How the Stratford Festival is evolving to keep diversity, #MeToo movement centre stage

The Stratford Festival, now in its 67th season, is constantly changing to surprise audiences as well as remain relevant and modern — even as it presents adaptations of century-old plays, including those by Shakespeare himself.

CBC's Jackie Sharkey and theatre critic Jesse Green examine how the Ontario festival continues to thrive

Michael Blake, left, as Othello and Gordon S. Miller as Iago in Othello. Miller said he was inspired by how white supremacists twist and torque situations for his take on the classic Shakespearean villain. (David Hou/Stratford Festival)

The Stratford Festival, now in its 67th season, is constantly changing to surprise audiences as well as remain relevant and modern — even as it presents adaptations of century-old plays, including those by Shakespeare himself.

Last year, Martha Henry was cast as Prospero in The Tempest. This year, Maev Beaty is newspaper editor Penelope Burns in The Front Page. Both roles were played by men in the originals.

And in this year's version of Othello, Gordon S. Miller plays the classic villain Iago, drawing inspiration from white supremacists and convicted murderer Russell Williams.

According to the New York Times' theatre critic Jesse Green, these adaptations exemplify how the renowned Ontario festival continues to stay relevant, and how to adapt — or leave behind — certain works when the conversations about gender, race and class may have radically changed since they were first written.

Here is part of his conversation with the CBC's Jackie Sharkey, as part of the Labour Day holiday special Spotlight: Backstage at Stratford Festival.

Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot with members of the company in Billy Elliot the Musical. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival)

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino picks a theme each season. This year it was breaking boundaries. What do you think drawing a theme or drawing plays around a theme affords the festival?

I don't mean to be cynical, but it isn't much more than a marketing tool. When you see a theme like "breaking boundaries" or for the upcoming season, "power," … you'd be hard pressed to find any play in the history of the literature that did not fit into that theme.

When you go, the thing that's so wonderful for me is, you find your own themes. And that wouldn't be possible if the plays that they choose, for whatever reason to fit into their marketing concept, weren't also real plays — which means they're about many, many things, and you can find your own path through them.

When you look at what they're doing, what kind of challenges does it face, in particular when it comes the nature of the shows they mount? And I'm thinking specifically here of the … Shakespeare element of the Stratford Festival.

Well, it's a lucky thing that Shakespeare wrote so many plays. But even with the 40 or so canonical plays, you do eventually get to a problem because a lot of them are not popular, and the popular ones you can't do every year. So the question is: what do they do to keep the material fresh and to keep Shakespeare central to the story at Stratford?

It forces them therefore to look at where we are in society right now: how these plays fit in with society now, and what adaptations or approaches they need to take so that people will come back four years later for another Hamlet or Othello, or All's Well That Ends Well, and not feel they're seeing exactly the same thing.

Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford share a laugh in Stratford Festival's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Chris Young/Stratford Festival)

So it forces them to take chances [and] to reinvent the stories as much as they can. Is that right?

Yes, I think it does. And I think that's all to the good. … I wouldn't say they've been in the forefront, but they have not been laggards recently in looking at issues of gender and race and social class and all of the issues that are roiling in our society right now — you know, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo — seeing how are these issues reflected in these plays.

Sometimes there are shifts so great that you really can't see a play again with the same eyes. You've changed, we've changed. And so sometimes they have to change the production. Sometimes that's a rewrite. Sometimes it's just changing the focus.

But what are those moments and are they really that common … that force change because the audience can't see the play with the same light anymore?

With Shakespeare, with the Greek classics, with other works of shall we say a certain age, I don't think there's so much of a problem. We have long since accepted that directors and actors will interpret the material for our day. …

And in contemporary works, we understand that the author is showing us in the text what she or he wants that show to be, and we respect that, especially in the first few outings of a new play.

It's a balance. You need to see the past, including unpleasant things. But you also need some guidance, possibly, as to how to read it for today.- Jesse Green

The problem comes in between. … Can we do these shows? What do we have to do to them in order to present them? And not only have them speak to our time, but not be offensive to our time? Is being offensive something that is legitimate in a show?

On the other hand, we have to be careful not to find ourselves in a cancel society, where we say that because a particular work shows something unpleasant that it should not be seen.

It's a balance. You need to see the past, including unpleasant things. But you also need some guidance, possibly, as to how to read it for today.

What's the value in seeing something unpleasant onstage, thematically?

Well, a lot of people get murdered in Shakespeare, you know. I think most people today would say: "Well, murder isn't a good thing. Why do I have to see that?"

History is made up of bad things. If there were not bad things, there would be no literature. So we have to make our peace with that.

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)

It doesn't mean we have to kowtow to it and be absolutely ruled by what one particular person had to say about it at one particular time. We can play with it. We can choose not to do it. We can wait for another time. But we can't ignore the fact that these are based on the real difficulty of life since it was first lived.

Are you seeing intentional changes to scripts and stories like this where were you have the production team or the director saying, "Look, we want to do it but we were not comfortable with it. We need to make a change." Is that a trend you're seeing?

Oh, absolutely. The biggest case right now and the most successful play on Broadway right now is an adaptation by Aaron Sorkin of the classic American novel To Kill A Mockingbird (which was done in a different version at Stratford last year, a very traditional version). The idea of doing that play on Broadway and starring Jeff Daniels, without altering its particularly its racial politics, was basically a non-starter.

And yet the title is so strong and there is so much worthwhile in it that it seemed like a good risk to take, to see if a theatrical version of it could be made that would get around those problems or better yet would make the most of the issues that are somewhat difficult for us today.

Are there similar trends happening with in response to the #MeToo movement?

Definitely. As I say particularly right now with questions about mid-century musicals such as Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady and Carousel — all of which have had revivals on Broadway recently — and all of which had to deal with persistent questions about whether these works show an inappropriate idea of gender roles or merely demonstrate the truth of inappropriate ideas of gender roles as they existed at the time of the setting or the creation of the works. And they each handled them differently, some with more success and some less.

How do you see Stratford Festival fighting to stay relevant to its audience?

Well, Stratford has made a pretty strong commitment to diversity on its stages, and that is terribly important, and the key thing for not only remaining relevant but maintaining an audience and expanding an audience.

I don't just mean that they might do a play like Othello that traditionally features a black actor in the lead.

Stage manager Cynthia Toushan calls the show and makes sure hundreds of lighting, sound and stage cues happen on time, every time. (Erin Samuell/Stratford Festival)

There is a community of actors who are women, who are of colour, who are disabled, who are Indigenous who have been sidelined through the history of theatre and are, you know, eager to be part of these productions.

And something that Stratford has begun to do strongly, and must continue to do even more strongly, is to incorporate them not only in the kind of marquee roles that you might expect but throughout their programming.

Are they really that unique in that, though? Isn't everyone trying to do that?

Everyone is at least beginning to try to do that, but there is a fair amount of resistance. And no one is as big as Stratford. So when Stratford does it it's going to change what everyone else does.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from Jackie Sharkey. Produced by Jackie Sharkey.