure working with the star, balanced often by McAnuff’s sense of when they need reassurance. “The younger ones are nervous working with him because he is so good, and they want to be not left behind. And when they feel they’re not good, they get rather anxious about it,” he said. “They’re wanting a certain amount of validation, that they’re not letting Chris down.”
Plummer is first to arrive at the theatre on days for shows, often two hours early, to rehearse the entire play. But The Tempest is physically demanding and he is 80 years old.
“We can’t forget that we’re working with somebody who tires, who has a window in the day where the best work comes. It’s exhausting work. But he’s in amazing shape, that one. There are scenes that he’s not in so we’d do 10 to 4 and Chris would be released and we’d work on other things,” says Trish Lindstrom, who plays Miranda to Plummer’s Prospero.
She says one thing that hasn’t changed about Plummer: he’s still as flirtatious as ever. “He teases me all the time. He came to see [The Two Gentlemen of Verona] and I play Lucetta — it’s set in Vaudeville so she’s the lead maid. And he said, ‘Oh, you should play a maid forever’,” she said. “He’s quite dirty. Every bone in his body is flirtatious.”