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Stratford Festival's Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino in Toronto on Sept. 26, 2016.

Chris Young/Canadian Press

Is the Stratford Festival becoming too insular an institution?

With a number of his choices for the upcoming 2019 season, artistic director Antoni Cimolino has made Canada’s largest not-for-profit theatre company look like a small-town theatre festival – rather than a world-class one that happens to be located in a small Ontario town.

Or that’s what I thought when I saw his programming and casting announcements earlier this fall, anyway.

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So, I called up Cimolino to complain – and gave him the opportunity to counter my arguments and try to convince me otherwise.

Complaint 1: Stratford is rehashing its casting.

Not only is the Stratford Festival returning to The Merry Wives of Windsor again in 2019, Geraint Wyn Davies is returning to the role of Falstaff in it. And not only did the amiable Welsh-born Canadian actor play Falstaff in the 2011 production of Merry Wives, he also played Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I and II in 2016.

We’ve seen this before at Stratford … the same actress playing Ophelia in two straight Hamlets, the same actor playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet in 2008 and 2017. Come on. It’s a big country and a big world and a big company – give audiences something different!

Counterargument: Stratford’s artistic director makes the case for classical actors as creative, not just interpretive, artists – and compares this with how Claude Monet painted Rouen Cathedral more than 30 times, or how Robert Lepage directed Coriolanus a number of times before his latest four-star production. Cimolino points out that the late legend Douglas Campbell played all the Falstaffs twice over at Stratford and always got better at it. “Actors do stretch themselves when they get to do the same role again,” he says. “You’re different, time has passed.”

Did Cimolino change my mind? Partially. I see the point – and, indeed, Stratford’s one of the rare companies in Canada where a performance could simmer over a decade.

Complaint 2: Stratford is too much of a family affair.

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A plugged-in Stratford-goer might well notice that, in the 2019 season, three productions will feature directors directing their own spouses. In addition to Cimolino directing Brigit Wilson as one of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Martha Henry is directing Rod Beattie as Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII and Graham Abbey is directing Michelle Giroux in The Front Page.

Now, I’d like to make clear that all of these artists are accomplished – and I’m not casting aspersions on anyone’s talent, whether director or performer.

But while acting dynasties and marrying into the profession are theatrical traditions older than Shakespeare, a major institution that draws on public funds such as Stratford has a responsibility to be particularly aware of appearances. And the “family business” nature of theatre has, in the past, prevented theatre companies from diversifying their talent in all senses of the verb.

Counterargument: Stratford is not located in an urban setting, Cimolino notes, so “it’s very hard for us to bring in people who are part of a long-term relationship.” If both partners aren’t hired, you’re either asking for couples to be separated – or for one to not work for a year. The artistic director puts what I’m saying into perspective this way: Three actors out of a company of 120 are being directed by their spouses. “This is not unusual in our industry and is often a source of strength,” he says, rattling off a list of similar situations from recent years.

Did Cimolino change my mind? No. I don’t buy the math. We’re talking three productions out of 12 next season – a quarter of the 2019 programming. I don’t want families to be broken up – but there are multiple tracks for actors, and directors usually are done after opening night anyway. It looks too cozy.

Complaint 3: The Stratford Festival is too set in its musical ways.

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In 2019, Donna Feore is set to direct and choreograph both musicals at Stratford: Billy Elliot and Little Shop of Horrors. This year, she also directed and choreographed both musicals at the festival.

Now, I love Feore’s work. So, obviously, do audiences – her production of The Rocky Horror Show was recently extended into December.

But handing over all the musicals to a single director/choreographer for two years running is not treating them as an art form to be stretched or to be explored the way Stratford does its classical plays. The festival has the resources to take risks on other approaches to musicals – and the responsibility to give opportunities to others.

Indeed, it’s not only musical-theatre directors and choreographers who deserve that chance – it’s the country’s lyricists, composers and book writers. Why hasn’t Stratford premiered a new musical since Cimolino took charge in 2013? Canadian musical theatre is in a renaissance – especially with Come from Away out there as a shining example of success – and Stratford is missing out because it’s treating musical theatre as a cash cow that subsidizes the rest of the season.

Counterargument: Cimolino says that Feore is “probably the most talented director and choreographer of musicals working in North America” – and implies that he expects her to be stolen by the bright lights of Broadway any time now. He says that directors at Stratford have directed multiple Shakespeare plays in past seasons and Brian Macdonald, Feore’s late mentor, also directed more than one show in a season. As for new musicals, Stratford is still developing one with composer (and ex-Barenaked Ladies frontman) Steven Page and playwright Daniel MacIvor that could premiere as early as 2020, he says.

Did Cimolino change my mind? No. I think he doesn’t want to mess with success – and the overreliance on Feore will backfire in the long run if she does leave.

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Complaint 4: Stratford’s directing pool is too shallow in general.

While Canada may not have many directors and choreographers who have proven themselves on a large scale, there’s no shortage of excellent directors of drama in this country any more – from coast to coast.

And yet it can seem as if Cimolino will usually only take a risk and give a major opportunity to Stratford actors who have turned director – such as Graham Abbey and Jonathan Goad, stage stars who are making their directorial debuts at Stratford in 2019 on the large Festival Theatre and the Avon Theatre stages.

Other Canadian directors, who work primarily as directors or are trained as such, if they are brought into the Stratford fold often have to work their way up from the small Studio Theatre – as with Birgit Schreyer Duarte, who will be making her debut there next season with Nathan the Wise.

Additionally, while Stratford has the resources to bring in exciting international directors, it hasn’t been doing so at the rate it did when Des McAnuff was artistic director. There were none this season and, for 2019, Stratford has only invited the American director Carey Perloff, to direct Private Lives. Perloff, former artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, is a fine talent – but she’s also the last international director to open a show at Stratford, back in 2017.

Counterargument: Cimolino says Stratford is much more connected to Toronto talent and the wider Canadian theatre scene than it used to be – and defends his track record with directors. “When you look at the evolution of who’s directing at the Stratford Festival over the course of the last six years, there’s much more diversity, many more women directing,” he says. As for Stratford actors-turned-directors, he says they come in knowing their way around the intricacies of the company’s repertory model and its unusual main thrust stage – a big part of the challenge of working there.

And while he believes Stratford is an international institution, Cimolino says he is acutely aware of its past history of bringing in directors – and even artistic directors – from outside the country. “We’ve got to focus on the development of Canadian theatre talent,” he says.

Did Cimolino change my mind? Yes. I think he did.

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