Nestruck on Theater: Tents grow in Stratford as live theater comes to life across Canada

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The Stratford Festival has set up an awning next to the Festival Theater where outdoor performances will begin on Saturday.

J. Kelly Nestruck / The Globe and Mail

My family packed the car and drove from Toronto to Stratford, Ontario on Sunday. The journey took about two hours and the toddler miraculously took a nap for a good portion of it. Bodes well, I hope, for the coming summer.

We will be in Stratford for the next two months so I can observe and write about the reopening of this cultural city which is home to the Stratford Festival, North America’s largest non-profit theater company, as well as a disproportionate proportion of Canada’s artistic talent in theater and live music.

I got my bearings on Monday by taking a self-guided tour of the tents that have sprung up across town at this point in the pandemic – not quite the same as those that have sprung up in parks around me. in Toronto.

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The Stratford Festival has set up two large canopy stages where small-cast plays and cabarets are scheduled to perform from Saturday.

One is right next to the Festival Theater, a circular building designed by Robert Fairfield to pay homage to the tent under which the festival performed for its first seasons from 1953 (the circle has come full circle).

The Tom Patterson Theater has a four poster stage behind it where performances will begin soon.

J. Kelly Nestruck / The Globe and Mail

The other awning is on the side of the new, beautiful Tom Patterson Theater still unopened – and as a no-trespassing sign held me at bay, I peeked over a fence to catch a glimpse of a catwalk style stage that resembles the one that lived in the old Tom Patterson Theater.

These are not the custom-made tents (one of which was to be designed by Hariri Pontarini, architect of the new Tom Patterson Theater) under which the Stratford Festival initially hoped to perform this summer. Ontario’s restrictions on non-essential construction meant a pivot to pre-fabricated canopies which, one wag on Twitter noted, looks a bit like the white hats of The Handmaid’s Tale. (Perhaps one of those outdoor scenes should be dubbed “The Atwood” after the longtime Stratford novelist and patron, who even wrote a book set in the Stratford Universe.)

It can be just as good, however, as Ontario’s current regulations for outdoor theatrical performances – which were only announced at the last minute – are confusing if you plan to stage a show in a personalized structure. Ultimately, Stratford will be allowed to perform to an audience of 100 under the canopies as they had long hoped (based on the province’s easier-to-follow restrictions last year).

Elsewhere on my tour in Stratford, I spotted a rudimentary tent set up outside the festival’s costume and prop warehouse where actors rehearsed before being allowed to rehearse inside (as they are now). Then there are a number of smaller ones that popped up outside of downtown restaurants – they were packed (with distant customers, of course) when we arrived on Sunday. The city already seems alive even before theater companies started to attract foreigners to the city.

The Bruce Hotel in Stratford hosts the New Works Festival of the Here For Now theater company.

J. Kelly Nestruck / The Globe and Mail

I say “companies” because there is also a stage set up in a tent behind the Bruce Hotel, where the enterprising Here for Now Theater Company’s Festival of New Works started on Tuesday – beating the city’s slowest theater institution on the four-day opening night.

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I will be attending two shows there today, which marks exactly two weeks since my second shot. But more on that in this weekend’s journal.

The 2021 Stratford Festival season being reduced, with short series of plays and cabarets featuring small cast, there are plenty of regular members of the company who haven’t found work there this season. Actors like Gordon Patrick White, who I met on Monday outside the local outpost of Balzac’s, the artistic coffeehouse chain that started in Stratford in 1996.

White told me he was heading east again this summer in a few days. Indeed, you can see him on stage at Filigree theater in Prince Edward Island, where he plays in Drew Hayden Taylor’s play Villagers and Indians.

The Watermark kicks off its 2021 season this weekend with a free outdoor show called Mi’kmaq legends – and then next week begins a race of the two-handed classic from DL Coburn The gin game, which was first famous on Broadway by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in 1977, when the legendary acting couple could also be seen regularly on stage at the Stratford Festival (again, the circle has come full circle ).

Meanwhile, in Prince Edward Island, the Charlottetown Festival is currently continuing its small-audience indoor season with Dear Rita, a new musical that weaves the favorite songs of Nova Scotia singer Rita MacNeil around a script by Lindsay Kyte of Cape Breton. It runs until August 6.

Dear Rita is headed by Mary Francis Moore – who also happens to have officially started his new job as artistic director of Theater Aquarius in Hamilton on Monday. Late congratulations to Moore on his appointment.

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While I was on vacation last week, Ontario theaters have been allowed to reopen outdoors. But the 7 Doigts, one of the great boutique circus companies in Quebec, were one of the first groups to take the stage here. The troupe is currently in Markham, Ontario for an outdoor performance as part of an event called Ensemble à part, Summer Cirque at the Markham Fairgrounds complex until August 1.

If you can’t make it – as I unfortunately don’t think so – the circus company’s excellent pandemic film Out of order is now available on demand via its website. (I saw him again in March.)

Meanwhile, in the circus-obsessed hometown of the 7 Fingers, the Montreal Completely Circus The festival will soon be operational with its 12th edition, back with once again live performances. It is an ideal place to sample all the Quebec circus companies that are not Cirque du Soleil (such as Cirque Alfonse, FLIP Fabrique and Kalabanté Productions). The festival takes place outside of town and indoors at the town’s personalized circus hall, TOHU, from July 8-18.

Two online choices for the week: Voice, one of my “theatrical experiences to look forward to in 2021”, is broadcast continuously via the Prairie Theater Exchange until July 11; and Outside the musical on dyslexia de la Marche Stupid!, which I spoke about last month, begins its digital live radio broadcast July 7.

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