Hundreds of people were forced to leave the Stratford Festival’s opening of The Tempest — one of two plays in which women are to play male lead roles, making festival history — in response to a bomb threat.
“We’re saddened to announce that there was a bomb threat made against a Festival Theatre tonight,” the Stratford Festival tweeted Monday night.
“Our Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino is with Martha Henry who is holding Prospero’s staff. She will work her magic soon,” the festival said in another tweet.
Henry, arguably one of Canada’s most esteemed theatre actors, was about to perform as Prospero in the same play that launched her career at Stratford in 1962.
Back then, she appeared as Miranda opposite William Hutt in the lead as Prospero.
Now she’s come full circle, playing Prospero as a woman, and mother, opposite the young Mamie Zwettler as her daughter Miranda.
In a year with unprecedented attention being paid to gender parity, thanks partly to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, one of Canada’s largest theatre companies — the very traditional Stratford Festival — is exploring new ways to stay relevant.
With freedom as the theme of the festival this year, The Tempest is one of several plays exploring sexual freedom through casting with gender fluidity.
Henry, who is 80, said playing a male lead role would “never have entered her head.” In fact, her first reaction when Cimolino suggested it to her was to say no.
She’d played all the major female roles that Shakespeare had to offer, and none of his major roles were for older women.
“So I kind of thought, well that’s it for me,” she said. “That’s the end of my acting career. And then Antoni came up with this idea.”
So why did she relent?
“I thought, now listen,” she said. “This scares you, doesn’t it? And I had to admit that yes, this scares me quite a lot. And then I thought, ‘Well then if it scares you, well then you have to do it.'”
The only other Shakespearean production on the Festival Theatre stage will see Seana McKenna cast as Julius Caesar beginning in August. In this case, she’ll be playing him as a man. The actors playing Cassius and Mark Anthony are also women.
McKenna has been a trailblazer in unlocking male roles for female actors, but this is also her first chance to play a lead male role on Stratford’s main stage. She played Richard II in 2011 on the smaller third stage at Stratford and also recently played Lear in Toronto.
She said it’s both a smart way to increase roles for women in a classical repertory theatre company, and an important way to stay relevant.
“It’s a very lively conversation right now,” she said. “So many plays are doing this kind of casting and we’ve just sort of become part of that zeitgeist, really.”
Seeing women in positions of power on stage, in roles traditionally given to men, also sends an important message, she said.
“We’re just blurring the edges of gender. We’re saying these are roles and characters first. Maybe gender is secondary.”
Getting audiences to think more openly about gender is a sentiment Cimolino echoes.
“Theatre has to be something that enables us to feel the world differently, see the world differently and maybe the next day, behave a little differently,” he said.
The gender bending goes even further with a studio production of The Comedy of Errors. The show features gender fluidity with all of its casting.
Director Keira Loughran cast her two sets of identical twins as a man and a woman, while a man plays the courtesan role.
She drew inspiration in part from the androgynous stylings of 80s musicians Prince and David Bowie for her costumes, with an eye to keeping things of the moment.
Loughran said it’s important to her that a wide variety of people be able to see themselves in Stratford’s productions, something she wasn’t able to do herself as a young actor at the festival, fifteen seasons ago, although she loved performing there.
“I did struggle to find productions that I saw myself in,” she said. “But I think we’re still pretty early in figuring out ways to let more diverse people see themselves in production.”
She says her goal is to open hearts and minds, “and to challenge people in a way that’s open and curious.” She knows that in a diverse community, some people will be challenged by her approach.
“That’s how culture, I think, grows,” she said. “I think it’s more about getting more people excited by that challenge. And I hope we do it in an entertaining way because the show’s a lot of fun.”
Cimolino points out that in an era that didn’t allow women on stage, Shakespeare was the expert at gender fluidity, casting boys in roles as girls, who then disguised themselves as boys.
“After a while the realities blend and you don’t care whether it’s left or right or up or down,” he said.
“There’s a truth that’s deeper than gender. A truth that’s deeper than identity. There’s something quite essential about what it means to be human,” he adds.
The Comedy of Errors opens June 1 and has just been extended into October, while Julius Caesar opens Aug. 16.