Stage Door News

Stratford: Stratford Festival plans a smaller 2021 season outdoors and under tents

Friday, February 26, 2021

Without a clear picture of what pandemic restrictions will look like in the coming months, Stratford Festival officials are planning a season of theatre that can be quickly adapted to whatever COVID-19 scenario they face.

Much like the Festival’s early seasons, this year’s productions – six plays and five cabarets – will be performed on two outdoor stages under the cover of canopies.

“The first one will be at the Festival Theatre,” said artistic director Antoni Cimolino during a virtual town-hall meeting livestreamed on the Festival’s YouTube page “There’s that gorgeous terrace that overlooks the gardens at the Festival Theatre, and we’re going to cover and extend the roofline. The architects that did the Tom Patterson (Theatre), Hariri Pontarini, have designed a beautiful extension of that roofline, which I think could be something we augment it with in the years ahead.”

The second tent will be raised in the parking lot behind the new Tom Patterson Theatre close to Stratford’s William Allman Arena. Unlike the design of the first tent, the second will include an elongated thrust stage running through the middle and dividing the seating in half – something that Cimolino said will enhance physical distancing between actors and the audience.

To keep everyone safe and reduce opportunities for transmission, the repertory company’s actors will, unlike previous seasons, perform in only one play at a time, reducing close contact between casts. The casts for each of this season’s plays will also be kept relatively small. Cimolino noted that plays will run for a maximum of 90 minutes with no intermissions, and there will be three daily performance times.

The canopies themselves, however, will allow for just 100 audience members per performance, which will limit the number of people who can attend in person this season to roughly 25,000 – about five per cent of a normal year’s attendance.

“We will continue to work on measures that ensure people feel safe and that they are safe, but some people in our audience simply aren’t going to feel comfortable coming back until there’s vaccines in every arm and this disease is well past us,” Cimolino said. “We don’t want to lose contact with those people. They may not come visit us this summer, but they will be in our communities and in our theatres next year … so we’re planning to record, digitally, each one of these productions and be able to stream them and reach out that way.”

During the virtual meeting, executive director Anita Gaffney – comparing preparations for the 2021 season to “planning on quicksand” – outlined some of the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our resources at the Festival are stretched very thin,” Gaffney said. “At the end of March, we will have our annual meeting for 2020 and we will be announcing a loss on the 2020 year. And the plans that we have for this year are really stretching and exceeding our available resources to some degree, and we’re really trying to manage where we are today and making sure we have resources available so that, when we can welcome audiences and artists back in earnest, we have the resources to do that in a significant way.”

While Gaffney stressed the importance of the Festival’s long-term viability and the need to carefully manage the 2021 season so another lockdown won’t have the same disastrous impact, both she and Cimolino said the theatre company needed to do something this year to reconnect with staff, artists and audiences. They also acknowledged the need to bring back some of the economic spinoff created by the Festival to the Stratford area.

“It’s become increasingly clear that it’s not possible for us to be doing the kinds of plays we had planned for 2020 indoors this coming summer. … So, in thinking about this summer and reflecting on this past year, we realized we need to find a way to safely come back to be able to perform plays this summer for our audiences, for our artists and staff, and for this community,” Cimolino said.

“We need to be there.”

The Festival will also continue adding content, both new and old, to its YouTube channel and Stratfest@Home streaming service to continue reaching audiences around the world.

While all of the Stratford Festival’s plans for this year are subject to change if restrictions tighten, there’s also a possibility restrictions could relax between the 2021 season’s tentative opening in late June and in late September, when executives have set the season’s closing date.

If Huron Perth public health gives the green light, that means more audience members could be welcomed to the outdoor performances and the season could be expanded with more shows. There’s even a possibility that performances could be moved indoors to extend the season into the late fall and winter months.

With details on the 2021 season still coming together, Cimolino and Gaffney said they will not be able to announce this plays and their casts until later in the spring, potentially in April if public-health restrictions allow rehearsals to begin.

By Galen Simmons for