Des McAnuff’s Annual General Meeting Speech

I know that normally on this occasion you expect me to look back over the previous season and make some observations on its artistic highlights.

But when I cast my eye over our recent past, I find myself prompted to reflect in broader terms upon our legacy and our future – and at the risk of repeating some things that Lee has already covered in her remarks, those are the thoughts I’d like to share with you today.

In the last couple of years, we have seen the passing of many dear friends and fellow artists: people with strong past and present ties to this Festival.

Among them, as Lee mentioned, were former Board President Wilf Gregory – who, as a City alderman in 1952, proposed the motion to give Tom Patterson $125 (rather than the $100 Tom had asked for) to go to New York for advice on founding a Shakespeare festival.

There was a epoch-making impulse if ever there was one.

Goldie Semple, Domini Blythe and Peter Donaldson – three outstanding actors, steeped in our artistic tradition – were taken from the world far too soon, with many superb performances still to give.

At this time last year, we were still reeling from the shock of losing Lindsay Thomas, a vibrant young member of our company who should have had a tremendous future ahead of her.

This year, we are stunned by the loss of Gina Wilkinson, who also had a huge contribution still to make to our art; indeed, at the time of her death I had been planning to invite her to direct here.

In July we lost Bruce Birmingham, one of our most ardent supporters in recent history, who made an immense and visionary investment in the future of classical theatre in this country.

Finally, in the last two-and-a-half years we’ve lost three of our former Artistic Directors – Richard Monette, whose tenure was the longest in our history, David William and Michael Langham – as well as Douglas Campbell, a member of our inaugural company in 1953.

Such significant passings remind us that we are at a pivotal point in the life of our Festival: the point at which our founding begins to pass out of living memory. Very few of our pioneers are with us still.

And they remind us too of how precious and yet how evanescent is the legacy of any theatrical institution. That legacy resides in the minds, hearts and spirits of these our actors – and our directors, and designers and other artists, and all our supporters and champions as well. We truly are such stuff as dreams are made on, and when one of us departs, some portion of our legacy too is melted into air, into thin air.

The loss of Michael Langham, our second – and second-longest-serving – Artistic Director, came as a particular blow to me, for he had long been my friend, my mentor and my teacher.

While Tyrone Guthrie deserves recognition as the Festival’s founding Artistic Director, Michael was its true intellectual architect. Among his other qualities, he was a brilliant teacher with a profound gift for articulating the elusive techniques that apply to acting and directing so that they would materialize before a student’s eyes. He could make the invisible temporal.

His techniques for acting Shakespeare sprang from a unifying artistic philosophy: his recognition of the texts not just as dramatic literature but as “living thought.”

Beyond their poetry, these plays stand as the world’s greatest record of how human beings think, and have thought since the dawn of civilization. They embody the wisdom not just of an age but of all time.

Michael came to understand, from his work in the theatre, that only through the experiential process of acting could the plays be appreciated in that light. The thought that they embody can come to life only in a live production.

For those of you who are not yourselves theatre artists, let me take a moment to give you a quick glimpse of what’s involved in turning words on a page into living thought.

It begins with a process I call “sleuthing”: poring over the text with dictionaries and reference books at hand, making sure that every word, and every nuance of every word, is properly understood.

Shakespeare wrote during difficult times. He couldn’t always say outright what he wanted to say; sometimes he coded his meaning in words that are open to multiple layers of interpretation. Work on a production starts with an appreciation of those layers, cracking the codes to which the educated members of Shakespeare’s audience would have held the keys.

As an actor, you have to intimately understand not only your own lines, but the entire text. For example, you have to note any chains of imagery that run through the play, such as the sun and water imagery in Richard II, and understand where your character fits into those chains.

The next part of the process is to personalize the text, to bring emotion to it: to pour your own soul into the language.

And then finally, when you are so comfortable with the text that you can make it experiential, when there is no separation between the thought, the word and the emotion, you go on a journey of discovery and revelation.

If I’ve lost you with that last bit, don’t be dismayed. I said this process was elusive, and my attempt to describe it in words illustrates my real point: that this isn’t something you can learn from books, or from speeches. You learn it – indeed, can conceive of it – only by doing it.

In his twelve years as our Artistic Director, Michael set a stamp on the Festival that it still bears today. Now he is gone, along with so many of the other great figures from our past, and with every passing year, our collective memory of him as a man will fade a little more.

What must never fade, though, is our memory of what he taught: the insight and understanding that he imparted – directly, by working with them – to the hundreds of actors and directors who passed through our halls during his tenure.

This is our artistic legacy, and because it resides in us as individuals it is absolutely crucial to our future that we hand it on in turn to every new generation of actors that comes to Stratford – all the while adding to it with discoveries of our own.

That is why we have the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre. That is why we launched the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction, to share the hard-won discoveries of the past with the emerging directors of today and tomorrow, and to ensure that what we have learned will not be lost even to the unborn souls of the future.

What’s past, as Antonio says in The Tempest, is prologue. And what I have said so far about the legacy we have inherited invites the question: What will be our legacy to the future? What, beyond a balanced budget, do we aim to leave behind?

And those questions, I think, really boil down to this: What are we really here to do?

My answer to that lies in a line of Tyrone Guthrie’s that I’ve quoted before: “Theatre is the oldest social, moral and political platform in the world.”

Let me adduce an example from my own experience. In November 1986, I was invited to join a delegation of theatre artists to the Soviet Union. The weekend we arrived, a congress was being held in Moscow, attended by representatives of all 650 state theatres from across the fifteen Soviet republics.

Its aim was to form a new creative union to wrest control from our hosts at the Ministry of Culture and make theatre in the U.S.S.R. a force for change.

Our Russian colleagues told us that their Writers’ Union had attempted something similar in the 1950s but had failed because it was too easy to suppress a movement whose members embodied their dissent in something as visibly incriminating as words on paper.

But while it’s easy to arrest an individual for writing or holding a controversial manuscript, it’s a bit harder to arrest an entire company of actors. And it’s harder still to arrest a large audience.

Also, the evidence vanishes with the end of the performance; being found attending a theatre isn’t quite like being found with a printed manifesto or a Molotov cocktail.

And yet the very ephemerality of a theatrical performance can make it a weapon far more powerful than either. A book can be seized and burned, but the “living thought” of theatre – ideas conveyed in searingly vivid metaphors that are experienced by an audience not just intellectually but emotionally and viscerally as well, and that then disappear into the ether – cannot so easily be destroyed.

A theatrical performance is an insubstantial pageant faded, that leaves not a wrack behind – nothing, that is, but a profound and potent stirring of hearts and minds.

It was from that and subsequent trips to the U.S.S.R. over the next five years, and from work I did with a theatre company there, that I truly learned the import of Guthrie’s words.

I saw theatre being used as a force for the democratization of socialism. I saw for the first time the extent of its potential as a social and political forum. And there is no doubt in my mind that the liberalization of the state theatres that began in Moscow that weekend in 1986 led directly to the fall of communism.

Here in Stratford, the stakes may not seem quite so high. We’re not struggling under the oppressive yoke of dictatorship – despite what Michael Ignatieff might say about Stephen Harper. But that doesn’t mean that public debate isn’t fundamental to our freedom; on the contrary, it is the essential prerequisite for a liberal – with a small “l” – state like Canada.

A great theatre like ours must be a crucible of ideas. We must seek to enlarge people’s fields of vision, invite them to consider alternatives to received thinking, help them to see beyond the surface of the human experience and into its essence, and to imagine how, with sufficient imagination and passion, that experience might be transformed.

Without a vision of our theatre as a place of debate and a force for change – the vision that Guthrie articulated and that Langham developed the artistic techniques to achieve – then we risk becoming merely a tourist trap, nothing more than a purveyor of elegantly entertaining costume drama.

In order to be that crucible of ideas, we must first of all present the classics that are central to our mandate in ways that fire our imaginations, startle us with their immediacy, strike at the core of our own experiences.

We have long known how to do this – but now that we are approaching our sixtieth year and have lost so much of our direct connection to the spirit of our pioneers, we must make sure we do not forget and lose our way. Hence, as I said, the importance I attach to the Conservatory and the Langham Workshop.

Hence too my insistence on devoting to our productions of Shakespeare plays the same kinds of resources we traditionally reserved for our musicals. Shakespeare is our greatest source of living thought; it is vital that we attract audiences to these works by exciting them with every aspect of our art, including its production values.

The success of that strategy was evident, by the way, in the enthusiastic critical and audience response to our Shakespearean productions last season.

The second thing we must do to affirm our role as a forum for ideas and public debate is to foster the creation and development of new plays that spring directly from our own contemporary experience.

Hence the priority I have placed on our own Canadian playwrights here at the Festival. Hence my establishment of the playwrights’ retreat, the residencies, the commissioning, development and premièring of new work.

In my vision of this Festival, the classical and the contemporary sustain each other, infuse each other with their energies and insights. Both have equal currency in the modern world; both speak to us with equal clarity here and now, in the eternal present.

Your support, and that of your fellow Members, plays a crucial role in enabling me and my colleagues to fulfil that vision, and to build a legacy of our own. I thank all of you here for the faith you show in us, and I promise in return to do everything in my power to ensure that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival we are creating today will be regarded sixty years hence as even richer and more glorious than the one we have inherited.

This year, having lost so many friends, we have been grievously reminded that none of us lives for ever. An institution, however, can live and flourish for as long as we want it to – provided we do not fall prey to habit and complacency, provided we constantly refresh our understanding of the vision on which it was founded, the ideas on which it thrives.

Your continued support makes it possible for us to forge ahead in our artistic exploration without losing sight of our founding purpose: to present productions of our greatest plays that are second to none anywhere else on the globe.

By supporting us in that journey, you hold open the door to a future – long after we ourselves have passed from existence – in which yet unborn Artistic Directors of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will be able to stand on this stage and speak proudly, as I do today, to Members of the greatest theatre in the world.

Thank you.

 

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