(Karen Finker’s article appeared in The Toronto Star, 7/24, 26; Photo: Toronto Star.)

If you’re wondering where all the pink petunias in Ontario are, head to Stratford. The city’s flowerpots are exploding with them. Driving into the city down Ontario Street, they line the way like a ceremonial approach, their cheeriness the first sign of the amazing welcome that awaits those fortunate enough to score a ticket to a Stratford Festival production this season.

I am one of those lucky few: this week, I attended the opening performance of Stratford’s first play of the season — fittingly, one by Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The next day I made my way to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Shaw Festival’s opening weekend, and again, the approach was festive: groups of cyclists on slightly wobbly routes between brewpubs and wineries, Queen’s Parade heaving with tourists, and the Festival Theatre shining at the end of the route. There I took in Shaw’s first play of the season, fittingly one by George Bernard Shaw himself, “The Devil’s Disciple.”

What’s it like to be back, watching live theatre after a 16-month hiatus? It’s joyful, it’s satisfying, it’s heartbreaking, it’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. As a professional theatregoer I’ve watched thousands of productions; at peak times four or five a week. In the before-times, taking a seat in a theatre was my bread and butter. Right now, it’s a hothouse activity, managed with loving care by staff and volunteers whose numbers seem to rival those of audience members themselves. Both Stratford and Shaw are currently working to increase the capacity of their theatres given that Ontario’s Reopening Step 3 allows for larger audiences: 75 per cent capacity outdoors, but only 50 per cent capacity indoors. For the moment shows are still limited to up to 100 spectators outdoors, and even fewer indoors, based on previous protocols. What’s always been an élite pursuit — seeing theatre in these destination venues — therefore feels more privileged than ever.

Both festivals chose to stage these opening shows outside under canopies. All of Stratford’s season will be outdoors with the exception of one show (“Three Tall Women” at the Studio Theatre). Shaw’s is a mix of indoors and outdoors. This is not usual practice for these theatres — it is, of course the way they did it in Shakespeare’s day — and however much this may be causing complications for the companies, particularly given the unstable weather we’ve been experiencing, I absolutely loved seeing these shows under these conditions. It feels safe; it feels great to be engaging with culture outside after a year-plus stuck indoors with my screens; and it underlines that theatre is deeply engaged with the world we live in.

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