Gearing up for another Stratford Festival season

By Geoff Dale

The Stratford Festival stage lights may be dark, curtains drawn and theatre goers from the United States, Canada and around the world back home but countless, skilled theatre employees continue daily in preparation for the much-anticipated 2023 season.

With the festival’s magnificent buildings in full view – a constant reminder of the event’s presence year-round – there is an exciting pulse of activity as crews tackle all manner of projects focusing on sets, technical projects, digital content, marketing and much more.

“We have definitely ramped up,” said scene shop manager Sean Hirtle. “Our crew sizes in scene construction and scenic art are at the sizes they will stay through the spring. The fall is a combination of looking at and costing new designs as well as building the first shows. Our current goal is to have four shows fit-up onstage by January.”

“What we do is very seasonal. We start prepping when last year’s shows close and build until the late openers are in front of an audience. Discussing new designs is always exciting. Also tackling projects that we can’t get to during the performance season.

HIrtle said for the shops to be effective, the team needs to spread shows and projects across the build period, which requires complete and detailed designs starting in the fall. If every show waited until they rehearse in the spring, he said, the team would not have enough time, staff, or space to get it all done.

Technical director Robbin Cheesman said there are crews working in almost all the theatres almost every day of the week.

“A fun thing we are doing is making demo pieces of scenery, so we can see how they will work,” Cheesman said. “At this time of the year, we take down all the lights and maintain them. We open them up, clean them out, make sure they are working well and put them back together for next season.

“We are also doing maintenance of all our motors that lift scenery. We meticulously go through the fall arrest equipment to make sure it’s in good shape and can be used for another season. We look carefully at the devices that crews wear while they handle lights or install scenery.

Cheesman said it's good to think about next season at this time of year, which includes meeting new designers and directors. 

“I’ll be working with and seeing old friends who are returning, who I haven’t worked with in a bit. It’s refreshing to close the season and then start to think about the new one and new challenges.”

Living and working in the digital age, it’s no surprise that Genna Dixon says that fall and winter is the busiest time at STRATFEST@HOME, far from being an “off-season” for the festival. STRATFEST@HOME is the festival's paid subscription streaming service.

“Our audiences are back home and no longer in our theatres,” said the associate director of digital content. “So, this is one way they can stay connected with the festival. We’re also focused on engaging with new audiences globally by sharing our own works and works from other arts organizations. The off-season is a great opportunity to put more resources toward those initiatives.

Dixon said as well as capturing and acquiring new content to be ready for the fall/winter releases, the team are either busy releasing new content or in post-production. It’s also a good time to continue filming original content because artists and crews have wrapped their season and are looking for work until the new season begins, Dixon said. 

“Year-round we work hard to keep our subscribers engaged with the platform by releasing new programs every week. We have more festival staff available to help us launch larger campaigns to support our newest initiatives.”

Michael Adams, the festival’s senior director of marketing and audience development, appears to be busier this time of the year with five of the departments he oversees not really having an off-season.

Michael Adams. Photo courtesy of the Stratford Festival.

Work on the upcoming season began back in July. Just a week after closing the 2022 season, staffers were opening bookings to members for the coming year and in December they were open to the general public so the call centre is extremely busy.

“In January, we’ll be taking the photographs for the new visitors guide that comes out in April,” he said. “It’s a huge job involving a lot of people from different departments. We’re revising how and when we produce this document.

“The digital content team, which I also oversee, is filming and editing content currently. The cafés and catering team have a lot of weddings and other events this time of the year and our retail stores were busy gearing for Christmas. 

“For people who have never been to Stratford before, we’ll have a travel editorial to help them understand why there is such a buzz around this amazing little city. It doesn’t ease up. As for challenges for me, it is forecasting. I must predict how many people will attend and how much we’ll earn before the shows are fully conceived. It’s a challenge but also kind of fun work to do.”

Jamie Pritchard, Downtown BIA general manager and Eddie Matthews, Stratford and District Chamber of Commerce general manager, lauded the year-round link between the festival and the community’s business core.

“There is always something going on, whether new sets are being built, actors familiarizing themselves with their roles or costumes designed this very minute and the presence of the buildings on a permanent basis is very important to Stratford businesspeople,” said Pritchard.

Added Matthews: “We’re talking about people’s livelihoods so it’s great knowing and seeing folks working at the festival throughout the year, living here, buying merchandise and eating in our great local restaurants.”

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