The Stratford Festival may be shut down for the season because of the pandemic – but live theatre, like the inextinguishable weed it is, is still springing up all over in Stratford, Ont., this summer, on lawns, on sidewalks, and even in parking garages.
It’s unsurprising that the source of much of this improvised theatrical activity is the country’s foremost theatrical improviser – an artist who runs a company called Spontaneous Theatre and who has made a career out of making up plays on the spot, coast to coast, as well as off-Broadway and on the West End.
Rebecca Northan, best known as the creator of the interactive international hit Blind Date, in which her clown alter-ego Mimi goes on a first date with an audience member, has been cooking up a series of spontaneous live performances since her contract with the Festival was terminated in March along with those of hundreds of other artists.
“Is it over? It’s not over for me,” says Northan, originally from Calgary, but a Stratford resident for the past three years.
“I’m too much of a plumber in my theatre practice. ‘Roll up our sleeves. We’ve got to find a different way to put in this sink.’”
Northan has been collaborating with Stratford company members Ijeoma Emesowum, Bruce Horak and Kevin Kruchkywich – who were to be the “core artists” of her new improvised show at the brand-new Tom Patterson Theatre in the 2020 season: An Undiscovered Shakespeare, involving dialogue made up in the moment in iambic pentameter.
Since May, these four long-time friends – who have formed a nine-person pandemic bubble with their partners and Emesowum’s young daughter – have instead been performing what they call Sidewalk Scenes at a safe distance from Stratford residents sitting on their front porches or balconies.
For an extra fee, they also will bring kids shows, comedy shows or concerts (with Horak’s musically inclined partner, Onalea Gilbertson, joining in) to at-home audiences in Kitchener, Ont., or London, Ont., too.
“Performing at a condo or senior’s residence – that’s the new A-house,” Northan explains. “Suddenly, you look up and there are 50 people out on their balconies.”
Now, Northan and her company of travelling players are even throwing some actual Shakespeare into the mix, too, drive-in style. On Thursday night, they officially open a four-person, 80-minute version of Romeo and Juliet in the parkade at The Bruce Hotel, a boutique hotel and hub for Stratford artists.
Ten cars will park in a circle – and the show, adapted to be about a feud taking place between two coffee houses in modern-day plague-stricken Stratford – will be performed in the round. Set to run every Thursday until Aug. 20, tickets are $110 for two people in a vehicle – including lobster BLTs and non-alcoholic drinks provided by the hotel.
“It feels amazing to speak those beautiful words again,” says Emesowum, who has been with the Stratford Festival since 2014. “It really is filling out that void from when things abruptly stopped with the festival. … We’re doing it for the love of theatre.”
The Stratford Festival has given its blessing to this upstart Shakespearean competitor – in fact, artistic director Antoni Cimolino introduced Northan to The Bruce Hotel’s owner, Jennifer Birmingham.
”Given the restrictions on the size of gatherings, it’s financially impossible for the Festival to produce a show, fulfill contractual obligations and break even, for the time being,” Cimolino says. “But we wholeheartedly support the individual artists who have stepped forward to present work in Stratford and applaud their entrepreneurial spirit.”
Like the artists, Stratford’s business owners, such as Birmingham, are trying to figure out how to stand on their own two feet without the hundreds of thousands of tourists who usually come to town to attend the Stratford Festival and generate $135-million in local economic activity.
“There’s a lot of sadness in town … feelings of defeat,” Birmingham says. “We can all make it through this if we work together.”
Set on 6 1/2 acres of land, The Bruce Hotel has the room to hold a whole open-air theatre festival on its property in addition to Romeo and Juliet in its parkade. From July 17 to Aug. 30, the Here for Now Festival will present six intimate shows (Stratford’s Jessica B. Hill and Roy Lewis are among the better-known cast members) for micro audiences of whatever size the latest public-health regulation allows on the hotel’s lawn.
And, yes, Northan and her collaborators are also performing as part of that festival, too. Where do they find the energy in these energy-sapping times? “I tried sourdough,” Northan says. “I fed some sourdough $40 of organic flour and then I was like ‘I can’t do this.‘”
Northan was probably the last artist to perform for an audience on an indoor stage in Stratford: She did a short run of Blind Date at the Red Lion Room early in March right before COVID-19 concerns shut down all gatherings in Ontario.
“For me, within the first 10 days, maybe 12 days of the pandemic, the festival got put on hold and two other Blind Date bookings that were supposed to come up all the way into 2020-21 got cancelled,” says Northan, who had to deliver the bad news to other Mimis who perform her hit show when she cannot. “I got the legs kicked from under me for 14 months almost immediately.”
While Romeo and Juliet and the Sidewalk Scenes have been selling well, Northan says these are not “lucrative projects.” “We’re at a good enough level that all of the artists are getting a little bit of extra money, and not enough to disqualify them from CERB [the Canada Emergency Response Benefit]‚” she says. “If/when the CERB goes away, then the question for us will be: How do we scale this up? Or do we have to stop and go look for other jobs?”
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