The Stratford Experience
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 15 Jun 2007, p. 465-480
Cimolino, Antoni, Speaker
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Item Type
Reference to Richard Monette, 14 years as Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. The future. First, a few minutes looking at the past. A history of the Festival. Tom Patterson's vision. The Guthrie theatre. Challenges. Factors beyond control. Government funding. Approaching the future with a team of brilliant artistic directors. Reasons for changing the leadership model. Some information about the leaders. Goals for the future. A brief discussion of three goals. The Stratford experience.
Date of Original
15 Jun 2007
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Full Text
Antoni Cimolino
General Director, Stratford Festival of Canada
The Stratford Experience
Chairman: Dr. John S. Niles
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Sylvia Morawetz, Past President, Tapestry New Opera Works, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Chris Crowell, Senior Associate Director, Bell Canada, and Board Member, Shakespeare In Action; Kelly Meighen, Chair of The Board of Governors, Stratford Festival of Canada; Martin Hunter, Director, K. M. Hunter Foundation and Author, "Romancing the Bard: Stratford at Fifty"; Reverend Vic Reigel, Honorary Assistant, Christ Church, Brampton; Stanley H. Hartt, Chairman, CitiGroup Global Markets Canada Inc., and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Martha Henry, Director, Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training, Stratford Festival of Canada; Richard Rooney, Vice-Chair of The Board of Governors, Stratford Festival of Canada; and Nichole Anderson, Program Manager, Business for the Arts.

Introduction by John Niles

Past Presidents, Directors, members and guests of the Empire Club of Canada:

Or should I say with this august crowd,

"Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears."

Familiar words to be sure, taken as we all know from the great Shakespearean play "Julius Caesar"--a tale that speaks of the brutal end of one leader and the rise of another and the scheming, maneuvering and intrigue that ensued.

Now, no one would ever say that would have anything to do with the real life of the theatre. Would one?

After 35 seasons Richard Monette announced in February 2005 that he would retire at the end of 2007. Having spent 35 seasons in various capacities at the festival and becoming the longest-serving leader of the festival, by the end of his tenure he had served 15 seasons in the post of artistic director.

One leader's tenure has come to an end, not brutally or abruptly, but elegantly, wistfully and successfully, and today we hear of the rise of another.

If Shakespeare was right in "As You Like It," and no one would dare say otherwise, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts." (Act II, Scene VII).

Antoni Cimolino enters this stage playing the part of General Director of the Stratford Festival of Canada with a grand entrance worthy of his experience.

Mr. Cimolino oversees the successful operation of Canada's largest non-profit arts organization, with more than 1,000 employees and an annual budget of over $52 million.

During Mr. Cimolino's tenure, the festival has successfully launched a Stability Fund and an Endowment Foundation and has significantly improved its infrastructure. The Stability Fund now stands at $5.6 million and the For All Time Endowment Fund is expected to reach its $50-million goal by the end of the 2007 season. Mr. Cimolino's leadership was vital in the $14-million renovation of the Avon Theatre. He played a key role in securing generous private donations that helped build the Studio Theatre in 2002. Mr. Cimolino oversaw the development of the festival's $6.5-million Brunswick Street facility, which provides state-of-the-art technical facilities and houses the festival's massive warehouse and archives. As a theatre director, Mr. Cimolino's recent credits include "As You Like It," featuring original music by Barenaked Ladies, "King John," and "Love's Labour's Lost" with Brian Bedford. Other Stratford Festival directing credits include "Twelfth Night" with William Hutt, and "Filumena" with Richard Monette. In 1998, Mr. Cimolino won two Best Director awards from the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News for his "Twelfth Night" at Detroit's Attic Theatre. Mr. Cimolino is also an accomplished actor. Prior to launching his directorial and administrative career, he performed regularly on Stratford stages in roles including Romeo, Laertes, Claudio, Flute and the Dauphin. Originally from Sudbury, Ontario, Mr. Cimolino lives in Stratford with his wife, actress Brigit Wilson, and their children, Gabriele and Sophia.

Please welcome Mr. Cimolino.

Antoni Cimolino

Thank you very much John. And thanks to all of you for coming out on this beautiful Friday afternoon in the summer. It shows real dedication.

As many of you know and as John referenced, 2007 is the final year that our current artistic director Richard Monette is in charge and he has led 14 wonderful years, the longest-serving artistic director in our history. So many wonderful things have happened during his tenure. As a successor and a former actor myself, I am only too aware of what William Shakespeare wrote in "Richard II," "In the eyes of men, after a well-graced actor leaves the stage are idly bent on him that enters next; Thinking his prattle to be tedious." So I hope you won't find that I'm either a prattler or being tedious today.

I thought you might be interested in knowing what our thoughts are about the future of the Stratford Festival after Richard Monette. And to do that I want to spend a few minutes going over the past because, as the bard once said, "What's past is prologue." The past in our case begins in 1953. Stratford was a small town but a very successful manufacturing community and a railway town that was facing crisis because the Canadian National Railroad had decided to shut down the divisional offices that employed 2,000 men in a city of only 18,000 people. Something badly needed to be done in order to keep Stratford on the map at all and that's the moment that Tom Patterson, a native-born Stratford journalist, decided that it was time to capitalize on the town's name and also its Victorian charm and open up a summer festival dedicated to the works of William Shakespeare. It was a truly crazy idea. Nevertheless it seemed to have legs.

Now to appreciate how daring and how crazy Tom's idea was you have to know that he had seen maybe two plays in his life and he only knew of one great actor-manager, Laurence Olivier. But Tom Patterson was a visionary and so armed with $125 in his pocket, that he had managed to cajole the Stratford City Council into giving him, he got on a train for New York City and he went to find Olivier and enlist his support for this great idea. With a B movie, Patterson would have been successful. He would have been able to just get past Olivier's obstructive secretary, go right to the great man in the Algonquin Hotel and get his name on a contract. But in reality unfortunately he was turned down flat.

Sometimes life can be even cornier though than a B movie. Eventually Tom with perseverance and with luck managed to find someone who better suited the role than even Laurence Olivier did. That was the legendary Irish director Tyrone Guthrie. Tyrone had a vision of his own. He wanted to build a revolutionary stage and in post-war Europe there was no hope of getting that stage built. It fused together elements of the Greek amphitheatre, the Elizabethan stage house and elements of the Roman stage. It was a revolutionary stage because it placed the actor and the text right in the heart of the audience. It changed performance styles for Shakespeare. No longer were the actors away in the distance behind some sort of box competing with the sets. They were right next to each other in spatial relationships. They were just like real life and speaking just as people do. It made for an enormous change in the way that we heard and saw Shakespeare. Thanks to Guthrie, though the festival's first home was a tent, its foundations were in concrete. And with Alec Guinness on July 13, 1953, and Irene Worth and a host of brilliant young Canadian actors some of which like Douglas Rain had to come back from London to finally get work at home here in Canada, we opened up an incredible festival.

Now theatres around the world are based on this Canadian model, whether it is the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis or the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles or of course the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City and in England too in Manchester and Sheffield and Chichester and ironically the largest theatre in the Royal National Theatre is based on the festival stage. I say ironically because it's named the Olivier Theatre.

Ever since that night, that famous night, slowly but steadily, decade after decade, through booms and busts, the Stratford Festival has grown in size, in audiences and in artistic reputation. In 1957, the tent of course became the beautiful Festival Theatre and three other stages were subsequently added. The company increased in size. Now it is well over 1,000 people who are employed at Stratford as technicians or actors or stage managers or marketers. The repertoire has expanded to include new Canadian plays, foreign-language translations and musicals. And the performance season was extended from a mere six weeks to over seven months. The budget has soared as you have heard to well over $52 million and today a half-million people come to Stratford every year because of the festival. And we directly generate more than 3,000 jobs and about $170 million in economic activity in and around the town. And of course success is always sweeter than failure.

But I needn't tell you in this room that success brings its own unique set of challenges. If you are the biggest or the best, how do you keep growing and changing? And if on top of that you are a not-for-profit cultural institution with more than 50 years of acclaim to your credit how do you keep the creative juices flowing? How do you compete against new upstarts both at home and abroad and, even tougher, against the enormous expectations that come with 50 years of that glorious reputation that you've inherited?

I know that in the years ahead things will become even more challenging. For one thing, our audiences are getting older and while we hope that succeeding generations will be as interested in Shakespearean theatre as they are today and theatre generally, there are competing forms of entertainment--a world full of DVDs and computers and rock concerts, you name it. Further, people tell us that Shakespeare is no longer central to the school curriculum as it used to be. And the cost of tickets and transportation is a barrier for many young people and kids today aren't accustomed to sitting for hours in a dark theatre without a jumbo box of popcorn and some Dolby sound. These things could seem a bit daunting were it not for the absolute confidence that we have in the power of live theatre and the ability to reinvigorate Shakespeare and the classics for a modern audience.

And yet, seemingly, there will always be factors beyond our control--the rise of the Canadian dollar for instance, the SARS crisis a few years ago, nine eleven, fuel prices, delays at the border, the introduction of legislation requiring passports at the border--so we cannot just sit back and depend upon our fame and our glory to have people keep coming. Nor can we or should we depend entirely on government funding to bale us out in bad times and cushion us from the competition in good times. Government policies change with parties from election to election and government budgets themselves swing wildly between deficits and surpluses. Last year, you might be surprised to learn, that the federal and provincial governments, combined in terms of their funding, contributed less than $2 million to our annual operations. That's about 4 per cent of the total budget of the Stratford Festival. That compares for instance to like-size enterprises, the Royal Shakespeare Company, which receives about 45 per cent of its budget from government or the Royal National Theatre, which receives 49 per cent. We are deeply appreciative of the investments that are made by government in the Stratford Festival, but we feel that there's an opportunity there that could be realized. I will give you an example.

Two million dollars are invested. Now according to the Conference Board of Canada those governments earn annually almost $64 million in taxes; that's with Canada's three levels of government in the area. Now some economists here might say, "Well Canadians might have spent that money on something else, another form of entertainment, and that too would have generated that amount of taxes." But remember that 40 per cent of our audiences come from outside Canada and not only come from outside Canada but specifically to Stratford, for something that they can find here in Canada, something that Canada did right and they can't get back home. And along the way they pay Canadian taxes and those taxes pay for Canadian roads and run Canadian hospitals and run Canadian schools. So obviously we believe that there is more support that could be flowing to the Stratford Festival but at the moment until matters substantially change we are going to work with our partners at the Ontario Arts Council who are here today and the Canada Council to make an argument for more money for a number of different reasons.

There is one reason though that I think is paramount in a country like Canada and that has to do with our unity and our identity. We have a preposterous geography. It is a beautiful expanse of country but it borders an economic, military and, more importantly, a cultural superpower. We have a country that's built on immigration, and that's a glorious and wonderful thing. That's something that's going to continue in the ears ahead, but we need to be able to talk to each other to find communal values, to tell each other our stories and we can only do that really in a way that builds not only understanding but empathetic understanding, one with a another. The arts are uniquely positioned to be able to do that. They are vitally important to creating understanding and unity in a country like Canada. So today I would say we should be approaching the arts with the same energy that we expended 120 years ago in building a railway across this country and for the same reason--to build unity and understanding among our people. The arts are the new wedding band of Confederation.

Now in moving forward into the future how do we solve all these seemingly daunting problems that we have in place? I realize I could take my cue from our DNA from 1953, from that night on July 13. I thought about what we were on that evening. At Stratford that night we were surprising, we were innovative, we were national and we were international and we were soundly based upon the words of William Shakespeare. And it is with that hue that we approach the future, that I will approach the future with a team of brilliant artistic directors. Why do we have a team? Because we found that more and more in Canada, and this is true of the arts in general, we are busy turning our artists into administrators. We found that especially the case when we began to look for artistic directors across the world and found out the best candidates wanted to actually spend time in the rehearsal hall, to be working with other artists, to be directing plays, and also to be able to get away and build relationships in other areas and grow themselves as artists.

And so the Board of Directors decided to change the leadership model so there would be an individual who would be there to guide the long-term development of the festival--the artistic development and the strategic development of the festival--and three extraordinary individuals who suddenly became very interested in working at the festival once the model changed, who would be working with the artists on a day-to-day basis. And let me tell you a little bit about who those people are.

First of all there's Marti Maraden. Marti is a life source. She was an actress with the company for many years, became an extremely powerful director of Shakespeare over the years, and she has just spent eight years at the National Art Centre where she was the head of English theatre and was really a driving force in the creation of the Canadian new play festival, the Magnetic North. She knows people in every part of this country and is well respected by them.

Des McAnuff was a young man from Scarborough who was a writer and a musician and came to work at the Stratford Festival in the early eighties. He directed a production of the Scottish play there and afterwards went off to the United States to the New York Shakespeare Festival and to La Jolla for 23 years where he established a body of new work as well as classics and of course some glorious productions of musicals. He's a two-time Tony award winner and he's an innovative visionary man.

Don Shipley, the third of the group, is a Stratford native. He was a young man who was actually an actor on the stage of the Stratford Festival. He went away to establish the Belfry Theatre as a founding artistic director, to run theatres across the country, the Grand Theatre, and for many years he was the head of the du Maurier International Theatre Festival here in Toronto. Most recently he was in Dublin where for a number of years he ran the Dublin International Theatre Festival. I thought it was time for Don to come home.

So individually and collectively Marti, Des and Don bring a remarkable amount of talent and diversity and fresh ideas to Stratford.

Now what are our goals for the future? Well they really fall into three areas. Quite simply the first has to do with rededicating the Stratford Festival to Shakespeare and the classics. And the second is to open up the windows and the doors to influences nationally and internationally and the third is really about developing and showcasing Canadian talent.

Now I'd like to talk to you briefly about those three things.

Let me begin with the last. Artistic development is critical to the happiness and the success of the artist. That's true for people but for artists it is vital. We have always had an emphasis on the development of the artist at the festival in many different training programs. One that we are most proud of is the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. This is a program that takes exceptional young actors and gives them the skills they need to take on the classics. We usually have several thousand applications a year. We will audition hundreds and hundreds of young people and we will take 12. The program was very good and it got better with the appointment of Martha Henry as the director of the program. She is in the process of building an extraordinary syllabus, concentrating the program, making it even more stringent in terms of actually getting in, making it a two-year program instead of a one-year program, so we really are bringing in by far the very best. We pay these young people to be trained because we want to make sure that talent and not means is the reason that they are in the room. This year we are also introducing a new program--a master director program. Five weeks in the summer of '08, internationally renowned directors will be coming to Stratford and working with the most promising young directors from across this country. Working with them on the classics and on the thrust stage. We also are expanding our theatre training program under the leadership of David Latham who's an internationally renowned teacher who will be working in a much more focused and concentrated way with our acting company in the years ahead. And of course we are going to continue and grow the apprenticeships and the many other training programs that we have in place for designers and directors and actors.

Opening up the windows and the doors. We are going to be announcing our 2008 season soon so the trick in an address like this is to say something but say nothing. Look for a season that contains tours, a season that contains partnerships. Look for a season that has artists visit us from around the world and also companies that will visit us. Why? Because we believe that it is incredibly important for our artists and our audiences to come into contact with influences and work styles from other areas. We are extremely confident in the way that we work but we also realize that we need to be able to speak to others and compare how we go about creating art and I think that's going to be a very exciting development in the years ahead.

The importance of new work and world premiers is going to be accentuated in the years to come. While we are going to be doing those two things, we will showcase the works of William Shakespeare in extraordinary, contemporary interpretations. At first blush that might seem like a kind of archaic even eccentric thing to do, being as we are at the beginning of the 21st century. I sometimes wonder if Tom Patterson had been born in Dryden Ontario for instance, he might have founded a summer festival dedicated to John Dryden, the seventeenth-century dramatist, and revised Romeo and Juliet to give it a happy ending. It might be jolly. Then sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up thinking that what if Tom had been born in Milton Ontario? There are a lot of readings of "Paradise Lost." But it was his good fortune that he was born in Stratford, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, and thus he founded a festival dedicated to the greatest playwright who ever lived, who wrote more than three dozen brilliant pieces of work from comedies, histories, romances, tragedies with the wisest incites and the funniest witticisms and the cleverest word play ever penned in any language.

So yes, we need to be the best in everything we do whether it's musicals or classics or translations or new plays. But we need to use a current phrase "to own Shakespeare"--to make the festival a treasured annual pilgrimage stop for every theatre lover, every scholar, actor and director who worships at the shrine of Will. We must provide not only inspired productions on our stages but also enrichment activities and events that invite people in to better understand and appreciate the joy of Shakespeare. You will look for that as well in the announcement that's coming up. And also we will be taking a close look at that Festival Theatre, finding ways of making it even more inviting and finding more spaces within it for people to come and enjoy and understand his works.

Why? Because I truly believe in an increasingly secular age in which there are so few sanctuaries from the stress of getting and spending, so few prophets to summon us up to higher selves and lend some understanding to our lives. Shakespeare is more necessary now than ever before. That I know might seem a little over the top especially coming from a guy who grew up the son of Italian immigrants in Sudbury Ontario. In Sudbury when I was a kid, public art meant the Big Nickel. My first language was Italian and I was brought up in a very proud culture that revered Dante and Petrarch. I came to Stratford when I was 16. I came to Stratford with a group of friends and I randomly stumbled into a Robin Phillip's production of "Love's Labour's Lost," a play that I had never studied or even read and I was transfixed. I looked down on that stage and as a teenager I recognized that he was writing about me. He was writing about my friends and here was a playwright, who lived 400 years before I was born, writing with such humour and such understanding about what I was going through at that time. It was so true and it was so funny that it made me laugh out loud and as I laughed I realized that I wasn't alone, that there were almost 2,000 people in that room laughing with me. I realized for the first time in my life in a way that had never occurred to me before oddly that I was connected to something great and glorious. I was part of the human family.

I had become connected to the rest of humanity, past, present and future, by the sharing of common feelings and similar experiences, by intelligence, by his beauty and by delight. And even today, sometimes when I stand offstage in the festival, I observe the audience watching "King Lear" for instance and I'm deeply moved by the wrapped look of attention on people's faces. There are 1,830 different people perhaps in very different situations in the audience. Perhaps some people are terminally ill, perhaps some people are in the middle of a divorce, in the middle of a bankruptcy, perhaps some are in abusive marriages and on the other hand maybe some are in love for the first time, some bearing their first child, some who have known war and some who are just simply there on a date. But all of them are seeing "Lear" in 1,830 different ways and they are all as a group sharing in their experience of watching "Lear" and his need for love and his painful vanity and his rage, his insanity and then ultimately his unbearable grief. The theatre is both a personal experience and also a social experience simultaneously, both intimate and yet universal.

My adolescent epiphany at Stratford was so profound that I went back home and I told my parents that I wasn't going to law school and that I was going to be an actor. You can tell that it went over very well. I realize my family worked very, very hard and as immigrants they were trying very hard to give their children as many opportunities as possible. You can imagine my father's reaction. He mentioned the word artist as a sort of combination of pimp and car thief. Anyway in 1988 I was fortunate. I landed a job at the festival as the interpreter in "All's Well that Ends Well" and when I directed my own production in 2003 of "Love's Labour's Lost" on the Festival stage I received a very, very kind and beautiful note from Robin Phillips and it was like a big circle had been completed.

Of course my experience isn't unheard of. Countless men and women, boys and girls, educated and illiterate, of every faith and nationality have had their lives transformed by an encounter with William Shakespeare. And to those who haven't I can only say that it comes like an emotional, intellectual and spiritual lightning bolt, a kind of flash of empathy and understanding that lights you up on the inside and gives you a slightly larger sense or much larger sense of what it means to be human. Once a great tragedy or comedy touches your heart that way, sometimes with pain, sometimes with exhilaration, it has a lasting effect. In Shakespeare, genius met craftsmanship and quite a bit of business savvy too I might add to create works of art with such density, ambiguity, profundity and humanity that they speak to us in new and fascinating ways no matter how many times we've seen them, no matter what our age or background, and no matter what era or continent we inhabit. And sometimes they are as celestial as a religious service and other times they are as amusing as a soap opera. Sometimes they are too painful to watch and other times they are rude and farcical. They change as we change. The words and the ideas that we hear in our teens are not the same words and ideas that we hear in our thirties or in our fifties or in our eighties. In other words, Shakespeare reflects life with all its changing and bewildering chaos and for that reason I think all of us in the theatre do a huge disservice to him and to our audience if ever we present a humdrum production. But also we do a disservice when we elevate his plays into something too precious or too holy. "Arise, I pray you rise," Shakespeare himself says in "Pericles," "we do not look for reverence but for love."

Despite his bourgeois ambitions and popular success, he was a misfit in a theocratic age, an outsider as an actor and a free thinker, a lover of ribald jokes, fat robes and wicked witches. Like all great art, his plays remain subversive because they have the power to pull us out of the routines and the regulations of our conventional lives. They lift us up to divine heights, they help us empathize with others' hellish despair, make us reassess our feelings and our thoughts, cause us to celebrate and reflect upon our existence on this earth and so they force us to ponder our mortality. Doing that better than anyone else was, is, and will always, be the role of the Stratford Festival. It will be our prime purpose and our core challenge.

Not long ago I lunched with an elderly woman. She was an intelligent bright-eyed octogenarian with her niece, who was herself in her sixties. The two of them had been coming together to Stratford, season after season, for many, many decades. It was their annual get-together and I could tell that there probably weren't going to be too many seasons left. The aunt recounted all of the wonderful summers in which they had shared their love for Shakespeare and the classics and the discussions they had had together, the intimacies they had revealed one to another and the companionship that they had found. I couldn't take my eyes off the aunt. She was amazing. But then I turned to her niece and when I turned to her I was so struck to see her smiling, yes, but her eyes were brimming with tears at her aunt's retelling of the time they had shared together at Stratford. It was an incredibly moving moment and I see their experience repeated over and over again at Stratford in the high school students, who have never been to the theatre before, so innocent they sit in shocked disbelief when Romeo or Cordelia dies and the young parents who bring their small children to see a musical or a family show as a way to share quality time together. And middle-aged couples, who return with their children now grown up, to sharpen their minds and to revive their spirits and to enjoy one another's company again and finally in the widows and the widowers who now come with their friends like they used to do with their loved ones in happier times to seek solace and guidance and beauty and truth.

As thinking, feeling individuals, we find in the classics new ways to understand ourselves, to develop our responses to life, and to come to terms with the vicissitudes of fortune. As engaged citizens, we find new ways to interpret the political and social issues of our time and as members of family we find new ways to connect, to communicate, and to anchor our relationships in an annual tradition.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call the Stratford experience and I hope you will all be part of it. Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Stanley H. Hartt, Chairman, CitiGroup Global Markets Canada Inc., and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Stratford Experience

Reference to Richard Monette, 14 years as Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. The future. First, a few minutes looking at the past. A history of the Festival. Tom Patterson's vision. The Guthrie theatre. Challenges. Factors beyond control. Government funding. Approaching the future with a team of brilliant artistic directors. Reasons for changing the leadership model. Some information about the leaders. Goals for the future. A brief discussion of three goals. The Stratford experience.