Stratford Festival to host open-air summer season

·3 min read
The Stratford Festival, had been holding annual theatre productions in Stratford, Ont., since 1953, and put its 2020 season on hold amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, pictured in front of Festival Theatre, says performances will return in 2021 with an open-air season. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
The Stratford Festival, had been holding annual theatre productions in Stratford, Ont., since 1953, and put its 2020 season on hold amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, pictured in front of Festival Theatre, says performances will return in 2021 with an open-air season. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

After its 2020 season was cancelled by COVID-19, the Stratford Festival announced plans this week to stage outdoor productions over the summer.

Beginning in late June, the festival plans to stage a combination of plays and cabarets running about 90 minutes each. Performances will be held underneath two open-air canopies at the Festival Theatre and the Tom Patterson Theatre and will also be streamed online.

"We realized we had to find an open airway where people could feel safe, socially distanced with masks on, but getting a very exciting experience on the stage," artistic director Antoni Cimolino told CBC News.

"If things get better, we can always scale up, we can bring the productions indoors, but we needed to find a way to just be able to deliver the plays and that's what we're excited about."

Cimolino said the festival lost millions when it cancelled last year's season. This year's season is supported, in part, by a $1.8 million cash infusion announced by the province Tuesday, though Cimolino expects with audiences capped at 100 people, they won't turn a profit this year, either.

"We're going to be losing money again, but we have to be present this summer," he said.

Return to festival's roots

The Stratford Festival tent is pictured in 1953. The Festival's plan to hold performances under canopies is, in some ways, a return to its roots.
The Stratford Festival tent is pictured in 1953. The Festival's plan to hold performances under canopies is, in some ways, a return to its roots. (Photo by Peter Smith & Company. Courtesy of the Stratford Festival Archives.)

The canopies will, in a way, be modified versions of the original performance tent used by the festival when it was first established in the early 1950s.

The canopy top will provide protection from the rain while the lack of side panels means there will be better ventilation than in a traditional tent, Cimolino said.

"It will be a change from what we had years ago but very much in the same spirit," he said.

Each canopy is expected to seat about 100 people, although plans may change depending on what public health guidelines are in place over the summer.

Performances will be capped at a brisk 90 minutes to avoid the risk of audience members getting too close during intermissions. Actors will also perform in one play each in order to bubble casts together and stop the spread of COVID-19 between different shows.

"Everything about this summer will be tailor-made to address the current situation," said Cimolino.

'Great news' for local business

Stratford City Centre BIA chair Rob Russell welcomed the news of the festival's upcoming summer season. Russell said his business, like many others in Stratford, suffered last year due to the lack of tourist traffic and he hopes to welcome more in-person customers this year.

"I do know it's not nearly, of course, the size of season they would normally run, but it's great news for all the businesses in Stratford that are working hard to bring more people to town," said Russell, who owns MacLeods Scottish Shop.

"That can only have a positive impact and make this year that much better than last year."

Cimolino said this year's season will be tied to a theme of metamorphosis. Further details about the performance titles and cast members will be released later this spring.

The 2021 season is expected to begin at the end of June and wrap up in late September.

The Stratford Festival, which has been holding annual theatre productions in Stratford, Ont., since 1953, will put it’s entire 2020 season on hold amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.  See man and woman walking in front of Stratford Festival shop.
The Stratford Festival, which has been holding annual theatre productions in Stratford, Ont., since 1953, will put it’s entire 2020 season on hold amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. See man and woman walking in front of Stratford Festival shop.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)