Toronto Star

Festival pivots from the Bard to broadcasti­ng

Stratford theatre builds a creative new identity with streaming service


Stratford, Ont., stage star Alexis Gordon was working her last shift cutting and wrapping cheese at a local dairy — a job she took on amid COVID-19 theatre shutdowns — when a chance encounter got her an acting gig on the spot.

Acrew from the Stratford Festival, where Gordon has performed several times, was touring Monforte Dairy on that summer’s day to film a segment for a cooking series for its new streaming service, Stratfest@Home, which launched in October.

The crew didn’t have anyone to host the video segment and Gordon fit the bill, with her background in both drama and dairy.

Gordon interviewe­d Monforte owner Ruth Klahsen for an episode of “The Early Modern Cooking Show” and signed on to another series for the streaming service, the upcoming “Up Close and Musical” cabaret-style concerts.

“Walking on that stage and seeing the faces definitely brought a lot of tears to my eyes,” Gordon says of filming “Up Close and Musical” on the festival stage with a small crew, under COVID-19 health and safety protocols, early last month.

“As much as I’m performing to an empty house, my smiling team was out there and I was so grateful to be there.”

As the theatre world grapples with pandemic closures, the

$10-a-month Stratfest@Home is giving festival talent a chance to show off their skills through a range of programmin­g that goes beyond the typical Shakespear­ean fare one would expect from the classical repertory theatre company.

Alongside documentar­ies and filmed Shakespear­e theatrical production­s are fun, new series: from the aforementi­oned cooking show, to Dan Chameroy’s one-man mini soap-opera comedy “Leer Estates” and Roy Lewis’s “Stratford Festival Ghost Tours.”

“It’s a great way to keep artists employed,” says Chameroy, whose series is among the most popular offerings on the service. “Not just the artists, the actors, but all people behind the scenes: crews and wigs and wardrobe. And our creativity can continue to be used.”

It’s also a way for the festival to become accessible and connect with new audiences at a crucial time.

To borrow from the Bard: all the world’s a stage now for the

Stratford Festival, as the second wave of COVID-19 portends a winter of our discontent.

“I said to our staff in the spring — and I’m sure there were some eyes rolling when I said it — that ‘We have to become a broadcaste­r,’ ” says festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino. “That was the impetus behind all of this, because we’re in a rural setting, that we get our message out to the world.”

And it’s not just an initiative for the moment.

“I see this very much being a part of the festival’s identity going forward,” says festival executive director Anita Gaffney.

“For some of our U.S. visitors, it’s going to be a while before they come to Stratford, so I think this will be a connection to those folks for a year, for two years.”

“It will permanentl­y change the festival,” adds Cimolino. “It will expand the repertoire of the festival, which is very much on brand.”

Gaffney says the festival had been looking for a way to stream and monetize the video catalogue it’s built up over the years, including filmed theatre production­s that have been shown in cinemas or on TV, and individual events through its Forum series.

When the pandemic hit in the spring, the company started a free online film festival featuring its content, with viewing parties that are also running this winter on the company’s YouTube page.

“It had such phenomenal traction and from all over the world, so that was a really good clue to us that there’s an opportunit­y for us to package this content and put it into a subscripti­on service,” Gaffney says.

Films on the streamer include “King Lear,” starring Colm Feore, and “Caesar and Cleopatra,” featuring Christophe­r Plummer and Nikki M. James.

In “The Early Modern Cooking Show,” festival executive chef Kendrick Prins and company actors recreate Elizabetha­n recipes with locally sourced ingredient­s.

Chameroy’s “Leer Estates” episodes run about four minutes long and feature ludicrousl­y soapy scenarios and outrageous characters, all played by Chameroy.

“I think Shakespear­e kind of was the creator of the soap, because Shakespear­e is all about greed and power and ambition,” says the Oakville-based performer, who shot the episodes at Stratford’s Bruce Hotel in August.

“There’s lust and there’s loss and there’s backstabbi­ng and wealth. And it’s all been planted in Shakespear­e’s plays.”

Chameroy will also appear in “Up Close and Musical,” which will premiere in the new year, along with “Undiscover­ed Sonnets.”

Gordon sang five songs for the series, including “Simple Little Things” from the musical “110 in the Shade.” The theme of her performanc­e was how dreams are changing in this unique time.

“But sometimes the new dreams can be the best dreams, the unexpected dreams can be the best and they’re malleable,” says Gordon, who has also recently performed physically distanced concerts at the Shaw Festival.

“I also talked about the importance of taking your time to grieve that path that you didn’t get to walk down. It’s OK to fall apart, as long as you remember that you’ll bloom again next spring.”

The festival says it had a goal of getting 1,000 subscriber­s for Stratfest@Home by the end of October. It exceeded that, selling 2,222 subscripti­ons in the first five weeks.

Festival executives say they’re now thinking about new content for the streamer, which has a similar look and feel to Netflix and got the nickname “Stratflix” from company performers.

And they’re not opposed to forging partnershi­ps with other producers.

“We’re willing to talk to other broadcaste­rs,” Gaffney says. “For now it is exclusivel­y on Stratfest@Home because we want to build some traction for the service. But part of our desire is to get the artists of the festival and the festival out to a broader audience. So we’re open to exploring other ways to get it out there.”

 ?? FRANK GUNN THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Alexis Gordon is hosting a series of cabaret-style concerts at Stratford’s Festival Theatre as part of a new streaming service.
FRANK GUNN THE CANADIAN PRESS Alexis Gordon is hosting a series of cabaret-style concerts at Stratford’s Festival Theatre as part of a new streaming service.

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