Monday, October 24, 2005

Who cares about the Stratford Festival?

Review the Reviewer has Dr. Richard Ouzounian's dismal diagnosis of the Stratford Festival up:
[I]f you look past dollars and cents, the picture gets more upsetting. Although every year has its highs and lows, the general feeling among Toronto critics is that the artistic output has been less than satisfactory in recent seasons.
Personally, I’ve found some individually rewarding shows, but, alas, an even greater number of truly disappointing ones along with some appallingly misguided failures.
All in all, there’s been a disconcerting lack of consistency, a boring predictability to the casting and the scary feeling that no one is really in charge of overall quality control.
As someone who grew up in Montreal and Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto sans car, I've never quite understood the appeal of Shaw or Stratford. Theatre is, for me, a city thing. If I want to go see theatre on vacation, I'll try to go to New York or (not that I can afford this again any time soon) London or Edinburgh. Or any big city, really -- places I actually want to visit as well as see theatre in.
In Canada, I'll make a special trip to go to Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit High Performance Rodeo, Montreal's Festival de théâtre des Amériques, Edmonton's Fringe, Winnipeg's Master Playwrights Festival, Ottawa's Magnetic North. These are exciting to me.
But while I love Shakespeare and enjoy seeing a few of his plays every year, there's nothing terribly exciting about a whole festival of his work. (Shaw, don't get me started...) Maybe when I'm older and greyer and want to go on winery tours, I'll enjoy my trips to Stratford more. Right now it's not dynamic enough for me... And that's because it's not supposed to be dynamic. People don't go to Stratford to be shaken up. They go for a relaxing time at a bed and breakfast in a beautiful, sleepy town... and to see solid productions of classics while they're there. And good for them. Someday I will be middle-aged, too.
I understand Stratford's contribution to the development of Canadian theatre has been incredibly important, but I'm not sure why we still give it such disproportionate scrutiny today. A-D Richard Monette is running a popular (financially successful) festival that provides steady employment for lots of actors/directors/stagehands/designers. As far as their artistic track record, I haven't seen a heck of a lot up there so I'm not the best judge. But, from what I've seen, I wouldn't say they do any better or worse of a job than a big Toronto company like, say, CanStage. They certainly do a better job of Shakespeare than most/all of the various summer Shakespeares across Canada. At least one thing I saw at Stratford this summer was excellent: Jason Sherman's Brothers Karamazov.
It's not 1953 anymore... Canada has a huge theatre network from coast to coast. I'm not saying we should shrug Stratford off, but its state of affairs is hardly a national crisis.

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