Tom McCamus in, and as, Richard III
(Photo: Stratford Festival)
Tom McCamus in, and as, Richard III
(Photo: Stratford Festival)
The Stratford Festival of Canada celebrated its 50th season this summer and gave itself a rather surprising present. The brand new Studio Theatre, the Festival's fourth showplace, is the first dedicated primarily to showcasing original dramatic works by living authors. Which is all very well and good...but, um, isn't Stratford supposed to be a Shakespeare festival?

Yes and no. This year, those visiting this scenic little theater town, two hours outside Toronto, will find the Stratfordian staples--Shakespearean works like Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and King Lear, plus esteemed modern masterpieces like Threepenny Opera and My Fair Lady--sitting cheek by jowl with unfamiliar titles, like Eternal Hydra and High Gravel-Blind. Those last two are the one-acts, running as a double bill, that opened the Studio. After their run closes on August 10, they'll be replaced by Ian Ross's Bereaved of Light (about the complicated relationships between escaped slaves and North America's aboriginal populations) and The Fellini Radio Plays (a new translation of the director's earliest dramatic writing), and more decidedly non-canonical material.

The Studio Theatre opened on July 13, 2002 at a ceremony attended by Canada's Governor General. Though attached to the stately Avon Theatre, architecturally the Studio is a miniature version of the Festival Theatre, Stratford's main playing space.

The ideas behind the new space were outlined by Andrey Tarasiuk, Stratford's newly appointed Associate Artistic Director and Director of New Play Development. This is a newly created position at the Festival, to go with a newly created program to find newly created works to present. "Yes, it is a Shakespeare festival, that is the principal mandate here. But it's always been open to works by Shakespeare's contemporaries," Tarasiuk explains. "And open to authors of other cultures, other times, to rarely produced works from previous decades or centuries, so there's an open mandate to compliment the classical work."

Meaning that if Brecht/Weill's 1928 Threepenny Opera, given a fierce and lively production this season, could be considered within the purview of a Shakespeare festival, there's no reason something written in the current millennium couldn't also be. But it certainly seems to make for an odd juxtaposition.

Not so, argues Tarasiuk. "It fits," he insists. "Absolutely it fits! The artistic atmosphere in a setting like this can't help but be enlivened by living authors. They're speaking to our time, they're speaking to our needs, our wants, our hurts, our concerns, as Shakespeare spoke to his time...this atmosphere is enlivened because they're here, they're present, they're active in the process. They're available for artists and for actors and so on through the process. That only enriches the artistic nurturing, the artistic excitement in a setting like this."

Stephen Ouimette and Chick Reid in Eternal Hydra
(Photo: Stratford Festival)
Stephen Ouimette and Chick Reid
in Eternal Hydra
(Photo: Stratford Festival)
So far, it seems to be working. The Festival presentation of Richard III, starring esteemed Canadian thesp Tom McCamus, is stately and dutiful, with all the pieces in place but absent any particular spark. The double-bill of new one acts, meanwhile, was lively, thorny, stunning; exciting theater from top to bottom. It seemed like these small, rough new works in the 276-seat theater had all the life blood that was missing from the grand Richard.

High Gravel-Blind, a character-driven study of inherited dysfunction, was authored by Paul Dunn and directed by Stratford's Artistic Director, Richard Monette--and if the Festival's top man directing a new one act isn't a sign of commitment to new work, nothing is. Tarasiuk directed Eternal Hydra, Anton Piatigorsky's complexly layered reimagination of the modernist aesthetic, a play cleverly probing at ideas of authorship, race, gender, and religious identification. Compared to Richard III, and even to the snappy rendition of Threepenny, the new plays came off as the most exciting thing Stratford had going. (An opinion shared by this reporter's chatty bed and breakfast proprietor, who raved most enthusiastically, not about the respectful Henry plays, nor the lovely My Fair Lady, but about Piatigorsky's dense, dizzying Hydra.)

"It's a very engaged audience we have here, and part of their engagement is their willingness to explore works by Shakespeare, works by Shakespeare's contemporaries, and also works by living authors," says Tarasiuk. "And so there's an enormous amount of support and enthusiasm for the approach, not only within the company itself but within our audiences, and within the artistic community."

More new plays are definitely in the works for Stratford, although Tarasiuk points out that the festival has always thrown them into the mix every once in a while. Works by Canadian authors like Tome Hendry and James Reany have been part of the seasons over the years, in with the Beckett, the Brecht, the Racine, and of course the Shakespeare. (This year's isn't the first Richard III at Stratford, by the way; that play was the Festival's first ever production, with Alec Guiness in the title role).

Thom Allison in Threepenny Opera
(Photo: Stratford Festival)
Thom Allison in Threepenny Opera
(Photo: Stratford Festival)
What's changed along with the addition of the Studio Theatre, Tarasiuk explains, is the level of Stratford's commitment to seeking out new work. "The movement here, and the intent of the artistic director, is to see new plays through consistently, from season to season, and with process and with structure and with resources; all adding up to a genuine commitment to new work." He sums up the new feeling at Stratford as "a compelling artistic will to see new work living side by side with the classical mandate."

This is particularly good news for Canadian authors, offering emerging playwrights like Dunn and Piatigorsky a wide and enthusiastic audience that they might otherwise have trouble reaching. Though Tarasiuk hastens to add that, though "we cast out sights very specifically from the start to our Canadian authors," they're looking for writers from the rest of the world as well.

"The Stratford Festival of Canada is now fully committed and open to living authors in a way that's not been seen before," Tarasiuk concludes. "We're giving the framework and the structure and the commitment to produce. And that's very healthy."