Well by now the whole world knows about the tempest at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. This past winterÕs tale may not be as you like it but at the same time itÕs not much ado about nothing nor is it a comedy of errors. Fans of the hit TV series Slings and Arrows will understand that itÕs at least worthy of another season.
The backstory is fairly straightforward. In an attempt to provide an even transition after the fourteen year tenure of artistic director Richard Monette (the longest serving AD in the SSFÕs 55 year history), Antoni Cimolino, General Director of the SSF, fashioned a quadruplet that he felt could adequately provide the artistic leadership necessary to helm North AmericaÕs largest classical repertory theatre. Although the same idea had failed over two decades earlier (following the artistic directorship of Robin Phillips, the SSF hired Urjo Kareda, Pam Brighton, Martha Henry and Peter Moss) there was reason to believe that perhaps it might succeed this time. In Des McAnuff, Marti Maraden, and Don Shipley, plus Cimolino, there was an array of talent that covered a number of bases.
McAnuff is well known for his ability to handle traditional classical and contemporary fare, experimental forays from time to time, as well as producing huge popular successes with productions that have gone on to Broadway (Big River, Tommy, Jersey Boys, The Farnsworth Invention). Equally, Maraden, a veteran of Stratford and former director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre brings a formidable range of expertise and a refreshing gender balance to the group. Shipley has had a career that has shown progressive positions in a wide range of institutions in both artistic as well as administrative capacities. Although he is perhaps best known as a producer and manager of international projects including the duMaurier Worldstage festival and the International Dublin Theatre Festival, this would not necessarily be a drawback given the strength and direction of the other two ADs and CimolinoÕs expressed desire to see the SSF productions tour more widely throughout the world.
But although the official SSF website still shows the stalwart (one hesitates to characterize the photo images as smiling) faces of the nascent quadruplet, the recent squabble has resulted in both Maraden and Shipley resigning from their positions. Maraden will stay on to fulfill her directing assignments (Alls Well That Ends Well and the eagerly awaited Trojan Women) but Shipley has apparently decided to decamp sooner rather than later leaving Brian Dennehy in need of a director for KrappÕs Last Tape.
What precipitated this clash of personalities is anybodyÕs guess at the moment since the principals are all staying mum. One thing is clear Š Des McAnuff is now the new Richard Monette and he will not play the part of epigone in that role. This artistic succession, as rocky as it may be to date, represents a significant artistic and cultural paradigm shift at the Festival. After all, Stratford is a small town and if there is one aspect of it all that is captured so wonderfully in the series Slings and Arrows it is that all these histrionics are carried on against the backdrop of a small town ambience (at the fictitious New Burbage Theatre Festival). Many of the senior administrative staff and artistic talent of the Festival live in the town of Stratford. Don Shipley, in fact, was born and raised there. And if there is anything that theatre folk like to do, itÕs gossip, criticize and compare notes on who said what to whom when and where.
It might be that Antoni Cimolino and Des McAnuff are just what the SSF needs as a dynamic duo. As a long time company man who began his career as an actor, Cimolino recognizes and respects the feelings of the senior artists and administrators who have devoted much to the Festival over the years and in return have enjoyed job security and longevity within a profession that is not noted for either. Alternatively, McAnuff knows that the world of public/private partnerships in the arts is always a tussle between economic realities (likely to become worse in the times ahead) and the demands for artistic excellence. Remember it was McAnuff who in the mid 80s audaciously ignored a chorus of political correctness in the school systems and beyond and went blithely ahead on a project that took Mark TwainÕs American classic, Huckleberry Finn, and turned it into a Broadway musical that played to popular success while attracting a multi-racial audience base more representative of the general population than many other musicals of that same period. And this with a score from a country western singer named Roger Miller who didnÕt have a clue (or a care) of what writing for musical theatre was all about!
In any case, weÕre about to find out how it all turns out as the season gets ready to open. This season at Stratford is truly an exciting blend of the classical and the contemporary. McAnuff will direct Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James in a multiracial production of Romeo and Juliet while Christopher Plummer and Anika Noni Rose star in ShawÕs Caesar and Cleopatra (also directed by McAnuff). Additionally, a new adaptation of Moby Dick written and directed by Morris Panych will play in the Studio Theare as will the world premiere of Joanna McClelland GlassÕs rumination on race in America, Palmer Park.
ShakespeareÕs Spanish companẽro, Lope de VegaÕs classic play Fuente Ovejuna (written in 1619) concerns a village who rises up collectively against a military dictator who employs torture, rape and brutality against the local citizenry. This play has long been a staple in Latin American repertory theatres and it comes to Stratford by way of a new translation from Laurence Boswell (who will also direct). Adrian Noble directing Ben Carlson in Hamlet will also be a must-see on my list as will Jonathan Goad and Leah Oster in Susan SchulmanÕs production of Music Man.
information go to www.stratfordfestival.ca