How Stratford and Shaw brought theatre festivals back to life in Ontario

How Stratford and Shaw brought theatre festivals back to life in Ontario
It’s been no small feat to get the Stratford and Shaw festivals up and running in 2021. Hundreds of theatre professionals have pivoted, and then pivoted again, and pivoted some more, to bring life back to the stage.

“We’re on our 13th hour of adrenalin at this stage,” said Sarah Hamza, director of audience development at the Stratford Festival.

Both companies are premiering their first plays of the season this week, and it’s been a monumental and emotional journey to get here. From the drama of the 2020 season of postponements, cancellations and scaled-back plans to the rethink of the staging of this summer’s reopenings — bringing the indoor experience outdoors — the companies have carefully crafted plans to ensure the safety of their patrons and those who came back to work.

Although the seasons are scaled back in both scope and staff, they are joyously back in business.

Behind the scenes at both Stratford and Shaw — but central to both companies’ activities — the creative planning director plots every rehearsal and performance in a season.

Jason Miller of Stratford and his Shaw counterpart, Jeff Cummings, usually work with an 18-month lead time. When COVID-19 shut everything down in March 2020, they were deep into planning their 2021 seasons and had to problem-solve in the moment.

“My entire job was right in front of me,” said Miller. “I felt like I was a fish and all the water had evaporated.”

“I was literally just chopping weeks out,” said Cummings. “We started a whole process of rolling cancellations of performances … I feel like I did that for about eight to 12 weeks, just rewriting the 2020 schedule every day.”

When it became clear that the pandemic was not a short-term scenario, both companies took different routes. Because Shaw had disaster insurance, it was able to keep its shows in rehearsal for several months. At Stratford, Miller was part of the producing team required to do what he calls “the worst thing” about the whole pandemic experience: phoning actors and telling them the season was postponed and they were out of work.

The Stratford Festival did not mount any shows last year while Shaw delivered a small program of musical events in the fall, as energies turned to 2021.

The two organizations have taken different approaches. Stratford’s team decided early on to stage an outdoor season of plays and cabarets, but not in repertory (meaning that actors are cast in multiple productions each season), with each of its 11 companies effectively forming their own bubbles and shows lasting no longer than 90 minutes. Stratford’s activities are split this summer between two canopies outside the Festival and Tom Patterson theatres, but the Edward Albee play “Three Tall Women” is scheduled to take place inside the Studio Theatre.

Shaw is staging five full-length plays in the summer (and another in the fall) and most of the fest’s creative activities are happening outdoors around its Festival Theatre complex, as well as a number of outdoor musical and theatrical events, and the company is working in repertory. Later this season, though, Shaw plans to move its production of “Charley’s Aunt” into the Royal George Theatre, and to open productions in its Festival and Jackie Maxwell Studio theatres.

Both organizations have scaled back activities: there are about 350 people working for the Stratford Festival this season, compared to the usual 1,000. At Shaw, there are about 100 fewer workers than previously, totalling 450.

Trying to nail down how things were going to work in the face of multiple waves of COVID-19, lockdowns and emergency brakes, and constant changes to public health protocols, became like “Groundhog Day,” said Cummings, “when the runway keeps changing every three weeks for a period of six months.”

If you attend a performance, you can expect some differences in your theatre experience than in previous seasons.

At Stratford, ticket holders are being advised not to arrive more than an hour before the performance, to be let in up to 45 minutes in advance. “That does mean they might be seeing some sound check onstage or some last-minute tweaks to the sets,” said Hamza. “The magic of theatre becomes revealed somewhat.”

Stratford has an outdoor bar at each canopy, and audience members can order in advance online and have a drink or snack waiting for them at the canopy entrance.

Other changes for those coming to see the shows include wearing masks. Both organizations have invested in considerable signage to remind patrons of public health regulations. Stratford is driving the point home with T-shirts worn by its staff and volunteers, featuring the familiar Shakespeare bust wearing a blue cloth mask.

Both festivals are also encouraging audience members to use e-tickets, though box office services are available at all venues. Stratford is aiming for as paperless a season as possible, with show programs available online via a QR code; Shaw too is using a QR system and will also have printed copies of programs at venues.

It’s also about keeping those working at the festivals safe.

“Because we’re having a smaller season, we were able to be extremely flexible,” said Hamza. “We communicated very clearly to our staff and our volunteers: if you are not comfortable this season, that is OK. And we’ll see you in 2022.”

Uguccioni’s usual staff of about 17 bartenders is down to 12 this season, and she is assigning them shifts that fit their comfort level (some working alone, some in teams of two).

Shaw’s use of outdoor venues is requiring some of its suppliers to adapt, too. The Nona Macdonald Stage, where George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple” is playing, is in the Festival Theatre parking lot, and food and beverage deliveries now happen before noon so that they don’t disrupt matinee show activity.

“The Devil’s Disciple” is set just after the American Revolutionary War, which Shaw’s head of wardrobe, Jason Bendig, describes as “a very woolly period,” fashionwise. The show is more than two hours long and its backstage area is a tent — not the breeziest of places in the midsummer heat. Bendig’s staff are attaching “cooling packs and cooling beads and all manner of cooling gel product” to costumes at key physical touch points — the base of the neck, the wrists, inside female actors’ bras — to keep the performers comfortable.

“We’ve even test-driven a few under wigs,” said Bendig.

Another member of the Shaw team who’s taken on new creative challenges is Sanjay Talwar, who was gearing up for his sixth season as an actor with the company last year when COVID-19 hit. Earlier this year, artistic director Tim Carroll and associate artistic director Kimberley Rampersad approached Talwar with “a germ of an idea”: to create an outdoor fair involving the festival’s performers.

“The energy of it quickly became about, well, we have a really talented ensemble,” said Talwar. “So let’s find ways to show that off and welcome people back to live performance.”

The project has become two separate hour-long events, “Shawground” and “Fairground,” each involving upwards of 25 ensemble members, with audiences moving between different acts on the Festival Theatre grounds: “everything from beautiful dance pieces to a version of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ adapted by a company member into a short play,” explained Talwar, who is billed as the curator of both fairs. He also acts this season in “Chitra,” a one-act play by Rabindranath Tagore being staged in a courtyard behind the Royal George Theatre.

Both organizations are still working through the implications of the province entering Step 3 of its reopening plan from various perspectives — how to increase audience sizes while keeping sightlines clear, for example — which Miller likened to “widening the foundation of your house while you’re still living in it.”

It has been a massively stressful time for these arts workers, but there have been some joys, too.

For Bendig, “the highlight was the day my staff came back into the room. It was great to see everybody face to face.” Both Uguccioni and Hamza talked about the delight of seeing audience members entering their theatre spaces again.

Miller says his high point “is not one thing. It’s those individual, quiet moments where you notice somebody doing something that they would have never been asked to do in a normal season. And exceeding beyond anything you could imagine.”

See for Stratford Festival tickets and information, and for the corresponding Shaw Festival information.
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