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Let Your Imagination Soar with The Neverending Story!

A beloved children’s book comes to the Avon Theatre in a fantastical production filled with eye-popping wonder.

Since it was first published in 1979, the children's fantasy The Neverending Story, by award-winning German author Michael Ende, has been translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 20 million copies worldwide; it was also made into a phenomenally popular 1984 film. This year marks the book's 40th anniversary - a fitting occasion for the Stratford Festival to present playwright David S. Craig's stage adaptation of this magical work for all to enjoy.

Bringing visual magic to the stage is nothing new for the production's designer, Bretta Gerecke. She's thrilled to be back at Stratford for her fifth season and excited to once again be working alongside director Jillian Keiley. Festival fans will recall their imaginative collaborations on such very different productions as The Diary of Anne Frank and Alice Through the Looking Glass.

The Neverending Story celebrates the power of the imagination. Its young protagonist, Bastian, takes refuge from bullying at school by hiding in an attic, where he begins reading a book about a mythical land called Fantastica, which is threatened by a dark force called the Nothing. But this is no ordinary book: as he reads, Bastian finds that the book is filled with blank pages, and that the only way he can progress with the story is to create it himself through his own ideas and connections to its fictional world. Essentially, he himself becomes the story's hero: the only one who can determine its outcome and the fates of its characters and the realm they inhabit.

"The blank pages of the book and the dark formlessness of the Nothing are represented in this production by the stage being an open, black canvas upon which to create," says Ms. Gerecke. "It is a tale of light and dark, and we are using an integrated light system for each of the story's characters to allow them to explode out of darkness. The set is also integrating LED [light-emitting diode] lights to create constellations, stars and planets in the sky isolating the characters in infinite space.

Handcrafted props for the production. Designs by Bretta Gerecke.

Handcrafted props for the production. Designs by Bretta Gerecke.

"The evil entity, the Nothing, is the absence of light, and by contrast, the storybook characters - many portrayed by puppets - will have LEDs incorporated so that the fantastical creatures glow with their own light.

"For example, the dragon, Falkor, is twelve feet long and eight feet wide, and his big nose, his eyes and his spine all light up from inside. The spider, Ygramul, has red LED eyes, and its legs light up from within light giant stained glass windows - and each leg is a separate component manipulated by puppeteers, so you're never quite sure what it will become until all of the pieces come together. The giant turtle, Morla the Aged One, is made up of ten green shields which come together to form her shell. I hope it will be a very playful effect - like children playing with everyday objects and making new interpretations and configurations out of things with their own imaginations."

The continual interplay between the literal light and darkness will be a driving force in the unfolding of the tale.

"It will indicate transition within the story," says Ms. Gerecke. "The lights of a character will glow brightly whenever their part of the story is of central importance. For example, the Childlike Empress is filled with light, but her lights will flicker and fade as a visual cue that her story is dying. Artax the horse is made up of sections alternating between solid and void: the internal lights of his solidity will go out from the bottom up as he vanishes into Nothingness. The transitions may be gradual or sudden, depending on the plotline - the use of light in the storytelling will always be surprising."

The Neverending Story team came together in December for a five-day workshop to discuss, experiment and collaborate on ideas for the show.

"This was absolutely invaluable to the process," says Ms. Gerecke. "It started off with about twenty of us sitting around a big table - Jillian and myself; the playwright, David S. Craig; lighting designer Leigh Ann Vardy and sound designer Don Ellis; and composer Hawksley Workman, along with the tech director, props, choreographers and puppetry directors - all of us sharing our ideas.

"We talked through the play bit by bit and tested out our proposals. Things got added or cut, or made bigger and better. Putting together a production like this calls for full-on collaboration between everyone - theatre is not an art form created by an individual. We are working in a group to tell the story in the best and most meaningful way we can. Every new production of a play is a chance to work with a new team with entirely different dynamics - we need to discover what we have in our collective pool of ideas, and figure out how to connect the ideas and put them out into the world in the most inspiring way.

"We also had two days with some of the actors on stage to test out the pieces of the puppets and see how they work together in reality. It's one thing to have an idea and a series of sketches, but you need human bodies interacting with the puppetry to see how it functions - they put the life into it and discover the best ways to make it all work."

The fruits of this remarkable collaboration of talents promise to enthral young people and seasoned theatregoers alike. When asked how she hopes The Neverending Story will affect its audiences, Ms. Gerecke replies:

"I think the message we hope to impart is to remind people of all ages of just how important imagination is for us all. We must not lose our passion for reading. We must tell stories and enjoy stories in an active way. So much time is spent today with people passively accepting what they see on a screen - myself included - we want to tell a story that engages people's imaginations and inspires them to come on our adventure.

"I think now more than ever we need to be reminded that our imaginations are infinite, and can quite literally change the world."

The Neverending Story is on stage at the Avon Theatre from May 16 to November 3.


Support for The Neverending Story is generously provided through Schulich Children's Plays.
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Honing Skills for the Future of Canadian Theatre

Two of this season’s assistant directors share their experiences with the Festival’s recent inaugural Directors’ Intensive weekend.

As part of our commitment to developing the talents of Canada's upcoming generation of stage directors, the Stratford Festival held its first two-day Directors' Intensive over the weekend of February 16-17. The event was put together by Martha Henry, Director of the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction, and Associate Producer Bonnie Green in order to give this season's assistant directors uniquely immersive insights into what it takes to direct shows at North America's largest repertory theatre company.

Currently enjoying her ninth season with the Festival, Jennifer Stewart is this year the assistant director of Othello. A trained stage performer whose Festival roles have included Tzeitel in 2013's Fiddler on the Roof, Ms Stewart made the shift toward directing because she found she was interested in the overall picture of a play and wanted to continue telling good stories from a perspective in which she feels she can use her brain and her knowledge in a different sort of way. She enthusiastically praises the Directors' Intensive as an invaluable experience for the participants.

"Due to other work commitments, not all of the assistant directors could be there, but for those of us in attendance, it was wonderful," she says. "The weekend began with a meet and greet - as we are coming from all over the country and each working on different productions, this was a tremendous opportunity to get a variety of perspectives on how each of us came to be in the theatre world, and the different approaches we all have to staging plays, particularly Shakespeare.

"Antoni Cimolino spoke with us at length about being both a director and an artistic director in today's changing climate. We are experiencing a cultural shift in the world, and we all need to find new and exciting ways to engage with our audiences and to get them interested in seeing classical theatre.

"Antoni took us out onto the Festival [Theatre] Stage - which is my favourite room in the whole world," she says. "It is filled with the ghosts of all of the great work of past seasons, and all of those incredible words that have been spoken in that space. There is a lot to learn about the technical aspects of directing for that unique auditorium - there can be no traditional proscenium-style approach! Directors must learn to work closely with their cast and their designers to make the most of the stage, and assistant directors are an invaluable second set of eyes during onstage rehearsals, in order to help check sightlines and sound levels in such a vast space.

"Antoni also shared his in-depth knowledge in a session about the times in which Shakespeare was writing, and about how vital it is for us to find context and connect the present to the past with every new production."

Along with lively discussions, both structured and less formal, participants were given a comprehensive tour of the iconic Festival Theatre building - exploring every region, including its labyrinthine corridors of costume and props workshops - and a hands-on class was led by the Head of Voice and Coaching, Janine Pearson, to help the directors be aware of the importance of their own voice and movement in their demanding job.

The director of Mother's Daughter, Alan Dilworth, led a Stillness workshop to teach the upcoming directors how to find a grounding place of calm from which to work. Stage Managers Ann Stuart and Cynthia Toushan shared their invaluable insights about a director's working relationships with stage management and production staff, and the complex task of scheduling rehearsal times over a long season with such a large repertory company.

New to the company this season, Julia Nish-Lapidus is the assistant director on Private Lives. She was especially thrilled with the Intensive's comprehensive two-day format, offering a unique opportunity to interact with and learn from various Festival experts in a concentrated period of time.

"It was exciting," says Ms Nish-Lapidus. "It truly is the chance of a lifetime to have access to all of these amazing people over a full weekend. Aside from all of the workshops, lessons and talks, we also had shared meals and informal time to get to know one another. The directors, coaches and the other Festival professionals were incredibly generous with their time. With such busy schedules and so much on their plates, I was so grateful that they were happy to sit and discuss ideas with us, and just get to know us as colleagues. It was an incredible training weekend full of people you'd be glad to be able to spend just a few moments with.

"A definite highlight was getting to work on the Festival Stage with Antoni Cimolino and Donna Feore," she adds. "Both of them arguably understand that space better than anyone else, when it comes to directing Shakespeare and musicals. Antoni showed us how perfectly designed that stage is for Shakespeare - for example, how it takes an actor the exact length of a line to cross the space. It was literally built to be the perfect place to perform Shakespeare. Donna brought in some performers from Billy Elliot the Musical, and we had the chance as a group to direct them on the Festival Stage with her guidance.

"And on the final day, Martha Henry hosted a round table with most of this season's directors, and performers like Lucy Peacock and Rod Beattie were also there to chat with us about the actors' relationship with assistant directors. The Intensive was the best possible welcome for a person new to the company. I went straight from the weekend right into my first day of rehearsal on Monday, and I felt relaxed and ready with a confidence and comfort level that I may not have had otherwise."

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Stratford Festival On Film: Coriolanus Arrives in Cinemas on March 23!

Revel in the dramatic power of Shakespeare on the silver screen!

Don't miss out on this extraordinary cinematic event! Book your tickets now to experience our glorious 2018 production of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus on March 23 at a movie theatre near you.

Called "exhilarating" and "riveting" by The New York Times, Coriolanus was hailed by The Globe and Mail as "the show of the decade … a landmark production for the Stratford Festival. Maybe Shakespeare, too" and named by The Chicago Tribune critic as "the greatest contemporary staging of this play that I have ever seen."

This visually stunning tour-de-force also boasts incredibly powerful performers. In the titular role, André Sills is hailed by The New York Times as "a magnetic and imposing actor," and the entire stellar cast delivers "performances that send shivers down your spine," according to The Globe and Mail.

Directed by the genre-defying theatre artist Robert Lepage, this modern and imaginative vision of Shakespeare's tale of the rise and fall of a Roman general is infused with the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring. You won't want to miss it!

Visit Cineplex.com/Stage to find a cinema near you and book your tickets today!

Meet the stars!

If you're in the Greater Toronto area, join us at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Eglinton in Toronto for a Q&A event featuring special guests, immediately following the film presentation on Saturday, March 23.

Coming soon

The Tempest hits cinema screens across Canada on April 13. Book your tickets now at Cineplex.com/Stage


Stratford Festival On Film is sponsored by Sun Life Financial as part of their Making the Arts More Accessible™ program.

Support for Stratford Festival On Film is generously provided by The John and Myrna Daniels Charitable Foundation, Laura Dinner & Richard Rooney, the Jenkins Family Foundation, the Henry White Kinnear Foundation, Ophelia & Mike Lazaridis, The Catherine and Maxwell Meighen Foundation, Sandra & Jim Pitblado, the Slaight Family Foundation, Robert & Jacqueline Sperandio, and an anonymous donor.

Support for Stratford Festival On Film has also been provided by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.

Canadian distribution is through Cineplex, which specializes in bringing world-class events and performances to the big screen.

Screenings are followed by a broadcast window on CBC, Canada's national public broadcaster.

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Your First Look at Othello

As rehearsals get underway, director Nigel Shawn Williams shares a few thoughts on this powerful drama for the ages.

Last season, Nigel Shawn Williams took the helm of To Kill a Mockingbird - itself a timeless story that seemed more relevant than ever in today's troubled times. This year, he is directing Othello, one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, and setting it firmly in the here and now.

"As a 30-year-old actor, I played the role of Othello at the Toronto Centre for the Arts," says Mr. Williams. "That production was set in the American South of the 1960s and investigated Shakespeare's play against a backdrop of the racial tensions of the times. When Antoni Cimolino and I discussed this year's Festival production, it seemed right and timely to bring it right up to date. It is a great opportunity to discuss issues around race, misogyny and sexism in today's climate.

"We're living in a time in which words are used as weapons - the climate is one in which lies and misrepresentation of truth seem to have more power than the truth itself. By choosing this contemporary setting, we can clearly see ourselves in the story."

Indeed, one feels that an Iago could thrive in today's political climate of fake news and smear campaigns. Truth and facts seem to bear little weight when such a master manipulator and consummate liar has his own bloody-minded agenda to fulfill. Iago is a man fuelled by hate, insecurity and jealousy: he must destroy Othello's bliss because he feels he will lose if others are allowed to gain. That idea is one that seems to thrive in the larger world today.

"The play is set against a background of war and strife," says Mr. Williams. "Today, we are living in a world that is rife with threat, and the constant potential for violence is always there, just waiting to come out. The darker forces in human nature thrive in such an environment: war is money and power. There is no money to be made out of peace."

Designs by Denyse Karn

Designs by Denyse Karn

At the centre of this world of machismo and conflict stands Othello, a black man who has risen to become a great general and a hero. By falling in love, he and Desdemona have defied the norms of their society - and taken a great risk.

"In Desdemona, Othello has found an avatar of true peace," says Mr. Williams. "She has inspired him to look at and think about things differently. It really does feel that - if their love had been allowed to thrive and grow - they'd represent a new hope for humanity. Together, they have the capacity to be perfect.

"Othello is at his heart a good man - and we see ourselves in him as he reaches for true peace and goodness in his life. The real tragedy is that the darker forces at play manage to destroy them with lies. Iago is the representation of all of that dark vice working against them. As in the wider world today, he creates an environment where that darkness is given permission to rise to the surface and attack the marginalized and the women in its society. The truly horrific violence in the play is that committed upon the women. We get to the extremes of domestic violence and murder only because a good man has been poisoned by vice and an immoral character."

Theatre must shine light into dark corners in order that the audience can recognize the real and present dangers around them in the world today. Racism, misogyny and distrust of the "other" persist today, sometimes overtly, often in ways that are hidden; retelling Othello's tragedy reminds us to be vigilant and to have necessary conversations about where we are at in our society.

"One of the most exciting things about Othello is that it has an internal motor that just goes," says Mr. Williams. "It makes it rather unique in Shakespeare - the fact that it hasn't got lots of subplots hones the focus and doesn't distract from the core of the story. Above all, it is intimate - a lot of scenes are played with only two or three characters on stage. It is a play about relationships and domestic affairs being played out against a public backdrop.

"It feels real and immediate, and that is the kind of theatre I like to make; where we are confronted by the conflict between great beauty and extreme ugliness. It serves to remind ourselves that we can do a better job of talking to and listening to one another. We can - and we must - do better."

Othello runs at the Festival Theatre from May 3 to October 27.


Production Sponsor for Othello: BMO Financial Group

Production support for Othello is generously provided by The Westaway Charitable Foundation

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Celebrate Family Fun, Song and Dance, and the Power of Imagination!

Theatre lovers of all ages will be inspired by Family Fun Days and special Forum events!

Family Fun Days in the Merry Month of May!

New this year: save with kids' rates for everyone in your family for The Neverending Story on May 20 or 25. Tickets from only $45, including fees!

Bonus: special pre-show activities for your kids to enjoy!

The Forum really does have something for everyone. Whether you're in the mood for inspiring guest speakers, interactive workshops or special performances, our series of events provides plenty of fun and food for thought - and in some cases, delicious actual food!

Ballet 101

May 25 - August 9

Just like Billy Elliot, learn the basics of ballet and discover the joy of dance. These half-hour workshops are for all ages and require active participation. Led by Festival company members and Education staff.

Workshop dates:

  • Saturday, May 25
  • Saturday, July 6
  • Saturday, July 27
  • Friday, August 9

Song and Dance: Billy Elliot the Musical

June 8 - August 17

Learn and perform step-by-step choreography and music from Billy Elliot the Musical. Culminates in a Q&A with the artists. These workshops are for all ages and require active participation. Led by Festival company members and Education staff.

Workshop dates:

  • Saturday, June 8
  • Friday, July 12
  • Saturday, August 17

Dream It, Be It

June 22

"He could be a star for all we know. We don't know how far he can go," sings the ensemble in Billy Elliot the Musical. What does it take for kids to step beyond stereotypes and find the confidence to follow their dreams? Scholar and educator Kathleen Gallagher, Ballet Theatre of Toledo artistic director Nigel Burgoine, and Festival associate choreographer and dance educator Stephen Cota discuss how to support the unique brightness of each child and the challenges children are currently facing in contemporary education systems. Moderated by Festival Education Associate Luisa Appolloni.

The Neverending Story Workshop

June 23 - August 23

Take part in a series of drama exercises to explore the adventure and magic of The Neverending Story. These half-hour workshops are for all ages and require active participation. Led by Festival company members and Education staff.

Workshop dates:

  • Sunday, June 23
  • Saturday, July 13
  • Sunday, July 21
  • Friday, August 23

The Neverending Story Lunch

July 7 - August 18

Relax and enjoy a family meal to delight parents and kids alike! Grownups will appreciate the talents of our renowned Stratford Festival culinary team - who also provide a tasty child-friendly alternative that kids will love. Complete with face-painting, balloons and book-nooks, this is a great kick-off to the matinée adventures that await. Reserve at least 48 hours in advance.

Available dates:

  • Sunday, July 7
  • Saturday, July 27
  • Sunday, August 18

Song and Dance: Little Shop of Horrors

July 19 - August 8

Learn and perform step-by-step choreography and music from Little Shop of Horrors. Culminates in a Q&A with the artists. These workshops are for all ages and require active participation. Led by Festival company members and Education staff.

Workshop dates:

  • Friday, July 19
  • Friday, July 26
  • Thursday, August 8