It’s opening week at the Stratford Festival once again – a fascinating piece of live performance all of its own.
From Tuesday through Saturday, the destination repertory theatre company in Stratford, Ont., will be celebrating a different production each night.
King Lear – starring Paul Gross, whom I recently interviewed – opens at the Festival Theatre on Tuesday, Spamalot at the Avon Theatre on Wednesday, Casey and Diana in the Studio Theatre on Thursday, Rent in the Festival Theatre on Friday and then Grand Magic in the Tom Patterson Theatre on Saturday.
Back when I started at The Globe and Mail in 2008, Stratford opening week was an entirely foreign ritual to me with its red carpets, its trumpet fanfares and see-and-be-seen atmosphere inside and outside the Festival Theatre in particular.
I had no idea men wore suits to theatre openings any more, let alone tuxedos, and I had to quickly borrow a suit jacket from a friend to attend Hamlet starring Ben Carlson.
I was stunned that night to discover that the audience sang O, Canada before a production of Shakespeare’s play about the rotten state of Denmark. (I grew up mostly in Quebec, so I really only ever heard the national anthem sung at hockey games.)
The unrelenting pace of the openings was new to me as well. I had binged Fringe Festival plays before – I think I saw 30 in a week once – but writing reviews of seven large-scale shows over six days, including four three-hour-long Shakespeare performances was a challenge.
The Stratford Festival is still rebuilding its audience from the pandemic interruption – so this week see a mere five shows open over five days. But that still feels like a return to a tradition that’s been dormant since 2019.
In 2020, the theatre company was completely shuttered; in 2021, it held a mostly outdoor season; and last year, it spaced openings out to limit the possibilities of COVID-19 requiring a whole week be rescheduled.
Of course, Stratford’s opening-week rituals were already evolving before COVID-19 – the dress code became more flexible, the atmosphere less elitist and more inviting, the anthem more optional as land acknowledgments became more common.
Another change: I no longer hear anyone refer to the centre aisle of the Festival Theatre where the critics are usually sat as “murderers’ row”. Not enough critics come to see the shows right away – or at all – for that to make sense any more.
I wasn’t around in the old, old days when theatre critics from across the country would call in their reviews immediately after shows to make print editions the next day – and then meet up in the bar to hash it out. Aside from a short-lived experiment with “instant” reviews, I have always been able sleep on a show and file the next day, which seems much more sensible to me given these productions run all the way into the fall.
Look for my thoughts on Stratford’s first crop of plays and musicals in the coming days.
The Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations were announced on Monday – and what’s always a shame is that the vast majority of these productions now getting acclaim and a publicity boost have closed and will not be seen on a stage again.
Crow’s Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya, which garnered five Dora nods, is the rare one that will be back in 2023-2024, as part of the Off-Mirvish season announced last week. It will be the CAA Theatre from Feb. 2 to 25.
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of), a British comedic adaptation of the Jane Austen novel written by Isobel McArthur, will play in that same theatre as part of Off-Mirvish over the holidays from Dec. 14, 2023 to Jan. 7, 2024. This Olivier-winning comedy originated at the Tron Theatre in Scotland – a company that has a long history of collaboration with Canadian artists and which recently had to swallow a concerning cut in its public funding.
Also announced for the CAA Theatre is a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead that stars a pair of British actors but will originate at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax and be directed by its artistic director, Jeremy Webb.
The title characters will be played by Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan – who, the press release says here, played a pair of hobbits named Pippen and Merry in the Lord of the Rings movies. (My knowledge of hobbits, I’m sorry to say, does not extend past Frodo and Sam.) This will play in Halifax from Jan. 30 to Feb. 25, then in Toronto from March 5 to 24, 2024.
To Kill A Mockingbird, a tour of the recent Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s book by Aaron Sorkin, is the fourth show in the Off-Mirvish season and will in the much larger CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre in the fall, from Nov. 21 – 27, 2023.
I notice with amusement a recent correction in a newspaper that its article on last week’s season announcement “erroneously said all Off-Mirvish productions will be staged at the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre.”
That confusion due to naming rights will no doubt continue until the CAA Theatre is eventually demolished.
An interesting fact about Mirvish Productions’ sale of the CAA Theatre in 2015 to a developer: The production company won guarantees that no other performing-arts organization could use the theatre or any space on that property for decades.
Documents filed with the City of Toronto last fall show that the new owner, a numbered company affiliated with private-equity real-estate firm KingSett Capital, “shall not use” the Yonge Street property “for any Live Theatrical Performances” for 40 years, except for those put on by Mirvish.
Globe and Mail Arts reporter Josh O’Kane dug that information up recently. So there’s little chance of a new theatre being erected by developers on that site – unless Mirvish is involved.
New musicals on stage this week in Toronto
While the Stratford Festival opens new productions of Rent and Spamalot, it is left to Toronto’s crucial Musical Stage Company to stage the world premiere of Kelly v Kelly – a brand-new musical by Stratford-raised Britta Johnson with a book by erstwhile Stratford Festival star Sara Farb. The show is inspired by a sizzling 1915 court case and runs from May 26 to June 18. Look for a Globe and Mail review in the coming week.
Meanwhile, this is the last week for Inge(nue): In Search of a Musical, a new metamusical about a woman about to turn 40 in search of a part to audition for. It features music by Rosalind Mills, lyrics by Alexis Diamond and a book by the director Evan Tsitsias. Though the Theatre Myth Collective production is in the small storefront Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto, the cast includes a Broadway star: Come From Away’s Astrid Van Wieren.