Self Isolated Artist
(courtesy of Stratford Festival, Ontario)
Whenever I hear Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino’s re-assuring voice on television, usually as spring approaches, my summer will not always feel complete until I have visited to walk around the town and to see some extraordinary shows. I always look forward to receiving the Festival’s brochure in the mail (yes, I still receive it this way, and I like it) as it details upcoming productions with pictures and items that garner my total interest about what is to hit the stages and its environs.
When I hear Antoni’s clear voice in one of Stratford’s live theatres before the performance begins and the trumpets sound at the Festival Theatre, I’m at home and feel at home.
During this time of the worldwide pandemic and lockdown, I often wonder if the professional performing arts community will ever truly be able to recover and move forward. A solid and steady, firm grasp of the here and now is very much needed to make those steps forward into an unknown and, possibly, uncertain future. This is Antoni Cimolino.
I had the good fortune to have chatted recently on the phone with Antoni about the confusion of this time. Just listening to his eloquent conversation of perfect diction combined with an extraordinarily calm demeanour and a warm and welcoming tone in his voice put me at ease very quickly with this gentleman. We even shared a few moments of much needed laughter during our telephone conversation.
No spoiler alerts but, at the conclusion of this profile, you’ll see why Antoni and I shared a good laugh on the telephone and why he chose this communication form rather than Skype or Zoom:
1. How have you and your family been keeping during this two-month isolation?
Brigit and I are doing okay, thanks for asking. Our daughter is teaching English as a Second Language in Taiwan, and she is safe. Our son is studying at university and he is doing well. Currently, it’s just Brigit and I at home.
2. What has been most challenging and difficult for you and your family during this time? What have you all been doing to keep yourselves busy?
Along with having to stop the season and postpone all performances at this time, our household has also been dramatically impacted. It is a worrisome time right now, not only for the Festival, but also for many within Stratford who depend on the Festival. All of us are working on trying to understand how we will get from here to there.
Given all this turmoil, I have been keeping myself busy by getting the filmed Festival performances online. As I look them over and think about them again, great comfort comes to me. Watching these carefully edited filmed productions has been like seeing old friends again. And speaking of old friends, I’m also preparing for a number of interviews during this time. I’ll be meeting with Shakespeare scholar Jim Shapiro and also have a meeting with Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean historian and author.
These filmed presentations have been extremely helpful in keeping interest in the Festival going. At one point, we’ve tallied the data and had over 300K people tuning in to watch these works of art preserved on film, so we are most thankful for this reality.
Along with the walks Brigit and I take on country roads around our home, we’re also exercising and eating as healthy as much as we can.
3. Antoni, I can’t even begin to imagine the varied emotions and feelings you’ve been experiencing with regard to the postponement of the 2020 season. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian performing arts scene and on the town itself?
It has been devastating to walk around the town and to see the heartbreak the destruction that COVID has left in its path. There were over 1000 individuals connected directly to the Festival who are now out of work and over 3000 in the town and surrounding area who relied on the Festival’s patronship to restaurants, shops, hotels, and bed and breakfast.
It’s hard to say what the permanent impact will be at this time on the performing arts scene.
The plays from the 2020 slate will be performed, I just don’t know when that will happen until we get the all clear.
4. Do you have any words of wisdom to build hope and faith in those performing artists and employees at the Festival who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of fatherly advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion?
For all artists, it’s important for them to realize that on some level they have been given a gift. That gift is humility. If anything, living through this new reality has taught us that humility is needed. The seasoned performer may have taken some things for granted within their career, but this reality of COVID has taught all of us about dealing with the negative in our lives and not to take things for granted.
Strangely enough, there is a beauty and interconnectedness about this time since each of us is dealing with Covid and the fallout in our own way. I hope all the artists, and this also includes the new theatre school graduates, that on some level they have been given this gift of humility and time to develop a greater sensitivity to all that surrounds us.
5. Do you foresee anything positive stemming from COVID 19 and its influence on the Canadian performing arts scene and the Festival?
Absolutely! Covid will spur a powerful resourcefulness on the Festival and the performing arts scene. The Festival has at least started this resourcefulness with its selection of filmed productions that can be shared worldwide. This common ground of sharing these timeless stories and tales is a start with the community in building interrelationships with our patrons. On this front, at least something is better than nothing.
For now, Covid brings with it the real fact that the Festival may have to look at different ways to disseminate its work through technology. The artists involved in every respect from editing to performance are to be commended for trying to create that work of art that we hope will live on in the history of the Festival.
It won’t be forever, but it’s just for now until we have been given the all clear to return to the theatre.
6. I’ve already watched ‘King Lear’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Coriolanus’ and planning to see the marvelous Martha Henry in ‘The Tempest’. Nevertheless, I’ve spoken with some individuals who believe that online streaming and You Tube presentations destroy the theatrical impact of those who have gathered with anticipation to watch a performance. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19?
Online streaming and filming of our productions do, and can, allow for a greater intimacy with our audiences. There’s an artistic beauty produced in each of these films, and I firmly believe the Festival’s capturing of these magnificent stories will conquer Time. The camera can capture from a distance and allow the audience to see the performer’s expression and possibly feel the emotions. Sometimes your seat in the theatre might now allow you to see the expression. The camera also tells the audience where to look and upon what to focus.
Online streaming and You Tube are inventive ways of using technology, but we have to remember that streaming and theatre are two different mediums. Online streaming and You Tube presentations are not meant to be a replacement for live theatre. Yes, some individuals will haphazardly put up a staged reading or something that might garner a quick look; however, we are hardwired for others to act out. It’s human nature. When we were children or when we have children, we notice that it’s human to act out. We lose that beauty of ‘acting out’ as we get older.
There is nothing like a live connection each of us feels as we sit in the theatre waiting for the performance to begin. There’s a powerful alchemy and magic at work which creates a wholeness for every patron present. Not only do these two elements each bring their own unique way of seeing the story come alive, but also we get to experience that same powerful magic work itself in others around us who are also seeing the story come alive for them. That’s why theatre thrives and that’s exciting. That’s why we will remember performers like Martha Henry and Colm Feore (just two names that came to my mind). That’s why theatre thrives.
In our Festival theatre, for example, you’ll notice that it is very different from the typical proscenium arch theatre. In the latter format, the audience sits forward and never gets to see how other members are reacting to the Story. At the Festival, the seating surrounds the stage so the audience sits on all sides and you can’t help but see how others across the hall will respond when necessary. That’s what makes theatre so remarkable. That’s what makes people want to return to see theatre.
We will return to the theatre when it is safe to do so.
7. What is about the Festival and performance that you still adore in your role as Artistic Director?
I am one incredibly lucky person that I have been able to be of service to Stratford, to the artists and to the crew who work behind the scene.
With this position and role as Artistic Director comes a great responsibility. I have also experienced a great joy at the Festival and in watching the many artists, especially those who need that chance and that opportunity whether it is to have a reading of a script, to workshop a possible script and to see potential or to give that new actor and that new talent that opportunity that all of us have had at one time.
Off the top of my head, I think of Peter Pasyk who was to direct ‘Hamlet’ and Amaka Umeh who was to play the central tragic figure. Just these two individuals alone who are new to the Stratford company will make an indelible mark. There are many others in this year’s company as well upon whom we must keep watch.
I’m also incredibly proud of the work at the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre and The Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction.
With a respectful acknowledgement to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:
1. What is your favourite word?
Delicious. I like to use this word a lot.
2. What is your least favourite word?
Zoom (Both Antoni and I have a good laugh over this)
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
Zoom (And again, Antoni and I have a good laugh. Now I know why he and I did not have our interview via Zoom).
5. What sound or noise do you love?
Waves lapping against the shore
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
7. What is your favourite curse word?
“A plague on you” or “Rot me” or “Split me windpipe”
8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt?
Gardener – I love to be in and around the garden for relaxation.
9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?
10 If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“The performance begins in five minutes."