Theatre

Camelot charismas

Stratford's stage fest has a new lease on enchantment

John Bemrose June 16 1997
Theatre

Camelot charismas

Stratford's stage fest has a new lease on enchantment

John Bemrose June 16 1997

Camelot charismas

Theatre

Stratford's stage fest has a new lease on enchantment

JOHN BEMROSE

Last February, when construction crews were working full tilt on renovations to the flagship Festival Theatre at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, they made one of those serendipitous discoveries that uncovers a vital link with the past. Removing a cornerstone from the building, they found a shiny metal box—a time capsule whose presence had been forgotten. An archival check showed that it had been placed there during the construction of the worldfamous theatre in 1957, the year it replaced the huge tent that had housed the festival for its first four seasons. A week after the box’s discovery, Stratford artistic director Richard Monette opened it in the presence of several festival pioneers—among them Tom Patterson, the former journalist who first thought up the idea

of mounting a Shakespeare festival in the bluecollar town a two-hour drive west of Toronto. Inside were theatre programs, reviews, a piece of the original tent and a good-luck penny. “If only we’d invested it,” Monette joked at the time. He now recalls that he was tremendously moved by the discovery, with its reminders of the brave early days of the festival’s founding. “It’s a kind of reaching across the decades,” he says. “Something is passed from the founders’ hands to ours. It’s a wonderful reminder of the human imagination’s ability to transcend time.”

This month, the most extensive renovations in the theatre’s 40-year history—costing a total of $13 million—were completed just in time for the opening of Stratford’s 45th season. For the black-tie crowd converging on the celebrated wavy-roofed building, the changes were immediately apparent. A new horseshoe driveway sweeps around terraced gardens and a reflecting pool. At the remodeled front entrance, expanded new lobbies and a bookstore beckon behind an expansive sheath of glass. But it is inside, in the auditorium where patrons settled in for the opening-night production of Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot last week, that the renovations are most dramatic. The renowned thrust stage looks pretty much the same, but structural and decorative changes have made the theatre more welcoming. Comments Joe Coté, a Toronto CBC Radio host and longtime Stratford fan: “I love the changes. They’ve preserved the tent shape of the theatre, but the auditorium is a lot more intimate.

The stage seems so close now, I felt I was one of the knights in Camelot.”

If the extravagant pageantry of Stratford’s production of the musical seemed to match the occasion, then that was exactly what Monette intended. “Camelot is about a young man, Arthur, who had a dream, and the Stratford Festival also began with a young man with a dream,” says Monette, referring to Patterson, now 77. “Also, the shape of our theatre is round. And I think that has a reverberation, subliminally, to Arthur’s Round Table. And finally, I think this theatre, like Camelot, was founded on very high ideals.”

These are heady comparisons, but Monette, who turns 53 on June 19, has some good reasons to be upbeat about the festival’s fortunes. Since he took over three years ago, Stratford has run small surpluses on a budget that now stands at $27 million. And current ticket sales— which supply 77 per cent of the budget—are

running ahead of 1996, when more than half a million patrons generated a record box office. As well, Monette has been widely credited with reinvigorating the spirit of a festival that has periodically fallen prey not just to deficits, but to political squabbling and low morale. “Richard’s brought back the soul of the place,” comments veteran actor William Hutt. Stratford’s board of governors is so pleased with Monette’s performance that they have extended his contract through the year 2000.

To bolster his box-office draw, Monette has imported two Canadian television stars— something of a risk given the very different demands of Stratford’s big stages. Cynthia Dale, who played Olivia in Street Legal, is portraying Guenevere in Camelot and Bianca in Taming of the Shrew. And AÍ Waxman, best-known for his roles in King of Kensington and Cagney & Lacey, takes the part of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Monette admits he has never seen Waxman act onstage, but says he is confident of his abilities. Waxman, 62, who also serves on the festival’s board of governors, owns up to a certain nervousness: “In the theatre, there’s just you and the audience out there. There’s no safety nets. No take two. You’d have to be lobotomized not to find it a little scary.”

Tell that to Monette. Ten years ago, his career as one of the country’s finest actors came to an abrupt halt when he contracted an extreme case of stage fright. Now, he is venturing onto the boards again as the rich womanizer Domenico Soriano in Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo’s comedy Filumena (opening on Aug. 9). “I don’t know if I’m over it,” Monette says of the mysterious malady that used to reduce him to a state of sweating, stomach-churning terror. “I’m not terrified at the moment,” he adds, though he acknowledges with a laugh that rehearsals have yet to start. “I don’t know what I’m going to feel like when I go out there. I guess if I forget my lines, I can always imitate one of my Italian uncles.”

Stage fright and visiting stars—the Festival Theatre (there are two smaller ones, the Avon and Tom Patterson) has seen plenty of both since it first opened in 1957. Designed by Canadian architect Robert Fairfield, it kept two central features from the tent theatre that had been raised yearly on the same spot: designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s thrust stage and the concrete amphitheatre that had been set into the hillside to hold the seating. Fairfield’s design also mirrored the circularity of the tent, making it, at that point, one of the few round buildings constructed in modern times.

Considered revolutionary, the design eventually inspired similar theatres elsewhere, including the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Thousands of Canadians and Americans flocked each summer to see Shakespeare and other classic authors performed “in the round”—an ancient, more intimate form of theatrical presentation inherited from the Greeks, and only rarely seen since the Elizabethan era. Actors and directors learned to work with the audience on three sides of the stage, and Canadian theatre-goers took pride in a new galaxy of Stratfordgrown stars, which included Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid, Martha Henry, William Hutt and Monette himself.

By the late ’80s, the Festival Theatre was showing its age. “When a person turns 40, things start to fall apart, and it’s the same with a building,” jokes Monette. “The arches go, and the wrinkles come.” There were cracks in the concrete, and carpets and upholstery were wearing thin. But the problem that inspired the most complaints from patrons was the shortage of washroom facilities. There were none on the main floor, and in the basement the lineups—particularly outside the women’s—were legendary.

Enter the Toronto architectural firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, picked by Fairfield to oversee the make-over of the front-ofhouse facilities. As architect Tom Payne began to present a series of

drawings to the board six years ago— and as plans were made for a major fund-raising campaign—there came a dawning realization that more than just the lobbies and washrooms needed renovating. Over the years, several artistic directors had complained that the auditorium was too large: actors had to strain to be heard in the back rows. In addition, the seats were cramped, and the view from along the walls, on either side of the stage, often left patrons looking at the backs of actors’ heads. Monette pushed for changes. “Realizing we would never have another capital campaign for 50 years, I put in a plea to redo the auditorium,” the artistic director recalls. “After all, that is the heart of the building, where people spend three hours at a time, while they spend only three minutes in the washroom.”

Last fall, right after the final show was struck, a demolition team swarmed into the auditorium with jackhammers and bob-cat tractors, tearing down walls and completely removing the old cement amphitheatre. “Around Christmastime,” recalls Ron Kresky, the festival’s technical director, who oversaw and co-ordinated the project, “the place looked like Beirut in the ’80s.”

In the reconstructed auditorium, there are 440 fewer seats—bringing the total down to about 1,820, each with a great deal more leg room. The acoustics seem somewhat improved as well, and the esthetic touches— including the brass-meshed light fixtures, the soft, textured gold of the chairs, the increased use of warm wood tones, and designer Desmond Heeley’s sparkling vertical inlays up the walls—add up to an altogether more congenial atmosphere. There is already controversy, however, over the two new lobbies, which are surprisingly small for a building of this size, while the bookstore gift shop swallows a much larger space between them.

For Monette, the inauguration of the refurbished auditorium and lobbies and the dramatic high-ceilinged reception hall overlooking the river at the back will continue later in the month. Queen Elizabeth II is coming on June 28 to lay a new cornerstone. At the same ceremony, a new time capsule will be placed in the wall, although its contents have yet to be decided. “I’m immensely proud of the renovations,” says Monette, “not just for their own sake, but for what they represent. They show that we have a future here. They show that the attempt to do Shakespeare in the round was not just a fad. It was a profound idea that stuck.” □