Stratford theater readies for a festive summer season

The post-holidays hiring of John Hirsch as artistic director of Stratford Festival Canada ended the fall and early winter of discontent --Phillips resigned the position effective after the 1980 season. The search for his replacement had become a cultural and political issue, a subject for front-page news and parliamentary debate fired by sentiments of nationalism.

Once Mr. Hirsch, a naturalized Canadian of international directorial stature, was signed to a three-year contract, the furor turned to frenzy. The necessities of having to design and implement the 1981 season in six weeks, tasks normally requiring six months, brought on time pressures similar to those experienced during the first Stratford, Ontario, season in 1953 -- when there was the question of whether Tom Patterson's dream was leading the town to fame or folly.

"This year is a minor miracle," Mr. Hirsch allows. "The skeptics said there wouldn't be any performances. That the theater would close. But we didn't abandon the 1981 season, we didn't close down the theater. On the contrary -- advanced ticket sales are extraordinary."

Although there will be fewer productions this year -- exactly half of 1980's ambitious 16 --the ingredients of classical repertory. Following two weeks of preview performances, a traditional, energetic "HMS Pinafore," the first Gilbert and Sullivan revival at Stratford in 17 years, will open at the downtown Avon Theater, and Moliere's "The Misanthrope" on the Stratford Theater stage, on June 15. Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" (opening June 16, previews begin June 5), "The Taming of the Shrew" (June 17, previews from June 6) and "The Comedy of Errors" (Aug. 14, previews Aug. 12) are also to be done on the main stage; Sheridan's comedy, "The Rivals" (Aug. 8), Durrenmatt's "The Visit" (Aug. 15) and an Irish revival, "Wild Oats" (Sept. 25), with previews two days prior to each opening, at the Avon.

Performances continue through Oct. 31, and the concert season includes Judy Collins, Cleo Laine, and John Dankworth, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Mel Torme, John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner and Sonny Rollins, and Rob McConnell and The Boss Brass.

"I'm too central European to be overly optimistic," laughs Mr. Hirsch, a Hungarian, "but people around here are doing an incredible job, working under supervision of Stratford Festival producer Muriel Sherrin."

"There's not one person who alone will be responsible for this season," Miss Sherrin notes. "John might have his title, and I might have my title, but without that guy up there" --wouldn't have a show. Because of everything that happened, we need to present the best season with the best quality. Everyone has to pull together." A native Canadian, Miss Sherrin shares none of her colleague's reticence in defining expectations. The week before the March 2 rehearsals began, she remained confident, her one frustration resting in attempts to get others to set their internal clocks a bit faster, to approach the level of energy and dynamism she puts into her job.

It is Miss Sherrin who is generally credited as a prime force behind the 1981 season. Mr. Hirsch made his impact in the selecting and casting of the plays, in settling design details, but due to commitments to the Seattle Repertory Company, the consulting artistic director does not assume his Stratford responsibilities full-time before July. Until then, when he will oversee the second half of the season with its four openings and plan for 1982, he relies on close phone contact, hurried visits, and the producer, who must keep things moving on a moment-to-moment basis.

While the producer works more closely with actors, the artistic director is working more closely with designers. Having directed Stratford productions in seasons past, Mr. Hirsch has no intention of undertaking the number or directorial projects of his predecessor, with exhausting result. "I'm 51, I have been directing for 30 years. I've got marvelous projects in mind, but right now, I want to do my job here -- part of which is to get other people to work. And I don't want to do more than two or three things at once."

Mr. Hirsch applies the same notion of sacrificing quantity to guarantee quality to the theater in general. "We have to tailor each season to its resources. Doing 16 or 18 productions (as had been the case in prior years) taxes the human and financial resources. You can't go beyond the limit and still get quality. I don't know what a reasonable number of productions is -- certainly a dozen is do-able. But what is essential is to be first rate across the board. Less and less top-rate classical work is being done in America, so we must take care that the kind of program we want here is of the highest caliber. We need a first-rate team, a large company, and directors of all ages."

The policy he will shape is expected to bring "nothing radical" in the way of change, yet there will be a difference in emphasis. "This theater has to open its doors and let a little fresh air in -- and that fresh air is new people," states Miss Sherrin. "There are many who should have been here -- and will be."

In the past, the emphasis on name actors, to the neglect of national talent, generated considerable criticism, and was an element in last fall's controversy."Putting a star's name on a poster is like printing money," she acknowledges, "but we're determined to have a strong company on stage, and a training program," which Mr. Hirsch describes as essential to the development of Stratford. It will produce designers, actors, and directors with the experience to tackle the stage and any type of production on it, who will have done a variety of roles and all the classics, who will have the cohesiveness of a company. Three-year rather than one-year contracts for actors and an enlargement upon the classes already offered during the season to all resident company members, into intensive work by master teachers, are objectives.

Practical considerations of money and, particularly this year, time, will slow implementation of the policy which won't eliminate use of known quantities. "We've got nothing against using international stars," Miss Sherrin explains, adding that they will be positioned to enrich, rather than overshadow, the other players. They were, in fact, central to the development of the 1981 schedule.

"We had to consider what had not been done and what would sell," the latter being an especially important factor with the reduced number of offerings. Travelers who usually spend three or four days in Stratford to see as many productions are expected to shorten their visits and purchase perhaps half the number of tickets since there simply won't be the variety of theatricals. "We could have picked a good mix of plays for classical repertory and then cast them , or said, 'I have these actors, these directors, what plays are best for them.'"

With reliable draws like Brian Bedford and Len Cariou available, and only a hectic six weeks in which to choose and cast the productions, they went the second route, projecting production costs and audience counts. In doing so, they did not veer far from the alternative, realizing the necessity to choose plays that would allow for cross casting; in general, members of the Stratford Company appear in two or three roles. So Brian Bedford will perform "The Misanthrope" and direct "Coriolanus" and "The Rivals"; Len Cariou leads in "Coriolanus" and "The Taming of the Shrew." French film and stage actress Danielle Darioux stars with William Hutt in "The Visit," to be directed, along with "The Misanthrope," by Jean Gascon, artistic director of Stratford Festival between 1968 and 1974 -- and one who felt too much emphasis had recently been placed on the star system.

Mr. Hirsch and Miss Sherrin are looking for a commitment from the board of governors which will match theirs to a well-trained Canadian repertory company. In principal, they have it. Securing the necessary resources is another matter -- and another facet of Miss Sherrin's job.

She recognizes as a prime difficulty in attracting actors to Stratford the fact that they must spend eight months of the year in what has essentially remained, despite the growth in status and renown of the festival, a pleasant market town which residents love to describe as conservative. Surprisingly, Stratford has preserved its essence against the infringements of tourism. The Stratford Brass Rubbing Centre and Gallery and two English pub-style restaurants -- the Elizabethan, and Jester Arms, a popular hangout for the actors replete with diverse menu and dartboard, are recent joiners, and a shortage of beds remains one of the greatest obstacles to filling the Festival Theater house: Frequently, available tickets are not purchased because would-be patrons can't find a place to sleep.

Stratford residents prove their hospitality, and allegiance to their town's greatest asset, by opening their doors to offer "tourist home" accommodations. To the 472 hotel-motel count, this adds 650 beds bookable through the festival office on the same form used to order tickets (Box 520, Stratford, Ontario N5A 6 V2; [519] 273-1600; tickets at $5.50-$20 also obtainable through Ticketron outlets). The best available accommodation -- essentially bed and breakfast without the meal -- is assigned at a common rate ($18 per twin-bedded room; $16 for a double bed, $13 per single). Many are in large old homes owned by retired people anxious to be involved in the summer excitement.

Appreciative of the 550,000 annual visitors who add $30 million to the local economy, townspeople take pride in their homes and gardens. They owe the extensive parks system, the improved range of shop goods, a small but attractive downtown mall and the number and quality of restaurants --including two of connoisseur acclaim, Rundle's and The Church, in what was one -- to the festival. And while Stratford can't compete with the cultural scene of a metropolitan setting, it does have the Gallery Stratford, innovatively housed in a former waterworks building, a July crafts festival, summer Art in the Park show-open "studios," and this year, the international Stratford Summer Music Festival. With world-famous musicians and a remarkable premiere performance schedule, this season could launch the town into the sphere of cultural extravaganza sites not limited to, but revolving around, the theater.

"This is one of the most important theaters on the continent. It has an incredible tradition of producing consistent quality," notes Mr. Hirsch. At times, I feel like the last of the Mohicans, because very few are doing it. But that makes Stratford a continental treasure. All of us who are concerned with humanistic values -- which are fast disappearing -- and quality -- have to work to keep them alive. I'm very enthusiastic. This is a marvelous place and the potential is as great as ever."

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