The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is rolling out a wider variety of public talks, concerts and dance performances to keep audiences at the festival longer.
For the 2013 season – Stratford veteran actor, director and general director Antoni Cimolino's first as artistic director – the festival plans to host a number of smaller events tied into the roster of plays and musicals. Called the Forum series, it's intended to make the festival feel a little more like a cultural retreat.
"The idea is to create an experience where you come and you have a great time seeing a play. But, in addition, you then get to pursue that some more, think more about it, learn more about it and feel more about it as you visit Stratford," Cimolino said.
He made the announcement as part of the official unveiling of the festival's 2013 season. Major productions will include Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tim Carroll, to kick off the season. (The actual 2013 dates are still being finalized. The festival typically runs from mid-April to October.) Other stock-in-trade Shakespeare productions to come are Othello, directed by Chris Abraham, and The Merchant of Venice, mounted by Cimolino and starring Brian Bedford, who will also direct the Noel Coward comedy Blithe Spirit.
Des McAnuff, whose five-year stint as artistic director ends this season, will return to helm a remounting of The Who's Tommy, which he co-wrote as a musical with Pete Townshend. Marquee name Brian Dennehy is also returning to Stratford to star in Friedrich Schiller's historical drama Mary Stuart and Samuel Beckett's perennial Waiting for Godot.
"I want to create a very immersive experience. I want people to be able to come and really explore certain ideas, and I was looking at the idea of communities divided and 'other' within those communities," Cimolino said of his approach.
"For instance, The Merchant of Venice and Othello are both plays that begin in Venice and are about outsiders – and the two very different experiences, but both informed by the same themes Shakespeare was exploring."
Even the festival's non-Shakespeare productions will focus on opposing sides, such as the religious-based power struggles between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, in Mary Stuart. And director Donna Feore's take on Fiddler on the Roof will show "a community that is trying to sort out how to move forward into the future, against a majority group."
Above all, Cimolino wants to make the actors and texts the main focus of the productions. This will include welcoming major stars such as Dennehy. "I think that's great for the company and it's great for visiting artists. Someone like Brian Dennehy greatly enjoys being here and the company loves him. I think in the years to come, [we will] create that sense of excitement, that sense of new people."
A particularly interesting aspect of the 2013 season for people fascinated by theatre craft will be the new Laboratory series of workshops for experimenting with new interpretations of classic plays, with an emphasis on producing these works on a larger scale. Some will be workshopped for the public, some just for theatre artists.
The Laboratory will encompass the creation of new plays, as well as plays from other cultures beyond the Anglo-Franco repertoire, which could mean shifting funds and resources within the festival's budget for development. It's an ambitious idea in a cash-strapped time.
"Like arts organizations around the world, it's tight. Theatre attendance, like theatre attendance everywhere, is facing some difficulties," Cimolino said. "It changes month to month, but yes, we are facing a tough environment where we are down from the year before. But we're still early on in our  season, so we're hoping that turns around in the months ahead."
Coming to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2013:
- Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tim Carroll
- Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Donna Feore
- The Three Musketeers, directed by Miles Potter
- The Merchant of Venice, directed Antoni Cimolino
- Blithe Spirit, directed by Brian Bedford
- The Who’s Tommy, directed by Des McAnuff
- Othello, directed by Chris Abraham
Tom Patterson Theatre
- Measure for Measure, directed by Martha Henry
- Mary Stuart, directed by Antoni Cimolino
- Waiting for Godot, directed by Jennifer Tarver
- Taking Shakespeare, directed by Diana Leblanc
- The Thrill, directed by Dean Gabourie