From the Bard to broadcaster: Stratford Festival builds new identity with streamer

TORONTO — 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.

A crew 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.

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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 toshow 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 ludicrous 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, Ont.-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 socially 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."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2020.

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