Cara Headshot .jpg

Play between plays

Thespians find diversions in sleepy Stratford 

Jul 21, 2012 Waterloo Region Record

STRATFORD — When actress Cara Ricketts lived in Toronto, she would hit the clubs in her time off.

In Stratford, where she’s currently starring as Imogene in Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, her pastimes hearken to a simpler time.

“I bought a record player and started knitting. I knitted a bunch of hats for my family and they actually wear them. I started playing board games.”

Ricketts, who also plays Ermengarde in The Matchmaker, said she and boyfriend, company composer Justin Ellington, “do the New York Times crossword and play Scrabble. We go antique hunting.”

Ricketts paused as she sat on the patio of Foster’s Inn sipping an orange juice. “It sounds cheesy, but it isn’t.”

The annual Stratford Shakespeare Festival features 14 plays in five theatres. It opens in April and closes in October, drawing more than 100 actors.

They change the town … and the town changes them. 

It all begins in February when the actors arrive for rehearsals. Stratford is a snow-belt wonder in winter; the late artistic director Richard Monette was often quoted as saying, “You arrive in the snow and you leave in the snow.” 

Ricketts couldn’t even get into her new apartment to take a look when she first arrived four years ago: knee-high snow blocked the doors. She hightailed it back to her Toronto condo, glad the roads weren’t closed.

Leah Doz recounted her arrival on Feb. 22 of this year: “It snowed heavily the first few days of rehearsal, which is probably also why I got lost and confused, meandering the streets and had to hitchhike to rehearsal in a Stratford community snowplow.”

Once there, urban thespians have to find ways to fill their time when not performing or taking acting classes.

Monday night is hockey practice and there’s an annual cricket match against the Shaw Festival team (the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival is the province’s other large repertory company) where, at intermission, they serve tea. Cricket rehearsals for Blake’s Blokes are Saturday and Wednesday in the fields beside the Festival Theatre.

The men are waging a fierce “Spartacus” battle: a workout regimen that provides lean muscle and visible six-packs. The women head to Moksha Yoga. There’s gossip and beer at the bar Down the Street and excellent coffee at Revel Caffe. 

Tyrone Savage, 27, the son of actors Booth Savage and Janet-Laine Green, greets his friend Josh Epstein, 32, with the daily question, “Did you do Spartacus today?”

The two often work out together, enthusiastically play on all the sports teams and use bicycles to get around town.

“I’d rather ride than walk” said Savage, who in his second season at the festival. 

Alas, Savage hasn’t had to chance to show off his Spartacus torso onstage during a season in which “there’s a lot of nudity.”

“I am a soldier, I wear a full suit of armour,” he said of his role as Duke of Gloucester in Henry V. 

Epstein turned to fitness routines after his first year living in Stratford when he found time weighed heavily on his hands.

“I’m a city boy,” he said. “I had to change my attitude.

“I changed my diet and work out at yoga. I take the time to cook, I’ve lost 20 pounds. Last year, I was trying to think of things to do. I’m not the biggest ‘hang out at a bar’ person. This year is totally different.”

Unfortunately, he said, the actors play baseball “like the Bad News Bears.”

Epstein also uses his spare time to run a film company in Vancouver, Motion 58, whose short film Wait for Rainscreened at Comic-Con in San Diego recently and won top prize.

The influx of actors demanding lattes, organic groceries, yoga classes and healthy takeout food has encouraged entrepreneurs to open business, even if many fail in the slow winter months.

Your Local Market Co-op, a four-person worker-owner collective on Downie St. opened a year ago, catering to actors who want fresh, local food such as water buffalo chili or prefer to buy their eggs one at a time, for 28 cents.

“Without the festival, I don’t know if our store would be as successful,” said owner Heather Walker.

Mayor Dan Mathieson said the festival creates 3,000 jobs directly and indirectly, adding, “If that was a manufacturing facility, it would be huge. They have a huge impact.

“Stratford is a sophisticated city, a small city with big-city amenities.”

The actors are drawn to the stability of the theatre, celebrating its 60th anniversary, and its healthy operating budget of $59 million.

Growing up in Stratford, Jennifer Stewart saw the stability it afforded actors who signed on for a season. 

“It’s not like Broadway where a show can close early.”

As a child actor she performed in A Comedy of Errors, A Winter’s Tale, Taming of the Shrew and the Imaginary Invalid, where renowned actor William Hutt played her father.

“This is the best place to work in Canada,” said Stewart. 

She fantasizes about having the chorus girls in 42nd Street, in which she plays the role of Diane Lorimer, dancing along the Avon River in their sexy costumes singing, “We’re in the money.”

Naomi Costain, 35, was drawn to the festival by the opportunity to learn “from the best of the best” and thrills to see veteran actors like Seana McKenna, Tom McCamus and Christopher Plummer. She plays Annie “Anytime” Reilly in 42nd Street and Edith in Pirates of Penzance.

She vividly remembers the first day she played in My Fair Lady 10 years ago.

“I entered from the audience. I looked at this sea of bodies and Cynthia (Dale) onstage with a basket of flowers. I thought, ‘Oh my God, you’ve made it. You’ve got the best of the best working here.’ ”

The first year Kyle Golemba, 28, came to Stratford he was cast in TheMusic Man and thought, “This would be a great place to work — the scope of the place, from My Fair Lady to Hamlet. And it’s a great place to learn with amazing support from coaches.”

The calibre of everything at Stratford is so high, said Golemba, that it’s a thrill to be a company member. He’s receiving vocal coaching for his role as the dance director in 42nd Street, explaining, “I have to yell a lot.”

Since its earliest days, Stratford has had apprenticeships, teaching and coaching programs, said Janine Pearson, head of vocal coaching. When Stratford opened in 1953, the country didn’t have a theatre school. The National Theatre School didn’t open in Montreal until 1960. 

The conservatory is a teaching program held over the winter in preparation for actors to join the company. Then there is skills training in everything from wig-making to costume design. Ten coaches will deliver more than 3,000 hours of coaching support in voice, dialect, text and movement among others.

Veterans and newcomers alike receive coaching, said Pearson, adding, “The young actors take advantage of the coaching, knowing what it costs in the real world. Many are just out of school where they waited on tables.” 

While many have kept their Toronto apartments, some have settled here in the hope they continue to be cast in roles.

This is Golemba’s fifth season and he has a home in town with partner Kyle Blair, another actor in the company. He’s OK with small town living, saying, “I’m a hermit.”

The warm arms of the company enfold you far from home, the actors say. When someone doesn’t return for a season, Ian Lake, 29, who has been at Stratford for five seasons, said it’s like losing a cousin.

“It’s a really wonderful group of people that live here. Acting is an intimate profession, you have to expose yourself and get close to people.” He is playing Arviragus in Cymbeline and Orestes in Elektra.

He turned 29 on July 5 and a crowd of theatre folk spent the night celebrating his and Henry V actor Aaron Krohn’s birthday at Down the Street. 

Said Lake, “The best thing about Stratford is the family.”

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