Star power and cultural business plans

I had an idea last year. (One.) It’s our Stratford Shakespearian Festival’s 60th anniversary. Why not stage famed British director Tyrone Guthrie’s first play there, ...

I had an idea last year. (One.) It’s our Stratford Shakespearian Festival’s 60th anniversary. Why not stage famed British director Tyrone Guthrie’s first play there, Richard III – which starred the great Alex Guinness – recreating the fabled designs of Tanya Moiseiwitsch? And promote the Guthrie 60th like hell – posters, nostalgia about the festival’s birth?

It was such an obvious idea I was sure Stratford’s thinkers would think it. Wrong. Too crass, too show-biz? Yet the festival was implausibly hatched not by theatre people at all but by small-town booster and dreamer Tom Patterson. (As for dumbing-down – this season it’s offering a Homer Simpson version of Macbeth. Duh.) Nowadays Stratford and the Shaw Festival rarely use the draw of international star power. Should they? Is all Canadian theatre star-averse? Just asking.

“You’re right that the star system doesn’t really exist in Canadian theatre as it does in the U.S.,” said Jerry Wasserman, Province theatre critic and head of UBC’s department of theatre and film. “A few actors in Vancouver will receive star billing: Nicola Cavendish, Jay Brazeau, TV stars like Eric McCormick when he plays at the Arts Club.

“But generally speaking, Canadian arts are not as headline- or ego-driven as American. I would disagree completely that this creates a sense of ‘second-rateness.’ It’s just a different model – ensemble-driven rather than star-driven. That said, the same is not true of Stratford, where Christopher Plummer, William Hutt, Brent Carver, Martha Henry and many more Canadian actors have gotten star billing.”

Before Stratford, Wasserman said, Canada “had no professional theatre to speak of. There was no Canadian director with the stature or experience of Guthrie who could have gotten such an unlikely festival in such an unlikely place off the ground. … The intention for Stratford and later for Shaw was always that they would be Canadian festivals – that was one of Guthrie’s primary aims.”

The few international stars he brought in, like Guinness, Irene Worth and James Mason, appeared in only a few shows.

Georgia Straight critic Colin Thomas mused: “Canada’s lack of a ‘star system’ is probably related to the less market-driven nature of our theatrical culture. And I’ve got to say that I’m glad. That said, stars emerge. My sense is that Nicola Cavendish is pretty close to being a national star. Ditto Jay Brazeau. Stratford has always produced stars (Martha Henry, Brian Bedford), although we don’t always recognize them as ours unless they win an Oscar, as Christopher Plummer did this year.”

Pertinent, especially in light of Vancouver’s Playhouse Theatre collapse, while the Arts Club thrives under the shyly brilliant Bill Millerd.

Christopher Gaze is phenomenal at filling seats – consistently over 90% – at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach.

“We have tried to build a sense of ensemble and company. We have been successful in providing opportunity for good actors to develop and hence we have a very strong central core.

“If you import a name player you may have a good season at the box office – theatre patrons will all want to see a star. However, what do you do the next year? Find another star player? What would our local leading actors make of that? They have invested years of their lives to develop themselves and thereby our company and then are rewarded by an outsider not only getting the leading roles but probably more money!

“A bit of flash may go a long way, and so I’d be very receptive to a great classical actor coming to have a season at Bard. It would be good for our actors to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Plummer, Judi Dench, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, etc. – our audiences would like it too. However, I’d like to see that star player commit to us for several seasons, so that they invest in us as we do in them. A two-way street.” •

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