Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Feature: Interview with Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director, Stratford Festival

Stratford: The Next Generation 
...ultimately, that’s why people come. It’s the work, the place. It’s the talent on the stage.
by David Sklar (photos courtesy of The Stratford Festival)

Senior contributor David Sklar spoke with Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director of Stratford Festival, about the challenging experience of taking over the reins this past year. 

CHARPO:  How did it all begin for you here at Stratford?

CIMOLINO:   I came here a number of times in high school but there was one time that changed everything. I was in a Catholic boys school at the time and the play is about four young men who decide not to drink, spend all their time studying and refuse to see any women and I knew that that wasn’t going to work out: things were going to happen. And sure enough four beautiful women show up but what was remarkable was that I saw my friends on stage. I saw the goofy guy; the one everyone makes fun of, the smart ass and the intelligent one: I saw my friends. I thought, “This is my gang. This play was written 300 years ago so how’s that possible?” 

It was a very strange moment. And the other thing was that I was in a room with 2000 people, almost all older than I was but we were all laughing together. We were all moved together. It was an epiphany. I recognized a connection to humanity. I saw how great humanity was, both back in time and in that moment. I felt a union. So I went home, told my dad that I wasn’t going to go to Law School and that I wanted to be an actor. So you could imagine the response from my first generation immigrant parents but they eventually supported me. It was that moment where I just realized I wanted to do something else that contributed to what we are all about.   

working with Richard Monette, I realized it was a way that I could make a difference

CHARPO: Did you ever think about becoming artistic director?

CIMOLINO:  I directed a theatre company when I was at Laurentian University. I was a director and writer, although I don’t think I was a good writer, so when I eventually came to Stratford as an actor they asked me to also be an assistant director. I worked with Bill Gaskill, who ran the Royal Court for many years and that was a real eye opener. 

No, not as a young person, I never thought about it, it was never an aspiration but over time, working with Richard Monette, I realized it was a way that I could make a difference.  And even as recently as eight years ago, when Monette retired, it wasn’t something I felt I was ready for. I feel in a different situation now, I feel all the experiences I have gotten contributed to being in a position where I’m able to do something that will move this institution forward.

CHARPO:  Across the country, there have been several cases where artistic directors have been replaced with producers or board members. Is there still an important role for the artistic director to play? 

CIMOLINO: I have been the executive director and general director at Stratford. I insisted that when I came to this role, that I wanted to have an equal partner in an executive director. I wanted two heads. And that was really important because they are two different functions. 

I worked here as an artist for many years, so when I was in the executive role I remained sensitive to the art but you always want to work with an artistic director whose sole function is to think about the opportunities in the work: what might really be galvanic for the theatre. Because ultimately, that’s why people come. It’s the work, the place. It’s the talent on the stage. I feel that is critically important. I’m not saying that you can’t find structures where you bring in people who work with you, long time associates or such, but the artistic voice needs to be heard.  (cont'd)

Lucy Peacock (l) and Seana McKenna in Mary Stuart, directed by Cimolino - one of the surprise hits of the season

CHARPO: When coming on board, you mentioned how important you felt the “words” are to any production.  Do you feel it is working out this season?   

CIMOLINO: I do. Something like Mary Stuart where we’ve extended that run many times. There is not one performance that isn’t sold out…

CHARPO: I couldn’t even buy a ticket.  

CIMOLINO:  I know. It’s not even fake sold out! I can’t get in. I might have to squeeze next to the stage manager.  So, there is a hunger for that. I don’t want to imply that when I say that the important things are the words, that there isn’t room for design or interpretation but it has to be based on a profound respect for the playwright and what they are trying to achieve. Now some people will argue the play is a point of departure and you can interpret it in a lot of different areas. I think there is a need for that. However, there is also an understanding that the underlying text, if it is a great text, probably has more there than you’d ever imagine. 

A director comes back to a Shakespeare play for instance and goes, “Oh shit, how did I ever miss that the first time”. You keep learning. So when I hear directors talk about a text as a trampoline, in other words, “Ya, they’re a pretty good playwright but this is what I want to say”. And part of me wants to reply, “Why don’t you just write your own play”. So there is absolutely room for interpretation providing it’s done with respect. That it’s done with appreciation and then the other thing about interpreting the classics is that there can’t be reverence. Respect is not the same thing as reverence.  Respect means that you as an artist, today, understand that this artist four years ago or 400 years ago or even 2400 years ago, was trying to say something. And while our times have changed, the person at the other end, the person who originated this was desperately trying to pass something on that they felt was important. If there’s that respect, that’s different than treating it like the Bible. Reverence is the surest way to kill an artist. Treating Shakespeare with reverence (Holy Shakespeare!) is not only boring, it’s deadly. I’m sure he would be the first one to say, “Don’t do that! Let it breathe! Make it mean something for your own time”. 

That’s why I feel that works that eventually fall out of royalty protection are really important.  I understand royalties for the authors while they are living. It’s critically important; it’s how they survive. And maybe for a period of time afterwards. But the kind of iron fact that the Tennessee Williams estate will not allow certain things or the O’Neill estate will not allow certain things or even the Beckett/Godot estate who is very prescriptive about the interpretation will deny things is the worst thing that could ever happen to those playwrights because they are shackling the reinvention and reinterpretation. 

Believe me, it’s not about the living playwright.  It’s only about the mouse.

CHARPO: I believe it’s 50 years here in Canada.  

CIMOLINO: It’s longer in other areas and this is known internationally as the “Mickey Mouse Law” because it is entirely designed to protect Disney. It’s 75 years in the US and the UK. Believe me, it’s not about the living playwright.  It’s only about the mouse. You don’t want to mess with the mouse! 

It’s corporations that are trying to hold on to what they have. It’s not about the money, it’s about...Look, and it may be better to have a character in Tennessee Williams be played by a woman instead of a man for that particular interpretation. That should be allowed. (cont'd)

Tim Rooney (l) and Stephen Ouimette in Jennifer Tarver's production of Waiting for Godot (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

CHARPO: It appears to be working, as revenues are up six percent.  

CIMOLINO: Our attendance is up very significantly.  Which is great.  We still have a way to go because it’s not where it was even five years ago but it’s going in the right direction. But quite apart from attendance, the response when people see Fiddler on the Roof and they laugh and they cry and the message hits home, that is very important. It’s not just the numbers: it’s the quality, the experience. It’s as true for Mary Stuart as it is for Blithe Spirit.

I’m also very proud of Jennifer Tarver who interpreted Godot so beautifully.  It’s also Donna Feore. It’s Chris Abraham. I see a generational change here. And a generational change led by Canadians and that’s really important to me. There are lots of things I want to do here before I go, and I’m already planning the 2015 and 2016 season as I’m here until 2018. I can see the end in sight. And the job is so consuming, you kind of go “Yes, the end”. It’s tough; it’s all the time. But what I want to do is to make the festival stronger artistically and able to do a wider variety of new work in the classics.  I want to make sure we have more female directors here and outstanding Canadian star directors that are interpreting not only new plays but also the classics under the best of conditions. 

For too long we have remained disconnected to the whole of Canadian theatre and I think as soon as I found out that I was doing this season (I found out kind of late in the day) I made some choices. Next season you are going to see a record number of female and Canadian directors. I feel that’s what I have to build. I’m going to be concentrating on the roots. This has to be a flagship for Canada in the world.  

I feel that Stratford, in addition to doing new works of all kind, has an ability to be able to deliver Canadian plays on a larger scale, and I’d like to focus on that for the years ahead.

CHARPO: What then should be the role of original Canadian plays?

CIMOLINO: I feel that we have to carve out over the next number of years a unique role in the sense that all too often in the past we are competing for one and two handers. We are competing for work that could be done elsewhere. I’m not saying that’s it’s bad work, it’s great work that will be realized somewhere else.   What we can offer a playwright that is distinctly different from other places is to tackle a bigger play with more instruments in it.  It’s very hard to play a symphony with a quartet.  Many theatres across this country, because there is a lack of funding and because of the economic situation we are finding ourselves in, have a hard time getting beyond a five or six character play. I feel that Stratford, in addition to doing new works of all kind, has an ability to be able to deliver Canadian plays on a larger scale, and I’d like to focus on that for the years ahead.   

CHARPO:  I assume that has to come into your thinking when theatres are closing in Canada. But what about special focus being paid to build a core of your base from the under 30 group?

CIMOLINO:  I’m really saddened by that. I feel that the role of live theatre has never been more important than today. Because there are so many ways you can get lost in your smart phone, in your laptop or a game and yet there is something inherent in that experience that consumes time but doesn’t add value. Spending two or three hours in a theatre is a situation that touches you very directly, there are real people going through important experiences and you walk out different. That is something we are hard wired for from the time we are young. 

When kids play act, they are role-playing, they can watch endless amounts of video but they are still doing this in real time with their friends because they need to go through it. And they are not just doing it themselves; they are watching their friends interact with them. It’s something the theatre can offer, the witnessing of live events and working through real problems, feeling emotions, discovering new ideas, which you won’t get in the pre-digested and rather product-oriented offerings that are out there in the commercial world.  

Theatre was created by the Greeks to fulfill a certain function that was based on a fundamental nature of what it means to be human. That being said, to watch theatres close, hurts.  It’s like hacking off limbs from a tree. Some call it pruning, others painful.  

Stratford needs to be different from other theatres because if we are not, you know, there are a lot of exceptional theatres in Toronto that offer a wide variety of work and so if we are like Soulpepper or Tarragon then I don’t think there would be a reason to come here. If we offer work that you can’t find in Chicago, New York or Montreal, then people will travel.  

CHARPO: But, how do you get someone, who is around my age, who hasn’t grown up with theatre to come here when they tell me, they’d be just as happy to stay in and stream a movie? 

CIMOLINO: This is why the closure of theatres bothers me. Because we have people who come from all over the world. I can assure you they are attending theatre at home.  For the young people especially, some will come with schools or with their parents. But my parents weren’t going to the theatre. I was lucky to come with another family. I knew about Stratford and made a point of coming. But for the average young person, I don’t think they are going to come regularly, at least not right away. They probably know some theatre in in their communities. And that’s why it’s vital to have theatres there that introduce them to the experience. And over time, they come. But they probably won’t come in their 20's. It takes planning and even though we have discounts for under-30 and now a shuttle bus that is only ten dollars each way…By the way, we have found out that fifty percent of people coming on that bus are new customers.  So, it's fulfilling a function. But to answer your questions, we are reaching out with deals and specials. We are putting on work that is compelling. The programs with schools and summer programs such as the Shakespeare School bring young people in. But we entail effort and time. It’s not reasonable that we can draw people who have never seen a show before. There has to be theatre across the country for there to be a Stratford Festival.      

CHARPO: So what do you look for in an artist that draws you in to say, “I want to work with this individual”?

CIMOLINO:  I look for a certain spark. I look for life.  You can always train a person if they don’t have the skills.  But if they are missing that spark then it’s going to be tough. If I see that, then I get very tenacious. 

You know the real pleasure I discovered in this job, is to promote somebody who deserves it and to find that they flower and succeed. That feels good. There are a lot of parts to being the artistic director, which are difficult and unrewarding, and you just get more of the same. Winston Churchill said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm”. So you've got to keep going and say, “Oh that didn’t work” and move onto the next thing.  And eventually something good happens. Savour the moments when someone takes off and you can say, I helped in that. (cont'd)

A young Cimolino with Megan Follows in Romeo and Juliet

CHARPO:  [Pointing to a photo of a young Cimolino with Megan Follows in the 1992 production of Romeo and Juliet] How does it feel to come full circle with another Romeo on stage as you take command?  

CIMOLINO:  Well, Romeo is I think the toughest part in the world. Shakespeare didn’t give Juliet a best friend who is very witty and dies by the end of the first half. Mercutio is so out there, and Romeo has to slog through it but it’s a great and challenging part.

CHARPO: What are the differences between you and your predecessors?  

CIMOLINO: Well every one of them was different.  Each one offered something important:  Michael Langham’s incredible intelligence and energy and unending demand for truth. Robin Phillips demanded that as well but in a very different way.  He would create a world in which the play lived.  John Neville’s brilliant programming and care for the institution. 

I auditioned for Hirsch and boy, did he hammer it home.  I was straight out of theatre school for a callback.  I was doing Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy and got to the point where I was talking about the characteristics of being human and god creating us for these things to “fust in us unused” and he stops me.  He said “unused…unused”.  He looks at me and says, “you think you have talent?”  At that point, it was so tough, it was a very good question and probably lasted three seconds before I replied but it felt like a lifetime of self-doubt. And as I saw my life flash before my eyes I said, “Yes, I do have talent”. And he smiled and said, “Good. Now what if you don’t work for the next 40 years in the theatre? That’s unused”. Wow, I thought. I did the speech again and I did not say unused in quite the same way.  

He taught us that if we have given up our lives to do this crazy thing that we really use the talents we have to the fullest and not piss around.         

And oh yes, Richard Monette’s exuberance. Every time he was in town, you felt like the circus was there. When actors spoke in Richard’s productions, you totally understood what they were saying. He validated the individual actor. He always made you feel like you could be yourself and yet find the character and make a contribution. He ended the period when the director could be seen as an autocrat.

Des McAnuff’s ability to put on a show like nobody else and his great nose for what will succeed. His commitment to new work and the development of the artist.  

Each one of these people brought a very different talent. But that wasn’t your question.  

How am I doing to be different? I guess by being myself.  Maybe someone a few years from now will say, “And this is what Cimolino brought”.  

CHARPO: Can you give us any previews for the next season?



CIMOLINO:  We are just a few days away from revealing it.  Sorry. 

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