As expressed in the following speeches and articles:
The word culture has gone through many different meanings in its time. To the ancient Romans, cultura simply meant “cultivation,” in the sense of tilling fields and planting seed.
More recently, studies of animal behaviour have suggested that we humans don’t have an exclusive claim to culture – that forms of it can be observed in other species too.
“Culture” in this scientific sense simply means any kind of information that is transmitted by learning, as opposed to genetic inheritance. The passing on of rituals and traditions has been observed in various species, from ants to chimpanzees.
Bees do it, birds do it – so I guess there is some literal truth to the expression “culture vulture.”
But I’m concerned today with purely human culture: that body of shared experience that resides in books, in plays, in poetry, in music, in dance, in paintings, sculptures, soundscapes, installations and all the other ways in which our species has tried to express the inexpressible, to find meaning, form and beauty in the seemingly random flux of our existence.
And by culture I don’t just mean so-called high culture. Shakespeare transmutes universal human experience into something that has artistic form; so, in its own way, does The Simpsons. Early in the twentieth century, the art movement known as Dada challenged orthodox bourgeois aesthetics; early in the twenty-first century, much the same thing is done – for a considerably wider audience – by Lady Gaga.
Culture isn’t an invitation-only special event for a privileged few; it’s the environment in which we all live. We’re immersed in it, as it floods over us in countless everyday ways: not just from our theatres, concert halls and art galleries, but also from our newspapers and magazines, our paperbacks, our TVs, our movie screens, our iPods and Pads, and our social media. It’s as integral to our lives as the air we breathe or the food we eat.
Like its counterpart in the animal kingdom, our culture is a means of transmitting significant information to each other and to our descendants.
The arts, in particular, are a powerfully effective way of sharing our insights into – and our feelings about – the eternal mysteries of life and death.
Some of those insights, of course, are richer and more rewarding than others. At the end of the day, you’ll find far more interesting food for thought, and far more nourishing food for the soul, in Shakespeare than you will in Spiderman. It’s not snobbery to point this out, any more than it denigrates the legitimate pleasure offered by a plate of nachos to point out that there are more imaginative, more flavourful and more nutritious options on the table as well.
As it happens, I work at the cordon bleu end of the artistic spectrum. I’ve devoted my career to Shakespeare and the classics, because once I’d savoured them, I couldn’t be wholly satisfied with anything less. And because – to squeeze the last bit of juice from this culinary metaphor – that kind of art is particularly rich in the vitamins a society needs to stay healthy.
Before I expand on that remark, let me point out that culture and the arts contribute to a society’s health in a basic, bread-and-butter way too. They play a significant role in creating economic wealth.
This point cannot be made too often, for too many people persist in believing that the arts are somehow an economic basket case, permanently dependent on handouts, in return for which they contribute nothing of any value to anyone outside their own self-absorbed circle.
This kind of thinking wilfully ignores the fact that arts and cultural activities contribute about $40 billion to our country’s gross domestic product each year. Let me pick just one example, purely at random: the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
The Festival – which, incidentally, was initially conceived in 1952 not to fulfil some noble artistic dream but to save the city of Stratford from economic decay – runs today on a budget of $59 million, only about five per cent of which comes from government sources. We directly employ more than 1,000 people and are indirectly responsible for more than 3,000 other jobs in our immediate area.
Because of the Festival, the city of Stratford, which has about 30,000 residents, can sustain its own civic orchestra, an annual music festival featuring international artists, and even a school for gourmet chefs. The city has a thriving restaurant scene, lovely B&Bs and small inns, a couple of large hotels, and distinctive downtown shopping. All of this too contributes to our region’s economic wealth.
When you take into account all the business ventures that depend upon the Festival’s existence for their survival, our total annual contribution to our local economy is around $145 million. That activity generates some $60 million in tax revenue for government each year, so you can see that we offer a pretty good rate of return on public investment.
There is another, more subtle way in which the arts foster success and wealth. Communities with lively arts scenes are more desirable places in which to live: they attract creative, thoughtful, imaginative people from all disciplines, including the technical and scientific ones.
These are the kinds of people who originate and develop innovative enterprises, and they are stimulated by living in an arts-rich community.
The arts add value to people, encouraging them to think and to feel, to become more flexible and perceptive, to develop vision, to dream in a disciplined way. Creativity feeds creativity; vision begets vision. And this is ultimately going to be to everyone’s benefit.
But let’s leave aside the purely economic case for the arts, persuasive though it is. Because the fact remains that even if culture and the arts did not make a major contribution to the economy, they would still be essential to our society’s health.
Humankind cannot live by bread alone, even with butter. If you try it, sooner or later you’ve going to develop a vitamin deficiency. Without the arts in our spiritual and intellectual diet, our society would lose its vigour and resilience, and would wither away.
Perhaps a society could exist without art, but I bet it would be a sterile, moribund and inhuman one. As the Victorian sage John Ruskin said, “Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.”
The arts add beauty, joy and meaning to daily experience. They foster excitement, optimism and self-confidence. They encourage us to feel, and they encourage us to think.
We’re drawn to art in the first place because it gives us aesthetic pleasure. That was a good story. That’s a lovely picture. But we return to certain works of art over and over again because they fascinate us in ways we may never entirely understand. They’re full of meaning and of mystery. They provide insight and stimulate ideas. They prompt debate and discussion.
When you bring people together not just to enjoy something but to think about it, to be challenged by it, to be illuminated by it or even puzzled by it, you engender a lively intellectual discourse. And it’s that kind of discourse that makes a strong civil society.
By “civil society,” I mean a network of non-industrial, non-commercial, non-governmental organizations and relationships: an area of public life in which people come together for reasons that aren’t rooted in the business of pursuing wealth and power. These are reasons that spring spontaneously and freely from the spirit and the heart.
This area of endeavour – pursuits that aren’t simply about wealth or power but just about life – acts as a kind of buffer against the forces of pure self-interest, and the arts are a key component of it.
Somewhere between government and industry, we need this kind of free space where we can develop a love of life, where we find a reason to live beyond the necessity of meeting our material needs, where we can fulfil our human potential as far more than just consumers or taxpayers.
Having that kind of space isn’t just important for individuals. It serves a critically important function for the state.
Ideas play a huge role in human affairs. So it’s important, if we are to have a free and fair society, that our basic ideas about human nature, about government and justice, about good and evil, be constantly articulated, scrutinized and critiqued.
Societies do this in many ways: in legislative assemblies, in law courts, in churches, in the media. And they also do it in their arts.
Democracy was invented in ancient Athens, where people believed in the ideal of the balanced person. If you don’t have balance – if, for example, you are consumed by a single objective, whether it be wealth or power – you cannot expect to have integrity.
Western drama also originated with the Greeks, who took a civic-minded view of its function. In a populace many of whose members likely couldn’t read, theatre was a way for people to develop their thinking and raise their sights.
The ancient Greeks understood the value of having questions about power and morality, and human beings’ conduct in society, raised in dramatic form. They saw attending the theatre as a civic duty, which is why, when you showed up at a Greek theatre, you’d get a coin to offset the loss of income you’d incurred by attending.
The greatest works of art embody huge ideas and acute observations: the kinds of ideas and observations that not only reflect a society but can help shape it. They enhance our understanding of ourselves, of each other and of our communities.
Such works use the hard-won experience of the past – often distilled as mythology – to define present-day questions in ways that make it hard for us to settle for glib, easy answers.
They challenge us to look beyond the trappings of our time and see which parts of our experience are enduringly true and which are merely incidental. They help us see to the heart of things and thereby challenge us to be honest with ourselves about the kind of society we live in. And works of this sort, which are not always favoured by the marketplace, simply cannot exist in a society that does not value art – all art – for its own sake.
In a speech he delivered in 1963, a month before his assassination, John F. Kennedy said this:
“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
Every political leader today would do well to bear those words in mind. For I believe that a commitment to the arts is as fundamental to human civilization as our commitments to our legal systems, our political institutions, our codes of ethics. It is as essential to our wellbeing as health care and education.
This is one reason why I eagerly embraced the opportunity to serve as Chair of the National Steering Committee for Culture Days, our annual cross-Canada celebration of culture and the arts that debuted in the fall of 2010 and will see its third iteration at the end of this month.
The inaugural Culture Days weekend was the biggest event of its kind in Canadian history. Hundreds of thousands of people in some 700 communities in every province and territory took part.
There were about 4,500 free participative events nationwide, along with celebrations and broadcasts hosted by the CBC. Activities included classes, excursions, tours, demonstrations, seminars, panels and behind-the-scenes experiences. And we have continued to build on that success ever since.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Culture Days is that it’s not just about going to see or hear something; it’s about coming to do something. It’s interactive: come behind the scenes, have an engaged experience, enter a dialogue with an artist.
This celebration demonstrates that culture isn’t just about appreciating ballet or opera or Shakespearean theatre. It’s about joining in a square dance or taking part in a sing-along or learning traditional crafts in a hands-on workshop. It’s a way of bringing us closer to our neighbours, of building a sense of community.
That ties into what I said at the beginning about culture being the environment in which we are all immersed. By enabling people from all walks of life to get a little closer to those who create art, Culture Days aims to foster the understanding that culture isn’t something presented to us – or foisted on us – by some elite group with special interests. It’s part of the fabric of our day-to-day lives.
In Stratford, naturally, our Festival took a leadership role in organizing local participation. But what really inspired me was the way in which leadership emerged in communities that don’t have a major cultural institution in their midst. Organizations and individual citizens whose primary focus isn’t necessarily on culture and the arts saw an opportunity, seized it and galvanized their communities around it.
Culture Days transcends distinctions between professional and amateur, between a huge multi-million-dollar operation like the Stratford Festival and someone who makes pottery in her basement. It’s all about making the public feel at home with our artists and in our arts institutions. It’s a way of building relationships – the kinds of relationships that constitute a civil society.
The urge to create, to reinvent our experience and ourselves in wondrous new ways, is one of the things that distinguishes our species from all the others on our planet. Creativity is what makes our human culture different from that of dolphins and other animals that share their learning. And so I believe that one of the most important things we can do for ourselves, for our societies, for our civilization and for our species itself is to cultivate that creative urge.
On May 4, 2012, at the Governor General's Performing ArtsAwards ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Artistic Director DesMcAnuff received the National Arts Centre Award for hisaccomplishments over the past performing year. After extending histhanks to His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston,Governor General of Canada, and to Peter Herrndorf, President andChief Executive Officer of the National Arts Centre, Mr. McAnuffoffered the following remarks:
Thirty-six years ago I was awarded a Canada Council Grant thatsent me off into the world, forever changing my life.
There is no education system and support structure anywhere thatcan match Canada's commitment to young artists. The glass ceilingthat challenges us in the Canadian arts has everything to do withthe abundance of significant artists that we develop. The fact thatwe are many cultures existing simultaneously and mainly in harmonyis a profound example to the peoples of other nations, and that isbest expressed through the work of our artists.
While our classrooms and workshops are here in Canada, ourstages are all around the world. In this past year I have not onlyhad the privilege of working with the great acting company ofStratford but have also worked with leading Canadians at theMetropolitan Opera and directed a ridiculously talented cast ofCanadians on Broadway.
I share this award with them and with the supporters I was luckyto have early on: John Hirsch and Michael Langham at Stratford;Paul Thompson, Martin Kinch and Paul Bettis and the other younglions of the seventies Toronto scene; Carol Bolt, who encouraged mywriting and music; and the faculty of the Ryerson Theatre School. Ihave been fortunate to perch, if somewhat precariously, on theirvery broad shoulders.
And I am reminded today to continue to do my part in ensuringthat the next generation of Canadian directors gets the kind ofopportunities Canada has given me. So Rachel Slaven, WeyniMengesha, Dean Gabourie, Jennifer Tarver, Chris Abraham, GuillermoVerdecchia, Eric Benson, Lezlie Wade - and a whole slew of otherswho I hope won't be too annoyed that I didn't mention them by name- this really is for you, ceiling-smashers every one.
In her remarks, Lee mentioned some of the means by which we reach beyond our own stages, and indeed beyond the medium of theatre itself: such things as films, transfers, recordings and galas.
It might be tempting to think of such initiatives as merely extracurricular activities, but that would be a mistake. Rather, they are significant emblems of our leadership role on the Canadian cultural landscape.
The role I speak of is not merely that of a producing house, mounting plays that run from April to October in Stratford, Ontario. Nor is it adequately described even by the word “festival.”
Rather, our role is that of a major cultural institution: something that contributes to our sense of who and what we are as Canadians, and that showcases our country to the rest of the world.
Let me enlarge upon that word “institution,” a word that to many people can have negative connotations. As the old joke has it, marriage is a wonderful institution – but who wants to live in an institution?
Similarly, artists and other people who value creativity may disdain the idea of working for an institution, thinking it synonymous with working in a bureaucracy.
But to me, an institution is something very precious: it is an instrument of aspiration. Far from being abstract and faceless, institutions are composed of human beings – in our case, some of the most talented and skilful human beings on the planet – who are engaged in the pursuit of something that will enlarge all our lives.
Of course, bureaucracies too are made up of human beings. But bureaucracies lack that dimension of aspiration: they are all about process, not pursuit. The highest ideal to which a bureaucracy can aspire is its own efficiency – and while efficiency is an admirable goal in itself, it is hardly the stuff that dreams are made on.
I don’t think you can speak – at least, not without irony – of a “great” bureaucracy. But you can certainly speak of a great institution. And that is what ours is: a truly great Canadian institution.
I said a moment ago that we are more than just a festival. That may have surprised you, since the word “festival” is part of our name. And indeed we meet a central criterion of a festival in the sense that we offer our patrons a tremendous variety of theatrical experience.
But still, the word suggests to me something self-contained and time-limited. For a couple of weeks, you let your hair down, indulge in activities you might not normally seek out and then go back to life as it was. In that sense, a festival is a brief and temporary escape from daily life.
Of course, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival can represent a great weekend or week-long getaway too. Many people come to us for exactly that, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so.
But we offer far more than just a means of escaping from life. We offer a means of engaging more fully with life. The kind of work we do puts people in touch with eternal truths, with hard-won wisdom, with insight, and for many of our patrons – our Members in particular – we represent something that is an important part of their lives not just for a few days or a week but on an ongoing basis.
An institution isn’t something that comes and goes. It’s something that permeates people’s cultural experience, that in some sense continues to exist for them year round, and from one year to the next.
So besides its aspirational quality, an institution to me implies permanence. When something earns the right to be called an institution, then we may expect that it will still be with us tomorrow, and for countless tomorrows to come.
Well, we are about to embark on our sixtieth season, so I think we can say with some justification that this great institution of ours is here to stay. But permanence does not – and should not – mean stasis.
For anyone who directs plays or musicals, one of the most important things to get right are the transitions: the changes that move you from one scene to another.
When you direct Shakespeare, you can’t help marvelling at his ability to move a story forward through seamless and seemingly effortless transitions that sometimes span huge passages of time and distance. One of the best things a director can do is to stage those transitions elegantly and in ways that best serve the playwright’s overall design.
And it’s not just Shakespeare: one of the things I love about directing musicals is bending my imagination to the task of keeping the story moving forward through its transitions: ensuring that it flows visually and dynamically as well as musically from one section to the next.
Transitions are crucial components of the stories of institutions too. They are the means by which an organization – just like a dramatic narrative – develops and grows. Yet it is only human nature to be apprehensive of them.
I learned this during my time at La Jolla, when we moved our administrative offices out of the trailers we’d been inhabiting and into a new building.
You might assume that this move into a new and much more congenial facility would be a cause for unqualified celebration. It was a positive change in every way, a huge improvement in the culture and lifestyle of the institution.
Apart from anything else, we now for the first time actually had washrooms of our own; we no longer had to walk across the parking lot to use the ones in the theatre.
And yet the astonishing reality was that this whole transition was shatteringly challenging for everyone, simply because it involved change.
“Maintenance. That’s what we’re all into: maintenance.” The beat writer William S. Burroughs said that (obscurely enough, I once had the privilege of a visit from him on Christmas Day).
There may be things we long for in life – but at the same time, if change leads in any way to the unknown we are inclined to find it daunting. On some instinctive level, we want to cling to what we know. But that is not the way to forge ahead.
As we head into our sixtieth season, let us celebrate the fact that we are members of this great artistic institution, this permanent cornerstone of our country’s cultural life. Let us celebrate the fact that our Festival will always be with us, that we can always count on it to reward us a thousand times over – spiritually, emotionally and intellectually – for the contributions we make to it.
And let us celebrate the transitions that lie ahead of us, for transformation is the lifeblood of permanence, not its antithesis. Though one scene must inevitably follow another, we are still in the same play: the continuously developing, ever-engrossing story of the institution known as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford Canada, one of the world’s greatest permanent homes for living art.
One of my weaknesses, of which there are several, is that I am an ardent sports fan. I can tell you, for example, that Motherwell of the Scottish Football League is currently in third place, remarkable for a working class team and one of the more bizarre statistics that clutter up my brain.
Growing up in Canada I have faithfully followed the CFL and have been a fan of the Toronto Argonauts ever since the days of Tobin Rote. Some of you younger fans may remember the great Argos quarterback Joe Theismann. Joe moved to the NFL’s Washington Redskins and played under the legendary coach George Allen.
Now, Allen had his own peculiar process when it came to developing quarterbacks. When Joe got to Washington he was the second stringer to Billy Kilmer. Kilmer had been kept on the sidelines until his hairline was receding, dramatically waiting for Sonny Jurgenson to step aside as the starting QB. This took time, and I mean years. To my dismay, the same fate befell the great Argos leader Joe Theismann.
George Allen finally retired and that transition system vanished with him. Two years later, Joe Gibbs became the Redskins’ head coach and went on to implement a new system that led the team to the Super Bowl three times, two of those times with Joe Theismann. George Allen never got to the Super Bowl, but he did teach me something important: while transitions can be too fast, they can also be too slow.
Last June when I announced I was stepping down as Artistic Director, I gave the Board of Governors 12 to 14 months to appoint the next AD. That had been the required timeline for the transitions I have participated in.
By the way, the upcoming transition will be my sixth in the role of Artistic Director- three entrances and three exits. I felt that I was giving the Board of Governors adequate time to do reconnaissance, conduct interviews, vet candidates, and make a sage selection.
The Board has expedited that process and they have selected my partner Antoni many months before my timeline allowed for. We find ourselves with more than abundant time to make the leadership transition that is vitally important to the general health of our institution.
Antoni has been my partner for more than four years. He is an insider. He doesn’t require an extended period of acclamation here in Stratford the way an outsider would.
Antoni’s appointment renders this Artistic Director a lame duck for 21 months; far too long, in my opinion, for a Quarterback or an Artistic Director. That would require Antoni to serve in a management position for close to two years supporting my Artistic Directorship while waiting to take the artistic reigns. That is too long for Antoni, too long for me, and unhealthily too long for our institution.
One of the first things Antoni and I did four years ago was to create two identical glass offices separated by a glass meeting room. This was a valiant attempt, I think, at signalling an institutional policy of transparency in our leadership style. It is hard for me to imagine staring across at each other through that open space (which we affectionately refer to as the fish bowl) for such an elongated period of time, knowing that we are about to transition.
We have been working on 2013 for a long stretch and it is true that I have been the artistic quarterback on the planning for the season. However, Antoni and I have been partners on that task as in all things Stratford. We are several months away from finalizing the 2013 playbill and obtaining an approved budget. There are many great possibilities but we are still many months away from announcing.
After consulting with Antoni, current board chair Lee Myers, incoming chair David Goldbloom, and past chair Richard Rooney, it is my considered opinion that it is best for our theater if I pass the baton to Antoni as Artistic Director for the 2013 season.
Since the search started I have been asked many times how I am involved. I did not sit on the search committee nor did I meet with the committee. The responsibility to appoint the next artistic director is that of the volunteers; I have more than enough concerns with the issues that fall under the purview of the Artistic Director.
I fully support the board’s decision and their right to make that decision. I want to be clear that I am not being pushed out and I am not jumping. I am doing what I consider to be best for the festival.
Antoni will have plenty of opportunity to make new choices on the playbill in the months ahead while embracing whatever projects he approves of that I have cooked up with other directors. Antoni and I both believe that one Artistic Director is plenty; two is too many, particularly in these financially challenging times. Therefore, it makes great sense for me to step aside earlier than I had initially anticipated. At the same time, Antoni has invited me to stay on as a director in 2013, which I have agreed to do. Personally, I will be making the transition from Artistic Director to director under Antoni’s leadership in his first season, which I look forward to.
And so, I will be here for Antoni in 2013 to give him whatever support (if any) he asks me for to insure that he has a great launch to his tenure as our artistic leader.
But let me be clear. Until November of this year I will be your Artistic Director with all of the authority and responsibility that goes with the job and I expect no confusion or ambiguity about that.
Antoni and I promise you that ours will be a most graceful and elegant transition, as once again the torch is passed from one leader to another for our magnificent theater and great Canadian institution – our beloved Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Antoni Cimolino Calgary Chamber of Commerce Monday, January 23, 2012
Enron, the play I’m directing, was written by Lucy Prebble, who at just thirty years of age is part of a new generation of young female playwrights currently making their mark on the British theatre.
In her various interviews with the press, Prebble has identified several aspects of the Enron scandal that inspired her to create a show about it.
To begin with, as someone who comes from a business family herself, she was interested in the degree to which individuals are culpable for the actions of companies that employ them, or companies that they deal with.
She was also intrigued by the uncomfortable fact that, in her own words, “intelligence isn’t really related to goodness at all.”
And she saw in the story of Enron’s rapid rise and catastrophic collapse something inherently suited to the stage. She has described the kind of corporate edifice that Enron represented as “that most theatrical of entities, just a game, an illusion, a system of belief.”
She originally conceived of her show as a musical – and indeed it does still have music in it – but she has explained that the idea really took off for her when the Shakespearean director Rupert Goold (who went on to direct the original production) suggested that she approach it more as a classical tragedy.
Now that I’ve been working on first Canadian production of Enron, and researching the scandal that inspired it, I can see why this saga of corporate malfeasance would capture a playwright’s imagination.
It’s very much a story of our time – told in a satirical style that’s not only biting but a lot of fun as well – yet it’s also timeless in its larger implications.
What has struck me most as I’ve delved into the financial and moral morass of Enron is its illustration of the sheer speed with which a given culture can change: how quickly dishonesty can creep in and how quickly things can go bad unless values are clearly set forth and adhered to.
And this is true not just of corporate culture but, by extension, of social and political culture as well.
As part of my work on the production, I asked a trader who had had Enron as a client to come and talk to our cast. What he described was an aggressive meritocracy totally based on money.
Once upon a time, Enron was just another company like Enbridge or TransCanada Corporation: a straightforward, predictable annual money-maker, a dependable stock for widows and orphans. And then things began to change.
Enron began hiring young people who really were – to borrow the title of the well-known book and film on the subject – the smartest guys in the room. These were people who could have used their intelligence, their acumen and their drive in all kinds of ways to advance human knowledge and better the human condition.
Instead, they were encouraged to use their talents in the service of pure self-interest. Go and make money – it doesn’t matter how – and you’ll get your percentage.
So they looked for ways of gaming the system, of bending and breaking the rules.
At the same time, other people were let go – people like accountants, people in unglamorous jobs who didn’t bring in millions of dollars but who were absolutely essential for the company to function well and function honestly.
Enron stopped placing value on those kinds of jobs and instead placed value entirely on the twenty-five- and thirty-year-olds who had found ways to make $12 million a year, no questions asked.
The whole culture of the corporation changed very quickly, to the point where ambition, aspiration and aggression – qualities that are generally valued in business contexts – morphed into cynical self-interest and outright criminality.
The amoral pursuit of gain codified itself into a belief system: the belief that there is no role for regulation in the business world, no role for the state, no role for government.
When California deregulated its electricity industry, Enron started creating artificial power shortages by deliberately shutting down its generating plants, in order to keep prices high. Rolling blackouts affected as many as two million people, sending power bills through the roof and even putting lives at risk.
This kind of unbridled greed couldn’t be sustained forever. Eventually there was going to be a collapse, and the casualties would include Enron itself. The amazing thing is that people inside the company knew this perfectly well, but that didn’t stop them. They had no interest in sustainability; their sole imperative was to keep making the deals and keep getting their percentages.
But, as the trader who spoke to us explained, they all had stock options, and what they did to prepare for the ultimate collapse was to start shorting their own stock. After a while, so many people in the company were doing this that it was actually in their financial best interests for the whole thing to blow up, and for the stock price to come tumbling down.
They had in effect done to themselves, as a company, what they did to California.
None of what I learned working on Enron, the show, came as a complete surprise to me. I’ve spent my professional life in the service of one William Shakespeare, so in a sense I’ve seen it all before.
If you’ve ever seen a production of Macbeth, for instance, you’ve seen the textbook case of ambition losing its moral compass and embarking on a course of self-destruction. Macbeth starts out admired by everyone, rewarded by his king for his exploits on the battlefield. But then an idea enters his mind, an idea that is fatally validated by the three weird sisters that he encounters at the start of the play.
“All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter,” the sisters say to him, thus establishing themselves as perhaps the most disastrous trio of career counsellors in dramatic literature.
Consumed by the idea of becoming king, Macbeth changes – literally overnight – from honoured hero to the murderer of his monarch.
His downward slide is precipitous: within a scene or two in the play he has become a monster, the brutal slayer not merely of perceived rivals but of innocent women and children.
The works of Shakespeare are full of instances of things going rotten in the state of Denmark, Scotland, England, ancient Rome – everywhere, in fact, that Shakespeare set his plays.
Time and again, Shakespeare shows us how tenuous civilization can be: how even the most established of social contracts can be just a hair’s breadth away from self-interest of the most savage kind.
The reason Shakespeare’s plays have endured, along with those of other great dramatists from the ancient Greeks onward, is that they embody truths about human nature that transcend time and place. They show us, with remorseless clarity, the implications and likely outcomes of our moral choices.
I don’t mean that they offer us moral instruction, in the prescriptive Victorian sense of serving up comforting examples of vice punished and virtue rewarded; I mean that they offer us moral insight: an honest and unsentimental assessment of how our very natures – and thereby our fortunes – are likely to be affected by the choices we make.
Macbeth, for instance, isn’t punished for his villainy by some just and righteous God; his doom grows naturally and inexorably out of his own mistakes.
By eagerly seizing on half-truths and equivocations as iron-clad guarantees, he prevents himself from seeing the complete picture, just like a cartoon character who paints himself into a corner or saws off the tree branch on which he is sitting.
Such failures of vision are universally human; that’s why a play like Macbeth – which nominally takes place in 11th-century Scotland – can equally well be set in, say, Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich or in the boardrooms of corporate America. Or corporate Canada, for that matter.
So while it might at first glance seem a bit over the top to draw comparisons between the Enron scandal and Nazi Germany, there is a parallel nonetheless, one that Shakespeare would have seen all too clearly.
In every area of human interaction, from business to politics, moral chaos can quickly ensue once we give ourselves permission to indulge our worst instincts.
Theatre, whether it’s a contemporary drama like Enron or a timeless classic like Macbeth, gives us an unrivalled forum in which to explore those universal truths, to draw connections between apparently unrelated events of history and see the patterns they so often have in common.
And being able to perceive those patterns may just help us to avoid being sucked into the same traps over and over again. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Theatre is one of the ways in which we scrutinize the past from the perspective of the present, and vice versa.
But theatre and the other arts are important in another way as well. They are part of the fabric of what I will call civil society.
By civil society, I mean a network of non-industrial, non-commercial, non-governmental organizations and relationships: an area of public life in which people come together for reasons that aren’t rooted in the business of getting and spending, or in the imperatives of law and taxation – reasons that spring spontaneously and freely from the spirit and the heart.
This area of life is a bulwark against pure self-interest, and the arts are a key component of it.
Here in North America we tend to take civil society for granted. But you certainly notice the effect in societies where it is weak or absent.
Over the past several years, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has been working with CUSO in the town of Suchitoto in El Salvador. We’ve been creating a performing arts centre and theatre school, to give the youth of Suchitoto the opportunity to engage in something creative: an alternative to just hanging out at home or joining a gang.
Plenty of commerce goes on in El Salvador, and there are plenty of government institutions. But what I think has been lacking, and what we are trying to help build, is a strong civil society: that sense of community that acts as a buffer against the forces of raw self-interest.
El Salvador has a national theatre, which was built by the coffee barons about a hundred years ago. But it fell into disuse. If you go there, you see people in front of it selling everything from fruit to Q-tips.
And they have no idea what the building behind them is or what it represents. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just another government building.
I find that very sad: a theatre that should be a cornerstone of civil society, a forum for exchanging insight and ideas, a place to celebrate who and what you are as a people, has become a meaningless backdrop to the “real” business of making a buck.
My experiences in El Salvador have absolutely confirmed my conviction that cultural, artistic, creative activity is every bit as vital to the health of a society as economic activity. “What is a man,” asks Hamlet, “If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” Yes, we all need to earn a living – but without some other kind of purpose, what is living for?
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that art and commerce are antithetical. Quite the contrary.
Not only does business play a vital role in supporting the arts, but the arts are themselves a business, and one that plays a major role in our economy, creating jobs, generating tax revenue and in many cases bringing wealth into the country from abroad.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, for instance, which generates about $140 million worth of annual economic activity, draws between a quarter and a third of its audience from the United States.
In Canada as a whole, the cultural sector contributes almost $40 billion to our gross domestic product every year.
It’s important to take note of that, because we still struggle against the popular impression of artists as effete, unworldly creatures with their heads in the clouds and begging bowls perpetually outstretched.
In fact, artists have far more in common with entrepreneurs than people generally realize. Shakespeare was not only the world’s greatest dramatic artist but also a shrewd businessman, who held shares in his company and retired to Stratford a very wealthy man.
Nonetheless, I do want to impress on you that the economic benefits that culture and the arts bring to society, substantial as they are, are only a part of the story. Far more importantly, they enrich our lives in countless ways that you can’t attach a dollar figure to.
I’ve been using the word culture a little loosely, so perhaps I should explain what I mean by it.
For some people, the wordconjures up images of elitism and exclusivity: the supposedly highbrow world of gallery openings, Shakespeare plays and symphony concerts. But in fact culture is simply our expression of who we are as a people, rich and poor, urban and rural, highbrow and lowbrow alike.
Culture embraces everything from Shakespeare to The Simpsons, from Beethoven to Batman. Culture is the music you play on your iPod, the novels or magazines you read, the choir you sing in, the dance or piano lessons your kids take.
The idea of a divide between so-called high culture and pop culture is false.
Culture is a continuum, and while we each naturally embrace those parts of it that we feel most at home with, there’s nothing to stop us exploring beyond our comfort zone. Great and unexpected pleasures can await those who make the effort to do so.
And culture isn’t just art, of course: the clothes you wear and the food you eat are also all part of your culture. As is sport. Canada, after all, just wouldn’t be Canada without hockey.
But among all the many aspects of life that constitute our culture, the arts do have a special dimension.
There is an element of thought, of examination, of self-reflection, involved in the arts that you don’t get, for example, in sport.
The arts lie at the heart of life. They provide insight and stimulate ideas. They prompt debate and discussion. They foster excitement, optimism and self-confidence. They provide an arena – whether it’s joining a choir or a drama group – in which diverse people can form relationships they otherwise wouldn’t have had. They place value on human life.
And whether you’re a participant or a patron, the arts add beauty, joy and meaning to daily experience – all those intangible things that don’t register on a corporate spreadsheet.
Communities with lively arts scenes are more desirable places in which to live: they attract creative, imaginative people from all disciplines, including the technical and scientific ones. The creative impulse, the desire to create something new that hasn’t existed before, lies at the heart of all human endeavour; it is ultimately what has given rise to civilization.
So somewhere between government and industry we need this kind of free space where we can develop a love of life, where we find a reason to live beyond the necessity to sleep and feed, and where we can become fully human, fulfilling our potential as far more than just consumers or taxpayers.
And the arts are one of the most important ways in which we construct such a space. This is clear in El Salvador, because it’s such an extreme example, but it’s just as true here in Calgary and across Canada.
Alberta, incidentally, has been a national leader in promoting culture and the arts in our society. Every fall since 2008, this province has held Alberta Arts Days, an annual celebration that in fact provided one of the direct inspirations for the Canada-wide Culture Days weekends that began in 2010.
As Chair of the National Steering Committee for Culture Days, I have been deeply impressed by Albertans’ vision and commitment to the goal of bringing arts and culture to the forefront of everyday life, where they belong.
As I get older, I feel more and more strongly that this is what we should all be striving for. We should be pushing all the time to create more space for civil society, more space for the kinds of interactions, the kinds of pursuits, that aren’t about wealth or power but just about life.
Because to me, this is an essential prerequisite of morality and an essential prerequisite of democracy.
The ancient Greeks, the inventors of democracy, believed in the ideal of the balanced person. If you don’t have balance – if, for example, you are consumed by a single objective, whether it be wealth or power – you cannot expect to have integrity. The Greeks understood the importance of the arts in society; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they also invented western drama.
And that brings me back to Enron. The kind of mindset that affected that company is the antithesis of a healthy society. The people who worked there were no longer whole, healthy people, people with integrity. They inhabited a culture in which the only thing that mattered was making the deal.
Embracing such a culture, becoming a part of it, they could not hope to be good corporate citizens and they could not hope to be complete and balanced human beings. And ultimately, I would suggest they became enemies to democracy.
Not so long ago, the fall of communism in eastern Europe was seen as the ultimate victory for democracy. Capitalism emerged triumphant and Francis Fukuyama declared – prematurely, as it turned out – that we had reached the end of history.
But as we can see from present-day China, and indeed from present-day Russia, commercialism and totalitarianism are not antithetical. You can have a thriving marketplace and still have a dictatorship.
What is antithetical to totalitarianism is this idea of civil society, that network of relationships that are distinct from both the state and the marketplace.
And civil society becomes all the more important as growing cynicism about politics and politicians results in increasing voter apathy.
If we want people to get out and vote, to be more actively engaged in our democracy, then we have to do all we can to foster the kind of society that people will care about, a society that attaches its highest importance to the things that ultimately make us who we are, and make our lives worth while.
We all have choices we can make, and the more complete our vision of ourselves and our society, the better those choices are likely to be, for ourselves and for those around us.
I believe that the arts are one of our most important avenues toward the larger perspective, toward the appreciation of true value. It is in their affirmation of the importance of the whole human being – the heart, the mind, the soul – that we find the most powerful antidote to the reductionist thinking embodied both in repressive political regimes and in the corporate tragedy that was Enron.
There isn’t a day goes by when I’m in this theatre that I don’t think of Michael. His spirit infuses this building, this stage and this company.
I knew him as visionary director, artful administrator, master of erudition and Renaissance Man, but my favourite role of his –and the one that may ultimately prove the most important – was that of teacher.
He had a profound gift for articulating the elusive techniques that apply to acting and directing so that they would literally materialize before a student’s eyes. He could make the invisible temporal.
It was after seeing a production of mine in New York in 1978 that Michael first called me and offered to take me to lunch. Telling me that I needed to direct Shakespeare, he helped persuade Joe Papp to hire me for the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. At the same time, he hired me to direct a project for him at the Juilliard School.
Though he was hiring me as a teacher, I gradually learned that his real interest was in becoming my teacher, which he proceeded to do in a clandestine way through a series of intense conversations that were actually tutorials.
Michael had an enthusiasm for acquiring students that was palpable. He remained my teacher, my advisor and, from time to time, my artistic conscience for over thirty years.
In all his roles, teacher, administrator and artist, Michael brought to the table a unifying artistic philosophy that is the hallmark of any great performing arts school, and any great theatre. And while we rightly honour Tyrone Guthrie as this Festival’s founding Artistic Director, it was Michael who was its true intellectual architect.
It was here that he developed the techniques for acting Shakespeare that he called “living thought.” Recognizing the texts not just as dramatic literature but as the world’s greatest record of human thought, he came to understand that it was only through the experiential process of acting that they could be properly appreciated.
Michael imparted that insight to the hundreds of actors and directors who passed through Stratford’s halls during his tenure as Artistic Director.
And as those artists went on to develop other theatres across the country, Michael became godfather to the Canadian English-speaking theatre of today.
Once, during an Air Canada flight from New York on our way to Stratford in 1982, I tried to get his advice, which he grumpily refused to give me.
I had been offered the artistic directorship of La Jolla Playhouse, which was starting up after a long period of dormancy. At the same time, John Hirsch had asked me to join him as his associate at Stratford.
Michael refused to offer an opinion on which of these options I should choose, making it clear that I had to sort it out on my own. Nonetheless, I felt I had to thank him for the attention he had lavished on me as a young director.
Instead of accepting this, he said sharply, “Don’t thank me. Just remember to do it for someone else one day.”
Many young directors, designers, writers and actors have been helped along by Michael. His was the kind of giant talent that had a tremendous ripple effect that will no doubt go on for a long time indeed.
It was to ensure that his discoveries continue to be passed on to the emerging directors of today and tomorrow that we launched the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction last year.
But even beyond that formal program, generations of artists to come will benefit from his teaching, as those of us with whom he shared his knowledge take care in our turn to “do it for someone else.”
I expect, in fact, that Michael Langham has countless theatre students who have yet even to be born.
The world’s first use of film to tell a dramatic story—as opposed to documentary shots of trains pulling into railway stations or workers pouring out of factories at closing time—is generally agreed to be a twelve-minute western called The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903.
There are, however, other contenders from that same year, including, from Britain, A Daring Daylight Burglary, performed by members of the Sheffield Fire Brigade, and a three-minute chase film entitled Desperate Poaching Affray.
So never mind the Golden Age of Comedy: it seems that the defining genre of the early popular cinema was the heist movie.
The cinema was still relatively young—not in its infancy or perhaps even its adolescence, but certainly in its young adulthood—when the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin published his seminal 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Many of us read that essay as undergraduates or even in high school.
In that visionary and hugely influential piece of writing, Benjamin argued that the technologies of the early twentieth century had wrought a radical change in how we experience and respond to the visual and performing arts.
For centuries, physical works of art such as paintings and sculptures had been created for kings, dukes and other wealthy and powerful patrons, and methods of giving those works wider exposure were extremely limited. The ancient Greeks, for instance, had only two ways of reproducing art by technical means: founding and stamping. This meant that bronzes, terracottas and coins were the only kinds of works they could reproduce in quantity.
As a result, for much of human history, what Benjamin described as an “aura” of tradition, authority and exclusivity surrounded physical works of art. In his view, the value of such art was largely associated with its cult status, its function as a key element of ritual.
All this, of course, applied to art objects: material things like paintings, sculptures and even books, which for many centuries could be reproduced only by hand. The kinds of strictures Benjamin described have never applied in quite the same way to the performing arts, because those arts are embodied not in things but in experiences.
Unlike works in marble, bronze or paint, performances exist only while they are being shared between artists and audiences in the living moment. That fact makes the performing arts inherently democratic, at least in theory. Theatre, for instance (even though it originated in ritual and has often depended on private patronage), couldn’t have too great an aura of exclusivity, because it requires the presence of people in order to exist.
The work of the ancient Greek dramatists was seen by thousands at a sitting. Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences crammed into the public playhouses of their time. On any given afternoon in the age of Marlow, Shakespeare and Jonson, perhaps a tenth of the population of London might be at the theatre.
Thanks to such technological innovations as the woodcut, the printing press and lithography, material forms of art eventually became more widely accessible too. But in Benjamin’s analysis, it was the rise of photography, sound recording and cinematography—not just as technical novelties but as media for the creative imagination—that truly revolutionized our perceptions of the artist’s work.
The reproducible art photograph democratized an experience of seeing that had previously been limited to those who could, for instance, go to the Louvre and look at the Mona Lisa. And the photograph had none of that aura of history, authenticity and uniqueness that had traditionally surrounded an original painting or sculpture.
Meanwhile, the new medium of cinema demanded a hitherto unprecedented kind of performance: one that is given (not necessarily in narrative sequence) to a camera rather than to a human spectator. And with its close-ups and jump cuts, and its ability to render action in slow motion, film introduced audiences to a new kind of experience, vastly different from the ones they were accustomed to having in a theatre.
The reason I’m musing on all this at such length is that we are currently in the young adulthood of another transformative age: the age of digital reproduction. And it seems to me that this digital age is shaping a generation’s attitudes to art, just as the mechanical age did before it.
Digital technology has brought us a wealth of entertainment options undreamed of just a few decades ago. It enables us, for example, to reproduce sounds and images ad infinitum, without loss of quality (though audiophiles may grumble that vinyl on a turntable is still the only way to go) and to share them with vast numbers of people instantly. From movies to music albums to TV shows, a vast array of cultural products, new and old, popular and obscure, is now easily and immediately available to anyone with an Internet connection.
Besides reproduction, today’s technology also makes possible purely digital creation. Animation artists can generate, in a computer, photo-realistic dinosaurs and aliens that give every appearance of living and breathing. Those artist-technicians can fashion convincing performances—even in 3D—out of nothing material at all.
The innovations of our time are every bit as revolutionary as those of a century ago. So in what ways are they changing our society’s attitudes and expectations? Does our cultural future lie purely in the digital universe? As purveyors of the ancient arts of live performance, are our days numbered?
Well, I’m no Walter Benjamin, but I will share with you what thoughts and observations I have. I do see significant implications for those of us who work in this field—but they are not necessarily, as some of us may be inclined to fear, negative implications.
I think it’s obvious to us all that massive changes are taking place among those creative industries that had their origins in the age of mechanical reproduction. Film audiences, for example, are already down between fifteen and twenty per cent this year, and continuing, it would appear, to move in that direction. The industry is struggling—in part, I am sure, because film is more and more being perceived as a disposable art form.
The process started with the videocassette, but digital technology has accelerated it. You no longer need go out to a movie theatre and sit with an audience of strangers; you can simply download a film to your computer and watch it whenever you want. So moviegoing, as an outing, an occasion, has largely been supplanted by a kind of desultory experience that is more akin to watching TV. And TV is a medium so passive that its makers actually expect you to get up and leave the room during it, and so they tailor their product accordingly.
I don’t mean that film is no longer a worthwhile art form—after all, I’ve made films myself. But I do think that the shift from the movie palace to the computer screen has in some sense diminished the value of the product in the eyes of its primary consumers, the younger generation.
This generational shift in attitude to film as a medium has been exacerbated by changes in the technology not just of viewing movies but also of making them. High-definition camcorders cost a few hundred dollars; any amateur filmmaker can post their work on YouTube and potentially have it viewed around the world. And if your aspirations are higher, you can make a feature-length film for thousands of dollars rather than millions.
The popular music industry I grew up with is also being democratized. The days when maybe five bands a year would get attention and a deal with a major label are long gone. There are hundreds of bands out there, fabulous bands, each with its base of Internet fans.
In short, modes of creative expression that were born in the age of mechanical reproduction are struggling to find their place in this new digital age. The old hierarchy of record labels, movie studios and TV networks has crumbled. In terms of mass culture, ours is—for the time being, at any rate—an anarchical world.
Meanwhile, I think something has happened to our notion of posterity.
For centuries, artists strove to ensure that their work would last into the future, beyond the span of their own lifetimes, touching more and more souls through the decades and centuries to come. But our attitude to posterity began to shift during the 1940s, when the advent of the atomic bomb first raised the prospect that there might not be such a thing as centuries to come. From that point on, a shadow of uncertainty has hung over human life that we hadn’t known before.
Living in that shadow—cast nowadays not only by the bomb but by more recent worries over human-induced climate change—I think we started to re-examine the value of life itself. We started to think more in the Eastern sense, about living in the now. Perhaps posterity no longer mattered as much as immediacy: the intensity of the moment.
So what does this mean for people in the performing arts? Well, immediacy is a defining characteristic of our work. We practise our craft in the eternal present, on the advancing edge of time. This is what has always distinguished live performance from other art forms, and this is why—perhaps paradoxically—I see it enjoying a resurgence in an age dominated by digital technology.
In a curious kind of way, live performance is a very digital-age kind of art. By definition, the digital universe is based ultimately on information. It’s all done, not with mirrors, but with numbers, which are pure information.
Likewise, actors and directors can take the pure information contained in the four-hundred-year-old words of a Shakespeare text and use them to create an experience that unfolds in real time, here and now.
And that same information can be used to create endlessly different versions of that experience, just as you can manipulate the pixels of a digital photograph to create a variety of different effects. You can produce a classic text in countless different ways, each of which will have its own nuances of meaning, its own set of correspondences to the world in which we live.
This gives live performance an immediacy that far outstrips even the greatest products of mechanical reproduction.
A film, for instance, is essentially a frozen art form: however many times you run it through the projector, it’s not going to change. And the art of film is now old enough that we can see how many of its products must eventually become dated, so removed from us in time that we no longer feel the immediacy they once possessed. Yes, there are some films that we rightly regard as classics, but are they necessarily timeless classics?Might not even Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz one day seem so remote from us that they become of interest more as artefacts than as art?
Many actors still look on the theatre as a stepping stone on their way to the real goal: the silver screen. This isn’t just because of the money: it’s also because of the notion that when you make a movie your art becomes immortal. But in all but a handful of cases, I think that’s an illusion. How many teenagers today have heard of such one-time stars as John Gilbert or Clara Bow? Posterity these days isn’t what it used to be.
It might make more sense for film actors to aspire to the theatre, because it is in that magic crucible that information contained in a long-dead playwright’s words can suddenly turn into dazzling life. Real life.
Film, for all its vaunted verisimilitude, can never be real in the way a live performance is real. A movie consists of shifting patterns of coloured light on a screen. The people who caused those patterns to appear are nowhere present, and have long since moved on to other things. Even the greatest of movies is, by its nature, pure illusion, pure imitation. It’s Plato’s cave of shadows, with popcorn.
Film is dream.
Live theatre, though, is real. Yes, it’s a game of pretence, but the players are there, in the same room with us. The game will work only if we collude with them, if we agree to play our parts as they play theirs. And while it makes not a whit of difference to the images of actors on a screen whether we’re there to watch them or not, our presence at a live performance affects the work being created; we quite literally help to shape its course.
However vigilant your stage manager, no two performances of the same play, the same ballet, the same opera can ever be exactly identical, because no collaboration between living actors and a living audience can ever be reproduced with mechanical fidelity. Every live performance is, and must be, a unique and original work of art.
Unlike the relatively anonymous act of going to the movies, theatregoing is a communal experience. When you enter a theatre auditorium, the house lights are bright enough for you to read your program and look around you at the rest of the audience. In a thrust-stage configuration, such as we have in three of our four venues at Stratford, you’re actually facing many of your fellow patrons. There are intermissions, during which you might chat with people around you.
At the very least, it’s a social experience. At its most exalted, it becomes a sacred communion between artist and audience.
Nothing can compare to the sensation of sharing a real experience, a passage in your life, with an artist who is present in the flesh, and going through that same passage with you. Together, you experience the human soul in flight.
I realize that I don’t really need to tell you this; it should be an article of faith for those of us who work in the performing arts. But the point I’m coming to is that there is now an entire generation for whom the digital age is the only one they’ve ever known.
And for them, the experience of live performance can come as a revelation. It can make them gasp the way early movie audiences gasped when they saw a train apparently rushing toward them from the screen.
My experiences in recent years, not just at Stratford but also in New York and London and Toronto, and recently in Australia as well, have led me to conclude that, with a world’s worth of digital distraction available at our fingertips, live performance is becoming more desirable than ever before. I sense among young people today a growing hunger for transcendent experience, for communion, that the products of technology by themselves aren’t able to satisfy.
Still, the reactions of young people to a performance are inevitably shaped by the aesthetics they’ve absorbed from film and electronic media, both of which are highly visual.
At Stratford, I always make a point of sitting in on our first student matinée performances so I can see for myself how they’re being received. What I’ve noticed is that the level of the students’ enthusiasm for a Shakespeare play has much to do with how the production looks.
Four-hundred-year-old language doesn’t seem to faze them, provided there is something contemporary or edgy about the visuals. If it doesn’t look stuffy, they can connect to it. For example, students just loved David Grindley’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream a couple of years ago, with the fairies as punks in leather and tattoos.
But I don’t necessarily just mean modern dress: young people can accept pumpkin pants the same way they can accept Lady Gaga’s armadillo shoes. It has more to do with staging the piece in a way that’s somehow au courant and pertinent to their experience, a way that somehow acknowledges the fact that the performance is taking place in the present moment.
When people ask me what period I’m setting a production in, I always want to give the same answer: “I’m setting it now.” Because really, when else can this be taking place?
So whatever the actors happen to be wearing, the key for me is to make the event they’re taking part in—the performance—as immediate and up-to-date as possible. Our production of The Tempest last year was costumed in Jacobean styles, but it also used a lot of modern effects, both mechanical and digital.
Young people are accustomed to all the visual spectacle the modern cinema can provide—and in the case of The Tempest, they responded ecstatically to our use of technology to create magical effects on stage. Those effects were perhaps somewhat humbler than the ones you’d get in a sci-fi movie today—but they were happening there and then, in real life, before the kids’ very eyes. And that gave them a massive impact.
For most of those students, attending that production would have been unlike anything they’d experienced before—and yet they reacted as if they’d come upon something they’d been yearning for. And without question they recognized the hypnotic wonder of a brilliant actor in the great Christopher Plummer.
I saw the same thing this year at a student matinée of Jesus Christ Superstar. This is a show that’s now more than forty years old—based on a story that’s nearly two thousand years old. But the music of Superstar is at least somewhat akin to the music young people are used to hearing: it’s electric music. And our staging uses video projection and LED displays: elements that are familiar to anyone who has attended a rock concert or watched a music video.
I sat there and looked around me, and saw that the kids were riveted. There was a real recognition of the work: it wasn’t an alien experience to them. Yet at the same time, this was clearly not an experience they could get through their usual channels—sitting at home with the television or the computer, or even going to the cinema. And as I sat and watched them, I felt as if I were in the midst of a generation of people who had found their way home.
We are entering the age after mechanical reproduction, an age in which life itself is celebrated. This is certainly happening in the world of rock-and-roll, where increasingly the record album is seen not so much as an end in itself but as a means of promoting a band’s new music so that people will come to their live concerts.
I’m working on an theatre project called Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, inspired by the album of that title by The Flaming Lips, an independent psychedelic band whose members I first met back in 2006. In the five years I’ve known them, The Flaming Lips have been placing more and more emphasis on live concerts. As their manager explained to me, they can make more money by giving ten concerts than they can from an album—and this is now quite typical for rock bands across the board.
When I gave a presentation on the project to Warner Brothers, everybody from the head of A&R to the head of business affairs to the president of the label was in attendance. Ten years ago, that would never have happened. But record companies are looking at their business differently these days: they’re looking for new income streams, and they understand that the future to a great extent lies in live performance.
And as we advance further into that future, I’d be prepared to bet that the nature of live performance itself will change—though it would be reckless of me to attempt to prophesy exactly how.
Let me emphasize that: no one can predict the art of tomorrow. There’s no creative equivalent of a corporate strategic plan; ground-breaking developments in art are conceived not by focus groups or market surveys but by artists making things up as they go along.
Having said that, I just have to share an anecdote with you.
A certain theatre in the American Midwest was planning its season’s playbill. They decided to conduct a marketing survey, to find out what their audiences might like to see. They listed in the survey the plays they were considering, one of which was Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.
When the survey results came in, the theatre staff were taken aback to find that a good sixty per cent of their audience had a hankering to see Happy Days—which normally doesn’t have quite as hot a box-office appeal as Waiting for Godot.
I don’t know how long it took for the penny to drop that the big drawing cards in their audiences’ minds weren’t Winnie and Willie but Richie and the Fonz.
That pretty well sums up what I think of marketing surveys. Marketing surveys can only tell you what audiences liked yesterday. And even then they don’t necessarily get it right.
Only artists can lead us to the art of tomorrow. As institutional and company leaders, all we can do is to create forums and possibilities by giving artists freedom and resources.
But to get back to the future: without attempting to gaze into any crystal balls, I think it’s safe to say that if you want to attract young audiences and convince them of the pertinence of what you’re presenting, it helps to use the kinds of visual idioms with which they’re already familiar.
Visual storytelling is becoming more and more the norm, even in classical theatre, and it makes sense to use today’s technology to enhance that part of our power. My Flaming Lips project, for example, will use various forms of digital technology, such as computer-generated imagery and LED, just as our current production of Superstar does.
I don’t mean to say that live theatre should necessarily try to compete with Avatar, just that it shouldn’t shy away from stimulating all the senses. Shakespeare himself moved in just such a direction late in his career. Spectacle was very much a part of the equation when he wrote The Tempest, and we shouldn’t be afraid to follow his suit.
Talking of visual storytelling, those of you who have been following events at Stratford will know that in the last couple of years two of our productions, Caesar and Cleopatra and The Tempest, both starring Christopher Plummer, have been captured in high definition and screened in movie theatres across the country, as well as being shown on TV. This is something we hadn’t done for quite a long time, and I’m proud and delighted that we now have enduring records of those great performances. So how does this square with what I’ve just been saying about movies in the digital age, and about posterity?
My answer is partly that these aren’t movies in the same sense that Avatar is a movie. They don’t try to create purely cinematic worlds; they’re quite clearly recordings of performances given on stage. And perhaps more importantly, I see them as an immensely valuable means to an important end.
They are, if you like, samplers of what we can do in Stratford. I said earlier that theatre used to be a stepping stone to film. To turn that around, a large part of the purpose of our movies is to create in people who see them the desire to come our theatres and experience the real thing: the unique thrill of live performance.
Far from being a threat to the continued existence of live performance, high-definition movies and other digital media can be our greatest ally, provided we are sufficiently innovative and imaginative in our thinking. It is primarily on digital means that we must rely in order to connect with the generation that represents our future, and turn those young audiences on to the kind of work we do.
The speed with which information now travels has transformed our world even in the last decade. With Twitter, you can get vast numbers of people to congregate at short notice, whether it be for a flash mob or to start a revolution. The social and political implications are enormous, as are the opportunities for innovative marketing of the arts.
A great example is England’s theatre company The Factory, which has mounted site-specific productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov directed by Tim Carroll, who did a production of Peter Pan for us last year. The company uses no newspapers, flyers or posters to advertise; in a stunning reversal of normal marketing wisdom, they actually keep the performance venue secret until shortly beforehand. They then use social media to announce where and when it will take place, and the audience follows.
Tim told us that thousands of people showed up for their final performance of Hamlet, at midnight outside Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
It’s essential to make imaginative use of today’s technology to propagate a passion for the performing arts—and to stimulate the kind of debate that’s rooted in that passion.
At Stratford, it was initially a little disconcerting for us to realize that the first reviews of our work were no longer coming out in the morning papers the day after the official opening; they were being tweeted by kids during the intermission of the first preview.
But we soon realized that social media offered us an incredible opportunity. By facilitating exchanges among a community of interested parties, encouraging them to share their opinions, we could get young people to discover live theatre as a significant forum for ideas.
There’s always a danger, of course, that we won’t get thoughtful criticism, but the important thing is to create the conditions where it can arise.
In every era, artists have been the vanguard for change, raising the hard questions that a society must always ask itself if it is to pursue such goals of civilization as freedom, truth and justice. The great Tyrone Guthrie once said that the theatre is the oldest social, moral and political platform in the world, and I firmly believe that live performance, and the debate that surrounds it, is one of our primary tools for change.
I saw this at first hand on a visit to the Soviet Union back in 1986. In one of the first stirrings of glasnost, a congress was being held in Moscow, attended by representatives of all six hundred and fifty state theatres from across the fifteen Soviet republics. Its aim was to wrest control of the theatres away from the Ministry of Culture and form a new creative union.
Theatre was consciously chosen as the focus for that initiative precisely because it is such an ephemeral art. Something similar had been tried once before, under Khrushchev, with the literary union. That initiative had failed, because it was relatively easy to suppress a movement focused on something as tangible as writing. It was a very dangerous thing to be caught with a forbidden manuscript—but it’s much more difficult to censor performing art. You have to arrest not only all the actors but also the whole audience.
That thrilling time led ultimately to the end of communism. And it was no accident that the theatre was at the forefront of that movement. One should never underestimate the power of live performance.
The aim of this congress is to explore the many meanings and implications of the phrase “ground-breaking.” As I said earlier, it would be foolish of me to try to guess—or worse, prescribe—ways in which the performing arts might break new ground in the years to come.
Much of the greatest and most potent art, in fact, springs from old ground, not new: the fertile soil of the classics that has simply been tilled in different ways and planted with fresh seeds of inspiration to see what new insights and ideas might spring up. The most daringly subversive theatre performance you could give in a repressive regime could well be of a play by Aeschylus or Shakespeare.
But whether it is reinventing an often-told tale or forging on into brand new territory, the art of performance is characterized above all by the unique power I have tried to describe: the power to bring together artists and audience in a communion of spirits, an intense experience shared in the present moment by people who are present together in the same place.
It is this communal, in-the-moment nature of live performance that made it so uniquely accessible in the age of purely manual reproduction.
It is this same quality that enabled it to survive the age of mechanical reproduction—though that age certainly took its toll as the new media of film, television and hi-fidelity sound recording drained audiences away from theatres and concert halls.
Now we live in a digital age, an age fast being inherited by a generation for whom unlimited access to the marvels of technology-based entertainment has always been merely a fact of life. And for that generation, in this revolutionary age, it is now the ancient art of live performance that seems truly ground-breaking.
One thing that has changed—and not for the better—since Walter Benjamin wrote his essay seventy-five years ago, is that the classics are now no longer routinely taught in our schools. Shakespeare, the greatest writer of any age, in any language, is no longer considered a fundamental part of a young person’s education, like learning how to read.
It is up to us, as people who have devoted our careers, and often our lives, to the performing arts, to ensure that the hunger that I have spoken of, the hunger among young people for the kind of profoundly meaningful experience that only live performance can provide, does not go unsatisfied because students have not been shown the way to the banquet.
We have a tendency in the theatre—and perhaps this is true of other performing arts as well—to move slowly. We like to digest new ideas before we rush to adopt them. I’m talking here not just about our art, but about our promotion of it, our communication of it to the young people who are our future audiences.
We have to work harder as a community to get those people into our theatres, our opera houses, our concert halls, wherever live performance takes place.
Driven in large part by technology, the pace of change in our lives is accelerating, and there is a real danger that we will be too slow to awaken in young people the passion that in one way or another we all share in this room today.
I’ve seen kids today enraptured at sold-out rock concerts, the way many of us were in our own youth. The appetite for live performance is there—indeed, as I’ve tried to argue, it is perhaps greater than ever before. We simply have to get people turned on to what we do the same way they are turned on to contemporary music. We have to get them invested in what we’re doing, or what we are doing will be lost to time!
I believe to the bottom of my soul that the performing arts can become increasingly vital regardless of technological advances in the future that would numb our minds today. I believe that we hold in our hands art that is vital, exquisitely fragile and ultimately invaluable – actual life itself.
If there is any way in which I would challenge you to break new ground, it is this: seize every opportunity to stir up excitement about your work and the work of the artists you host, so that the generation for whom entertainment has always been digital may find its way home to the wondrous transforming world of live performance.
The honour bestowed upon me today brings with it a welcome sense of completion, concluding as it does some business that I had left unfinished for nearly forty years.
For although this is my alma mater, I was not—until today—a graduate. I spent just two years here in the early 1970s, then decided to take my chances in the professional world without the benefit of a degree.
My departure did not reflect any dissatisfaction on my part—nor, for that matter, on Ryerson’s. It was simply that doors started opening for me that I couldn’t afford not to pass through.
I spent much of my first year here in the reading room on the top floor of Neill-Wycik College, where I would stay up all night with a Thermos of tea writing plays.
By the time the summer break rolled round, I had completed three: A Lime in the Morning and Leave It to Beaver is Dead, both of which I submitted to Young Peoples Theatre, and Silent Edward, which YTP thereupon commissioned from me.
I’d also submitted my scripts to Toronto Free Theatre, and that led to another commission. So I spent the last part of that summer writing a fourth play, which was called Troll.
This whirlwind of creative activity was all very exciting, but it made it increasingly hard to attend class. And with my work actually being produced, I was feeling the pressure to become a full-time member of Toronto’s alternative theatre scene.
My teachers at Ryerson, who included David Harris and Basya Hunter, were well aware of my dilemma—and far from demanding that I make a choice between my studies and my nascent career, they were incredibly supportive of me.
Basya even went so far as to lend me her summer place on Kahshe Lake, so that I could have peace and quiet in which to write Troll. And David directed Silent Edward that same summer for Susan Rubes of YPT.
But Ryerson’s support of me didn’t end there. Jack McAllister, the head of the department at the time, got together with the faculty to work out a creative solution whereby I could stay on as a student while also pursuing these career opportunities.
Not only was this incredibly generous of them, it speaks to a philosophy of education that I can only call visionary.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. By the end of my second year, I was completely overwhelmed; I just couldn’t manage to be both a student and a working playwright. And so, with great regret, I withdrew from the program.
That regret has stayed with me ever since, despite whatever successes I have enjoyed in my career. It’s not that I feel it was the wrong decision; it’s just that making it required me to disappoint people who had had faith in me, who had built up my confidence for me, and who had gone well out of their way to give me special consideration.
I couldn’t help feeling that in some way I had betrayed them, and I can only hope that in accepting this honour today I have finally finished what I started nearly four decades ago.
In one sense, though, that sense of incompletion that hung over me when I abandoned my formal studies has worked to my advantage. It prevented me from succumbing to the notion that I was now done with being educated.
Those of you graduating today rightly take pride in your achievement. You rightly celebrate your crossing of a threshold in your lives. But that threshold is not an exit from the world of education; it’s just the first of many doors into it.
Bob Dylan—a classical composer of the last century, of whom some of you may vaguely have heard—once sang, “He [that’s] not busy being born is busy dying.” To put that another way, when you stop learning, you stop living.
Not having graduated, I never stopped thinking of myself as a student. My classroom was the theatre, and my teachers were the directors and other artists with whom I was working, but my own role as a learner remained unchanged. To this day, I have a gluttonous appetite for learning—and I am staggered by how much less I know now than when I was twenty-five.
There’s an old proverb with which you may be familiar. These days you’ll find it attributed on the Internet to Bruce Lee, but its provenance goes back a bit further than martial arts movies of the 1970s.
It’s from ancient Persia, and it goes like this:
“He who knows not and knows not he knows not is a fool—shun him.
“He who knows not and knows he knows not is simple—teach him.
“He who knows and knows not he knows is asleep—wake him.
“He who knows and knows he knows is wise—follow him.”
I like that proverb because it defines learning not just in terms of reading books, or going to the museum, or working in the lab, but in terms of relationships with other people—and these of course are crucial.
This is the point in my address where I think I’m expected to give you my advice as you head out into the world. So here it is: Cultivate relationships of the following three kinds.
First, relationships with mentors. Whatever field you’re in, it is critical that you find those enlightened people who can inspire you, teach you, and above all criticize you—frankly, aggressively and even, when necessary, brutally. Without such people in your life, it’s very difficult to keep learning and growing and moving beyond your comfortable preconceptions.
My most important mentor was the late great director Michael Langham. I was on an airplane with him once, travelling to Stratford. At the time, I was wrestling with a career choice, and I pressed Michael for his advice. Naturally, he refused to make up my mind for me, but he let me talk and bounce my thoughts off him.
At the end of the conversation, I tried to thank him for the time and attention he’d given me, but he cut me off, saying, “Don’t thank me; just remember to do it for someone else one day.”
Which brings me to the next category of people with whom you should nurture relationships: people younger than yourselves.
Take responsibility for them, shower them with attention, give them advice (when it’s wanted and when you have it to give), offer them encouragement, and always try to pass on whatever hard-won knowledge and insight you have acquired.
And these relationships are not only about what you can teach to younger people but also—indeed even more—about what they can teach you. Whenever I encounter students and young actors, I always try to find out what they know that I don’t. I recognized when I was in my thirties that I was in danger of losing track of what was hip. My younger friends do their best to keep me in touch with what is au courant.
The third and final group I advise you to cultivate is the most important of all: your peers. Very often it’s not your teachers and students who do the most to drive you forward; it’s the people whom you’re working with side by side.
This is particularly true in the theatre, which is a collaborative art, but I think it applies to any discipline, from physics to philosophy. And it’s absolutely essential if you work in a field that is inherently solitary.
One example would be writing—and I’ve noticed that my favourite writers, whether playwrights or novelists, are always involved with other writers, sharing their own work and critiquing each other’s. This saves them from becoming fatally self-absorbed.
So that’s my simple advice. It can be summed up in three words: “Find your people.” Your mentors, your mentees, and your peers.
As a young man, I was fortunate enough to find some of my people here at Ryerson, wonderful people who gave me the confidence I needed to go out into the world to find more. I wish that same good fortune to each of you graduating today. Find your people and, as Polonius advises Laertes in the first act of Hamlet, grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.
Thank you Chancellor Chang and President Levy for inviting me to help celebrate my friend and colleague of more than thirty years—Doctor Des McAnuff.
I first saw Des’s work in New York in 1978: a play called Gimme Shelter, by Barrie Keefe. At one point an enormous white cube descended from the ceiling of the large hall where it was playing. One side of the cube opened to reveal the entire set of a room within. In a theatre space that had no wings, it provided a seamless transition from an outdoor scene and was a stunning moment of showmanship—two hallmarks of Des’s work.
I wanted to know more about the DNA of this precocious director and asked about his previous production, The CrazyLocomotive. That audience witnessed a train wreck take place on stage though an ingenious combination of sets, lighting effects and film. I heard about his production of Dr. Faustus at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, in which he removed a portion of the roof and floor of the theatre to allow actors to enter from above and below. This gave visual embodiment to the cosmos of the play, for you see Des’s interest in strong visuals is always connected to realizing the text. It made me wonder what was going on in Canada that bred this kind of imagination—and who were the people there that allowed him to do such things.
I have had the pleasure of meeting three of them, working with Paul Thompson, as we ready a play about John Hirsch for Stratford next season. It was Thompson who hired Des at Passe Muraille and Hirsch who offered Des his first opportunity to direct at Stratford. Stratford was also where Des saw his first Shakespeare, and its great intellectual architect, Michael Langham, became a champion of his work. Thesethree men define the word passion, and it must have been contagious.
You cannot understand Des unless you know the depth of his passion about the theatre. It is this passion that makes him so demanding—keeping up with him is exhausting—and so meticulous. His favourite phrase to actors in rehearsal is “one more time,” as in: let’s run the scene again. With Des, however, it is rarely one more time. He is a perfectionist.
When I first began working with Des at the Public Theatre in New York, I learned more about his roots. He told me about Ryerson and George Walker and the alternative theatre scene in the Toronto of the 1970s that was his breeding ground. I learned about his love for rock-and-roll and witnessed the pleasure he took in performing it. (He has a great collection of electric guitars!) I learned that he began writing and composing rock musicals in high school after seeing Hair.
Des’s love of musicals is genuine. He considers them as an important popular art form, but his success with musicals has distorted our view of his body of work. When I joined Des at Stratford in 2008, a Toronto newspaper said that he went to New York to direct Broadway musicals. This was puzzling to me, as his early work there were plays by Ignacy Witkiewicz and Wolfgang Hildesheimer (not known for their work in musical theater) and his own play with the unmusical title of Leave It to Beaver is Dead. Des is one of the few directors who can work successfully both in the fields of the popular and the rarified.
Des was a playwright and composer before he turned his focus to directing. Because of this he understands writers and is unusually sensitive to text. For all of his rock-and-roll flash, his focus as a director is always about realizing the material. It is this combination of showmanship (which he uses to draw his audience into the work) and respect for text that makes him so potent a director.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his work on his other great passion, Shakespeare. Too often respect for Shakespeare is taken to be replicating the last three productions we have seen of a particular play (often cut), rather than actively engaging in an exploration of the actual text that exists. Digging into the text in a process Des calls “sleuthing” begins before well before rehearsals begin and continues with actors throughout the rehearsal period.
The changes he has initiated at Stratford have been remarkable for his mere three-and-a-half seasons there. His love of contemporary playwriting has led him to a greater commitment to producing the work of living writers and living Canadian playwrights. He understands that classical theatre can become a museum, and the presence of living playwright in the mix reminds us that we call a play a classic because it is still about us, now.
He and General Director Antoni Cimolino have distilled and strengthened our great acting company. Des has opened it up to more diversity by including more actors of colour and more actors of colour in leading roles. This is no nod to political correctness, but comes from something deep within. He once ordered a taxi we were riding in to the curb after the driver made a racial slur.
Des’s ability to attract extraordinary collaborators has always been a hallmark of his work. He is secure enough that he is not afraid to surround himself with the most talented artists and smart enough to know that he benefits from them. One of his most important imprints on Stratford has been matching our acting company with the outstanding directors he has brought in. And our actors have thrived.
Des is also fiercely interested in the development of young Canadian directors, advancing their work from our smaller theatres to our main stages this season and next, and he and Dean Gabourie have set up a training program for emerging directors named for Michael Langham.
Langham taught the importance of “living thought” in Shakespeare: that leaving no separation between thought and word makes the verse live. There is no separation between thought and action with Des. He acts on his convictions. Those convictions have led him to give an extraordinary amount of his adult life to being an artisticdirector. Des’ willingness to do so has moved me deeply, but as his friend I am happy that he will be stepping back to lead a life again.
But, as Des recently reminded staff and artists in a company meeting, he is only a little over halfway through his tenure at Stratford: his work there, he told us, is not finished and he will return to direct productions. How lucky we are; how exhausted we will be. But to paraphrase Dr. Seuss: Oh the places we will go!
The intellectual thrust of any great theatre springs from two sources: the works on the playbill and the directors who bring those works to life.
I realized this early in my career, working with directors as a young playwright and composer. I noticed that, given the same group of actors, the quality of their work could vary immensely, depending on the strength of the director.
This theatre is a superb instrument for the creation of art. When we hand this theatre and this company over to a director, we’re giving them a Stradivarius, and we expect it to be played at the highest level.
But too often in a theatre, as time goes by, directing can become regarded as a reward for service rather than as a privilege earned by extraordinary talent.
And when that happens, the company and its art can begin to drift. When you don’t have directors who are at the forefront of their field, then the acting company suffers.
That’s why it has always been one of my highest priorities to make our directorship here at Stratford as strong as possible, to bring together some of the finest minds and visionaries working in the theatre.
This company was built on the shoulders of great directors, among them such legendary figures as Tyrone Guthrie, Michael Langham, Robin Phillips and John Hirsch, to name just a few.
In recent years we have brought here such international talents as Adrian Noble, Tim Carroll, Gary Griffin and Ethan McSweeny. We have also made a point of giving opportunities to the strongest directors from within Canada, such as Jennifer Tarver and Weyni Mengesha.
Our commitment is – and must be – to the highest artistic standards: to presenting the greatest plays in history, performed by a company of actors second to none, led by the best directors from around the world.
I want to introduce you now to one of those directors.
Frank Galati, who directed tonight’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, is truly a Renaissance man: director, playwright, teacher and actor.
He’s the winner of two Tony Awards (for best direction and best play) for his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, with which I was fortunate enough to be involved early on at La Jolla Playhouse.
That play, of course, is now also part of our 2011 season here in Stratford, in a new production directed by our own Antoni Cimolino.
Frank is the recipient of eleven Joseph Jefferson Awards for his work at various Chicago theatres, including Steppenwolf and the Goodman, of which he is Associate Director. He was nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA award for his screenplay for the 1988 movie The Accidental Tourist.
It’s a tremendous honour to have him open our season with Merry Wives.
Please give your very warmest welcome to Frank Galati.
The world’s first use of film to tell a dramatic story – as opposed to documentary shots of trains pulling into railway stations or workers pouring out of factories at closing time – is generally agreed to be a twelve-minute western called The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903.
But there are other contenders from that same year, including, from Britain, A Daring Daylight Burglary, performed by members of the Sheffield Fire Brigade, and the three-minute chase film Desperate Poaching Affray.
Clearly the popular cinema’s fascination with the criminal element in society goes back a long way.
Why am I talking about films, when we’re here to celebrate live theatre? Well, in 1936, when the art of the motion picture was just over three decades old, the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin published his visionary and hugely influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
For centuries, physical works of art such as paintings and sculptures had been created for kings, dukes and wealthy patrons, and the only technologies that enabled them to reach wider audiences were fairly labour-intensive, such as hand-copying or casting from moulds.
The ancient Greeks had only two ways of reproducing such art by technical means: founding and stamping. Bronzes, terracottas and coins were the only art works they could produce in quantity. As a result, for much of human history, what Benjamin described as a “aura” of tradition and authority was attached to physical works of art.
Interestingly, the art of theatre, though it too has often depended on private patronage, is intrinsically less subject to such limitations, because it exists in the first place only when it is being shared by artists and audiences.
The fact that theatre is a living art, with no permanent embodiment in marble, bronze or canvas, gives it an extraordinary freedom. The work of the ancient Greek dramatist was seen by thousands at a sitting. Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences crammed into the public playhouses of their time.
Eventually, the visual arts too began to become more widely accessible. The invention of the woodcut made graphic art reproducible, and the printing press enabled literature to be widely disseminated. Lithography made its appearance at the start of the nineteenth century.
But it was the arrival of photography, sound recording and cinematography that truly revolutionized our perceptions. Benjamin’s argument, in 1936, was that the rise of these technologies as media of artistic expression, rather than just technical novelties, had wrought a change in the way we see and appreciate the artist’s work.
The reproducible art photograph democratized an experience of seeing that had previously been limited to those who could, for instance, go to the Louvre and look at the Mona Lisa. And the photograph had none of that aura of history, authenticity and uniqueness that had traditionally surrounded an original painting or sculpture.
Meanwhile, the new medium of film, with its close-ups and jump cuts, and its ability to render action in slow motion, created an unprecedented kind of performing art – and an unprecedented way of experiencing it – that was vastly different from the kind of experience you were accustomed to having in a theatre.
I’m musing on all this because we’re now in the midst of another transformative age: the age of digital reproduction. We’ve taken a quantum leap with the advent of the Internet, which enables words, images and sounds to be shared with vast numbers of people instantly.
And besides digital reproduction, today’s technology also makes possible purely digital creation. Animation artists can generate, in a computer, photo-realistic creatures that give every appearance of living and breathing. They can fashion convincing performances – even in 3D – out of nothing material at all.
What effect is that having on how we perceive the performing arts?
Well, I’m no Walter Benjamin. But I do believe I sense some kind of shift underway in our society’s attitude towards the performing arts, particularly among younger people – and it is not, as some of you may fear, necessarily to our disadvantage here in Stratford.
Film has been with us now for more than a century, and it is beginning to show its age. Film audiences this year are already down between fifteen and twenty per cent, and continuing, it would appear, to move in that direction. The industry is struggling.
Why? Well, for one thing, film has become more and more of a disposable art form. The process started with the videocassette, but digital technology has accelerated it. You no longer need go out to a cinema and sit with an audience of strangers; you can just download a film to your computer and watch it whenever you want.
Movie-going, as an outing, an occasion, is being supplanted by a kind of desultory experience that is more akin to watching TV. And TV is a medium so passive that its makers actually expect you to get up and leave the room during it, and so they tailor their product accordingly.
I think this shift from the movie palace to the computer screen has profoundly devalued our society’s sense of the worth of film as a medium.
Something has happened, too, to our notion of posterity. For centuries, artists strove to ensure that their work would last into the future, beyond the span of the artist’s lifetime, touching more and more souls through the decades and centuries to come.
I think that’s why so many people who worked in the theatre tended to see it as a stepping stone on their way to the silver screen. It wasn’t just because of the money: there was also the sense that when you make a movie your art becomes immortal.
But film is now old enough that some doubt begins to creep into that article of faith. How many teenagers today have heard of John Gilbert or Clara Bow? Yes, there are some films that we rightly regard as classics – but are they necessarily timeless classics? Might not even Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz one day seem so remote from us that they become of interest more as artefacts than as art?
I think our attitude to posterity began to shift during the 1940s, when the advent of the atomic bomb first raised the prospect that there might not be such a thing as centuries to come. From that point on, a shadow of uncertainty has hung over human life that we hadn’t known before.
Living in that shadow of doubt, I think we started to re-examine the value of life itself. We started to think more in the Eastern sense, about living in the now. Perhaps posterity no longer mattered as much as immediacy.
The digital age has made immediacy and independent creation possible as never before. The old authoritative, top-down models of communication represented by the newspaper and broadcasting industries are struggling to reinvent themselves in the age of Twitter and Flickr.
High-definition camcorders cost a few hundred dollars; any amateur filmmaker can post their work on YouTube and potentially have it viewed around the world. And if your aspirations are higher, you can make a feature-length film for thousands of dollars rather than millions.
The popular music industry with which most of us grew up has disintegrated. It, too, is being democratized. The days when maybe five bands a year would get attention and a deal with Warner Brothers are long gone. There are hundreds of bands out there, fabulous bands, each with its base of Internet fans.
In short, the modes of creative expression, both artistic and commercial, that were associated with the age of mechanical reproduction have become greatly devalued in the last few years. Our young people are less interested in authority, authenticity and durability than in immediacy, in the intensity of the moment.
And if there is any kind of posterity, it resides not so much in physical artefacts as in information: the very fabric of the digital universe.
And that, surely, is where we come in, because – as you may have noticed I’m very fond of saying – we practise our craft in the eternal present.
We take pure information – the four-hundred-year-old words of a Shakespeare text, for instance – and use it to create something new and alive that exists here and now, and lasts only for the duration of the performance.
So the art of live theatre – ephemeral, created in the moment, endlessly reinvented with each new production, each new performance – is in some ways very much in tune with the spur-of-the-moment spirit of our digital age. Those same qualities that made theatre more democratic than other arts in eras past now make it special in our own.
Film, like all products of mechanical reproduction, is a frozen art form. However many times you run it through the projector, it’s not going to change – and the performances of its actors are certainly not going to be influenced, not even in the subtlest of ways, by your presence in the room. The film was made at a certain point in time, and it just keeps getting older. It doesn’t change in any other way, and it certainly doesn’t get better.
Movies try to meet our longing for impact by devising ever more spectacular stunts, ever more frenetic editing, ever more extravagant images. But there is a law of diminishing returns that I think ultimately leaves even teenage moviegoers unsatisfied.
And for all its vaunted verisimilitude, film isn’t real. It’s an illusion: a shifting pattern of coloured light on a screen. The people who caused those patterns to appear are nowhere present, and have long since moved on to other things. Film has no component of reality: it is pure imitation. It’s Plato’s cave of shadows, with popcorn.
Theatre, though, is real. Yes, it’s a game of pretence, but the players are there, in the same room with us. The game will work only if we collude with them, if we agree to play our parts as they play theirs.
And our presence affects the work being created. When we attend a live performance, we are engaged in that performance; we are quite literally helping to shape its course. However strict and vigilant a stage manager you have, no two performances of the same production will ever be quite identical, because no collaboration between living actors and a living audience can ever be reproduced with mechanical fidelity. Every live performance is an original artwork; therein lies its great value.
The theatre, and the live performing arts in general, features the human soul in flight. This makes it of far greater worth than the most ingenious of filmic images: the fact that you are sharing a real experience, a passage in your life, with an artist who is present in the flesh, and going through that same passage with you.
At its best, theatre provides a kind of sacred communion between artist and audience – the same communion Antoni referred to earlier. That’s why I always find it somewhat sad when people clap at the end of a film. Since the artists who created it are unlikely to be there, I can only see that applause as a poignant attempt by the movie patrons to assert at least among themselves the communion denied them with the people on screen.
My experiences not just here in Stratford but also in New York and London and Australia have led me to believe that, as film and television decline, the power of the theatre is in the ascendant.
I sense a growing energy, among young people: a hunger for transcendent experience, for communion, that the products of mechanical and digital reproduction aren’t able to satisfy. I believe that now, in an age when a world’s worth of digital distraction is available at our fingertips, live performance is important as never before.
Some of you at this point may be reflecting that we ourselves have ventured into the film world of late, with Caesar and Cleopatra and The Tempest. Am I now saying that these ventures fly in the face of the Zeitgeist?
Well, no – because proud as I am of those films, and delighted though I am that we now have records of those great performances by Christopher Plummer, I see them more as a means to an end than an end in themselves.
I said that theatre has traditionally been seen as an avenue to film; now, I think the opposite is becoming true. For us, film is a means of creating an appetite for people to come here to Stratford to participate in live performance. The film gives a hint of what we can do – so come here to our theatres, and experience the real thing.
It behoves those of us who work in the theatre – and especially those of us who work in this, arguably the greatest of theatres – to be conscious of which way the wind is blowing, and try to serve it and take advantage of it. We need to be more assertive about the importance of what we’re doing and how we fit into the age that we are entering.
We are the masters of immediacy, of creation in the moment. We understand how to make magic out of words and movement. We’ve been doing it for the longest time. What we need to do is to attract the attention of those who hunger for that magic, to help them discover it on our stages for themselves. Because I fully believe that once they experience it, they will realize they have found what – perhaps unconsciously – they were looking for.
I sat in a preview of Jesus Christ Superstar the other day, with four hundred students. I looked up and down at the rows of young people around me, and I saw that they were absolutely riveted – even though this is a show that’s now more than forty years old. And the story, of course, is nearly 2,000 years old.
But there was enough in what they were seeing and hearing to make them feel utterly engaged. The music of Superstar is at least somewhat akin to the music kids are used to hearing: it’s electric music. And our staging uses elements familiar to kids from music video.
I sensed in that student audience a real recognition of the work: it wasn’t an alien experience to them. Yet at the same time, this was clearly not an experience they could get through their usual channels – sitting at home with the television or the computer, or even going to the cinema.
At the end of the performance, they just exploded with joy, as if they had discovered something they hadn’t realized they’d been longing for in their hearts and souls.
And as I sat and watched them, I felt as if I were in the midst of a generation of people who had found their way home.
Our mission, as the trustees of this great theatre, the keepers of its flame, is to bring those kinds of transcendent experiences into the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.
From rock musicals to revenge tragedies, from the plays of Shakespeare to the latest work of our own Canadian playwrights, the kind of art we practise has a unique power that no product of technology can match.
That has been true throughout history; it is true today; and I hope you all believe as firmly as I do that it will continue to be true in future eras of innovation at whose nature we can only guess.
afternoon, everyone, and welcome. I’m Antoni Cimolino, General Director of the
Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and I’m delighted you could join us on this
here with Des McAnuff, our Artistic Director, and I don’t need to tell you how
excited we are about the season that’s almost upon us.
hard to believe we’re just three days away from our first preview: Kiss Me, Kate starts this Saturday, then
Peter Pan the following Friday – and
then before we know it, it’ll be opening week.
an amazing season that Des has put together, and we want it to be as big a box-office
success as we know it will be an artistic one. So please, see these terrific
shows as soon as you can, and get out there and spread the word.
have with us today a great friend of this Festival, our Member of Parliament
for Perth-Wellington, Gary Schellenberger.
here representing the Honourable
James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, and he has some
news to share with us.
hope I won’t be stealing too much of his thunder if I reveal that the news, to
borrow Celia’s words in As You Like It,
is “most wonderful wonderful, and yet again wonderful.”
welcome Gary Schellenberger.
these are wonderful tidings indeed. On behalf all of us at the Festival, my warmest
thanks to you and to Minister Moore.
Henry, Director of the Birmingham Conservatory, has asked me to convey her
personal thanks as well. Martha’s in New York at the moment, and very much
regrets that she couldn’t be with us here today.
seeing Jersey Boys while she’s there.
I know that’s small consolation, but I do love it when Festival leaders show
initiative. Good on you, Martha, a woman of great taste.
any case, she is as thrilled as I am, and she wants you to know, Gary, how
deeply she appreciates this support of our work.
cannot emphasize too highly the importance of both the Conservatory and its
newly established counterpart, the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction.
theatre tests its practitioners to the very limit of possibility. So it’s
essential that we pass on the hard-won knowledge and skills needed to meet the
challenges of this uniquely demanding repertoire.
since our Conservatory participants take with them the skills they’ve honed
here to their work elsewhere, their training not only directly benefits us but
also contributes to the entire cultural life of this country.
be a world leader, a company must not only invest in developing its own artists
but must also attract artists from elsewhere on the international scene.
who work around the world – such as John Doyle, who’s doing our production of Kiss Me, Kate; Gary Griffin, who’s doing
Evita; and Stafford Arima, who’s
doing Jacques Brel – expect the
highest standards of technical capability. The funding for sound equipment
announced today enables us to ensure that our venues continue to meet those
allows us to greatly improve the sound systems in our Festival and Avon
theatres, enhancing this season’s musical productions there, and to expand the
capabilities of our Tom Patterson Theatre to encompass such musical repertoire
as Jacques Brel.
investment, too, brings far-reaching benefits. Musicals, which have been a key
part of our repertoire since the late 1950s, attract a substantial part of our
audience. More importantly, they are a true art form, one that is as demanding,
in its own way, as classical theatre.
Festival has played an important role over the years in earning the musical
genre the respect it deserves, and I hope we will do even more in the future to
make it clear that musical theatre is a legitimate part of the classical
less than our productions of Shakespeare, musicals merit our insistence on the
highest standards of achievement – and improving the sound systems at our Festival
and Avon theatres is crucial in that regard.
introduction of sound reinforcement at the Tom Patterson Theatre also paves the
way for the development of new musicals here in Stratford that will debut on
our stages and then go on to productions elsewhere, thereby enriching the
theatrical landscape of Canada and indeed of North America.
are deeply grateful to the Government of Canada for opening the doors on such
thrilling vistas of possibility.
me add my own thanks to what Des has just said. It is crucial that we use the
unmatched talent and artistic resources of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival
to develop the skills of emerging Canadian theatre artists.
Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction, together with the Birmingham
Conservatory for Classical Theatre, will allow us to train the actors and
directors who will carry our traditions forward and contribute to the evolution
of stagecraft in the 21st century.
are immensely grateful to the Canada Arts Training Fund for providing the
financial resources needed to pursue these significant projects.
Des said, the benefits of such investments reach beyond Stratford itself.
more than that, they reach even beyond the purely cultural sphere, because they
bring huge economic benefits too.
of you will have heard me say this before, but it’s a point that really can’t
be made too often. What benefits this Festival also benefits this region, this
province and ultimately this whole country.
and indirectly, this Festival’s total economic impact on this region exceeds
$135 million a year. Each year, we generate more than 3,000 jobs and more than
$70 million in taxes for all levels of government.
seven-fold return on investment might sound too good to be true – but that’s
what studies by the Conference Board of Canada and the Strategic Counsel have
shown that government can expect from its funding of the Stratford Shakespeare
expect this season’s production of Jacques
Brel, for instance, to sell some 25,000 tickets. That means that this
production alone – made possible in part by the introduction of sound
reinforcement at the Tom Patterson Theatre – will have an economic impact on
the region amounting to more than $6½ million.
major part of that impact, of course, will be felt right here in the city of
Stratford, which has been our partner in this great endeavour ever since
January 22, 1952, when City Council gave our founder, Tom Patterson, $125 to go
to New York to get advice on how to start a Shakespeare Festival. Talk about a
say a little more about today’s news from the perspective of our city, I now
call upon Dan Matheson, Mayor of Stratford.
[Dan Matheson speaks.]
you, Dan. Now, since the Langham Workshop for directors is new this year, we
thought it would be good to let you hear a little more about it from the
inside. So we’ve asked one of this season’s inaugural participants to come and
say a few words.
Wilson is in his second season at the Festival. A member of the 2004-2005
session of the Conservatory, he served as assistant director of our 2005
productions of Measure for Measure and
As You Like It.
season, as part of his participation in the Langham Workshop, he’s assistant
director of The Tempest.
other places, Lee has worked with Peter Hall’s company at the Old Vic, at the
Shaw Festival, at the Grand Theatre in London, at Soulpepper and in the Toronto
Fringe festival, and he’s the founding Artistic Director of Resurgence Theatre.
welcome Lee Wilson.
[Lee Wilson speaks.]
you, Lee. Now, we always like to end these events with a performance – since
performance, in the end, is what theatre is all about. If you’ve been attending
the Festival regularly over the past decade, you’ll already know that several
of our current leading players are graduates of the Birmingham Conservatory.
of the most exciting things for me over the years – and now for Des too – has
been seeing a new generation of stellar talent emerge from that program. So
today we thought we should have some of our Conservatory participants give you
a taste of that thrill too. Des, will you come and introduce our players?
now, I’m rehearsing our season opener, As
You Like It, which begins previews just over three weeks from now on April
30. I have a fabulous cast in that show, including four young actors who have
been through our Conservatory program.
four have very kindly agreed to spare us some time today to present a brief
excerpt from the play – Act V, scene 2, for those of you who are really up on
often refer to As You Like It as
Shakespeare’s musical: it has more songs in it than any other of his plays, and
we’re also using a lot of incidental music that has been composed for us by our
production’s musical director, Michael Roth. Michael is here too, to provide
musical accompaniment for the scene you’re about to see.
a scene in which Rosalind, disguised as a boy, is talking to her cousin and
best friend, Celia, about the man she loves, Orlando, when an unforeseen
complication arrives in the form of Silvius, a shepherd, and Phebe, a
welcome Conservatory alumni Dalal Badr as Phebe, Ian Lake as Silvius, Paul
Nolan as Orlando and Andrea Runge as Rosalind.
you all for that marvellous performance, which whets our appetite for what I
know will be a truly stunning production of Shakespeare’s great romantic
as they say, that’s our show for today. Once again, our warmest thanks to
Minister James Moore and the Canada Arts Training Fund, to Gary Schellenberger,
and to Dan Matheson.
Des and I will be available for questions over there in the south lobby; for
now, my thanks to all of you for joining us today. I hope you have a great
afternoon and, starting just a few days from now, a great 2010 season at the
Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Thank you.
First of all, I want to say that tonight’s Opening of As You Like It will have two intermissions – the first is 15 minutes and the second is 10 minutes. The acts get progressively shorter but I need the people in this room to lead the charge back into their seats to prevent elongated intermissions (not to mention the additional crew costs!). I don’t want to be the one with the bull-horn and the obnoxious voice reminding you of this. I thank you in advance.
Bryna and I had the great privilege of attending the Vancouver Olympics last February. I remember as a
15-year-old the thrill of Expo ‘67 and the period of ardent nationalism that ensued. In fact, it was immediately following Canada’s birthday that I first attended the Stratford Festival and was enthralled by David Williams’ star-studded Merry Wives of Windsor. I dare say that the ensuing period of great pride and excitement about the Canadian arts was the maelstrom that propelled me into a career that has me standing before you tonight.
When I attended drama school at Ryerson, I remember the battle cry that accompanied Canada’s defeat in hockey of the Soviet Union, albeit a victory somewhat sullied by a broken ankle to the Soviet leading scorer; it was nevertheless great to win.
While playing King Lear to a restless high school audience during the Canada-Russia hockey game of 1972, William Hutt called out on one of his exits that Canada had won, 6-5 -- to what he claimed were the biggest cheers he ever received.
I’ve always rooted for Canada and basked in our successes here and abroad but I must say nothing in my life has ever compared to the 2010 Winter Olympics. There was a kind of unity and a depth of spirit that Canadians expressed for the Nation’s young athletes that was palpable, infectious and inspiring. I think every one of us felt by the closing ceremonies that we had personally just won 14 gold medals. Our enthusiasm was unabashed, without an iota of apology and at the same time surprisingly sober.
I realized how caught up in all of this I’d become when we got to go to the Men’s Gold medal hockey game. Bryna who is very much a New Yorker, had been most generous in cheering for Canadians in figure skating, speed skating and even curling (a sport for which she acquired a remarkable and unexpected taste) but when it came to hockey, we were fiercely split on opposing sides. We were surrounded by fanatical Canadian fans who were quite generous to Bryna in that she had no qualms about cheering for the Americans. They were much more generous toward her than I was. When the U.S. scored at the end of the 3rd period, I quite literally froze her out, refusing to speak to her until Crosby’s overtime goal – which may well have saved our relationship. Thanks Sidney. It was sheer joy to see the country step up the way it did for our athletes and that has not always been my observation growing up.
I once heard this joke:
There are 2 lobster pots on the border. A guy comes along and says: “What’s with the 2 pots?”
“Well, the pot with the lid is for the American lobsters.”
“What’s with the other pot?”
“That’s for the Canadian lobsters. We don’t need a lid because they just keep pulling each other back in.”
I hope the Olympics mark a real turning point for us not only by changing the way we treat young talent but by actually changing the way in which we see ourselves. We should embrace our successes and achievements and take pride in our remarkable track record in science, business, athletics and yes, the arts.
Achievement can sometimes seem tainted for Canadians. I’m not precisely sure where this came from. We have so many strong national characteristics: endurance, intellectual rigour, generosity, fair-mindedness and a terrific sense of humour. But success has a tendency to make us suspicious. When someone is successful we feel they may have achieved it through nothing more than unchecked ambition – they’ve hustled their way up the ladder or gained from some unfair advantage. They are politic or they are immodest. They are suspect.
This is a terrible signal to send to young people. When someone is successful it often has everything to do with creative talent, acquired skill, vision, tenacity, heart, passion, courage, dedication, simple hard work and a whole host of other positive qualities and attributes that supersede ego, privilege, ambition and good fortune. At the Olympics, we were all cheering on our athletes and felt their success reflected Canada and was shared by all Canadians.
The building you are in houses the greatest open stage anywhere in the world. The artists that work here are part of the largest repertory company on the globe. This is something that Sweden doesn’t have, that Australia doesn’t have, that China doesn’t have and that the United States of America doesn’t have. We are even somewhat larger than the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company of Great Britain and we have every opportunity of climbing to the very pinnacle of artistic expression and accomplishment.
We specialize in doing the greatest plays ever written and we’re able to splash our talent on large theatrical canvasses. We dwarf most other theatre operations. We have a rich history. We have a great tradition.
But it would seem to me that the same kind of stigma that we sometimes apply to individuals too often spills over into the way we regard our great institutions. I have no idea where this comes from – it’s possibly some sort of hangover from the Colonial days when it was downright dangerous to offend those who wielded Colonial power. Perhaps a glass ceiling developed as a kind of survival mechanism. Whatever the reason for our reluctance to celebrate our collective achievements, it is high time that we blasted through the glass ceiling and left it shattered in a thousand pieces.
Whatever you think of the individual productions that we open this week at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I hope that you will recognize the overwhelmingly rich and abundant Canadian and international talent that is assembled here to serve up some of the greatest theatre in Canada, and for that matter, the world. And it is ours. It belongs to us. It reflects who we are.
It’s my fondest wish tonight for each and every one of you to take pride in this wonderful theatre company. The art that is created here is after all, the soul of our nation. Theatre in many ways is the most human and fragile art form in that it takes place on the advancing edge of time and, for that reason it is all the more precious – it’s in fact invaluable. It is real life. It is our life.
I hope it is not immodest to point out that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is just as important to Canada in it’s way as hockey. One day our accomplishments will help to define the age we live in for future generations of Canadians.
Let’s celebrate over the course of this week the bright perpetual flame that Stratford has become. So I ask our crustacean cousins to forgive me while I call on all my fellow lobsters to stand on each other’s shoulders as we reach for the sky – and stay the hell out of the pot.
On June 3, General Director Antoni Cimolino was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the College Association for Language and Literacy, held at George Brown College in Toronto. The text of his address, reproduced below, was compiled by David Prosser, the Festival’s Director of Communications, from ideas generated in a prior conversation with Mr. Cimolino.
I know we’re here today to talk about issues pertaining to the present and the future, but please bear with me while I look for a moment into the past: into the dark backward and abysm of time, as Prospero puts it in The Tempest.
A hundred years ago this month, the era of airline travel began. On June 22, 1910, twelve passengers and crew departed from Friedrichshafen airfield on the Zeppelin dirigible Deutschland to fly to Düsseldorf. This was the world’s first commercial passenger flight.
The world’s first airline disaster followed six days later, on June 28, when that same airship encountered high winds while flying from Düsseldorf to Dortmund. Attempting an emergency landing, it crashed into a forest. Fortunately, none of the thirty-three people aboard were injured.
A hundred years ago this month also saw the invention of the electric bulletin press, a sort of precursor of the TV news crawl. An operator in the New York Times building typed news bulletins on an electric keyboard, and the words were displayed in a window of the building in letters large enough to be read from the street.
For the first time in history, breaking news could be presented to the public the moment it was received.
Other milestones of 1910 included the first public display of neon lighting, which took place at the Paris Auto Show, and the issuing of the first American patent for traffic lights.
All very interesting, to be sure, but what does this have to do with my topic today? First of all, I simply wanted us to remind ourselves how drastically the world we live in has changed within the possible span of a single human lifetime. In a hundred years, we’ve gone from the Zeppelin to the space shuttle; from the electric bulletin press to the BlackBerry and the Google alert.
Even within the last two decades, the exponential changes brought by electronic communications have revolutionized our lives.
Twenty years ago, when the Internet was still a novelty rather than a necessity of life, it would have taken several hours of poking about in a library to assemble those half-dozen milestones of 1910. Now it takes a couple of minutes of typing and clicking, and you can do it practically anywhere on the planet.
Some of us can remember a time when parents would have to take out a second mortgage to buy the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so their kids would have access to twenty volumes’ worth of the world’s knowledge. Nowadays, our kids carry about with them in their pockets a kind of twenty-first-century equivalent of the great Library of Alexandria.
We can’t even imagine what the next twenty years will bring, but it’s probably safe to bet that whatever it is will render today’s technologies as defunct as the daguerreotype.
Be prepared for that depressing day when some tousle-headed tot asks you, “Grandpa, what was ‘e-mail’?”
Technology isn’t the only thing that has changed in the last century. Here in Canada we now live in a society that is far more ethnically and culturally diverse than once it was. Toronto can now claim to be the most diverse city in the world.
The world we live in is changing fast – too fast, perhaps, for some people’s comfort.
And it’s reasonable to wonder if perhaps human beings are changing with it.
The wording of the e-mail that invited me to give this address seemed to imply that possibility: “Audiences are different,” it said. “They expect different things, and appreciate live performance in a different way.”
Are we seeing today something more than just a change of circumstance? Are the children of the multi-ethnic digital age in some way qualitatively different from those of us who grew up in a relatively homogeneous culture and were schooled in a literacy other than the computer kind?
The idea of some fundamental shift in human nature as a result of social change and technological advance isn’t new. And that’s the other reason why I began by looking back at the year 1910 – because according to the novelist Virginia Woolf, that was a watershed year for the human race.
It was in an essay she wrote in 1924, entitled “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” that she made this much-quoted observation:
“On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.”
Woolf was writing about a time that in many ways was much like ours. By 1910, the modern age was well under way. Then, as now, the world was being made over at a pace many found bewildering.
For one thing, human beings were literally getting used to new ways of seeing, thanks to everything from the spread of electric lighting to the invention of the X-ray. The rise of film as a new and essentially urban medium of artistic expression introduced to our culture a whole new visual grammar of cuts and fades and pans and dissolves.
Meanwhile, painters and sculptors too were devising new ways of seeing. Renouncing the kind of literal reproduction now so easily achieved by the photograph, they sought instead to convey what things really were, what they felt like, what they meant to us.
In identifying 1910 as the year of the great change, Woolf specifically had in mind the opening of England’s first exhibition of Post- Impressionist art, in which such representational techniques as proportion and perspective were abandoned in search for a more essential and emotional truth.
Critics and public alike were outraged, claiming the exhibition was either a hoax or the result of moral degeneracy, mental derangement, or both. Thanks to Wikipedia, I can tell you that the critical terms bandied about included “anarchy,” “evil,” “horror,” “infection,” “madness,” “pornography,” “putrescence” and “sickness of the soul.”
The most prominent of the moral degenerates featured in this exhibition, by the way, were Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Woolf herself was part of an equivalent movement in literature. Traditional notions of character development and third-person past- tense narrative, for instance, gave way to multiple viewpoints, stream of consciousness and the orchestration of image and theme rather than naturalistic detail.
A world being dramatically reshaped by technology and a new social order, a sense that human nature is changing as a consequence, the rise of new and controversial movements in art that reflect that change. That was what Virginia Woolf saw in 1910; is it also what we are seeing today?
Has the age of Twitter and YouTube, the age of the ethnic and cultural mosaic, brought about some fundamental change not only in how we do things but who we are? And what does this mean for the future of literacy, education and art?
What are the implications for a classical theatre company like the one I work for: an institution dedicated to an art that began with the ancient Greeks and reached its pinnacle with the works of an English playwright born nearly four and a half centuries ago?
Is classical theatre on the cusp of a brave new world, or is it doomed to become a dinosaur? Just how afraid of Virginia Woolf should we be?
The short answer is, I don’t know. And neither does anyone else. We can look only into the backward abysm of time, not the forward one. But let me offer some observations about one or two changes that do seem to be happening, among young people particularly, and some speculation about what they might mean for us.
First and most obviously, young people today take for granted a kind of interconnectedness that is unprecedented in human history. Thanks to Twitter, what we used to call word of mouth is now global and practically instantaneous. This has huge implications for those of us who work in the performing arts.
At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, we begin preview performances as early as April. Our official openings – when we invite the theatre critics – are in the first or second week of June.
Time was, we’d have the opportunity to fine-tune our productions in front of audiences well before any reviews would appear. Now, though, the ironic phrase “everyone’s a critic” has become literally true.
Kids come out at the intermission during a first preview and immediately tweet their impressions to their friends. So the first reviews are appearing – and potentially spreading around the world – even before the first performance is over.
When the tweets are positive, this is great. What the effect will be when the tweeters don’t like something remains to be seen. In any case, this is a new reality to which we have to adjust. As the power of the professional theatre critic wanes, the voice of the people is taking its place.
This is arguably part of a broader process of the democratization of knowledge. In the old days, that twenty-volume set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica exuded a sense of top-down authority. Compiled and edited by experts, it was delivered to a waiting populace that would revere it as some kind of immutable Truth. Once on your shelves, it didn’t change, unless you went out and bought an updated edition. It was a secular equivalent of Holy Scripture.
Wikipedia, by contrast, gets its authority from the bottom up. Its authority derives not from the academic credentials of an editorial board but from the ease with which its assertions can be challenged by its users. Users trust Wikipedia because it’s so open to the public. If something’s wrong in Wikipedia, the thinking goes, someone will put it right. Which isn’t, of course, necessarily so – but then even Britannica sometimes got it wrong.
The important thing, though, is that the very existence of something like Wikipedia makes us regard knowledge not as something handed down from on high but as something we create as a community: something organic and fluid. This too seems to represent a significant change in our thinking.
Is this good or bad? My children have an enormous advantage that I didn’t enjoy at their age: they have access to a vast breadth of information. This must surely be good – provided, of course, they learn some means of discriminating between information which is sound and that which is shoddy.
At the same time, the way information presents itself online doesn’t lend itself to sustained study: the temptation to follow link upon link is hard to resist. As a result, my kids seem to absorb their information in four-minute chunks.
This may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it does give rise to questions about attention span that must be of concern to a classical theatre that specializes in three-hour performances that consist primarily of people talking.
Everyone’s a critic, everyone’s an encyclopaedist, everyone’s a diarist. One of the curious aspects of the digital age is that it has brought about a resurgence of that very old-fashioned practice of writing, rather than speaking, one’s mind.
The heroine of a nineteenth-century epistolary novel could not have spent more time with pen in hand than does her modern equivalent at her keyboard, updating her blog. The technology is different, but the medium – the written word – is the same.
And the keeping of a daily journal is no longer a private activity but a public one; for today everyone’s an online publisher as well. With Facebook and YouTube and the rest, people can now put themselves on public display to an extent they never could before.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Cecily says of her diary, “It is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.” Back in 1895, when Wilde wrote his play, that was a joke. Nowadays, the personal has become so relentlessly public that the notion of keeping some part of your life precious and private is beginning to seem unimaginably quaint.
Still, writing has become an integral part of young people’s lives in a way that I don’t think it was for my generation. And for those of us concerned about literacy, that can’t be altogether a bad thing.
Incidentally, one of the most obvious and most derided features of the modern age has been the rise of the shorthand used by teenagers to speed up the texting process.
Laden with acronyms and emoticons, this mode of communication has so far entered the mainstream of discourse as to spawn a Penguin paperback called Twitterature, in which a couple of nineteen-year-olds have reinvented some eighty of the world’s best-known novels, poems and plays, from Homer to Hamlet to Harry Potter, as a series of 140- character tweets from the protagonist.
If we’re looking for evidence of the collapse of Western civilization, some may well be tempted to find it here. I suspect, though, that Homer and Hamlet, at least, will find a way to survive.
In any case, I’m not entirely convinced that this latest form of unspoken teenage argot is any more pernicious than the slang that permeates West Side Story – or, for that matter, Romeo and Juliet.
When teenagers invent expressions like OMG, LOL and WTF, their aim is partly to save themselves some keystrokes and partly to make their discourse harder for parental eyes to decipher. But there’s also an element of pure play: of trying out new things with the language to see what else it can do. And play is a fundamental element of creativity.
In fact, it seems that what’s being threatened by the digital age is not the written word but the spoken one.
We recently hired a social media coordinator at the Festival – someone young enough to be able to help us navigate these unfamiliar waters – and he reports that when he engages online with our Facebook fans and Twitter followers, he finds them eager to take part in lengthy and often highly articulate exchanges. In many cases, though, if he contacts those same people by telephone, they immediately clam up. They seem uncomfortable communicating vocally, without the mediation of text.
If this is true, if spoken literacy is in decline, then obviously this is something for those of us who work in the theatre to be concerned about.
Perhaps our mission is more urgent now than ever. It may be up to us re-accustom the ear of youth to the sound of language, to introduce them to the idea that words and sentences are something you can feel and almost taste as you form them with lungs and larynx and lips and tongue. For I don’t think you can truly love language unless you love how it feels in your mouth and how it sounds in your ears.
Let’s assume that we have a key role to play in helping young people and other new audiences to discover the full potency of language as the embodiment of thought and the expression of feeling, as a medium for creativity and, above all, as a source of pleasure and joy.
To do that, our first step must be to catch the attention of those potential audiences and get them to engage with us. And nowadays, of course, that means wading into the world of social networking.
So we have an organizational Facebook page, with around 14,000 fans, and a Twitter homepage with searchable content. Our social media co-ordinator updates these several times a day, providing new content and monitoring and responding to comments.
Through Facebook, we offer special ticket deals and contests. For example, for the Easter weekend, we hid twenty Easter eggs around the Festival grounds, each with a pair of tickets inside. We posted photos of the eggs on our wall and invited people to go hunt for them.
I and other members of the Festival staff use Twitter to update our followers on what’s going on at the Festival. We post Festival videos on YouTube: production clips, webcasts, interviews, ads and so on.
We’re exploring possible YouTube contests around specially created content or mash-ups. For example, in 2011 we plan to have Ontario students submit a scene from a Shakespeare play. Those scenes will be judged, and the top three finalists will be brought to Stratford to perform their scene.
We know we have go beyond the traditional model of communication – in which carefully crafted information is delivered to a passively waiting populace – and embrace the interactive, fluid, dynamic and democratic possibilities afforded by today’s social media.
In this more recent model, the aim is to not only to reach out to people and try to interest them in our Festival but also to connect to each other individuals who have or might develop a common interest in us.
People today are accustomed to getting their information from their peers, responding to it, correcting it, adding to it, passing it on. Our communications strategies have to take account of that fact and find ways to use it to our advantage.
The old broadcast model of communication, with Stratford at the centre sending out concentric ripples of information, is being supplanted – or at least supplemented – by the network model, in which information jumps from user to user. Though our control over that information is limited, we benefit from the fact that a network has the power to grow itself, and thus has a potentially global reach.
All of this is fairly standard: we’re doing what most organizations do nowadays. But aside from how we promote what we do, does the nature of what we do have to change as well? Does the kind of art we practise have to change, as the arts of painting and sculpture changed in 1910?
Some interesting experiments are already being done with a view to creating a new kind of theatrical art for the Twitter age.
In a production that just made its North American debut at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques, a Dutch theatre company presented a mash- up of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, condensed into one six-hour performance with no intermissions. Audiences were free to move around, eat and drink and even use on-stage computers to check their e-mail while the performance was in progress.
Even more radically, this past April the Royal Shakespeare Company launched the world’s first professional Twitter-based performance of a Shakespeare play – or at least a Shakespeare story.
Entitled Such Tweet Sorrow, the production used Twitter to present a kind of online version of Romeo and Juliet. Over a period of five weeks, six actors tweeted each other and their followers in real time, so that audiences could follow and interact with the characters individually on their Twitter feeds or see the whole play unfold on a central website. The production also included the characters’ responses to real events, such as the British general election.
The Dutch production has won great acclaim; the merits of the RSC’s experiment, from a purely artistic point of view, are perhaps more debatable. Indeed, it’s hard to know at this point how you would judge the artistic success of so novel a creation.
But is this sort of thing the future of theatre? Well, again, we don’t know. To quote from the film Shakespeare in Love, it’s a mystery.
Certainly there’s one thing about both those ventures that we should wholeheartedly applaud: the fact that they make Shakespeare plays the starting point for innovation. They bring Shakespeare into the centre of modern popular cultural discourse – which is precisely where he belongs.
After all, Shakespeare was an innovator and a populist in his time. An “upstart crow” is how he was described by a snooty rival who’d had a university education and whose plays are known today to nobody outside academia.
Between about 1550 and 1600, an enormous cultural change took place in England. By and large, before 1550 poetry was something that was read and appreciated in private. Only so many people could own books and had the time to read them. Poetry wasn’t something ordinary people went to hear in public places. But then an explosion began.
Poetry became democratized. For a relatively small amount of money, you could go to an Elizabethan playhouse and hear searingly powerful, achingly beautiful language used to tell lurid tales of murder and madness and passion and revenge.
Plays were popular entertainment, the comic books of their time. They weren’t considered literature. They were commercial products – but in Shakespeare’s case they also happened to be great art.
Today, we tend to be very conscious of the “great art” part of that equation and neglectful of the popular entertainment part. Yet having Shakespeare continue to be a part of popular culture has to be one of our most vital aims. For the great enemy of Shakespeare, and of all serious art, is not the 140-character tweet: it’s reverence.
Using Romeo and Juliet as the basis for an experimental venture in applying new technology to an old idea, the results of which might turn out to be artistically worthless – this isn’t the worst thing you can do to that play.
The worst thing you can do to any work written for the theatre is to lay it reverently on a shelf to be admired, out of reach of grubby and sacrilegious hands that might want to play around with it. That’s what plays are for: playing with.
Playing demands intellectual, emotional and physical energy. It’s how we discover things. It’s how innovation comes about, in the arts and in the sciences.
So even if the all-Twitter version of Romeo and Juliet turns out not to have been good art, it’s still good for the art that such experiments take place. If they did not, we’d never discover anything new.
To be honest, I don’t think the essential nature of the theatre-going experience at Stratford is going to change radically any time soon, though it will no doubt change subtly over the next couple of decades, as it has changed subtly over the last six.
In part, this is because art always reflects something of its time, even when it’s studiously trying not to.
The film of The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford, is set in the 1920s. But you can’t escape its 1974 feel. Someone transported in time from the twenties would look at it and say, “What’s with the peach suits?” You can spend millions trying to recreate every detail of ancient Egypt in a movie like the Burton-Taylor Cleopatra, and when you look at it decades later you’ll say, “Wow, how very 1960s.”
It’s the same at Stratford. Our productions of Shakespeare plays today, even ones set in the Elizabethan period, are noticeably different from ones that were mounted in the 1950s.
One obvious change in recent years is the diversity of our acting company. The Canadian population has changed, and we want our audiences to see themselves reflected in the work on stage.
Today, we actively seek out actors from different ethnic backgrounds, and we fully embrace the idea of non-traditional casting. Shakespeare plays are about the least naturalistic form of drama there is, so why shouldn’t Lady Macbeth be black?
Our current Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, is also committed to exploring the full potential of modern stagecraft to meet the expectations of a generation that has grown up accustomed to a certain kind of visual spectacle in its entertainment.
Des’s surrealist-inspired production of As You Like It this year is full of stunningly beautiful visual images, including a fifteen-foot Magritte apple that descends from the ceiling. And in his production of The Tempest, he’s pulling out every stop to make the magic called for in the play truly astonishing.
So we’re making a conscious effort to provide audiences with an experience in the theatre that is as exciting visually as it is verbally. But this isn’t a departure for us: we’ve offered spectacle before.
What may undergo a sea-change, whether we want it to or not, is the dynamic between the audience and what’s happening on the stage.
At Stratford, we might not go as far as inviting patrons up on stage to check their e-mail, as the Dutch company did, but we have been contemplating an idea with the irresistible name of “Tweet seats”: a couple of designated rows at the back of the auditorium where young people with mobile devices (their ringers turned off, of course) could be invited to tweet their thoughts about the performance as it was occurring.
Would Shakespeare roll in his grave? Well, hardly, when you consider that Shakespeare wrote his plays for an audience most of whom were standing up, milling about, eating, jostling each other and quite possibly fighting and fornicating. Our idea of theatre as something that takes place in a hushed, darkened auditorium where every cough is – or should be – the occasion for a frosty stare from your neighbour is a very nineteenth-century one.
In an age of constant connectedness, when young people live in a kind of unbroken continuum of contact with their peers, and take a highly democratized view of authority, perhaps we will see theatre revert to more of the dynamic interactive experience that Shakespeare wrote for. Perhaps the theatre will become the ultimate social medium. And perhaps that won’t be a bad thing.
The challenge for theatre artists, and for educators, is going to be in finding a balance that works: in distinguishing between bathwater and baby. Because there is a bottom line here, and I want to conclude by making a plea for it.
Deep down, the plays of Shakespeare, the plays of the ancient Greeks, the great classics of world drama and world literature – these things work on their own terms. Some effort is required in getting to grips with them – more than in getting to grips with, say, Avatar but still much less than many people suppose – but the rewards for that effort are immeasurable.
I don’t really believe human nature changes that much, if at all, from century to century, from social revolution to social revolution, from art movement to art movement. I think we’re pretty constant.
If we weren’t, then surely the plays of Shakespeare – let alone the plays and legends of the ancient Greeks, who inhabited a world about as different from ours in terms of communications technology as can be imagined – would be wholly incomprehensible to us, instead of awing us as they do with their clarity, their truth and their timeless wisdom.
The late Richard Monette, Artistic Director of our Festival for fourteen remarkable years, once said to me that when you go into a museum, you feel rich.
You can look at a picture of the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a book, but to see the real thing, to share a space with the object itself, is quite different. For that space of time, you are in the presence of actual beauty, not its counterfeit.
To connect with something beautiful and real, to feel that it is part of us, this gives us a sense of privilege, of enormous abundance.
The same is true of being present at – of participating in, for that is what you are doing – a live performance. You feel the moment being created.
Whether you’re witnessing Christopher Plummer playing Prospero in The Tempest or tapping your toes to a fiddler at a barn dance, there is something magical about the live experience that cannot be achieved by even the most spectacular of movies.
That moment is yours and yours alone; even though it is open to everyone, it can never be experienced in exactly the same way by anyone else. It is both communal and intimate at the same time.
I cannot believe that this will ever lose its appeal for us; if it did, we would no longer be human.
No, Virginia, human nature did not change in 1910 and it isn’t changing now. Once everyone gets over the shock of the new, we simply absorb it. Today, we can look at a Post-Impressionist painting with complete equanimity – and being able to enjoy a Picasso doesn’t mean we no longer enjoy a Rembrandt. Our capacity for appreciating art eventually increases to absorb the new; it doesn’t necessarily jettison what went before.
Likewise, an appetite for the lesser good doesn’t necessarily dull the appetite for the greater. The fact that we might have a hankering to see Avatar doesn’t mean we’re no longer capable of being blown away by As You Like It.
I think human nature will always respond to stories of love and death, of heartbreak and loss, of revenge and reconciliation. We will always get caught up in the wonder of a tale acted out in the moment by real live human beings. We will always respond to the music of the human voice; we will always feel the thrill of hearing glorious poetry spoken as if it were being made up on the spur of the moment.
We just need to give people a little help, since there are so many competing claims on their attention.
At Stratford, we’re using all the modern tools at our disposal to get young people inside our doors. If young minds have become accustomed to 140-character tweets and 10-minute YouTube videos, then we will use those tools to gain their attention.
But we must not confuse the medium with the message. We can use Twitter to serve our ends but we cannot try to be Twitter. We have to offer something far beyond the tweet.
The tools we use to fulfil our mission will change. What will not and must not change is the nature of the mission itself.
As theatre artists in the twenty-first century, we must do what we have always sought to do since the days of the ancient Greeks: grab your attention in those crucial first ten minutes when everyone’s fighting for the armrest, and hold it long enough to transport you into a whole new world of awareness.
To do this, we must trust in the worth of what we do, and in the ability of audiences to respond to it.
Yes, we must experiment, sometimes radically, and be prepared for the experiments to fail, but we must never deliberately “dumb down” what we do because we think it will be too difficult for the iPod generation. Such thinking would do a disservice to our art and it would do a disservice to our youth.
In this, artists need your help as educators. So please, don’t shy away from Shakespeare. Encourage every student you come in contact with to see one of his plays. Do all you can to spread the idea that live performance can make you feel rich.
The appetite for play – and hence for plays – is not dead in the youth of today; it is very much alive, even in their use of language. Let’s work together to draw them toward the magical experiences that await them in the theatres of the world.
Let’s teach them that there are other ways of playing, other ways of discovering, besides the ones they’re immersed in every day, and how richly rewarding it can be to interact not with a touch-screen but with the minds, hearts and souls of other human beings through the living medium of the spoken word.
afternoon, everyone. I’m Antoni Cimolino, General Director of the Stratford
Shakespeare Festival, and it’s my very great pleasure to welcome you here
start of spring is an exciting time of year for anyone who lives in Ontario –
do you think we dare put away the snow shovels? – but especially so here at the
Festival, because it means our revels now are well on their way to being
fact, just three weeks and three days from now, this lobby will be full of
patrons heading into the auditorium for our first preview performance of the
season is going to be an absolutely stellar one, thanks to our Artistic
Director, Des McAnuff, who is here with me today, and the amazing team of
artists he has assembled.
have two other special guests to introduce to you – though for most of us here,
neither of them really needs an introduction. From the City of Stratford we
have Councillor Paul Nickel, who’ll have a few words to say to us a little
first, we’re going to hear from someone who has long been a friend of the
Stratford Shakespeare Festival and who comes to us today, like Le Beau in As You Like It, with his mouth full of
I really need to add that it’s good
welcome our MPP for Perth-Middlesex, and the Minister of Revenue for the
Province of Ontario, the Honourable John Wilkinson.
[John Wilkinson announcement.]
our deepest and most heartfelt thanks to you, to the Celebrate Ontario program
and to the Government of Ontario for this generous support.
of this kind, supporting the development and marketing of our productions, is a
tremendous affirmation of the importance of the work we do, both to our society
and to our economy.
more varied our programming can be, the wider the range of people who will be
drawn to the Festival and to the community.
at Stratford maintain that to be a truly whole classical theatre we need to include
a great variety of genres. We believe that the musical has an important role to
play in our repertoire and so we produce musicals at the highest possible
artistic standard. We treat musicals with the same respect we treat other great
classics. We don’t just dust them off. We re-invent them for our times.
himself was a proponent of musical theatre as the play I’m directing right now
demonstrates. During the season of 1599, Robert Armin the great singer and high
clown of the Elizabeth theatre joined Shakespeare’s company replacing the
legendary physical comedian Will Kempe. Presumably at least in part to
celebrate Armin’s talent, Shakespeare created As You Like It with no fewer than six songs. If you were a member
of Shakespeare’s company, it was expected that you could play an instrument and
sing a song. That is the great tradition we are part of.
our institution approaches sixty, with all of our accomplishments, we believe
that the best work is yet to come. We aspire to nothing less than to be among
the finest theatre companies and arts institutions in the world. But we can
only do remarkable work with remarkable support – support like this.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and
Living in Paris is something of a milestone in our history. While
we’ve presented musical revues at Stratford before, we haven’t done so since
the 1970s – and even then, they were often short-run ancillary programming
rather than full parts of our season.
1971, for instance, we presented just two performances of a Kurt Weill revue at
the Third Stage. And we certainly haven’t had anything like Jacques Brel in that venue since it
became the Tom Patterson Theatre in 1991.
was an opportunity waiting to happen: with a cast of four singers exploring
this intimate but always highly dramatic cabaret-style repertoire, Jacques Brel is a perfect show for that
those of you who may have seen other productions of it, this will be a Jacques Brel with a difference. The
show’s score has been re-orchestrated by our Musical Director, Rick Fox, to
bring it closer in tone to Brel’s own unique musical style – thus both renewing
this twentieth-century classic for today’s audiences and at the same time
returning it to its roots.
very fortunate to have as its director Stafford Arima, an incredibly talented
young Canadian who is new to our stages but who has made a name for himself in
London and New York.
of course, we have in the cast of four the incomparable Brent Carver, whose
return to Stratford is eagerly anticipated by his legions of fans – none of
whom could be more excited about this than I am.
is, in short, going to be a great show – but it’s also an important precedent.
In making Jacques Brel a key part of
the season at the Tom Patterson Theatre, we pave the way for other innovative
choices of repertoire, and for new creative endeavours.
would like, for instance, to see us begin to develop new Canadian musicals here
at Stratford, and the more flexible we learn to be in the use of our four venues,
the more prepared we will be to undertake that kind of exploration.
funding, then, is an investment not just in the season immediately ahead but
also in the exciting possibilities further down the road. For its generosity
and its vision, the Government of Ontario merits our deepest gratitude. Thank
me second that emotion: in these turbulent times, we deeply appreciate this support
from Celebrate Ontario, which will enable us to present and promote this
musical classic as it so richly deserves.
want to say a particular word of thanks to John Wilkinson for the steadfast
support and wise counsel from which we at the Festival have benefited so much
over the years.
called him a friend to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, but he is also much
more than that. John is a tireless advocate both for the Festival and for the
community of which it is a part. I know that without his efforts, the vital
importance of the role we play in the economy of our city and our province
could so easily be overlooked. John, we thank you.
is the third year running in which Celebrate Ontario has invested in the
Festival. In 2008, the program supported our innovative outdoor presentation Shakespeare’s Universe, and last season
it helped us promote Brian Bedford’s one-man show Ever Yours, Oscar.
of course, the benefits don’t all run one way. Studies by the Conference Board
of Canada and the Strategic Counsel have shown that government can expect a
seven-fold return on an investment in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
any given year, we generate more than $70 million in taxes for all levels of
government, including nearly $9 million for the City of Stratford.
total economic impact on this region exceeds $135 million a year, and we generate
more than 3,000 jobs – proof that this Festival is at the forefront of Canada’s
cultural tourism industry.
is a wonderful show, and Des has brought together a knock-out team of artists
to bring it alive on the Tom Patterson stage. We expect it will sell some
25,000 tickets – meaning that this production alone will have an economic
impact on the region amounting to more than $6½ million. This, I think, is
what’s called a win-win situation.
our very beginning in 1952, the Festival and the City of Stratford have been
partners in this great adventure. With us today is City Councillor Paul Nickel,
whom I now invite to say a few words.
[Paul Nickel speaks – 2
whenever John Wilkinson comes here to make an announcement, we always like to
have a piano ready for him, just in case he feels like favouring us with a song
– because as many of you know, he’s no slouch in the music department. So, John
. . .?
If Stephen Harper can do it. . . .
Well, maybe next time. But we really can’t bring this event to a close without
giving you some small taste of what you can expect when Jacques Brel hits the stage.
we do have one of its cast members here to perform for us, and I can tell you
you’re in for a treat.
songwriter, classically trained violinist and producer, Jewelle Blackman is one
of today’s most accomplished young artists. She’s in her second season with us,
having previously appeared in Cabaret
in 2008. Among her many other credits, she has been in the original Canadian
productions of We Will Rock You, Crowns and Dreamgirls, and in the TV drama series The Border.
sing Jacques Brel’s “No Love, You are Not Alone,” accompanied by Laura Burton
on piano, here is Jewelle Blackman.
[Jewelle sings – 5 minutes.]
you, Jewelle. I think we can all agree we’re going to have a hit on our hands.
just remains for me to express once again our gratitude to Celebrate Ontario,
to John Wilkinson and [City representative]
for taking the time from their busy schedules to be with us today – and also to
all of you for coming here to share in our good news.
Des and I will be available for questions from the media [location?]. Otherwise, thanks to you all, and enjoy the rest of
The art we practise here,
that of making theatre, involves many different areas of creativity.
In the beginning, to borrow
a phrase, is the word. Our legacy, as a classical theatre, is the great texts
of the past, everything from the ancient Greeks to the acknowledged
masterpieces of the 20th century.
Our job is to constantly
re-examine those texts, to probe into their seemingly endless dimensions of
meaning, to see what they reveal in new contexts, what they might tell us about
our own lives, our own experiences. In a theatre, we transform them from words
on a page into living speech and action – an experience that unfolds in the
present moment and in which audience members are active participants.
However familiar the terrain
it covers, such exploration can never exhaust its possibilities, because what
we are discovering is what these plays mean to us, in a here and now that is always changing, always evolving into
the future. In exploring the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare, we explore
Meanwhile, new texts
continually spring into being, in direct artistic response to the experiences
of today. New, but not unconnected to what has gone before; for the DNA of the
classics invariably transmits itself into our new stories, our new forms, our
new ideas. In a living theatrical tradition, the past is always prologue.
Theatre begins with the
word. But it does not end there. Although dramatic texts can be enjoyed as
literature (with some effort), that is not the purpose for which they were
created. A play script is not in itself a piece of theatre; it’s a set of
instructions for making theatre.
Speak these words, perform these actions, in order to make a theatrical Macbeth or Julius Caesar.
And I say a theatrical Macbeth, because of course there are an infinite number of possible
theatrical experiences that could legitimately be called Macbeth, or Julius Caesar
or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
What kind of experience a
particular Macbeth or a particular Dream will offer is determined by many
factors, including the nature of the venue, the actors chosen and the decisions
made by the director and the designer. The art of theatre-making thus extends
far beyond the text – while remaining, of course, rooted in it.
In particular, theatre is a
visual as well as an aural experience; it presents to our eyes as well as our
ears a magical and revelatory transformation of the world of experience.
I mention all this as
context for the pride I take in the work accomplished on our stages this past
season, for what strikes me most when I look back at those productions is the
extent to which we excelled in all
aspects of the theatre-maker’s art.
To investigate the words
left to us by the great playwrights of the past, to absorb their wisdom, then
to claim them as our own and invest them with new vigour that we may transmit
them in turn to the generations who will follow us – that is what we strove for
in our conceptually bold productions of Shakespeare this season.
I note with pleasure that
those productions were received with particular enthusiasm by the young people
who will be our next generation of theatre aficionados, arts donors and
advocates – and even, in some cases, theatre professionals.
We brought to theatrical
life texts by other important playwrights of the past as well: Jean Racine,
whose Phèdre we presented in a
powerful new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Ben Jonson, whose Bartholomew Fair is about as difficult a
play to read as I can imagine, but
which positively seethed with theatrical energy under Antoni’s direction and
became a sleeper hit of the season.
In the hands of our artists,
these centuries-old plays became as fresh and immediate as if they had been
written yesterday, and paved the way for further explorations of Shakespeare’s
contemporaries and near-contemporaries.
At the same time, we
investigated texts from our own country and our own era. A brilliant revival of
a Canadian classic, Zastrozzi, was
complemented by equally superb productions of a more recent drama, Rice Boy, that had been substantially
reworked by its author, and of a brand new play, The Trespassers, receiving its world première on our stages.
I am passionately committed
to the development of new Canadian work at this theatre. The classics and the
latest contemporary works are not separate universes but part of a continuum;
for the benefit of each, it is vital that there be constant traffic between
them. That is why I see the commissioning and development of new work as one of
our most important activities behind the scenes – last season, this season and
in seasons to come.
To all our texts, both
classical and contemporary, our company brought theatre-making talents and
skills unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
I cannot say enough about
the strength of our actors. I could single out Colm Feore’s virtuosity with
both sword and soliloquy, or Yanna McIntosh’s harrowing Lady Macbeth, or Dion
Johnstone’s dynamic Oberon. I could rave about the powerhouse team of Paul
Nolan and Chilina Kennedy in West Side
Story and the inspired clowning of not one, not two, but a whole host of
actors in Forum. I could cite the
pressure-cooker passions summoned up by the casts of Three Sisters and Phèdre,
and Brian Bedford’s sheer mastery of the unadorned spoken word in Ever Yours, Oscar.
I could – and should – go on
to mention every standout performance in the season, but to do so would take me
till dinnertime at least. So I hope the many whom I do not happen to have cited
as examples will forgive me.
In brief, this was a
consistently superb acting company – and, let me add, one that properly
reflected the ethnic and cultural diversity that so enriches Canadian life.
If there are any
literal-minded hold-outs among us who are uncomfortable with the notion of
so-called non-traditional casting in Shakespeare (or any other dramatist for
that matter), then my advice is to get over it, because at Stratford it’s here
to stay. As this past season so triumphantly proved, some “traditions” do a
disservice to the art and deserve their place in the dustbin of history.
My pride in our actors is
matched by my pride in the rest of the creative team we assembled in 2009. We
are attracting some extraordinary new directors to this theatre: directors who
see our venues with fresh eyes and are eager to use all the resources available
to us to create breathtaking, thought-provoking theatre.
At the same time, we were
immensely fortunate this past season to have so many productions directed by
first-class talents from within our own ranks: Martha Henry, Brian Bedford,
Donna Feore, Antoni Cimolino.
Nothing can substitute for
experience, and it is crucial that we look for ways to nurture and develop
directors who share our interest in the classics and have experience of our
stages. Hence our establishment this season of the Michael Langham Workshop for
An immense amount of work
went into this new initiative, and I want to acknowledge in particular the
Herculean efforts of our Assistant Artistic Director, Dean Gabourie, in getting
it up and running.
Finally, a quick word about
the extraordinary work of our designers this past season, and that of the
supremely talented artisans who fulfilled their visions.
Production after production
dazzled the eye this season, from the stunning costuming of Cyrano de Bergerac to the gloriously
opulent settings of The Importance of
Being Earnest – magically conjured up out of bits of Styrofoam, plastic
wineglasses and other humble materials by the legendary genius of Desmond
Design is too often looked
on as a secondary consideration in the theatre: a frill or a flourish – or
worse, a gratuitous concept imposed upon a play to “make it different” or
otherwise satisfy some self-indulgent whim.
On the contrary, to me the
visual language of a production is as important as the words spoken by the
actors. In both cases, layers of meaning are being explored, ideas and
discoveries articulated. The purpose of design is not just to make a production
look pretty or introduce a frisson of
novelty but to further its investigation of what the words on the page are
about. It is as important a part of the art of making classical theatre as
vocal technique or the study of Elizabethan rhetoric. Some extraordinary visual
explorations of the text took place on our stages last season, and we are
indeed fortunate to have so many people in our workshops with the skill and
flair to turn our designers’ ideas into reality.
From the words with which it
all begins to the costumes, the scenery, the lighting, the music, the props,
the wigs and makeup, the bijoux, the boots and shoes, we make theatre here –
and no company in the world makes it better.
I am deeply proud of the
quality of the art we created in all aspects of our 2009 productions – and I
look forward to seeing it surpassed in 2010.
My grandmother on my mother’s side, Violet Shenfield, had she survived would have turned one hundred and ten today. She was born under the Bow Bells in Holbourn in London so she was a Cockney and she moved to Toronto at the age of ten with her working-class mother. My father was born in Guelph and wound up growing up in Ireland having gone back with his mother, my other grandmother, on a family holiday where she drowned. My father, in turn, died 6 months before I was born around the time the Festival was conceived.
The Stratford Festival and I are about the same age. Alright, I’m a tad older - Born in ’52.
I often wonder about the Toronto that Violet emigrated to in 1909 and the Guelph that my father was born in some years later. Ontario must have been a very different place then, almost exclusively populated by those of British and European descent without even a hint of the racially diverse place we know now.
In fact, when I was a high school student almost fifty years after my father’s birth, the Scarborough school I went to had only a handful of students descending from the Asian subcontinent and only one solitary black student out of a student population of over 2300. I had one Japanese friend and he was about the only Asian student at my school.
Our landscape has changed profoundly since the late Victorian era that my grandmother was born into and she would be the very first to celebrate and champion that change. Her other grandson, my brother, has a wife that’s Japanese and her great grandchildren are biracial Canadians. Like most artists I owe a lot to those that nurtured me. My grandparents took me for the first few years of my life after my mother was widowed and I dare say they helped shape my world view. And that brings us to tonight’s play.
As I’m sure most of you know, there’s a long-standing theatrical superstition surrounding this play; the play with a curse on it, the play that dare not speak its name. Most theatre people, even those who aren’t particularly superstitious, refer to it by a circumlocution rather than naming it outright. “The Scottish play,” they call it.
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth – there, I’ve said it – at a time when things Scottish were very much in his mind, and in the minds of his audience. A Scottish monarch, James I, had recently accended to the English throne, thus uniting the crowns of the two countries. So in writing his “Scottish play,” Shakespeare was in part reflecting circumstances that were highly topical in his day.
Shakespeare’s version of Scotland, however, is hardly one that historians would recognize. Like any creative genius, he was far less interested in the actual facts of history than in what he could make of them.
I say this to prepare you for the fact that there won’t be any kilts on stage tonight, nor will all the actors you’ll be seeing look like they’re descended from Picts, Celts or Vikings. Our Macbeth takes place in a mixed-race society that owes more to Africa than to Aberdeen.
To anyone who might complain that there weren’t any black people in 11th-century Scotland, let me retort that Scottish warlords of the 11th century didn’t speak in Jacobean blank verse either. I’m also tempted to ask “How do you know? Were you there?”
Shakespeare didn’t write Masterpiece Theatre-style costume dramas; his plays are the products of an imagination that transformed everything it touched into something timeless and universal. The Scotland of his Macbeth is a hallucinatory world of visions, multiplying murders and nightmares; it’s not some place you can take a bus trip to today.
It is my fervent belief that when we produce Shakespeare we should do exactly what he himself did. We should acknowledge and reflect our own current circumstances. We should find resonances between the past and the present – using the words of the former to shed light on the latter. And above all we should aim to transcend both past and present, in order to explore the plays’ only real setting: the unchanging but infinitely varied landscape of the human soul.
Tonight’s production employs what is often called “non-traditional casting” – a term that means, among other things, that “ethnically diverse” actors get to play Shakespearean roles other than Othello. This to me is a fundamental requirement for any theatre that presumes to call itself a leader in the Canada of the 21st century. The term “non-traditional” does raise the question of what we mean by “traditional”.
I think that when some use the term “traditional” they really mean “Victorian” for tradition unfortunately is often limited to the outer reaches of human memory. The Victorians were greatly concerned with “historic detail”. Our traditions here go much further back, to Shakespeare and beyond. And Shakespeare was an ‘eclecticist’ when it comes to questions of historic setting and for that matter, casting. Shakespeare’s Company was composed entirely of men and so I suppose one could argue that casting women in female roles is non-traditional casting.
Ours is a multi-racial society – in fact, our closest metropolis, Toronto, is one of the most diverse cities in the world. If our audiences can’t find their own reflections on our stages, as Shakespeare’s audiences did on his, we cannot possibly claim to be speaking to Canadians today. The complexion of Canada has changed and continues to change, and we must change with it in order to stay at the forefront of our art.
Think about it. Even the most literal-minded of audiences are willing to accept a painted backdrop as an indication of a mountain landscape, or a flat wooden floor as representative of the rocks and shoals of Prospero’s island. And yet to many of those same audiences, the idea of a black or Asian Hamlet or Henry V violates all credibility. I find that very limiting, and somewhat sad.
What I find enormously encouraging, though, is that for young people today it isn’t even an issue. Kids understand perhaps better than more experienced theatregoers, that they are watching a play – something that toys with reality, ignoring the limitations of naturalism in search of far deeper truths.
I, for one, do not want to see busloads of ethnically diverse students entering our halls only to see ethnically diverse actors playing servants and supernumeraries. Our young people are all searching for roles in our society. They are going to identify with what they see on our stages. And we are not only responsible to reflect our world but to shape it.
Shakespeare set no limits on his imagination; neither should we. I want to see our theatre rigorously explore the possibilities of casting in unconventional ways – not just in Shakespeare but in other repertoire too. We have a great Lady Bracknell this year – played by a man, the brilliant Brian Bedford. Some day, I hope we might have a Lady Bracknell played by an ethnically diverse actor or actress. Why not? It’s not as if Wilde’s play, brilliant as it is, is exactly documentary in its realism.
If there is indeed a curse on Macbeth, then it is the same curse that stifles so much theatrical production even today: the curse of conventionality. I hope that our production tonight will prove to be free of that curse, and of any other, and I hope that the Scots among you won’t be too disappointed by the lack of tartan.
Happy Birthday Violet.
Thank you, and enjoy the show.
It’s a familiar cliché that in hard economic times
people seek escapist entertainment. We all know that in the Great Depression
people flocked to the cinemas or to Broadway theatres to see glitzy musicals
about glamorous society types living the high life in gowns, furs, white tie
But if you actually look at what was happening in
theatre on this continent in the 1930s and ’40s – the Depression years,
followed by those of the Second World War – you find rather a different
You find the political plays of Clifford Odets, Robert
Sherwood and Elmer Rice. You find the poetic dramas of Maxwell Anderson and the
social critiques of Lillian Hellman. You find American mythology scrutinized by
William Saroyan and Thornton Wilder (who was once put to work in our Prop Shop.
Did you know? – but that’s a story for a different day.) You find Eugene
O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams – arguably the greatest of all
My uncle was the painter Eric Aldwinckle who designed
the first Stratford logo featuring the distinguished “S” with the abstracted
wings of the swan. He inspired a number of young Canadian artists like the
composer Harry Somers and the filmmaker Christopher Chapman.
He was my teacher and in turn was a student of Fred
Varley’s and A.Y. Jackson’s. He told me the story of Lawren Harris gathering
together in his home of Queen’s Park Blvd. the Canadian Painters who would make
up most of the membership of Group of Seven.
Despite losing their brilliant friend Tom Thompson,
despite the horrors of the First War, the Spanish flu and a somewhat suspicious
critical environment, the Group of Seven managed to come together to create an
artistic institution that would survive the Great Depression and World War II
and continue to inspire their countrymen through to the frightening economic
times of today.
Eric also told me stories of Stratford; of Alec
Guiness riding his bicycle down Ontario Street, no one recognizing him as he
passed, having just finished a celebrated performance of Richard the Third
under the tent. Eric told me stories of how Stratford gave birth to a great
artistic institution of its own during hard economic times.
Bad times are not necessarily artistically vacuous. In
fact, I would argue that hard times are a breeding ground for art and drama of
substance – because they are precisely the times when we need such art and
drama the most.
It is important in such times to be able to put the
present into the context of the past. It is important to see the momentary and
the particular from the perspective of the timeless and the universal. It is
important to come to terms with the darker side of our shared humanity, and
also to celebrate our no less striking capacity for achievement.
The classics, of course, excel at this. A play like King Lear, seen when the Zeitgeist is at
its sunniest and most benign, will always have the power to move us; seen in
the darkest night of a society’s soul, such a play also offers us consolation
and inspiration. “The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the
worst,’ ” says Edgar in Lear, and as
long as we are able to transmute even our most painful experience into art, we
may legitimately claim the human spirit’s victory over adversity.
Yes, there are times when we just want something
frivolous to take our minds off our troubles. And temporary respite obviously
has its value. But more importantly, we need sustenance: the intellectual,
emotional and spiritual nourishment that will give us the strength and the
resilience to carry us through.
Times are hard right now – for the world at large, and
for our corner of it. Things aren’t looking quite as problematic for us as they
were even a few weeks ago, but there’s no question that we still face
difficulties. Recovery may be long, slow and arduous, and our efforts will be
naturally be intensely focused on being prudent about expenses and getting as
many patrons through our doors as possible.
There is, however, a danger here that we must resist.
We must on no account succumb to any temptation to compromise our art. We must
not water down our standards. We must always be driven primarily by the demands
of the art, not the demands of the marketplace.
I say this in full awareness of the fact that the
initial impulse for the founding of this Festival was economic, not artistic.
It’s true that Tom Patterson started this theatre not because he had a burning
desire to see Shakespeare performed better than anywhere else in the world, but
because he wanted to save the economy of his home town. His vision was a most
rare one, but it was civic rather than cultural.
It was, however, Tom’s great good fortune to hook up
with a man who did have a powerful artistic vision: Tyrone Guthrie. And it was
Tom’s great wisdom – and the wisdom of his supporters in Stratford – that they
followed Guthrie’s advice about the enterprise they were contemplating.
This is an often-told story, but its lesson is so
salutary that I hardly think it can be told too
often. It’s the story of how Guthrie laid it on the line to the founding
committee. They had a choice, he told them. They could put on some meaningless
music-hall entertainment with dancing girls brought up from New York to shimmy
about with lights behind them, and make a lot of money – though without his
involvement – or they could choose to produce the finest Shakespeare in the
world, in which case he would be with them all the way.
To his everlasting credit, the committee’s chair,
Harrison Showalter, responded with these words: “We want to do something of
There, in a nutshell, is the secret of this Festival’s
success. Yes, it was created to provide an economic boost to the town, but its
creators also understood that the insignificant
does not inspire vision and determination, does not rally people to its cause,
does not ultimately endure.
Suppose for a moment the founders had considered
Guthrie’s options and decided that, on the whole, they’d rather have the
dancing girls and the easy money. One wonders if the Perth County Burlesque, or
the Stratford Follies of ’53, or whatever the venture might have been called,
would be with us still.
Instead, we have in our midst one of the great
theatres of the English-speaking world. The Festival began with a commitment to
the highest imaginable artistic standards, and it is because its leaders have
so tenaciously stuck to that principle over the years that it can legitimately
claim today to be North America’s leading classical theatre.
In the years since that first glorious summer, we have
grown enormously, and diversified. And the fact has not escaped me that dancing
girls now do appear on our stages – though they do so in the service not of
escapist titillation but of what is perhaps the 20th century’s greatest
contribution to the art of drama.
Musicals are sometimes seen as the regrettable price
the Festival has to pay for its continuing ability to stage Shakespeare. Not
true: musical theatre is a uniquely demanding art form, and one that has added
many classics to the world repertoire. We have no need to apologize for it.
Indeed, Guthrie himself directed one of our first major musical theatre
productions, in 1960.
The danger I’m speaking of is not so much that we will
stray into areas of repertoire that are too far from Shakespeare. In fact, you
can never really get that far from Shakespeare: his influence pervades our
ever-expanding repertoire the same way that cosmic radiation from the Big Bang
still permeates our universe. Our two musicals this season are perfect examples
No, the real danger is that we may become afraid to venture into new areas: that
we will become cautious, formulaic, unwilling to adapt to our cultural and
social environment as it changes around us; that we will prefer to stick with
what worked in the past rather than exploring what might work even more
thrillingly in the future. The problem with marketing surveys is that they can only
tell you the kind of art someone liked yesterday. They cannot predict the art
of tomorrow. That future must be created by artists themselves.
The worst-case scenario for Stratford is that we
become a factory, turning out solid, quality-controlled but ultimately
uninspiring product in accordance with the dictates of spread-sheets, rather
than a crucible for the unpredictable alchemy of art.
This must not happen to us; the moment it does, we
will have betrayed the faith of those founders who had the vision and the
wisdom to opt for substance and significance. And ultimately we will lose the
audience on which any classical theatre depends: people who come to us not to
be amused or distracted for a pleasantly forgettable couple of hours but in the
hope of being knocked out of their seats by an experience that will stay with
them all their lives.
It’s that kind of experience that makes audiences leap
spontaneously to their feet at the end of a performance, that kind of
experience that makes them return again and again, that kind of experience that
turns them into the donors on whose generosity we so heavily depend.
When I go to the theatre, regardless of which theatre
it is or who the director is, I always go with that hope: that I will have my
life changed. It isn’t going to happen every time, of course, – so I’m often
disappointed. But what keeps me coming back is the hope that it will happen, and that hope can only be kept alive by a
theatre that is actively trying to
have that effect on me, and on everyone else in the house.
In the late eighteen sixties and early seventies, in
Paris, Edward Manet became the unofficial leader of a loosely knit group of
upstart painters. This group rejected the popular movement in painting that
celebrated realistic portrayals of historic France in its glory days under
Napoleon and the Great Kings. The celebrated painters of the time romanticized
the past and were lauded for their exquisite attention to detail. Few of them
are thought of highly today if they are remembered at all. In the Louvre only a
few of their paintings are exhibited. It’s almost as if they, the rage of their
times, vanished from history.
Manet’s motley troupe was almost universally rejected
by the Salon and the group was forced to exhibit their works in a kind of
unrecognized, unofficial salon – the
“Salon des Refusés”. Here the paintings were commonly ridiculed,
gentlemen’s canes cracked across them in contempt and they were quite literally
spat at in disgust by patrons and aficionados of the art scene.
Edward Manet was never officially considered a member
of the Impressionists, the movement of art that he fearlessly championed. He
didn’t live quite long enough to see the profound impact his own work and work
of the Impressionists would have on the future. But by adhering to his own
conscience, and painting the Paris he perceived illuminated by his own vision
of colour, form and light, Manet managed to fundamentally change the world of
art. He freed generations of artists to come, he paved the way for Picasso and
the Surrealists and the Abstract Impressionists, the Group of Seven and, yes,
our own Eric Aldwinckle and all of the contemporary painters and visual artists
who flood our galleries with their works today.
We at Stratford cannot afford to miss out on the
theatrical equivalent of Edward Manet.
For we must recognize, ladies and gentlemen, that we have
the authority of the Salon. It is our mission and our duty to embrace those
that can take our art form further. We must be the champions of the bold and
audacious for let it never be said that we, like the Paris Salon of the 1870’s,
held back the art form which we have been entrusted to advance.
In hard times like these, it is important for us to
keep faith with our art. But it is also important that we be prepared for the good times that will inevitably come
again: that we be ready to catch the momentum of the turning tide.
This is not just a time for us to hunker down and try
to survive. It’s a time for us to dream, to think about what we can be and
should be in the future. We need to plan, so that we can be first out of the
gate when things do begin to turn around. We don’t want to start planning then; we need to be planning now, so that we can be at the forefront
of institutional fundraising in order to fulfil our dreams.
We are continuing to study the magnificent Festival
Theatre with a view to overcoming its limitations and shepherding it into the
future. We are also exploring renovations at the Avon and the Tom Patterson. We
are pressing ahead with the planning so that we can act without delay when the
planets once more align in our favour.
After all, Shakespeare’s company did not stand still.
They had their ambitions for improving their environment; they continued to
evolve in terms of their technical abilities.
Long before the Globe burned down, the King’s Men had
moved indoors to their winter home, the Blackfriars, where they were able to
achieve more intimacy with the audience. The company went back and forth
between the two venues for a number of years. Shakespeare’s troupe was very
conscious of advancing its efforts by employing contemporary stage craft. They
were innovators. They wanted to maintain a competitive advantage with rival
companies: They felt required to advance the art form. And we at Stratford feel
that same compulsion.
The indoor venue allowed for different stage effects,
different emphasis in the acting, even developments in the form of the
narrative. It was for this venue that Shakespeare wrote his last great romances
– without it, The Tempest would
likely have been a very different play, if it had been written at all.
We cannot afford to be discouraged by these economic
times or we run the danger of being swept aside by the future – for we exist on
the advancing edge of time. We practise our craft in the eternal present.
Antoni and I expect to carry on with our artistic
initiatives here at Stratford in the coming year.
We want Stratford to become a welcoming home for
Canada’s leading writers and have set up a series of programs to accomplish
this. In 2008 we assembled 9 play readings that gave the playwrights –
and us – the opportunity to hear projects we were considering. Three of
these are going into production in our current season: Trespassers, Rice Boy
and George Walker’s Zastrozzi. A
fourth by Andrew Moodie is being revised for future consideration. We
also commissioned plays from three of Canada’s leading writers: John Mighton,
Judith Thompson and George Walker, at least one of which we hope to premiere in
2010, as well as a new translation of The Cherry Orchard from American playwright Aaron Sorkin.
By the end of 2009, we will have hosted 31 Canadian
writers and composers from across the country in our Playwright’s Retreat and
Residency programs, now in their second year. These residencies offer an
opportunity for playwrights to spend three weeks here writing new plays and
musicals away from the distractions of home. We will also offer Morris
Panych and George Walker the opportunity to work with actors in workshops of
their new plays.
We will continue to develop great Canadian actors at
the Birmingham Conservatory and move ahead to increase the ratio of ethnically
diverse actors within the Company. We have also launched a programme that
intends by 2015 to give every student in Ontario a chance to see the work of
these talented actors at the Festival sometime during their educational career.
Following the 2008 Director’s Summit that Don Shipley
orchestrated we expect to launch a laboratory for Classical Theatre Direction.
We want to become a welcoming home for emerging Canadian Directors and help
move their careers into the national and international arenas. Jennifer
Tarver’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape
will perform in Chicago next season and a Broadway production is anticipated.
We will also continue to bring internationally recognized directors from abroad
to enrich our perspectives about art and life. Adrian Noble’s production of Hamlet was a high point of last season
and his talented countryman, David Grindley will direct A Midsummer Nights Dream on the Festival stage. And there will be
more to come.
Our extraordinary actors are deserving of inspired,
visionary leadership from the best directors that we can attract and it is my
belief that the company has grown tremendously over the past two seasons. That
is the great Stratford tradition.
We have ambition. And we plan to employ ingenuity to
move our cause forward.
Eighteen months ago I didn’t see myself standing here
before you this evening carrying this weighty responsibility. But here I am.
And I am invested and committed and determined to move Stratford forward. In
Guthrie’s words I plan to “rise above”. I have changed my life, turning it
upside-down to further the great cause that binds us together. You didn’t
invite me here to tread water. Please support me and Antoni and most
importantly the Stratford Shakespeare Festival which we all share.
The roots of this company’s growth and future
evolution, along with our commitment to the integrity of our art, lie deep in
our history. We must maintain that integrity if we are to meet the daunting
challenges we face right now; and we must embrace the idea of change – and be
prepared for it – if we are to meet the exciting challenges of the extraordinary
ladies and gentlemen. Tonight we launch the 2008 season. The planning and
preparation for this season was shared by my colleagues Marti Maraden and Don
Shipley, and they deserve great credit for their many substantial
I have the
great privilege of opening the season with my production of ROMEO AND JULIET. I
have the opportunity here to ruin the evening for you by talking about the production
in advance – a temptation that I'm much too weak to overcome. Directors pay great attention to everything
from the image on the poster to the program cover, production photographs, and
all of the copy that goes out on a particular piece, realizing that
preconceived notions are being shaped at every turn. In general we prefer audiences to walk into
the theatre with their minds open. Paradoxically we can’t resist talking about
our own work so I’m about to run the great risk of creating expectations that
may or may not serve either you or me during the performance – but I’ve been
asked to do it and so . . . here goes.
One of the
preconceived notions about ROMEO AND JULIET that is most difficult to deal with
is that it is a love story. While this is of course true, it is by no means the
whole story. "O brawling love, O loving hate, O anything of nothing first
create." The story of ROMEO AND JULIET is fueled by the profound hatred
that exists between two families. It is a hatred that runs so deep that it defies
explanation - an ancient grudge that stretches back beyond memory. The ferocity
of the feud stems from some incident that has occurred so long before the play
takes place that it has been lost and mutated into the kind of prejudice that
is all too familiar in the world we live in today. Samson and Gregory, the two
Capulet henchmen we meet at the beginning of the play, are not even members of
the family, yet they are so caught up in the hatred of the Montagues that they
never stop to question it for a second. Instead, they dive headlong into a brawl,
having pumped themselves up with misogynistic word play featuring sexual
violence without apology. The violence of the feud has so saturated the streets
of Verona by the time the play starts that Prince Escalas – modeled on the
principles of Machiavelli's THE PRINCE – has a most difficult time reining in
the families to restore order. Remarkably, these two families on the surface, seem
to have every reason to understand each other. They are both "alike in
dignity", seem to be of equal wealth and power, and one would expect that if
they could create a bond each family would strengthen itself significantly.
Hatred, however, deserves no explanation, and it may be that no explanation is
adequate for the kind of hatred that exists here.
preconceived notion that some may well have is that ROMEO AND JULIET is a
tragedy. This again may be true, although it has often been argued that Romeo
is not technically a tragic hero. Shakespeare was of course unwilling to simply
obediently adopt classical dramatic forms, and was in fact a great structural
innovator. When you see Michael Langham's effervescent production of LOVE'S
LABOUR'S LOST, the play that Shakespeare likely penned right before ROMEO AND
JULIET, you may be struck by the sudden shift in tone during the last part of
the fifth act. Death abruptly descends on the story and games that seemed
important throughout the course of the play are suddenly rendered frivolous.
The cold wind that becomes familiar to all of us as we grow older blows across
the stage, and the mood turns somber. The first half of ROMEO AND JULIET
functions as a comedy – there is an event halfway through the play that turns
everything inside out. It's as if Shakespeare was so taken with the structure
of LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST that he pulls the tone shift in his next play forward
to the halfway point. All of the imagery suddenly inverts in ROMEO AND JULIET:
night, which has been a friend to the lovers, turns to nightmare; the sun and
moon imagery in the text flip-flop and the comic tone is left behind as the
dark journey toward the double suicide ensues.
With ROMEO AND JULIET we are witnessing the remarkable development of a
relatively young dramatic genius. Shakespeare, still in his early thirties, was
in love with words, or as Langham says, was literally drunk with them. The play
is rich with a whole assortment of wordplay, sonnets and rhetoric, and the
poetry is utterly breathtaking. We see a playwright entering maturity and
proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is no "upstart crow," as
he was called by an envious contemporary. As part of our preparation for acting
the text we go through a process that Stratford Festival dramaturge Robert
Blacker and I call "sleuthing." We sit in a large circle with all of
the actors and go through the text literally line by line and word by word,
referring to an assortment of glossaries but relying most heavily on the Oxford
English Dictionary. This takes many days. We track and notate chains of imagery
in the belief that these chains are key to a play's thematic movement. We
examine secondary and tertiary meanings of words. The “word” itself in ROMEO
AND JULIET is one of Shakespeare's primary image chains. The text is rife with
double meaning and riddled with puns, contradictions, paradoxes, and oxymorons.
Words are the essence of the play’s duality.
primary image chain has to do with gold and wealth, which does not explain the
hatred between the families in itself yet stokes the fires of the violence.
During our sleuthing sessions we tracked dozens of other image chains all of
which we carefully noted and logged. Be aware of images having to do with the
Merchant class – wealth, mansion, merchandise. Watch out for the repeating
image of “hands” or the chain of “stars”. There are nautical images and those
pertaining to the sea. These are signposts and often carry the weight of
significant meaning and emotion.
One of the
extraordinary innovations in ROMEO AND JULIET is the existence of the dramatic device
of foreknowledge. Shakespeare clearly understood the power of this device as he
was a young member of the acting company in the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the
time of the writing of ROMEO AND JULIET. Rather than asking the actors to
entirely forget what will happen, he gives virtually all of the central
characters flashes in the text of where the story is headed. It is as if the
hatred has preordained the catastrophic conclusion, and try as they may to
avoid the tragic ending, all decisions by all characters inevitably lead there.
The play starts on Sunday morning and is over by dawn on Friday. And no one
ever sleeps. Instead they descend together into a kind of recurring dream - all
stumbling toward the empty centre of the maze.
I chose to start
my tenure here at Stratford with ROMEO AND JULIET for a number of reasons. I
was attracted to its audacious youthful spirit; it is a play for the young and
they of course represent our future here at the Festival. And the one thing we
all have in common if we’re not young is that we were young once and remember
it only too well. I chose it because of the tremendous range of roles that it
serves up to our extraordinary company of actors. I chose it because I had a
Romeo – Gareth Potter, and a Juliet – Nikki James. But most of all I wanted to
do ROMEO AND JULIET because it speaks loudly to a time in which hatred and
violence are more prevalent than at any time I can remember since the Vietnam
War. Like the Capulets and Montagues, I fear we have become anesthetized from the
violence our society breeds both at home and abroad. As in Verona, the stark
contrast between excessive wealth and hopeless poverty creates a breeding
ground in our society for hatred and prejudice. And their step-child violence.
I believe one
is inspired to do a play by William Shakespeare because it serves as a window
to our own lives and times. Learning about Shakespeare’s characters is not an
end in itself. It is a means toward learning about ourselves.
Now I hope
you’re not so crammed full of those cursed preconceived notions that there’s no
room left for surprise. Just in case, do me one favour – forget everything I
I hope you have a great evening here with us.