Toronto's world-theater festival -- largest ever in North America

The Toronto theater community has worked hard and achieved a great deal during the past decade. It has turned its town into a major theater center -- the third most active, in fact (after New York and London), in the English-speaking world.

Recently Toronto staged North America's largest-ever theater event, a celebration of the art, known as Onstage '81: Toronto Theater Festival.

For the three weeks, Toronto's citizens and tourists could choose theatrical entertainment from both the festival's official program -- 28 leading ensembles from Canada and around the world in 35 productions.And there was an even more inclusive open-stage program which presented 84 productions by less established or more experimental groups. The daily schedule included as many as 46 productions in small and large theaters, indoors and out, scattered throughout this attractive and culturally alive city.

There were highly acclaimed foreign theater companies such as the Actor's Theater of Louisville and Mabou Mines from the United States; Israel's Habimah Theater; Ekkehard Schall of the Berliner Ensemble; Italy's Teatro Stabile Dell'Aquila; and Britain's Wakefield Tricycle, Shared Experience, and Welfare State International companies. These were balanced by productions by Canada's finest ensembles, including Toronto's Theater Passe Muraille and its Young People's and Tarragon Theaters, Montreal's Theatre du Nouveau Monde and Centaur Theater, the VAncouver Playhouse, Theater Calgary, and the Shaw Festival.

Executive director Shain L. Jaffe explained, "For artists, audiences, and the press, the energy level and awareness have been greatly heightened by this exposure, by the variety and density of theater during the festival, and by seeing their own theater in an international context."

According to David Silcox, cultural affairs officer for metropolitan Toronto and a prime force behind the festival, the event was so successful in achieving primary goals that it is likely to become an annual or biennial attraction. "For less than $2 million, we've established our city on the world map of theater," Mr. Silcox said. "This should act as a stimulus not only to theater production, but to growth in tourism and related industries, which are major sources of revenue for the city."

One of the most unusual and spectacular shows in the official program was Welfare State International's "Tempest at snake Island," an environmental event based loosely on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and staged in the fields and groves of a small rural residential island in Lake Ontario, about 10 minutes by Ferry from mainland Toronto.The show began on boat, as 200 spectators were transported into a creative mix of natural and fantastic elements assembled by Welfare State with collaborating island residents.

Once on the island, the audience formed a parade and wandered through several episodes performed in various areas of the island. They met minstrels and musicians, maids and merry men. In one scene, two huge, internally illuminated mythic monsters constructed of clear plastic and manipulated by teams of black-cloaked actors fought a science fiction battle that ended in a draw.

There was a wedding scene in which the audience drank warmed cider and danced polkas and reels. a unicorn frolicked through the woods, always out of reach.There were fireworks. a miniature construction of the city of Toronto was set of afloat on a wooden raft and drifted across the lake toward the real Toronto skyline. The show was enormously popular. Every ticket was sold and used, despite the nightly rain during performances.

For the festival, Toronto's Theater Passe Muraille revived its recent hit, "Maggie and Pierre," and episodic documentary about the relationship between Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Tradeau and his rebellious ex-wife Margaret, as seen through the eyes of a newspaper reporter. A remarkably versatile young actress named Linda Griffiths wrote the play (in collaboration with director Paul Thompson), and she plays all three roles with amazingly crisp and effective characterizations of the two public figures.

The runaway hit of the festival was a play called "Tamara," produced by a previously little-known Toronto ensemble named Necessary Angel. The production, a collaborative effort of writer John Krizanc, director Richard Rose, and designer Dorian L. Clark, recreates a day (June 10, 1927) in the life of Gabriele D'Annunzio, the Italian poet and patriot, and Tamara de Lempicka, a Polish artist and aristocrat, when they met at an Italian villa. D'Annunzio, was the imprisoned guest of Mussolini there, and the audience follows one (or more) of 10 characters as they work, play, and intrigue in the various rooms of an old mansion.

There are plottings of potentially major political consequence, lovely romantic interludes, and philosophical discussions about art and commitment, played out simultaneously by the extraordinary talented ensemble of young actors. Actually, each audience member sees a different play, because each sees a different combination of scenes. At intermission, spectators reunite in the kitchen or dining room for refreshments and to discuss what they have seen. The play, truly exhilarating experience, has been held over to a regular run in Toronto at Strachan House.

In addition to the fine performance schedule, the festival organized several significant professional meetings as ancillary events, including several practical workshop and master classes given for professional Canadian actors by master teachers from the United States, England, Japan, and Canada. Four development workshop cosponsored by the Guild of Canadian Playwrights.

All in all, the festival has had a noticeably good effect. The art of theater is flo urishing in Toronto.

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