How Antoni Cimolino, Stratford’s artistic director, has turned this season’s festival into a Covid-proof outdoor affair

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How Antoni Cimolino, Stratford’s artistic director, has turned this season’s festival into a Covid-proof outdoor affair

Photograph courtesy of Stratford Festival

How and when did you decide to take 2021’s Stratford Festival al fresco?
Last July, as it became obvious the virus wasn’t fading as quickly as we’d hoped, we realized the best path forward was to create a summer festival that is tailor-made for this particular moment in time. And that meant moving all 11 productions outside.

We could all use the diversion right now. But did you ever think that maybe we need to skip this year and focus on 2022?
I didn’t. I felt so terrible that we couldn’t present theatre here last summer. It was an ache in my body.

What adjustments were involved in transitioning to the outdoors?
We had to create two stages. One is at the Festival Theatre. The second is in the parking lot behind the Tom Patterson Theatre. We found a tent company in B.C. called Tentnology that makes beautiful open-sided tents. We’re selling tickets in groups of four, three, two or one. We’re hoping to accommodate 100 people, all masked, for each sitting.

Can outdoors replicate the intimacy of a dark theatre?
No, but some of the best plays in history were created to be performed outdoors: Hamlet, Oedipus Rex. At Stratford we pride ourselves on training actors to fill theatres of 1,800, but even the most talented actor can’t compete with a lawnmower. So we’re putting microphones on our actors for the first time. The most significant adjustment is that this will be the first time we’re not working in repertory. Instead, we’ll have eight totally separate shows with eight totally separate casts, separate lighting crews, separate wig makers.

None of this sounds cheap.
No, and putting on a show for 100 people costs the same as putting on a show for 1,000. The new stages both cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all the additional Covid protocol measures cost quite a bit. Our budget is $37 million, and we’re already planning a deficit of $4 million.

The theme for this year is metamorphosis. Did you consider any other options? Despair, cabin fever, perhaps?
Ha! You know, I got a lot of free advice. Some said people want just light and fun; others said no, people are angry and they want theatre that reflects that mood. My feeling was that audiences don’t want fluff or despair—they just want something new. The world has been through cataclysmic change, and the question everyone is asking is: Who have we become?

Is it tricky to be innovative when your festival is dedicated to the Bard?
Oh no. The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that his themes are as relevant as ever. Our two Shakespeare productions this year, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, are both about generational change, about kids turning to their parents and saying, “How did you mess this up so badly?” On top of that, the production of Romeo and Juliet is staged for blind and visually impaired as well as sighted audiences. Our director, Ravi Jain, wanted to look at the role of sound, and transport the audience to feel like they’re in the characters’ heads, reading their thoughts. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let’s just say we’re inviting the audience to enter into the play in a new way.

In the early days of the pandemic, the actor Colm Feore joked that everyone in Stratford was either depressed or drunk. A year later, is that still the case?
I think people have acclimatized to some extent, though of course the impact has been huge. We’re talking about the 1,000 people normally employed by the festival, but also the 2,500 who work in hospitality and related industries. Some actors are doing film and TV instead, and some are living off their savings. One brilliant lighting director I know is doing door framing on a construction site.

As a slightly more seasoned member of the arts community, how are you doing?
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a home, I have my wife and partner of many years, Brigit Wilson. We get on great and we still like each other. At least, I still like her.

Do you have a contingency plan if things get worse?
So much is unpredictable, but I think our plan gives us a chance. Maybe we’ll be restricted to audiences of 50, or maybe we’ll have to push the season ahead by a few weeks or put some shows online only. We’re anticipating some obstacles and challenges, but—

The show must go on?
Exactly.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.