Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Stratford Still Shaken as Festival Opens

An editorial from the Stratford Beacon-Herald:

"To coin a phrase — the play’s the thing.

"And now, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival can get on with the plays and put its winter of discontent, shamelessly to steal yet another phrase, behind them.

"As it has done 56 times, the Festival rolled out the red carpet on Monday night to kick off a new season of Shakespeare. Getting to this point wasn’t easy as back in March some real drama took place in the offices and board rooms of the fixture of Canadian theatre.

"A triumvirate had been put in place to steer the Festival through the post-Richard Monette era, but two of the three, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley, exited stage left (sorry) just as rehearsals were about to start.

"That left globetrotting Des McAnuff as the lone artistic director. And there were a couple of other bumps along the way.

"A director’s arrival was delayed when he broke his leg (literally, hence avoiding a fourth tired theatre cliche).

"The lengthy and successful relationship between Cynthia Dale and the Stratford Festival was also in the news, but for the wrong reasons, as the actress who was synonymous with the Festival for the last few years was left without a part in 2008.

"Much has been written and said about the off-season challenges, but on several occasions it was put into perspective Monday night. The crowds still turned out, the weather was great, the bagpipes skirled and patrons filed into the theatre as they have for over half a century.

"Does that make everything all right? Of course not. Tourism in general is under fire in Ontario. Rising gas prices are keeping people at home, whether they be from London or Lansing, Toronto or Toledo.

"There is still a perception held by many Americans that crossing the border into Canada is much tougher than it used to be. Although that is not really the case, one thing that is reality is that many Americans have less disposable income now than they did a few years ago.

"These are indeed challenging times for tourism in general in Canada and, in particular, theatre in Stratford.

"But, as Stratford resident and Festival alum Sheila McCarthy said Monday night, 'this place is invincible.'

"Well, we’re not sure it’s invincible but it has certainly faced far greater challenges than this and lived to fight another day.

"There have been tumultuous annual meetings that bordered on civil unrest and there have been times that the staid institution has teetered on the brink of anarchy. It was not all that long ago that there was a controversy that makes this past winter’s drama seem like a footnote.

"For those who don’t remember, in 1980 Robin Phillips ended his tenure as artistic director and the Festival board hired Martha Henry, Urjo Kareda, Pam Brighton and Peter Moss . This group of directors was dismissed just two months later. The board decided Briton John Dexter would be a good replacement, but he was refused a work permit. Along came John Hirsch to take the helm and calm the waters. And all that took place in the midst of the worst Canadian economic downturn since the 1930s.

"But it survived — and it will survive its current challenges as well.

"The fact is, Stratford puts on fine theatre. Despite challenges, economic or otherwise, fine theatre is timeless.

"Our saving grace here is that — and it’s not just a well worn phrase — the play is the thing, and when it comes to plays, we do it here as well or better than anyone, and for that reason, this season and many more seasons will do just fine."

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