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Stratford Festival to film productions for worldwide theatre distribution

Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino at the Festival Theatre.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Coming soon to a cinema near you: the Stratford Festival.

Canada's largest theatre company has revealed plans to launch an annual series of films of its productions to movie houses around the world, becoming the first in North America to follow in the footsteps of major British institutions the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Starting in 2014, the Southern Ontario festival intends to record three to four shows a season for distribution in Canada and internationally.

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And artistic director Antoni Cimolino's long-term plan is even more ambitious – to stage and then screen the complete works of William Shakespeare, resulting in a Canadian DVD library that can be used in schools across the country to supplant British or U.S. versions of the Bard's comedies, tragedies and histories.

"We will, over the course of the next 10 to 12 years, go through the entire canon," Mr. Cimolino said by phone from London. "We have, as a nation, a unique point of view – and I'd like us to have our own versions for Canadian children to watch."

The company has yet to decide which of its five Shakespeare productions next season will make it to cinemas – but season opener King Lear starring Colm Feore, who is also a film and TV actor, seems a likely candidate to kick things off.

Anita Gaffney, executive director at Stratford, and Mr. Cimolino are in England meeting with counterparts at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, who have already been colonizing Canadian cinemas with their productions of the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights.

Since New York's Metropolitan Opera pioneered the use of digital projectors and satellite transmission to broadcast live performances to movie theatres in 2006, screenings of opera, drama and dance – live or recorded – have been a steadily growing side business at cineplexes.

The most recent season of the National Theatre's NT Live, for instance, was seen in 65 movie theatres and sold 51,500 tickets in Canada alone – more than double the attendance from the previous season. Next week, the Royal Shakespeare Company begins broadcasting productions with Richard II starring former Doctor Who star David Tennant, while Shakespeare's Globe in London has been trying to find a Canadian distributor for its Globe on Screen series.

As with other North American theatres, Stratford has recorded several one-off movies of its productions – 2010's The Tempest starring Christopher Plummer, for instance – but it will be the first on this side of the ocean to offer a full season of screenings next season, a plan that has been in the works since Mr. Cimolino and Ms. Gaffney took over the top positions at the festival last year. "We've spent this year working to achieve some financial stability for the organization … but we've always had this on our radar and we're determined to do this for 2014," Ms. Gaffney said from Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

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While Stratford has not signed any contracts yet, producer and director Barry Avrich – whose company, Melbar, was involved with the recent one-offs – was with Mr. Cimolino in London this week discussing the project. The theatre company's executives also have meetings lined up with distributors Picture House in Britain and Cineplex Entertainment in Canada.

"We're big fans of Stratford's work, and look forward to discussing opportunities to work together again," Cineplex's director of communication Mike Langdon said.

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