70 Years Ago Today, the Stratford Festival Opened Its Doors

A version of this article was also posted in ArtsJournal: Arts, Culture, Ideas under the headline, 70 Years Ago Today: Canada’s Stratford Festival Began

It was 70 years ago today (July 13th) that the Stratford Festival (they dropped the word “Shakespearean” years ago) went from a gleam in the eye of a local Stratford journalist named Tom Patterson, to a sword in the hand of Alec Guinness playing the leading role in Richard the Third, directed by Tyrone Guthrie and played upon the famous revolutionary thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. 70 years on, the Stratford Festival has become the Olympus of repertory theatre in North America. 

Covering the Festival’s opening for the Globe and Mail, theatre critic, Herbert Whittaker, extolled: “The most exciting night in the history of the Canadian theatre has ended here with the final curtain on Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Richard III at the opening of the five-week Stratford Shakespearean Festival.” 

Filing a second review, published in the Globe on the following day, Whittaker poured more praise on Guthrie’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well, featuring Irene Worth as Helena: “…graceful with a face that holds all poignancy and a voice that could charm an owl out of a tree…”, said Whittaker.

The local burghers in the town of Stratford itself were not all that impressed, however. On the Festival’s opening day, Stratford’s Beacon Herald ran with the headline: “Ontario Cheese Producers Halt Bidding.”

Unfortunately, there is no mention whatsoever of this important anniversary day contained in a recent festival press release listing a whole slew of activities in July as part of the SF’s Meighen Forum, a month long series of colloquia, talks and presentations including the 2023 Season Deep Dive Week hosted by artistic director, Antoni Cimolino; the CBC Ideas Week hosted by Nahlah Ayed;  the New York Times events, featuring a Q&A with chief theatre critic, Jesse Green, and an Elizabethan Feast hosted by chef John Higgins among other events. But not one official event or gathering to toast the festival’s inaugural performance.

This is because the Stratford Festival formally celebrated their 70th birthday last year, taking their cue from the letters of incorporation filed by Tom Patterson in 1952. That is when the pre-production tasks began that entailed putting in place a budget, hiring administrative personnel (which included the Festival’s first publicist, Mary Jolliffe) and contracting a company of actors. 

Although, as anyone who works in the theatre will tell you, the proof is in the pudding, and that is not served up until opening night.

Much credit for the success of the Festival during this nascent period must go to Dr. Gurthrie, who had an idée fixe regarding the need to avoid becoming a colonial replication of British approaches to classical theatre. 

In Canadian Theatre History (Selected Readings) edited by retired York University professor Don Rubin (himself a former theatre critic for the Toronto Star), Guthrie explains: “It is important, therefore, that Canadians should be able to express their own environment, not only for the artists themselves, not only for the community now, but for posterity. And I think that something of Canada can be expressed even in terms of classical drama, the roots of which may be far removed in time and place. These works can, I think, be interpreted into a Canadian idiom, given a Canadian style.”

Still, for many years this unique Canadian voice by way of idiom and style maintained a very ethnocentrically narrow character. The Stratford Festival was an all white institution well into the 1980s. Reviewing Shakespeare in Sable, Errol Hill’s authoritative book on the history of Black Shakespearean actors for the Globe and Mail in 1985 (“Not Wanted on the Stage,” G&M. 09/02/1985), I noted that, “As far as our most highly subsidized classical theatres are concerned – most notably the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – they might as well post signs reading For Whites Only. Stratford has mounted three productions of Othello (since its founding) and not once has the Moor been played by a Black man.”

Whether that perfervid public rebuke in the national press became an impetus for change or was just fortuitous intuition on my part will never be known, but two years later (1987 season) Howard Rollins became the first Black actor to play Othello on the Festival stage in a production directed by John Neville. Colm Feore played Iago and Douglas Campbell (who played Othello in blackface in the Festival’s first mounting of the play in 1959) played Brabantio.

The Stratford Festival has come a long way in 70 years but the story of how racialized artists began to get a foothold and carve out creative space for themselves both onstage and backstage is a theme that has been omitted from the various historical narratives written about the festival over the years. 

In the 1980s, progress was gradual and excruciatingly slow, but the progress that was being made at the larger companies with regard to opening up more equitable casting opportunities for IBPOC actors, was not occurring in a vacuum. 

In the summer of 1983, the then named Toronto Free Theatre (now Canadian Stage) mounted its first Shakespeare in High Park and cast Errol Slue as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The production, directed by R.H. Thomson, was well received and the casting of a Black Oberon was deemed significant at the time. The Dream in High Park will celebrate its 40th anniversary of programming this summer.

Although it had less press coverage and much less in terms of a budget, a more noteworthy benchmark of the period with regard to interracial casting was Black Theatre Canada’s A Caribbean Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced that same summer. Staying with Shakespeare’s text but giving it a Caribbean carnival style ambiance and setting, the production, which featured a strong multiracial cast, went on to win a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Innovation and Artistic Excellence. A few of the principals involved with the show included Vera Cudjoe, Amah Harris, Azra Francis, Marvin Ishmael, Neil Seale and myself among others.

The “Talent Over Tradition” symposium, held at the (then named) Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto in the spring of 1988, was organized by IBPOC artists-activists who were members of the Canadian Actors Equity union and included Sandi Ross, Brenda Kamino and ahdri zhina mandiela. The symposium threw some bright light on the problems of racialized artists in the performing arts.

The 2-day event, the first of its kind held in Canada, brought together over 300 actors, writers, directors, technicians, casting agents, critics and other theatre workers in an attempt to promote a multiracial theatre that more accurately reflects contemporary Canadian society. To that end, various scenes from playwrights such as Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Michel Tremblay and Edward Bond were presented that demonstrated approaches to the use of non-traditional and color conscious casting. Questions, anecdotes and shared frustrations concerning casting at the two major festivals, Stratford and Shaw, featured prominently in many of the breakout groups and Q&A sessions.

(A detailed account of the symposium can be found in Canadian Theatre Review, Iss. 61 [Winter 1989]: 73-77. “Talent Over Tradition.” H. Whittaker and R. Breon)

Janet Bailey and Gary Farmer is a scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire Photo credit: Dave Rider

For actors at the Stratford Festival, getting your foot in the door is one thing, keeping it there is something else again. For Black and IPOC actors it is doubly difficult, especially for women. The accomplished stage, tv and film actor, Allison Sealy-Smith, spent two seasons at the festival from 1992-1994 playing Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Olivia in Twelfth Night after which her contract was not renewed.

Time marches slowly on and it was not until 2006 that another important breakthrough occurred when Djanet Sears was hired on to direct her award winning play, Harlem Duet, during the waning tenure of AD, Richard Monette (1994-2007). It marked the festival’s first work by an African Canadian playwright and also the first play to be directed by a Black woman with an all Black cast. Harlem Duet had a strong box office performance as well as rave critical reviews that brought many new IBPOC audience members into the Stratford orbit for the first time.

Des McAnuff served as artistic director from 2008 through 2012 and although his time at Stratford was considered a bumpy ride by some, a dramatic turn was underway with regard to casting. This was underscored on the opening night of McAnuff’s production of Macbeth which featured Colm Feore in the title role and Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth in the 2009 season. The company that season also featured: Timothy D. Stickney, Cara Ricketts, Dion Johnstone, Sophia Walker, Sanjay Talwar, Kevin Hanchard, Araya Mengesha, David Collins, Kolton Stewart (who plays the principal part of Roger in the musical, Rent, in the current season) André Sills and Roy Lewis.

In a pre-curtain speech, McAnuff took the opportunity to address the high profile donor/ corporate/ politico crowd (including critics) on the new direction the SF was taking with regard to equal opportunity casting priorities. Said McAnuff: “Tonight’s production employs what is called non-traditional casting – a term that means, among other things, that ethnically diverse actors get to play Shakespearean roles other than Othello. This to me is a fundamental requirement of any theatre that presumes to call itself a leader in the Canada of the 21st century.”

In reviewing the season for Aisle Say.com, I observed, “There are some new elements at play in the current Stratford Shakespeare Festival season which includes more people of color than have ever before been seen in a Shakespearean production on the Festival mainstage and more French than has ever before been spoken on the Festival mainstage.”

But of all the artistic directors who have served the festival over the years, I think it is a safe bet to say that none knows the history and internal workings of the SF better than Antoni Cimolino whose long and distinguished career proves beyond any doubt that in Canada one can make a living in the arts and enjoy job security too.

Succeeding McAnuff as artistic director in 2013, Cimolino began his career as an actor with the company in 1988, at the age of 27. Over the years, he diligently worked his way through a series of progressive administrative posts until being appointed general director in 2006. At that time he oversaw a budget of over $60 million dollars in an organization that supervised close to 1,000 employees, the majority of them seasonal, including the actors who fall under the category of “independent contractors.” This number also includes volunteer positions and a whole host of service providers.

It is his deep knowledge and expertise in every facet of the Stratford Festival’s operation, from artistic programming, administrative oversight and fundraising (which included shepherding the new $72-million Tom Patterson Theatre project to completion in the middle of a pandemic) that will make Cimolino hard to replace when his retirement rolls around in the next few years. 

It was also on Cimolino’s watch that the most in depth public discussion of the festival’s complicity in perpetuating systemic racism and the myths of white supremacy were undertaken largely as a result of the movements begun in the wake of George Floyd’s death and issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement along with other coalitions that sprang up in the arts community. 

The list of anti-racist initiatives and reforms contained in the 45 page report, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Update: Report On Anti-Racism Initiatives (July, 2021) is as comprehensive in its reach as it is long on paper. Among other recommendations, it includes the hiring of a director for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, one of the most ubiquitous job postings to appear in arts organizations across North America in the last 3 years. Daviorr Snipes, formerly of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, is now in his second season handling this challenging portfolio.

The board of directors and the new leadership that will guide the SF in the years to come will have their work cut out for them with this discourse that is sure to continue. There is still a long way to go to reach what could be considered equitable standards and practices throughout the performing arts industry.

(See also: Michael Zarathus-Cook, “Opera in Canada is putting Black creatives centre stage” (Globe and Mail, 25/03/2023) and “A Collective Awokening in the Performing Arts,” Against the Grain Theatre, by M. Zarathus-Cook)

During the Stratford Festival’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2002, I interviewed the late Mary Jolliffe, the festival’s first publicist, who had some candid observations on the early years. A portion of this interview was published in the Globe and Mail (“I Remember Mary Jolliffe,” G&M. 16/12/2014).

“In the summer of 1953 it was much different” said Jolliffe, a sprightly woman of 82 who at the time lived in the Performing Arts Lodge of Canada (PAL), a retirement community in Toronto. “The idea of a theatre publicist didn’t even exist yet in Canada. I was really the first one. No one had any idea whether or not the festival could succeed after its first season that featured only two plays!”

Jolliffe wasn’t overly enthusiastic about everything that has transpired over the years, going from two productions that first season to the current 50th anniversary blockbuster roster of eighteen shows.

“I understand the economics behind the decision to mount musicals on the main stage, but I think…all the emphasis on corporate sponsorship is a bit depressing. I look at the list of the current board of directors and wonder: who are these people? But I will say unequivocally that the food in the greenroom has improved immensely with the help of all those young chefs,” she chortled.

I asked Jolliffe if she thought it was all worth it.

“When I think back to that first year – with so many wonderful people involved that I had the privilege to work with – I feel so lucky to have been a part of it.” She then shared with me her favourite story growing out of that most storied first season. 

“One afternoon a local farmer stepped up to the box office (yes, in those days the job description of publicist also included tending the box office!). There the man stood in his bib overalls and sunburned face. He asked if he could have one ticket to the play. I asked him which play he wanted to see?  He answered, ‘don’t really care, just as long it comes between hayin’ and harvestin’.’ I knew then that we were on the way!

Raising the tent at the Stratford Festival Photo credit: Peter Smith

Robin Breon is an arts journalist and member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association/Association International des Critiques de Théâtre (IATC).

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