It’s understandable that many places around the globe won’t see a return to normal theatre festivals for quite some time. With the presence of the pandemic still strongly felt, the notion of large congregations of people hustling from venue to venue and waiting in cramped lobbies seems like a veritable impossibility. And while plenty of theatres and companies are looking towards technology to adapt to the current reality, the 2021 Stratford Festival is connecting to their past with the announcement of a freshly formatted outdoors season.
Ontario’s Stratford Festival is the premiere festival for Shakespeare fans across all of Canada, and like every other theatre festival across North America, they’ve felt the impact of the past year. With the announcement of their latest season, the Stratford Festival states that their plans will “will hark back to the Festival’s founding under a tent in 1953”, using canopies for audiences this summer. This change of format connects not only to Stratford’s roots but also to the energy of traditional outdoor Shakespeare festivals.
“This dream of transformation from our isolated lives informed my choice of theme for the 2021 season: Metamorphosis,” states artistic director Antoni Cimolino, and it’s a fitting title for both the change of structure as well as the content of the lineup. “We are hopeful that the current Ontario lockdown and the vaccination program will enable a successful outdoor summer season…As butterflies shedding their cocoons, we are poised to emerge from this pandemic.”
The 2021 Stratford Festival lineup will consist of six plays (including productions of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two plays that deal with their own sets of barriers and distance) and five cabarets- a way for audiences to experience solid musical performances without the large number of individuals needed for traditional musicals. Every aspect of how this year’s productions will be presented seems keenly in tune with the safety of the audience members and in keeping with the health protocols in place.
Aside from the Shakespearean pieces, many of the other pieces of the season aim to be a diverse selection of stories featuring resilience and historical significance, orbiting around this year’s theme of Metamorphosis. Serving Elizabeth by Marcia Johnson examines Princess Diana’s visit to Kenya and responds to the recent television production The Crown from a different perspective; Why We Tell The Story and Freedom, two of the cabarets, showcase black musical theatre and music at large respectively, the former directed by Thom Allison with musical director Laura Burton and the latter helmed by Beau Dixon. Rounded out by lighter affairs such as I Am William which plays with the persistent theory of Shakespeare not writing his own plays, the season appears to offer something for everyone.
Stratford Festival’s summer season is clearly keen to breathe a bit of fresh air back into the theatre scene of Canada. Harkening back to their roots and presenting things in a format often synonymous with summer joys is a wonderful way to take a step back into some form of normalcy for the company. It is abundantly clear that all of us as a species are looking for some sort of metamorphosis to let ourselves step out from under the shadow of the past year, and with vaccinations beginning to get underway and artists finding ways to connect with audiences face to face once more, perhaps the cracks in our cocoon are finally showing.