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Stratford Festival grows into a year-round cultural hub with worldwide reach

As published in the Stratford Beacon Herald, March 19, 2016.


Few could have imagined back in 1953 just how popular the Stratford Festival would be.

But even that first season offered a clue.

As Festival executive director Anita Gaffney noted during Saturday's 63rd annual general meeting, the inaugural four-week season had to be extended to six weeks "as a result of the great clamour for tickets."

Fast forward six-plus decades, and the Festival season now routinely runs 26 weeks.

But, as Gaffney noted, the 2015 season saw even more dramatic growth.

"This past year, we've seen a paradigm shift toward a Festival season that spans 365 days," she told Festival members and guests.

"Our 2015 season actually started in December of 2014 when we launched in Ottawa a four-city tour of Alice Through the Looking-Glass."

February then saw the premiere screening of the Festival's HD film of King Lear, followed by Antony and Cleopatra and King John later in the spring.

The Festival went on to produce 13 plays on four stages from April to November, as well as hosting some 200 Forum events.

The trio of its HD films aired on CBC last September, at about the same time that members of the Birmingham Conservatory class began their studies for the 2015-16 year.

Then in November, Alice Through the Looking-Glass had a holiday run lasting through December in Winnipeg.

And all the while, select Forum events were available on CBC Radio's Ideas.

"We’re shifting from a theatre that hosts some 475,000 patrons over six months in Stratford to one that connects with millions of people both here and around the world throughout the year," Gaffney said.

"It's been an amazing transformation, in terms not only of the sheer number of people we’re reaching but also the relative speed with which we’ve achieved this exponential growth in our reach.

"To borrow an image from Star Wars, it feels a bit like we've made the jump to light speed."

Added Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, "Not only are we deepening and enriching the quality of the experience we offer our patrons here in Stratford, we are also reaching out in innovative ways to create new Festival fans around the world."

The global reach of the theatre is undeniable. Gaffney said its reimagined website garnered 1.5 million visits last year, and now accounts for 50% of all ticket sales.

The Festival's YouTube channel is a hit, with its live streaming and behind-the-scene views garnering 1.3 million views a year.

Regardless of that worldwide presence, though, the Festival is well aware that Stratford is home, she said.

"We take pride in being good corporate citizens," she said, citing community outreach efforts like its support of both the United Way Perth-Huron and the local Syrian resettlement initiative.

Looking back on the 2015 season, Cimolino recalled several highlights, including a rather unexpected success of The Physicists, which he described as the "somewhat quirky work" by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt.

A strong response to the Forum series of lectures, panel discussions and concerts was also gratifying, he noted, with some 30,000 guests attending the events over the summer. Tens of thousands more listened to Forum broadcasts on the CBC or downloaded the Festival podcasts.

He said the Forum events offer a sense of context to the Festival's on-stage productions, helping, as he put it, to "show us the place of these plays on our playbill in the world we live in today…to show that we're not a museum."

Stratford Festival Media Release.

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