All’s well that ends well... for now
A Canadian is finally en route to Stratford, but theatres still have no guidance on the issues
If Canadian theatre offered an award for most surprising performance, 1980’s hands-down winner would be the Stratford Festival’s board of governors. Last week for its grand finale, in response to intense pressure from the theatre community, the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the federal immigration department to hire a Canadian as artistic director, the board ended months of strife and speculation by unanimously overturning its earlier appointment of Englishman John Dexter in favor of Canada’s most respected director, John Hirsch. Although Hirsch had been an obvious choice during the most recent search, few believed that the board, hitherto as graceless as it was unyielding, would knuckle under and come to terms with a director who, despite impeccable qualifications, was never even approached about the job in the first place.
Hirsch’s appointment marks the return of an eccentric and controversial native son. Born in Hungary in 1930 and orphaned during the war, Hirsch was adopted by a family from Winnipeg, where in 1958 he co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the model for subsequent Canadian regional theatres. After his term with Jean Gascon as successors to artistic director Michael Langham at Stratford in the late ’60s, several years directing at New York’s Lincoln Center, four years as head of CBC-TV drama and several guest directorships in the U.S., Hirsch has established himself, in his own words, as “the elder statesman of American nonprofit theatre.” Finally Stratford has sought him out and, though nobody believes the years ahead will be easy, the festival has another chance to fulfil its primary founding goal —“to provide improved opportunities for Canadian Artistic talent” and “advance the development of the arts of the theatre in Canada.” Shakespeare’s horrific visions of civil strife had nothing on the bloodletting that preceded Hirsch’s appointment. Faced with the possibility that their major employer might shut down, even the citizens of Stratford, who have tended to take the festival for granted at the best of times, began to show some of the civic concern that conceived it in the first place. “It all began with the 1933 chicken pluckers’ strike,” recalls Tom Patterson, the festival’s founder.
“The town became the Communist headquarters of Canada, industry wouldn’t locate because of the adverse labor situation. As kids before the war we saw our town slowly dying and we wondered what we could do to revive it—that’s when the idea of a Shakespeare festival started, because of the town’s name.” After the war Patterson mobilized the citizenry, got the support of various financial bigwigs and invited Tyrone Guthrie to be its first artistic director. When Alec Guinness stepped on stage inside an enormous tent as Richard III on July 13, 1953, Canada’s most renowned theatrical institution
uwas born. William Hutt, Douglas Rain and Amelia Hall, members of the 1980 company, also played that first season; says Hutt, “In the beginning there was an explosion of energy—when that tent became a permanent building in 1957, we felt there was no way it was ever going to close.”
Shutting down as vital and successful an institution as Stratford for any reason seems extreme, but this has been a good year for extremes. The immediate cause of the grief was the power vacuum left by the resignation of artistic director Robin Phillips. A gifted but autocratic director with workaholic tendencies, Phillips took on administrative duties formerly assigned to a general manager and his artistic efforts suffered as a consequence. When friction arose over delays in implementing Phillips’ plans to establish both a winter base in Toronto and Stage One, a combined acting school and media studio in Stratford, the board began taking his numerous resignations and retractions seriously; by mid-1979 they realized that a new director had to be found.
The interminable search that followed would have been unnecessary if Phillips’ successor had already been
working with or under him at Stratford, learning how to handle stars on the festival’s notoriously difficult thrust stage. Says Peter Moss, who was associate director at Stratford under Phillips from 1978 to 1980: “Most Canadian directors don’t acquire that kind of experience. When they go to Stratford it’s like throwing lambs to lions—Robin did t have time to bring those people in and work with them.” Phillips did at first make substantial efforts to bridge the gap between Stratford and the rest of the country by visiting theatres, auditioning actors and inviting in guest directors. But his own particular strengths in working with actors weakened these good intentions; says Moss, “Robin’s biggest talent is star vehicles—he really knows how to build productions around them.” Richard Monette, a leading Canadian actor, agrees: “He’s very sophisticated in his teaching—the more you know about acting, the more you get from him.” But these talents were reserved for the privileged—at the end of the 1979 season, 50 out of 96 company members chose not to return in 1980.
Despite its on-again, off-again handling of the search, by late summer the board had stumbled upon a solution that promised to pull Stratford out of its Byzantine isolation. Four Canadians—Pam Brighton, Martha Henry, Urjo Kareda ana Moss—were invited to run the festival: all had directed there, all were respected in the Canadian theatre community and, although doubts
were expressed about the directorate format, hopes that a new era might be inaugurated ran high. In fact, the four had their suspicions that the board’s choice all along was Dexter, an internationally famous director currently with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, whose admitted ignorance of Stratford and Canadian theatre is total, but he was not available. On Oct. 31 the board endorsed the directorate’s proposed 1981 season by submitting a balanced budget to the Canada Council. That same day Dexter made it known to the board that he was now available for the job, and on Nov. 5 festival general manager Gary Thomas, after “re-examining” the directorate’s lineup of plays, calculated that the proposed season would not break even but would lose $1.3 million. Dexter was then offered the directorship, but this was kept quiet until Nov. 10, when the board informed the four for the first time that their season would run a deficit, that Dexter had been hired and that they were fired.
The subsequent hurricane of protest stunned everyone, including the directorate; said Henry, “I would have thought we would all havé lain down and died because we’ve lost on this kind of thing so often in the past.” Most perplexed was the board, largely composed of pinstriped businessmen whose primary concern, as flatly stated in a festival brochure, is not to allow the accumulation of deficits. Much of the blame for the lack of understanding between the board and its employees, both in this crisis and generally, falls on thenboard president Robert Hicks, a noted labor lawyer whose tactics not only confused the artists but kept many of his fellow board members in the dark as well. Emotions were kept at fever pitch by virulent and often partisan reporting in the national media; in Toronto, The Globe and Mail's theatre critic Ray Conlogue spearheaded the crusade for the directorate while the Star's Gina Mallet, a staunch Phillips enthusiast, protected Stratford’s lofty international reputation against the slings and arrows of Canada’s parochial barbarians.
With Actors’ Equity leading a boycott against the festival and Immigration Minister Lloyd Axworthy denying Dexter a work permit because the board had not looked hard enough for a Canadian director, the basic issue of how Stratford should be run was in danger of being dragged down the garden path of nationalism. Explained Equity spokesman Dan MacDonald, “We had no intentions of making it a nationalist issue—we just felt that Stratford must be controlled by a director with some knowledge of theatre in this country.” The board protested that no suitable Canadians had applied for the job after the dismissal of the directorate. Snorts Hutt: “That was typical of their attitude. Only Canadians need apply—all others are asked.”
At no time did the board publicly acknowledge that its treatment of the directorate was deplorable purely in human terms, thus confirming general opinion that the board cared nothing about the quartet’s feelings and reputations and less about the aspirations of the community it represented. The backlash climaxed at an emotionally charged annual meeting of foundation members at the Festival Theatre on Dec. 6. In a masterful display of procedural manipulation, Hicks calmly defused all challenges to the board from the audience of 900. After seven gruelling hours the board re-elected its own nominees with the aid of proxies (candidates not nominated by the board had not been allowed access to the membership lists), at which point Monette leaped up yelling “You pig!” and denounced the board: “We have made this theatre our whole life and you’ve turned it into a bingo hall.” With many festival staff and company members openly weeping in anger and frustration, Hicks adjourned the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, the new board president, John Lawson, visibly shaken, announced that a committee headed by Toronto lawyer and newly elected board member Julian Porter would resume the search for a Canadian director, a search that finally ended last week with Hirsch’s appointment.
Although the board’s isolation from artistic realities has been inexcusable, its concern for the festival’s financial viability is not just businessman’s paranoia. Like other theatres across Canada, Stratford is experiencing escalating costs; in the face of inadequate government subsidies, these can only be met by boosting ticket prices, expanding audiences and working harder at fund-raising. The festival’s vaunted 1980 surplus, cited ad nauseum to justify the board’s policies, was in fact entirely due to a substantial increase in ticket prices over 1979 and unexpectedly generous private donations. These windfalls did not address problems such as attendance, which has stabilized at about 525,000 but is expected to decline in proportion to rising gasoline prices, since 40 per cent of Stratford’s audience arrives by car from the U.S. The board’s solution has been to make Stratford more “commercial” by relying on imported stars like Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford to pack the houses and attract corporate donations. Says Hicks, “People will support a successful organization—they’re not going to blow
their money around.” Similarly, the high-profile Dexter was to have been a surefire hedge against inflation.
Businessmen’s logic supports these assumptions, but as Monette pointed out at the meeting, “It’s important to realize that art is not business.” The festival balances its books with the aid of government grants, and the Canada Council has made a “Canadians first” policy a top priority in its allocation of grants. But before a multimillion-dollar operation like Stratford can feel assured that such a policy—if it happens to lose money initially—will be adequately compensated by government, a more wide-ranging and firmly established cultural policy is required. Of all the performing arts in Canada, theatre is in the most precarious position financially, and companies across the country have been watching the Stratford furore closely for clues to future policy decisions. It remains to be seen whether the federal cultural policy review committee currently soliciting briefs will eventually submit proposals that might provide the assurances that top-quality nonprofit organizations like Stratford apparently need to survive.
To the board’s credit, by appointing Hirsch it has taken the first tentative steps toward reconciliation with a deeply hostile theatre community; as
Hirsch said, “More important than the loss of money, or even a season, is that this festering situation be cauterized and healed.” That will take time—many Stratford actors have sworn they will never work for that particular board again, despite Hicks’s departure from the presidency at the Dec. 6 meeting and the election of Lawson, a Stratford insurance executive who is considered more accommodating. Hirsch has underscored this feeling by stating explicitly that fundamental changes will have to be instituted in festival operations, both internally in board-employee relations and in the festival’s relationships with its government sponsors; says Hirsch, “Theatres belong to the people who are accountable for them—we must redress the balance in the interests of the community and the theatrical profession.”
It’s quite possible that in hiring Hirsch the board might be paying lip service to the demands made by Equity and Axworthy; as Moss suggests, “The board may have got the wrong message—if we just pick a Canadian it’ll be all right.” Certain aspects of the Hirsch myth could easily explain why he was initially no go for the board. His track record includes: his outspoken support of a strong indigenous theatre; his difficult co-directorship with Gascon during which he dared to direct James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark (now considered a Canadian classic) and staged a musical version of Satyricon employing black actors for the first time at the festival; and his self-confessed “grandiose style.” Hirsch has made his conditions for accepting the job abundantly clear, stressing particularly the need for adequately training co-workers and successors (“A one-man anything is best suited to a South American republic,” he proclaims). However, the board’s choice could be genuine. Given Hirsch’s contractual commitment to the Seattle Repertory Company until next July, the board could have gone back to Axworthy claiming that no candidate could meet its first criterion for the jobavailability. But the board waived this criterion and, although Hirsch cannot take control of Stratford until 1982, the board will accept him as consultant director for an interim 1981 season.
The board has heard strong voices speak, voices dedicated to making Stratford, in Hirsch’s words, “the apex of Canadian theatre experience.” He recalls leaving the festival in 1969 to direct at the Lincoln Center: “One of the reasons I left was because people didn’t understand what I was after—I felt I had to teach not just skills but attitudes.” The board of governors of the Stratford Festival may have had a change of attitude. Welcome home, John Hirsch.