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Volunteer Janice Gougeon at the opening night of the 2021 Stratford Festival season at the Festival Theatre Canopy, on July 13.

Tara Walton/The Globe and Mail

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression – but that old adage is certainly not true for two directors making their belated debuts at the Stratford Festival as part of a highly unusual summer season that officially got under way this week.

On July 22, Peter Pasyk’s take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be the first Stratford production of a play to open since 2019; Jessica Carmichael’s production of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters will be the second six days later, on July 28.

Both are being performed under a canopy outside the new Tom Patterson Theatre on a stage that Pasyk describes, with good humour, as “a plinth in a parking lot.” Says Carmichael, cheerfully, of the “scrappy” process this year: “I’m doing Stratford at the Fringe.”

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Back in 2020, both Pasyk and Carmichael were set to direct their first Stratford shows under more stately circumstances, after many seasons assistant directing at the festival.

Carmichael was still to helm The Rez Sisters, but Pasyk was to tackle Hamlet. Both were already well into preparations or rehearsals when worldwide disaster hit and the whole season was cancelled in April. Each digested the news differently.

Carmichael, also a full-time professor at Concordia University in Montreal, felt grateful in some ways for the postponement – or, at least, she does looking back.

Her sister, who was also her best friend, had died of cancer three months before she got the offer to do The Rez Sisters – and cancer and death play a significant role in the 1986 play about seven women from the fictional Wasaychigan Hill reserve planning to attend to “the Biggest Bingo in the World.” It was helpful to have more time to grieve before tackling those themes, though, she notes, “It still feels like three minutes since my sister passed.”

Meanwhile, Pasyk, a freelance artist who had just bought a house in Stratford and whose partner, festival company member Shannon Taylor, was five-months pregnant at the time, went into a kind of denial. He spent several months periodically reviewing the script and notes for Hamlet before it truly sunk in. “Did we just buy a house in this worst possible moment in history?” he recalls wondering. “Is everything falling off a cliff?”

Peter Pasyk is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Stratford Festival

If everything did fall off a cliff, there was a trampoline at the bottom for these two directors, at least.

Both Carmichael and Pasyk were contacted by Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino in the fall to suss out what might be possible in 2021.

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The former was asked to imagine restaging The Rez Sisters under different scenarios – outdoors, indoors to 50 audience members, with the actors masked or six feet apart; the latter was asked to imagine similar possibilities for a small-cast version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

After demonstrating their flexibility, both were given the go-ahead – and the ability to roll with the punches from plan A to B to Z has definitely been needed as change has been the only constant since then.

The inherent uncertainty of the pandemic has been one thing; Ontario’s imposition of inconsistent or confusing regulations on live theatre, often with little notice, has been another.

One surprise shift in June allowed theatres to only rehearse outdoors for a while, leaving the festival scrambling to set up tents at opposite ends of the city, next to its archives building and outside the Stratford Perth Museum.

Pasyk and his eight actors had their first in-person rehearsal outside the archives on a day that started with humidity that made it feel like 35 degrees – and ended in a sudden freak storm that sent props and a tent flying.

The director kept his cool, in part by taking inspiration from the “rude mechanicals” – those amateur theatre makers who have their outdoor rehearsals turned upside down by mischievous fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pasyk says, admiringly, “They’re a group of passionate people with limited resources, but through the power of their imagination, they’re able to create this play.”

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Jessica Carmichael is directing The Rez Sisters.

Stratford Festival

Carmichael also took the hand she was dealt and, as they say in the theatre, used it: The Rez Sisters is set on a fictional reserve on Manitoulin Island after all, and here was the opportunity to rehearse on a beautiful patch of grass near a pond filled with ducks.

When unmarked graves were found at a residential school this spring, the outdoor setting proved an appropriate location for the company to grapple with news, hold a circle and perform a smudging ceremony. “Some of us know survivors, many of us are parents, all of us are Indigenous or of mixed/Indigenous heritage,” Carmichael says. “Because we were out in that beautiful space, we stood together and had a moment of silence listening to the trees.”

It wasn’t an entirely bucolic setting, mind you; there’s also a highway nearby. It was challenge enough for the actors and creative team to hear one another while wearing masks even without motorcycles passing by.

By the time indoor rehearsals were allowed on June 30, Carmichael was ready to have a solid floor under her, and the company inaugurated the rehearsal hall inside the new Tom Patterson.

Patrons in their socially distanced seats.

Tara Walton/The Globe and Mail

At that time, Pasyk’s cast moved to the stage outside the theatre – but his actors and Carmichael’s have only really glimpsed one another from a distance because of strict COVID-19 precautions.

Their two plays, rehearsed on opposite sides of the Avon River, have a lot in common, really. Both have tragic and comic elements; both feature characters who exist in the spirt world as well as ours.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream sees its characters escape a land with rigid rules and flee to the unruly forest, then return to their society to wonder whether it and they have truly been transformed by their experiences.

The women of The Rez Sisters also go on a journey, from the reserve to the city and back. But Carmichael sees Highway’s play as grappling with the ultimate duality of life and death – and wonders what those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, to COVID-19 or cancer, will find in its exploration of grief. “It feels like the production is happening for a reason, whatever that is, at this time.”

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