Canada's Stratford festival faces slings, arrows

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival begins its new season this week with themes to do with money, power and jealousy being played out behind the scenes as well as onstage.

The festival, based in the bucolic southwestern Ontario town of Stratford, the namesake of William Shakespeare’s birthplace in England, is the largest classical repertory theater in North America based on both budget and attendance.

And while Hamlet, played by Ben Carlson, confronts the ghost of his father in a preview performance of the great Shakespearean tragedy on Wednesday, the festival’s general director, Antoni Cimolino, will be confronting a specter of a different sort.

He will be tackling the financial fallout from recession fears, high gas prices, and a weaker U.S. dollar.

Beyond economic anxieties, the theater company is also trying to bounce back from backstage warfare, which provoked the resignation of two of its three artistic directors in March after a power struggle, leaving director Des McAnuff at the creative helm.

Neither McAnuff nor Cimolino would comment on the disarray generated by the backstage dramatics -- apparently over division of work -- that led to the resignations of Marti Maraden and Don Shipley.

“It’s now weeks and weeks ago,” McAnuff said. “It’s time to really focus on the future.”

Although Canadian ticket sales for 17 plays to be produced this season are only modestly down from last year, the festival is facing some real challenges in maintaining the previous high level of attendance from U.S. theater-goers, Cimolino said in an interview. About 35 percent of the festival’s audience in previous years has come from the United States.

The Canadian dollar appreciated 17.5 percent against the U.S. dollar in 2007 and, combined with a slumping American economy, the previous discount U.S. visitors received when visiting Canada has been erased.

A large portion of ticket sales are from Michigan, Cimolino said. “We find we’re down about 12 percent in that state from last year.”

In 2007, Americans counted for a large share of total earned revenues of C$40.6 million ($40.3 million) at the festival.

Americans have played a major role in sustaining the four-theater festival since it began in a tent in 1953 with Alec Guinness performing in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” directed by British artistic director Tyrone Guthrie.

“The Americans who come up tend to stay longer and see more shows than our Canadian patrons,” Cimolino said.

As part of its effort to keep sales steady, the company is offering deals on select ticket prices, Cimolino said, adding that actors Christopher Plummer, Simon Callow, Brian Dennehy and Stephen Ouimette will be big draws at the box office.

Both Cimolino and McAnuff, who was artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse in California for 20 years, cite a new emphasis on diversity in casting, and continuing to produce, along with modern plays and musicals, Shakespeare and the classics.

“I don’t plan to conduct some sort of bloodbath here at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival,” McAnuff said. “I think it’s a strong institution with a very bright future, but there will certainly be changes in emphasis.”