How Stratford Festival is adapting to a post-#MeToo world

Stratford Festival says it's working to include more diverse voices, production staff and actors to its repertoire, to be "more inclusive of half the population of the world," says artistic director Antoni Cimolino.

Issues of race, class and gender are at the forefront of audiences' minds, says actor Maev Beaty

Mrs. Page (Brigit Wilson) and Mrs. Ford (Sophia Walker) share a laugh in Stratford Festival's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Director, Antoni Cimolino says the play is a good example of how Shakespeare empowered women: 'in a very healthy and smart way [the women] straighten out the offender and at the same time cure a husband of his jealousy.' (Chris Young/Stratford Festival)

When the peak of the #MeToo movement hit in early 2018, many theatre companies in Canada were shaken by the allegations made against Soul Pepper Theatre in Toronto and its then-executive director Albert Schultz. 

For its part, Stratford Festival says it has never faced allegations of harassment or sexual assault from actors or staff but artistic director Antoni Cimolino was repeatedly asked by audience members how he managed to "anticipate the movement" and reflect it in the season's offering. 

That summer, the festival put women in the spotlight casting Martha Henry as Prospero in The Tempest and changing nearly half the roles in Julius Caesar to women. 

But Cimolino says, he didn't really anticipate it. It just happened. 

"There was something happening in society throughout 2017 [when the season was planned] that culminated in the #MeToo movement. So, yes. Unconsciously it was part of the formation of the season for 2018. Consciously it was part of the season formation for 2019."

The 2019 season includes plays like The Merry Wives of Windsor (where two women take matters of infidelity into their own hands and, Cimolino says "in a very healthy and smart way, straighten out the offender and at the same time cure a husband of his jealousy"), The Crucible (known for coining the idea of a witchhunt) and a new adaptation of The Front Page by Canadian playwrite Michael Healey.

A new take on The Front Page

The Healey adaptation takes a play written nearly 100 years ago and turns the modern American classic into a more balanced production. 

"There are other female characters in the play that are not in the original, characters of colour that were not in the original," said Maev Beaty who plays Penelope Burns, the powerful newspaper editor — who would have been a man in the original incarnation of the play.

The female love interests are always smarter than the males- Antoni Cimolino, on Shakespeare's feminist writings

"What I love about what Michael has brilliantly done with this script is he is not shying away from any of the issues of race, of gender, of class, of corruption. He's leaning fully into them, because they are absolutely on the forefront of our collective and immediate imagination in 2019," said Beaty.

Ensuring diversity in these kinds of historical works can be difficult, said Beaty, especially for a company like Stratford Festival where it's in their mandate to produce the plays of Shakespeare — works written over 400 years ago which mostly feature male leads.

"If the storytellers are men, the tendency is usually to prioritize a male story. And so the female characters are going to be tools to push the protagonist along the road," said Beaty who has been with Stratford Festival for five seasons.

Cimolino said the festival has been making it a priority to increase diversity on stage and behind the scenes. In 2017 it had its largest-ever indigenous cast and, he said, they strive for gender parity among their directors — a goal the National Theatre in London hopes to reach by 2021. 

"These stories need to be interpreted in a way that is more inclusive of half the population of the world," said Cimolino.

Maev Beaty plays Penelope 'Cookie' Burns, a powerful newspaper editor in a new adaptation of The Front Page. In the original, that role is played by a man. (David Cooper/Stratford Festival)

Shakespeare, the feminist

"I think that people are concerned that somehow by looking at things through a specific lens — in this case the #Metoo movement, that will mean certain stories are not told. I don't think that's the case."

Shakespeare, said Cimolino, was a feminist and if people look closely Cimolino believes audiences will see that too. 

"The female love interests are always smarter than the males. Because usually the males, right throughout the canon, they're usually boytoys, gold diggers; not nearly as smart as the women," said Cimolino.

"So he didn't have the numbers to create a lot of female characters, but by god when he wrote them, they are amazing — they're world-changing."

More stories from Stratford Festival 2019:


Jackie Sharkey is the content producer for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. She has been been based in Kitchener since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC radio in Kelowna, Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, NU.


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