Saturday, October 05, 2013

Infuriating As Often As Not

Until this summer, we had never visited The Stratford Festival. It is unlikely we shall return anytime soon.

I thought The Stratford Festival was a mirror image of The Guthrie: both are major theatrical enterprises that have fundamentally lost their ways. In both enterprises, one-half of the attention is devoted to producing popular fare (for which no state subsidy—in theory—is warranted) and one-half of the attention is devoted to classic repertory. In both enterprises, popular repertory is presented with more conviction and flair than classic repertory, where productions are inept—if not infuriating—as often as not.

The international reputation of The Stratford Festival peaked in the 1970s, a decade during which The Stratford Festival served as the summer home for actors and directors from New York and London. The glory days for Stratford were short-lived: since 1980 or thereabouts, Stratford has served primarily as a venue for Canadian actors and directors. The result is that the Festival is now largely a provincial affair.

I was amazed, reading actor and director biographies in the Stratford program booklet, how few Stratford actors and directors had ever enjoyed a single professional appearance outside Canada. There was only a handful of New York or London credits to be counted in the lengthy Stratford cast lists and director lists.

The Festival’s practice of employing Canadians, and only Canadians, is a major mistake. Casting offices should be opened in New York and London in order to raise the quality of Festival casting. (I said much the same thing last year when discussing The Shaw Festival.) Until that occurs, The Stratford Festival will remain a big-budget yet insular institution, unworthy of international attention and respect.


Tyrone Guthrie probably did not stay at Stratford long enough to give the Festival the deep roots it needed, artistically, to thrive long-term. Having helped found the Festival in 1953, Guthrie left Stratford in 1955.

Much the same thing happened in Minneapolis: having helped found The Guthrie (which opened in 1963), Guthrie left Minneapolis in 1966.

It strikes me as odd that a man of genius would work tirelessly to establish a new enterprise, only to walk away before a firm foundation had been put into place to secure that genius’s long-term vision.

Would George Balanchine have walked away from New York City Ballet in 1949?


Tyrone Guthrie’s fondness for thrust stages may be seen, not only in Stratford and Minneapolis, but also in Chichester and London: Chichester Festival Theatre and the Olivier Theatre at The National Theatre employ thrust stages.

The era of thrust stages coincided perfectly with the period of Guthrie’s influence. As Guthrie’s influence waned, so did the construction of theaters with thrust stages.

I prefer proscenium theaters above all others, and I hold a slight preference for theater-in-the-round stages over thrust stages (the modern advent of theater-in-the-round stages occurred precisely at the same time as the modern advent of thrust stages; both were contemporaneous—and short-lived—phenomena). Too many design compromises and too many directorial compromises arise when productions are mounted on thrust stages. Only genius directors are capable of surmounting the obstacles; other directors carry on as if directing on a conventional proscenium stage—which more or less negates the supposed strengths and advantages of a thrust stage.

The Guthrie long ago figured out how to design for a thrust stage. Based upon what we observed this summer at Stratford, The Stratford Festival has yet to figure out how to design for a thrust stage. We were dumbfounded at the poor stage design we encountered at Stratford, production after production after production.

Stage design at last year’s Shaw Festival had been of the highest standard.

Stage design at this year’s Stratford Festival was so bad, it became depressing.


There was nothing for us to do in Stratford other than attend theater performances.

Stratford, as a town, has the allure and charm of Mankato. Shorn of its theater festival, Stratford would be visited by no one.

Niagara-On-The-Lake, home of The Shaw Festival, had been much more festival-like and much more visitor-friendly. Niagara-On-The-Lake possessed countless fine restaurants, and many charming shops, and much old architecture—and historic Fort George was nearby, as was Niagara Falls.

We had enjoyed Niagara-On-The-Lake immensely. For us, The Shaw Festival truly had been a festival.

The Stratford Festival, in contrast, provided nothing more than a theater excursion.

We arrived, attended eight performances in four days, and departed.

(At Stratford, huge numbers of attendees are day-trippers from Toronto, who arrive by chartered bus, attend a single performance, and depart by chartered bus.)


For the first quarter-century of The Stratford Festival, music was an important component of the program. Many of the finest musicians of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s appeared at The Stratford Festival, often on multiple occasions.

Glenn Gould, in recital, inaugurated the music program at Stratford in 1953. Gould was to return to the Festival often until retiring from the concert stage.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf appeared at the Festival three times in a single week in 1955, twice in recital and once in concert—and was to return to Stratford for a recital in 1969.

Claudio Arrau was in residence at the Festival in 1956, appearing in recital and in concert throughout the summer; Arrau was to return frequently in later seasons.

Among the many artists that graced The Stratford Festival: Pierre Bernac; Julian Bream; Benjamin Britten; Aaron Copland; Rudolf Firkušný; Maureen Forrester; Lynn Harrell; Eugene Istomin; Peter Pears; Itzhak Perlman; Jacqueline du Pré; Jean-Pierre Rampal; Pepe Romero; Leonard Rose; Mstislav Rostropovich; Peter Serkin; Rudolf Serkin; Gérard Souzay; János Starker; Isaac Stern; Paul Tortelier; Barry Tuckwell; Van Cliburn; Shirley Verrett; and Jon Vickers.

Among ensembles that appeared at The Stratford Festival: the Guarneri Quartet; the English Chamber Orchestra; the New York Philharmonic; and the Chicago Symphony.

The music program at The Stratford Festival ended in 1978, a likely victim of finances. Louis Quilico and Gino Quilico, father-and-son opera singers (and both Canadian), gave the final Stratford recital in the late summer of that year.

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