Stage Door News

Stratford: The Stratford Festival commits to a 2021 season no matter what form it might take

Friday, October 9, 2020

There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to impact the Stratford Festival next year and for many years to come, regardless of whether the pandemic ends tomorrow or two years from now.

But in the minds of Stratford Festival executive director Anita Gaffney and artistic director Antoni Cimolino, there will be a Festival season next year.

What that season looks like, however, is still up in the air.

“Everyone really wants to get back to those tourism activities we’ve enjoyed in the past, and we certainly want to be bringing visitors in as well, but I think what we’re recognizing is that this is a multi-year impact for the festival and for the surrounding tourism industry.  … In the beginning we thought, ‘OK, it’s a couple of months. We’ll get through this.’ But now we know it’s going to be a few years until we find our footing, recover, and get back to the same levels of activities that we enjoyed in the past,” Gaffney said.

But as was demonstrated by a number of outdoor and indoor theatrical performances in Stratford this year, there are ways to stage live theatre safely in the midst of a pandemic. While there’s no way to predict how the pandemic will unfold next year, both Gaffney and Cimolino have assured actors, staff, members and donors during a number of Stratford Festival town hall meetings over the past several months that the show will go on.

“There will be a Stratford Festival season, and we want to make sure that it is as dynamic and as attractive and irresistible as possible, so we need to take some time to do that carefully,” Cimolino said.

From planning a season of performances that can be scaled up or down as restrictions allow, and moved outdoors if necessary, to putting all recommended public-health measures in place, such as limiting theatre capacity or making use of larger public spaces indoors, there’s a lot to consider before Cimolino, Gaffney and the board of directors can be confident they can pull off a 2021 season safely for guests, cast and crew.

But by no mean is it impossible, Cimolino said.

“This virus will not be ignored. It needs to be carefully responded to. So what we need to do is look at how we can all do this safely and at the right time, with the best view of what’s happening next year. … So, we’re going to be announcing our season a bit later than normal and really do our homework carefully out of respect and to protect our audiences and to protect our artists,” Cimolino said.

But while the 2021 season will look and feel different than past seasons, with actors performing in only one play each to curtail the possible spread of COVID-19 between casts and , the possibility of pandemic-related themes, Cimolino and Gaffney said theatre-goers can definitely look forward to an official grand opening for the new Tom Patterson Theatre, as it will play a key role in making next year’s season a reality.

“It is a ravishingly beautiful building,” Cimolino said. “I think of it a little like Sleeping Beauty. …. Right now it’s just waiting to wake up. … We’re looking at opening the Tom Patterson and we’re looking at different ways of doing that. We were going to use the public spaces for performances, and we’re still looking at that. We’re also looking at maybe doing theatre in those public spaces going through the building – we’re looking at different plays for it. We’re trying to find as appropriate and as exciting and beautiful a way as possible to open up that space.”

However, as Cimolino, Gaffney and their staff continue planning for what could be one of their most challenging seasons to date, they are painfully aware the Festival’s financial struggles resulting from the cancellation of the 2020 season will certainly follow them into 2021.

“The federal government’s programs like the wage subsidy and their $500-million investment in culture, tourism and sport earlier this spring have helped us, but it’s not closing the gap by any stretch,” Gaffney said. “But we are getting a very good (reception) by government. Our local representatives are there supporting our pitch and being able speak about their own experiences in the community and the impacts of the festival not operating this season.

“I’m optimistic that the government will invest as business (at the Festival) restarts. They’re very keen to know our plans that we have for 2021.”

To get to a position where it can put those plans into place, the Stratford Festival has begun a new fundraising campaign called Raising the Tent: The Relaunch of the Stratford Festival. For more information and to find out how to contribute, visit

By Galen Simmons for

Photo: Tom Patterson Theatre. © 2020 Howard Clarke.