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Small But Mighty: Stratford’s Studio Theatre 2017

By: Natalie Dewan, August 25, 2017

First time visitors to the Stratford Festival are frequently, quite rightly, drawn to the magic of the Festival Theatre. It is worth remembering, however, that the some of the most interesting productions are often to be found on the smallest of the Festival’s stages.

Even as an avid Stratford-goer, I barely knew of the existence of the little Studio Theatre for many years, and first visited it for Forum events rather than productions.

Kate Hennig’s “The Last Wife” finally drew me to see a play at the Studio Theatre in 2015, and I returned last year for “The Aeneid.” Both productions were bold, timely and, in my view, brilliant. Suddenly I found myself paying attention to the little theatre that could.

My attention has been well-rewarded this year.

The Studio Theatre is home to some of the most interesting, thought-provoking, and diverse productions of the 2017 season.

Stratford’s Studio Theatre
photo: Erin Samuell

Not to belittle the larger-stage productions, most of which are receiving fantastic reviews, but it is evident even from the promotional photos that the Studio Theatre offers something different.

Just click to www.stratfordfestival.ca and pick out the three photos that don’t feature a white person; you’ve found the productions at the Studio Theatre.

This sidelining to the small stage is in itself problematic. I genuinely believe that the Festival, with Antoni Cimolino at the helm, has for several years been attempting to offer productions that represent and speak to a wider population. However, sit in any Stratford theatre and it is clear that the audience is still largely white and aging.

Despite the struggle to diversify the audience at the Festival, the 2017 Studio Theatre productions support my belief that Stratford is trying to present a wider range of stories.

Stratford Festival, Yanna McIntosha and Bahia Watson, in The Virgin Trial

Yanna McIntosha and Bahia Watson in The Virgin Trial
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

These productions are “The Virgin Trial,” a fictionalized account of the interrogation of Elizabeth I after the arrest of her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, “The Breathing Hole,” a commissioned piece examining the history of the Canadian North through the eyes of a polar bear, and , “The Komagata Maru Incident,” a retelling of a shameful and often-forgotten piece of Canadian history.

Stratford Festival, Jani Lauzon as Huumittuq in The Breathing Hole. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Jani Lauzon in The Breathing Hole
photo Cylla von Tiedemann.

Stratford Festival, Quelemia Sparrow as T.S. and Omar Alex Khan as William Hopkinson in The Komagata Maru Incident. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Quelemia Sparrow and Omar Alex Khan in The Komagata Maru Incident
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

While these three pieces deal with vastly different subject matter, they are tied together by the same threads that I have previously picked up in the Studio Theatre: bold and timely tackling of contemporary issues. Two of these plays are directed by women, two are world premieres, all three are written by contemporary women, and all three present us with truths that we would rather ignore.

I am speaking of “The Breathing Hole” and “The Komagata Maru Incident” based purely on subject matter, but can personally attest to the power of “The Virgin Trial.”

Kate Hennig, whose warmth, humour, and brilliance I have been entirely charmed by since our 2015 interview, has written a frank, often difficult-to-watch examination of truth, agency and the power of young women. As her excellent playwright’s notes point out, while the play is about the cunning strength of the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth I, “[e]xtraordinary girls are not confined to history.”

The suspicion with which Elizabeth is treated, as well as her ability to scheme, manipulate, and recraft herself along with the most savvy adult politician, is entirely applicable to our modern world.

I could go on about “The Virgin Trial,” but I will leave that to the professional critics (read their unanimously-positive reviews here). My point is simply this; on your next visit, don’t forget about the little theatre hiding behind the Avon. While Stratford’s main stages offer equally first-class theatre, it’s often the smaller productions that ask the hard questions.

By: Natalie Dewan

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