How the Stratford Festival is finding inspiration in a pandemic

COVID-19 has cost the Stratford Festival jobs and box-office revenues. But the country’s biggest artistic endeavour is channelling the Bard to find meaning in unprecedented times
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 17, 2020
The Stratford Festival has introduced a streaming service that gives subscribers access to films and past festival performances. (Flickr/Keith Ewing)



Don’t tell Antoni Cimolino, the artistic director at the Stratford Festival since 2013, about how unseasonably lovely the weather’s been in southern Ontario over the past couple of weeks. He doesn’t want to hear it.

“Nature is highly overrated,” he jokes. “We love to work. Normally, we never see the sunshine. Get me back into an air- conditioned dark theatre where I’m happy.”

Cimolino allowed himself a moment of nostalgia during a Zoom presentation last Friday organized by Hamilton’s McMaster University. The fact is, this has been by far the worst year in the festival’s history — doubly sad because it had the potential to be the best.

At the beginning of 2020, the Stratford Festival had a healthy $81 million in its endowment fund. Its gorgeous new $68 million Tom Patterson Theatre (named after the festival’s founder) was getting set to transform the upcoming season with its uniquely staged performances and other events. And, of course, the festival was preparing to mount 15 productions that would not only bring joy to audiences but also provide meaningful employment for 1,000 locals (and support 3,000 more in spinoff jobs).

But it all came to a crashing halt after the pandemic hit in March, and officials were reluctantly forced to cancel the entire season. As Cimolino said on the Zoom call, channelling his best Edgar from King Lear: “The weight of this sad time we must obey.”

You won’t be surprised to know that, at a time like this, Cimolino and his charges at the festival are taking inspiration from a man whose words were written more than 400 years ago. Shakespeare himself might not have had much to say about global pandemics in his nearly 40 plays. But from the years 1606 to 1609, the theatres of England were closed to his work (with the exception of only a few months) as the country was devastated by a plague that took the lives of 30,000 Londoners.

So Shakespeare knew pandemics.

“’Tis the time's plague when madmen lead the blind,” Gloucester says in King Lear.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Oh, yeah. Shakespeare knew pandemics.

As Cimolino said: “Shakespeare doesn’t urge us to look on the bright side. Even when things are really bad, they can always get worse. He was writing plays, not greeting cards.”

Yes, Cimolino is one of those guys who can quote the Bard by heart, having fallen in love with the theatre as a high-school student in Sudbury. When he saw a performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost, he was hooked.

“They were talking about my life on that stage,” he recalled. “The words were written 400 years before I was born, but it was transformative for me. When I told my dad I wanted to go to theatre school instead of becoming a lawyer, it was not the happiest day in my household.”

Like so many other cultural industries, the Stratford Festival had to make some difficult decisions — and fast. For its fans, the institution uploaded to the web 12 screenings of plays they had shot. Remarkably, despite competition from much better-known and better-advertised alternatives, Cimolino said, those plays have attracted 1.2 million views in 60 countries.

“COVID kept us inside,” Cimolino said. “Who’d have thought we’d want Shakespeare in times of trouble?” Then he remembered a story from a dying Stratford legend — actor Nicholas Pennell — who said, “At least we got to say those words.”

“We need those words now more than ever,” Cimolino added. “The power of those words says something about our condition. We have their words to cling to, to transcend human tragedy. We can derive comfort and inspiration that we’re not alone. We’re not nothing.”

The festival has rolled out a “Stratfest@Home” streaming service. For $10 a month, subscribers have access to years’ worth of films and past festival performances.

One thing Cimolino is adamant about is ensuring that the festival comes back with performances for live audiences in 2021. And it won’t be the same program planned for this year.

“This virus won’t be ignored,” he said. “So it needs to be addressed in the subject matter of what we explore.”

The festival will also possibly mount some plays differently — for example, by returning to its roots back in the 1950s, when plays were performed outdoors in a giant tent.

“We’ll keep the sides open,” Cimolino said. “We’ll keep the air flowing. We’ll give people the confidence that things will be safe.”

COVID-19 clearly has deprived festival fans of their annual cultural injection. But the financial hit to the festival and its host city is also massive. Stratford is the largest arts festival in Canada and North America’s largest not-for-profit festival. It’s also the festival most dependent on box-office revenues for its survival. Fully 70 per cent of its budget comes from the ticket-buying public. While Cimolino has been heartened by the government’s initial financial response to the pandemic, he says he needs more.

“We make society a healthier and better place,” he pointed out, adding that, if the festival doesn’t get back on its feet, governments will forgo $60 million in annual revenue from patrons.

“It’s in everyone’s best interests to get the Stratford Festival healthy again,” he said.

Meantime, I can’t help but think of Mercutio’s line in Romeo and Juliet, as he admonished both the Montagues and Capulets: “A plague on both your houses.”

Actually, it feels as if COVID-19 has dropped a plague on all our houses. And the Stratford Festival is determined to figure out a way to do what it does so well, notwithstanding Mercutio’s threat.

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