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BWW Feature: To the Stratford Festival, with Love...

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BWW Feature:  To the Stratford Festival, with Love...

UPDATED MAY 5, 2020: The Stratford Festival is 94% self-supporting, meaning that ticket sales are crucial for the survival of this cultural institution. Please visit their website at www.stratfordfestival.ca to see how you can help during this challenging time.

On April 27, it was announced that the entire 2020 season of the Stratford Festival has been put on hold--likely until next year. With this unprecedented pandemic situation being a cold, hard reality for well over a month now, this news did not come as much of a surprise. It was starting to feel inevitable. The moment a sad inevitability becomes a sobering reality is never easy though, and for many, today was difficult to digest. This is not a news story about the postponement of the season. This is one BWW writer's love letter (and get-well-soon card) to the Stratford Festival.

This news is undoubtedly hardest on the exceptionally gifted performers who grace those stages, the creative geniuses who invent or re-invent the productions, those who work tirelessly behind the scenes both backstage and front of house, and the executives who have shown nothing but absolute devotion to all involved and to the community at large during this challenging time. I have come to know many of these people personally and my heart aches for them. I also feel for the Stratford, Ontario community, that has long seen the Festival as its beating heart.

The Stratford Festival means different things to different people. For some, it is a beloved annual trip down the 401 or a along bumpy country road, or over the border and then down the 401 and a bumpy country road to see some of the finest theatre North America has to offer. For others, it is the opportunity to get out of class on a school trip, only to be swept into a world so imaginative that the next English class will be that much richer. Without fail, every single season at the Stratford Festival offers escape, wonder, knee-slapping humour, devastating sadness, and endless reflection into ourselves and the world around us.

I must admit that amidst my heartache for others, my heart aches for selfish reasons as well today. The Stratford Festival is my choice destination to celebrate my happiest days, but more poignantly, it is where I go for escape or inspiration on the hardest, saddest days. Not having this coping strategy during some of the recent hard and sad days has made me truly appreciate what a gift it is to have this magical place in my own backyard.

When I first moved to the area, I lived an hour away from Stratford. I knew no one, and at times felt isolated and in need of a pick me up. It was not uncommon for me to drive an hour on a whim and get a play-on ticket to see the Stratford Festival production of 42ND STREET. I must have seen that show a dozen times over the course of that summer. It brought me out of my shell, had me happily tapping my feet, and encouraged me to go into my dance. A couple of years later, after dealing with a tragedy, I was sad and restless and struggling to know what to do with myself. With minutes to spare before curtain, I had the sudden thought to purchase a ticket and take in an early preview of MAN OF LA MANCHA. It transported me, and soothed me, and grieved with me and had me leaving the theatre with hope for the impossible dream. In 2018 I lived and breathed THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. This is well documented. You probably saw it with me at some point. I went when I was having good days and bad days and everything in between. What an electric show that was. I'm still in withdrawal.

There are countless productions that hold special places in my heart and there are also specific performances from over the years that immediately come to mind when I think of the unique talent that comes out of the Stratford Festival. One such performance, or rather set of performances, was Scott Wentworth as both Shylock and Tevye in the same season back in 2013. To play those two roles at the same time, sometimes on the same day, is actually mind boggling while simultaneously making all the sense in the world. I wouldn't be afraid to bet that this was the only time this has ever happened-especially if you factor in that he also portrayed Capulet that year!

I have seen three different Romeos court Juliet-each time eliciting different emotions because I was a different person each time I saw it. I've seen two different Lears howl over the body of Cordelia and both moments are forever etched into my brain. I've related to Hamlet's indecision, I've examined my own ambition and jealousy using the Scottish King and Othello as cautionary tales. I've reflected on why I, as a woman am focusing on these male characters when there are rich female characters waiting to be further discovered and then I've marched myself back to the theatre to see what Lady Macbeth, Viola, Portia, Rosalind...and...Prospero (!) have to say to me about that!

And folks...it's not just musicals and Shakespeare! The Stratford Festival regularly presents classic plays, brand new productions, and so much more! This season was set to be epic, with a glorious sprinkling of inventive new productions in its line-up as it unveiled the new Tom Patterson Theatre. I am crushed that all of this is now up in the air.

I share my anecdotes not to dwell on my own grief but to acknowledge that to every single patron who takes a seat at the Festival, Avon, Studio, or Tom Patterson, the theatregoing experience is deeply personal. Patrons and performers alike all come in with our own reasons and our own stories, but as the lights dim and we hear the final fanfare ring out from the lobby, we set all of that aside and become one organism sharing the experience of the utter magic that is live theatre.

My breath is catching as I describe this image because I miss it so much.

Of course theatres need to be closed right now. For public health, we need to socially distance and there is no greater opposite to the concept of social distancing than coming together with strangers to take in live theatre. This realization makes me smile because I know this precious experience will mean even more to us when we can finally safely have it again.

If theatre--or life for that matter, teaches us one thing, it's that in order to have full appreciation for the highs, we need to truly understand the lows. We feel this loss right now. Some are more affected than others, but the entire community feels it. Theatre is a place of healing and hope and despite all of the uncertainty, one thing that is clear is that when the dust settles and society can focus on healing and rebuilding; theatre, and specifically the Stratford Festival will be there to do for all of us what I have always counted on it to do for me. It will transport us, and soothe us, and grieve with us and laugh with us, and once again help us to dream the impossible dream.

This sentiment is echoed in Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino's beautiful address from yesterday and it seems only fitting to leave you with that: "While the creation of a vaccine and anti-viral drugs will cure this pandemic, ultimately what will cure society in its aftermath is art. We look forward to the time when we can come together again to 'live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.' "


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