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Neema Bickersteth, left, Marcus Nance, Robert Markus and Vanessa Sears in Why We Tell the Story at the Stratford Festival during a rehearsal on July 7, 2021. The performers have protective screens around them as a COVID-19 safety measure.

David Hou/Stratford Festival

The last hurdle that the Stratford Festival had to surmount to make it to and through its first opening night since 2019 was a severe thunderstorm warning.

On Tuesday night at 7 p.m., the weather was tame enough for four actors at North America’s largest not-for-profit theatre to take the stage and begin a performance of the Why We Tell The Story cabaret in front of a distanced audience of 100 sitting under a canopy set up outside the Festival Theatre.

But an hour later, as soprano Neema Bickersteth wended her through Dat’s Love from the 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones – a repurposing of Georges Bizet’s iconic L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II – torrential rain began to pour down from above. Bickersteth persisted through the rebellious aria even as the wind began to blow the rain into the tent and all the way to the performers on the semi-circular stage.

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As she triumphantly made it to the end, the singer was greeted by thunderous applause from an equally tenacious crowd – before the show went into a brief rain delay.

That’s live theatre for you – and it’s back in Stratford in the festival’s first show to meet live, in-person audiences in 16 months.

“Theatre brings us together – at least it did in the world we once knew. Together we would laugh, freel compassion and perhaps ask ourselves why our world couldn’t be better,” Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino told The Globe and Mail earlier in the day.

“This historic moment marks the end of a period of social isolation and a return to community through art.”

It certainly felt like it as actors and audience bonded, united by song and a sense of adventure.

The Stratford Festival famously opened under a tent on July 13, 1953, with the British actor Alec Guinness stepping out as Richard III to deliver William Shakespeare’s famous line: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

Now its actors are performing under canvas once again due to the pandemic – with restrictions limiting audiences to 25 per cent capacity under the company’s two airy canopies at the moment.

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Patrons make their way to their socially distanced seats at the opening night of the 2021 Stratford Festival season at the Festival Theatre Canopy on July 13.

Tara Walton/The Globe and Mail

Why We Tell the Story is a cabaret curated and directed by the performer Marcus Nance that begins with him reciting Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’s I, Too, which begins: “I, too, sing America.”

Billed as a “celebration of Black musical theatre”, the cabaret featured performances by Nance, who travelled to Broadway with Stratford’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2012; Ms. Bickersteth; Vanessa Sears, a winner of multiple Dora Mavor Moore Awards for her work in musicals in Toronto; and Robert Markus, recently the star of Mirvish’s production of Dear Evan Hansen. They were backed by a four-person band.

The Stratford Festival is producing five other similarly sized cabarets this summer instead of full-blown musical-theatre productions – and, soon enough, will be performing small-cast plays as well, starting with an eight-actor version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has its first preview performance on Friday before opening on July 22.

Each production has its own cast instead of the actors performing in repertory as usual – a way to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus between shows.

When COVID-19 arrived in North America in 2020, the Stratford Festival was one of the most affected arts organizations in the country, as preparations such as rehearsals were already well under way. Lockdowns and pandemic restrictions put an end to a larger-than-normal season budgeted at $76-million that was tied to what was supposed to be the opening of the brand-new Tom Patterson Theatre. (It still has not had a live audience in its seats.)

Through cost cutting, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and donations, the Stratford Festival ended last fiscal year just $4.3-million in the red – nevertheless a record deficit. The company expects to run another hefty deficit this year with its stripped-down season.

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But bringing live performance back this summer to Stratford was deemed worth the cost – and the opening of Why We Tell the Story certainly showed the unique quality that has been missing from life the past year and a half: The unpredictable thrill of liveness.

Tara Walton/The Globe and Mail

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