Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Can Theatre Reinvent an Economy?"

Sometimes, it pays to stay up waaay too late.  I won't even tell you what time I was up.

In such state of mild insomnia, I found myself watching The Agenda with Steve Paikin on TVO.  (TVO is a publicly-funded channel in Ontario full of cool documentaries, interview shows, old movies, educational stuff and kids shows in the morning for those not familiar.)  Hubby and I don't have cable - something we can really do without in the internet age, and puts an extra $50 or so in our pockets - the basic stuff is good enough for us, and I never really took such full advantage of its programming before.  After last nights'/this mornings' guest, I think I'll be paying more attention.

After a few guests talking about the dangerous situation of Japan's nuclear power plants and potential radiation fallout, I was surprised to see the above-mentioned topic on the graphic.  His guest was Antoni Cimolino, general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, discussing a wonderous volunteer effort reviving war-torn Suchitoto, El Salvador through the industrious and inspirational power of theatre, called Sharing A Dream.    The goal is to "replicate in Suchitoto the compelling success story that began in Stratford 55 years ago: the establishment of what is now North America’s leading classical theatre."

Stratford's history starts with the fine craft of furniture-making, its booming industry in the early half of the 1900s conveniently situated along the hub of the Canadian National Railway (CNR), dispersing along its six major routes throughout North America.  Surviving records indicate that Stratford's craft has been sold as far as from Newfoundland to California.  Some of these original factories can still be seen in Stratford, located on the streets of Douglas, Trinity, Douro, King and Romeo.  Semi-annual international trade shows were a big draw for Stratford's industry from 1900 to 1930, showcasing the newest styles and designs from the area's biggest manufacturers.

The Workers Unity League Strike of 1933 was the event that would change Stratford's destiny to becoming the pinnacle of classical theatre it is today.  Because of the focus on Stratford's prosperous furniture industry, a union effort was put in place for the workers, which swiftly lead to one of the largest strike movements in Canadian history.  Workers from five of the largest furniture manufacturers, including the "chicken pluckers" from Swift Canada meat packers, went on strike.  Out of fear of violence and unrest, the Canadian Army was called in to restore order and the War Measures Act was read from the steps of city hall.  The factories were opened soon thereafter when the soldiers had left.  The workers, however, did not, and set up a rally using the local bandstand as a podium and lead the strike for another month.  The workers did eventually return to the factories with slightly higher wages and new management procedures, but at a cost of a soon-depleted industry that they could no longer catch up to.

To compensate the economy from the loss of the furniture industry in the early '50s, Stratford had long been cultivating its horticultural stamp in the world since early-to-mid 1900s, creating beautiful gardens and landscapes that would become a tourist attraction.  With already a rich horticultural history in the opening of Avondale Cemetery in 1871 and the establishment of Stratford Parks Board in 1904, the pride of its citizens resulted in the victory over the fight with CNR in 1912 to lay tracks next to the Avon River and potentially spoil the environment they had so painstakingly built.  Today, stunning examples of horticultural and landscape art can be found in the Upper Queen's Park and the Shakespearean Gardens in downtown Stratford, both established and designed in the mid 1900s by founding members of the Stratford Parks Board.  Twelve white swans and two black swans are donated every year to float along the Avon River every spring, to add to the ambience of the beautiful Shakespearean Gardens.  The city's dedicated work was recognized in 1997 by Nations in Bloom as "The World's Most Beautiful City."  That's something!

A new industry was imagined based on the Shakespearean flavour of the city itself, from the brick-by-brick replicas of some of its 'sister city' buildings, districts named after characters from his works, and named after the birthplace of The Bard himself, the transition almost seemed natural.  Spearheaded by Tom Patterson, a journalist for Macleans and a few local businessmen, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival was born  in 1953, with its humble beginnings in a large tent.  By 1957, the little festival that Tom built was receiving international praise, and was given a permanent home in Upper Queen's Park.  The architect, Robert Fairfield, paid homage to the festival's genesis with the tent-like roof, earning him the Massey Gold Medal for Architecture in 1958, later with a $3 million renovation to expand the backstage area for personnel, administrative and creative offices to share the same space with technical crews, props and costume workshops and performers. I would imagine a lot of those furniture makers found work in these theatre shops when factories closed down!

The illustrious theatre industry that has kept Stratford on the map is full of memorable performances and awe-inspiring work.  I remember a field trip in high school to see Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet in the Festival Theatre, and how I ate up every moment of that performance, how I was in heaven when they took us on a tour to see the magic that happened backstage.   Such notable actors as Alec Guinness (who spoke the first lines on stage in the festival's first production), Christopher Plummer, Seana McKenna, Colm Feore, Michael Therriault, William Shatner, Peter Ustinov, Christopher Walken and William Peterson have appeared in productions throughout the festival's history, and continues to be a draw for great actors of our time.  Stratford has become an international destination for outstanding theatre of all genres, now including works from other notable playwrights like Noel Coward, Henrik Ibsen, Robert Kemp, Anton Chekov, Samuel Beckett and many others, as well a musicals and operas from the time-honoured Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan to the modern classics of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim.  (Click here to view a complete history of productions from 1953 to present.)

Becoming such a landmark in the arts took a lot of time, effort and passion, and it's a gift the people at Stratford Shakespeare Festival are able and willing to share.  Mr. Cimolino was incredibly eloquent in the passion behind Sharing A Dream to resurrect this beautiful yet damaged town in El Salvador into a potential mecca of theatre and arts for South America.  Theatre has always been a tool to entertain and educate, something that can transcend borders, languages and cultures, although the political atmosphere is slightly different than that of North America.  With South America's history of civil wars, dictators and street crime, the social culture is a challenge that has been met with the utmost dignity and respect.  Mr. Cimolino had said that many tragic issues in Shakespeare's works echo the devastation that has occurred in Suchitoto, and show how theatre can empower youth and involve them in a greater conversation, keeping them away from street gangs that claim so many young lives in the country.  The response has been so great that it had caught the attention of the El Salvadorian government to set up over 100 more of these workshops across the country, aimed at youth participation.  Mr. Cimolino was wise enough to say, 'thank you, but not yet'; the initiative in Suchitoto is somewhat of a delicate 'testing ground' for something so unique, and the directors would like to 'wait and see' its long-term effects on the community before moving furthur.

It's the best idea in the world.  Where do I sign up to volunteer?  Seriously?  Read on.

The first production raised its curtain on March 27, 2010; a piece written by the youth of the community, inspired by a local mythology of the Invisible Hunters and their encounter with the ancient gods in the thick of the woods.  Everything from top to bottom in the production was all done by the community, bringing families together that had been separated by devastation and hatred for years.  The local craftsmanship, artistic talent and those eager to participate "hit the ground running" from the first day, developing a kinship over the shared experiences in this developing production.

Here's an excerpt from Sharing A Dream volunteer Ted Derry's blog, Speaking of Suchitoto, recounting his experiences in February 2010, helping fix broken tools, build a stage and props for their first production, and set up the technical school.  Ted, Frank Holte and Eric Ball had passed their skills to the young people of the community:

“In a scene resembling an updated version of an old master’s painting, the students gathered around and watched and learned and tried. Over the course of the day a pile of disemboweled routers and sanders and drills became an organized collection of functioning tools. It was magical to watch. Not just the resurrection of the broken DeWalt and Bosch tools, but the change in the relationship – from ‘us and them’ to simply ‘us’. Frank and I experienced the same transformation working with our respective, and respectful, teams. There was teaching and there was learning but there was also much more. The joking and the teasing, going in both directions, was so real and honest and trusting that I knew by three pm that the hardest part of our task is now behind us.”

Edward Daranyi is a Teaching Artist at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and directed the first production for the initiative.  The attendance certainly shocked him for those excited to participate, and found the vast amount of talent the community had was something ready to be showcased to the rest of the world.  Here's a quote from Edward and his thoughts on his experience:

"The first two days were a bit strange in 38 degree heat and hitting the ground running hard. I have just finished my first day with the students - an incredible bunch - in the younger ones we have a serious age spread but the bulk of them are sort of 17/18 years old. Now comes the interesting part, on our initial conversations they had talked in the range of about 30 students which I said was too many creating alone, so today when final numbers were counted and I had 52 I almost had a heart attack! Now the problem is that they are all so eager and committed I want to use them. The first day was fantastic… Tatiana is amazing and my assistant Patricia fantastic, we have a wonderful man in the cast called Rabbit who does clown and acrobatics and Mario used to teach Salvadorian Folk dance! Cogs turning!!!” 

Mr. Cimolino spoke quite a bit about the people he met, and how their stories of tragedy in an area full of crime, poverty and war had inspired a sense of community spirit.  The idea of bonding together to tell a story may be the beginning of a legacy for them, and an inspiration for others to seek the humanity in each other.  The 'cross-culture shock' experienced by these volunteers when returning to Canada is a resourceful tool for both technicial workers and actors, using these new skills to better their productions, to help understand the humanity in the characters they portray, no matter where they come from.

Mr. Cimolino had closed his interview with a quote from playwright George Bernard Shaw, "A good drama is only as good as its antagonist."  If these men and women of Suchitoto believe in each other and their passion is strong enough to endure, the journey will become the legacy, and its rewards will be priceless. 

Read more about the Sharing A Dream initiative on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival website, and donate to the cause.  You can also visit TVO Online to see Steve Paikin's programming on The Agenda; he's had some incredible guests!

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