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A number of musical theatre performers have taken to social media to register their disapproval at making theatre artists who lost jobs due to the pandemic fight to get them back.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Back when the Stratford Festival’s 2020 season was shut down because of the pandemic, artistic director Antoni Cimolino told his company of artists (and the press) that he was committed to presenting all the cancelled productions again at a future date.

But now, as the theatre company begins preparations to resurrect one of the biggest of those called-off productions next season, a controversy is unfolding online over the fact that Cimolino’s commitment does not extend to all the actors originally cast in the shuttered shows.

Indeed, many performers are having to reaudition for roles that they had already started rehearsing.

On Sept. 14, director and choreographer Donna Feore held a dance call to reaudition ensemble members who had previously been cast in her 2020 production of Chicago, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s hit musical about celebrity and crime, for her coming 2022 production at Stratford. One dancer, Adam Sergison, has already been told he will not be returning to the show.

Chicago’s lead and featured performers will soon be reauditioned as well.

A number of musical theatre performers have taken to social media to register their disapproval at making theatre artists who lost jobs because of the pandemic fight to get them back.

Sharron Matthews, a well-known cabaret artist who also starred on Frankie Drake Mysteries, tweeted in dismay about chorus members having to audition for a show they had previously been rehearsing. “Can you imagine being one of those artists? Waiting all this time? & getting THAT news?”

Ali Momen, one of the stars of the Toronto production of Come From Away, also spoke out on Twitter. “If a show shut down because of the pandemic, and an entire group of artists lose their job, if that show comes back, so should every one of their jobs,” Momen tweeted.

Indeed, Mirvish Productions, a commercial enterprise, confirms the Come From Away cast that was onstage in Toronto in March, 2020, will return when the show reopens.

Why isn’t the not-for-profit Stratford Festival extending the same courtesy to its actors whose contracts they terminated in 2020?

Cimolino told me in an interview that the festival does intend to hire the artists from that season whenever possible, but said there are complicating factors.

The first is Stratford will be back to presenting plays and musicals in repertory next season, meaning most performers will be acting in two or three different productions at once.

The theatre company’s 2022 playbill will also be both smaller and different than what was planned for 2020 and so even rehired actors will have new “tracks” involving new “play-againsts” (that is to say new parts in other shows).

More specifically, Cimolino says he intends the next Stratford season to include more “plays from a bigger world, from other storytelling traditions” – and so will require a company of actors who are able to perform in those plays.

In short, the 2022 Chicago cast might very well need performers of a specific background not represented in the 2020 cast because they will end up cross-cast with another, culturally specific show.

While these factors do help clarify why recasting might be necessary, they don’t really explain why Stratford is reauditioning its cast for Chicago ... for Chicago. Or why now.

An Asian actor, for example, doesn’t need to be brought in for a dance call in front of Feore and Stratford’s casting director Beth Russell for the company to figure she’s not going to fit into, say, the Black family in A Raisin in the Sun. Besides, the 2022 playbill is not yet set, according to Cimolino, so exact needs are not yet known.

Regarding the recent dance call, Cimolino explained Feore does not view her 2022 production of Chicago as a remount of the 2020 one; it will feature some changes in choreography. “The relevant strength of the ensemble with the new choreography in mind was something that she wanted to see,” he says.

Cimolino says he expects the “vast majority” of the 2020 company ultimately will return.

(As for the not rehired Sergison, you can see him dancing next in Holiday Inn at the Shaw Festival in November and December; in fact, he’s the dance captain on that show.)

The Stratford Festival is a big institution, usually the biggest not-for-profit theatre company in North America, with a lot of concerns to juggle.

But it doesn’t quite seem fair to surprise performers with a dance call for a show they’d previously booked – with just 11 days notice, in the middle of a pandemic, as was the case here. (They even had to pay their own way to Stratford.)

I can’t think of a group of artists that has had a harder time during the past 18 months than dancers; in many places around Canada, they were only just recently able to regain access to indoor studio space.

I’m not surprised the festival is being pilloried on social media amid all the conversations about how to build back the theatre industry better.

And better is possible: The Shaw Festival, another major Ontario repertory theatre, both figured out how to keep its artists employed the year the pandemic started – and offered them all continuance of contract in 2021 when many of its cancelled 2020 shows finally went on.

Recasting may be necessary in Stratford’s case, but the process can surely be more humane.

Part of the measure of the festival’s success as we emerge from this time forward should be how well it accommodates and takes care of even its lowliest ensemble performer, not just how it accommodates and takes care of starry creative teams.

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