Gaffney sees bright days ahead for Stratford Festival


  •    Friday, May 13, 2022   Matthew Harris
There were actors young and old to go along with some other dignitaries at the Tom Patterson Theatre’s ribbon cutting on Tuesday, May 10.


There were actors young and old to go along with some other dignitaries at the Tom Patterson Theatre’s ribbon cutting on Tuesday, May 10.


This is what Anita Gaffney has been waiting for.

For the better part of two years, Gaffney has been looking ahead to what was coming. To a time when the full company for the Stratford Festival would once again be waiting for their cues to enter the spotlight and do what they do best. She’s been waiting to officially welcome the world to the new Tom Patterson Theatre, the newest jewel in the Theatre’s crown.

She’s been waiting to see the bright lights of getting back to some kind of normal.

“It feels wonderful to be back – since we started rehearsals earlier in the year and we had artists in the rehearsal halls and on the stages, it just felt good to have that energy and that activity happening in the building again working towards opening night,” she said.

It hasn’t been without a few hiccups. Early previews of Chicago had to be delayed when some cast members came up positive for COVID-19, but with that now behind them and the play being as good as she expected, Gaffney is feeling excited by the energy surrounding the company as they move forward.

“I had the chance to see (Chicago) early in the preview period, and I was in a 90 per cent house, and the audience was just into the show from the moment the orchestra hit the first note,” she said. “They just seem so eager to be back in the theatre. We were all wearing masks and following protocols, but I think really it’s been a tonic to be able to experience live theatre again and such a big production with so many artists on the stage.”

Seeing that production did wonders for Gaffney’s spirit, just like the audience finally got to release their pent-up passions for seeing live theatre once again. The symbiotic relationship between performers and audience has never had the kind of two-way pull it has right now.

“Given that we had to cancel the first couple of previews, there was great anticipation to getting to the stage and having an audience and there was such hard work to be able to make that happen. Having to wait for a few more days, I think that just heightened the anticipation for the artists,” Gaffney said. “I think they love getting the reaction from the audiences. And as I said, the audience are so into the show, they are reacting to everything at every chance – they give those extra-long standing ovations at the end. There’s clearly a great, pent-up hunger to be back in a theatre again.

“And I think it’s emotional for the artists, too, who haven’t been able to do this work for a couple of years in this kind of scale. Being back in a room with the audience members is a mix of emotions because we’re all still being so cautious in regards to COVID. There is still that feeling of being in a room with that many people, but also the enormous joy of being able to put into practice the skills these individuals have honed and trained for many years.”

Looking back at what the company has been through makes Gaffney a little introspective. In her role as executive director of the Festival and as a fan of the product, it’s been a long road to haul to get to this point but she’s grateful to be where they are and have learned valuable lessons along the way.

“This has taught all of us a little resilience and about flexibility in ways we didn’t ever realize we’d be tested in,” she said. “I think in many ways it’s brought all of us closer to one another, as we work together through these challenges. And having to make decisions constantly without all the information and lots of uncertainty in the marketplace … that’s really tested our decision-making ability, and I think that’s been good for the team at the Festival.”

She added that she and others around the company have developed better listening habits as a result of working through the pandemic-related issues, learning not to jump to a decision right away but rather taking some time to assess if that really is the best decision. But the one thing Gaffney is hesitant to say is that this is ‘back to normal’; rather than that, she sees a new horizon.

“We know that we can come back in a big way, as audiences start to return to the theatre and visitors start to return to the community and last year with our outdoor performances, it was amazing,” she stated. “It felt like a real new and different connection to the community. Being able to walk past the tents out there, seeing all the activities and families out there enjoying it all was a wonderful energy. We now own those tents, so I’m sure they will pop up again in the future.”

And the future has arrived. Even with the Tom Patterson Theatre now open, Gaffney has plenty of reasons to still be jazzed about the coming summer. She’s looking forward to Hamlet and seeing how Amaka Umeh handles the titular role, and she’s eager to take in the romp Every Little Nookie. She admits she’d love to take the summer off and spend it gorging on one performance after another, but there is always work to be done.

“I just think it’s a wonderful season and we’re very lucky to have this kind of work so close to home,” she said.

The season runs now through the end of October. Visit www.stratfordfestival.ca to check show dates and ticket availability.