This wasn’t originally part of the plan, of course, but after a lengthy intermission due to the pandemic, Stratford Festival organizers are enjoying the serendipity.
The Festival’s highly anticipated 2021 season will officially open under an outdoor canopy on Tuesday, and it just so happens the company’s highly anticipated return won’t be the only thing worthy of a celebration.
July 13 will also be the 68th anniversary of the Festival’s first show, a historic performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Alec Guinness that, coincidentally, also took place under a tent in 1953.
“July 13 has been an auspicious date for our Festival and, now that we are back in tents again, we hope that day will herald a wonderful reawakening of live theatre,” artistic director Antoni Cimolino said Thursday in a release.
“While we introduced the canopies in response to the public-health crisis, the outdoor setting alludes beautifully to our first season and provides a magical setting in which to experience theatre,” executive director Anita Gaffney added.
After the pandemic totally wiped out the 2020 season, organizers were hopeful for a June opening, but those plans were stymied by a third lockdown in Ontario. The Festival was finally able to announce its 2021 schedule last week, getting the go-ahead from public-health officials thanks in large part to the addition of the two outdoor canopies located at the Festival and Tom Patterson theatres.
The upcoming season includes six plays and five cabarets.
The first of those cabarets, Why We Tell the Story, a celebration of Black musical theatre curated and directed by Festival regular Marcus Nance, will get things started under the Festival Theatre canopy Tuesday.
Gaffney said Festival staff were treated to a glimpse of the show this week prior to its upcoming previews.
She described the experience as “emotional.”
“People have been working all out, flat out, to make this happen and so it’s pretty amazing to see it starting to take flight,” Gaffney said. “I think that music is a wonderful way to kick things off. Music really unites all of us, and I think (Nance’s) show is a show about hope. I just can’t think of anything that is better to start our season than with his show and such a hopeful message.”
Four other productions will open in July – You Can’t Stop the Beat: The Enduring Power of Musical Theatre (July 15 to July 31); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (July 16 to August 1); Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters (July 23 to Aug. 21); and Play On!: A Shakespeare-Inspired Mixtape (July 29 to Aug. 15).
Although the return of the Festival is generating a lot of excitement, capacity will be diminished, at least for now.
In a typical year, the Festival has about 7,000 seats available on any given day. Right now, that number is closer to 600 if both canopies are hosting three shows per day.
The box office is currently open to members and to those who kept their 2020 tickets on hold or donated their value back to the Festival.
About half of the Festival’s current capacity has been sold prior to tickets becoming available to the general public Monday, Gaffney said.
Two shows have already sold out.
Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, which is being staged at the Studio Theatre to a limited capacity of 25 people per show, is one of them. The other is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening under the canopy near the new Tom Patterson Theatre later this month.
Gaffney isn’t ruling out more tickets becoming available when the province moves into the third stage of its new reopening plan. She’s hoping more details might be available next week.
In the meantime, the Festival is offering a spot on waiting lists for those who aren’t able to secure a ticket.
“It’s wonderful to see the interest that people have,” Gaffney said. “Preparing for the 2021 season has been an adventure. After 15 months of planning and re-planning, I can hardly wait to welcome audiences back.”