Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to rise in House today to speak to the motion put forward by the member for Perth—Wellington, which states:
That the House recognize the Stratford Festival's distinct cultural and economic contributions to Stratford, southwestern Ontario and Canada since its inception in 1953.
Indeed, we owe great thanks to Stratford's Tom Patterson, a journalist who saw his community suffering from the withdrawal of the railway industry, and dreamed of turning his town into a cultural destination by creating a theatre festival devoted to the works of William Shakespeare. In 1952, Patterson received a grant of $125 from Stratford's city council to begin pursuing his dream. Under the leadership of Harrison Showalter, a local soft drinks manufacturer, who chaired the chamber of commerce subcommittee for the project, their journey began.
In the spring of that same year, with the assistance of Dora Mavor Moore, an early pioneer of Canadian theatre, the committee was successful in recruiting legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie as the festival's first artistic director. Guthrie's enthusiasm for the opportunity to produce Shakespeare's works on a revolutionary thrust stage was infectious enough to attract Alec Guinness, who performed in the festival's inaugural performance of Richard Ill on July 13, 1953, on a stage created to Guthrie's specifications by world-renowned theatrical designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch. That original theatre was housed in a giant canvas tent.
The second production of the inaugural season was a modern-dress version of All's Well That Ends Well directed by Guthrie. Both productions met with critical acclaim, and because of ticket demands, the initial four-week season of the Stratford Festival was extended to six weeks. Tom Patterson's dream had become a reality.
Robertson Davies, Canada's celebrated novelist, playwright and critic, hailed the Festival as an achievement “of historic importance not only in Canada but wherever the theatre is taken seriously—that is to say, in every civilized country in the world”.
I would add that although we engage in theatre in this House, those theatrics do not detract from the important motion that we are debating here today.
At the end of the Festival's fourth season in 1956, the tent was dismantled for the last time and work began on a permanent facility to be erected around the Moiseiwitsch stage. Designed by architect Robert Fairfield, the new building was one of the most distinctive in the world of the performing arts, its circular floor plan and pie-crust roof paying striking tribute to the festival's origins under canvas.
I would like to say that much of my research for today's motion comes from the Stratford Festival. I would like to thank the festival archivists and historians whose work is so obviously a labour of love. I congratulate the current festival director Anita Gaffney, and wish to thank her for her assistance in providing festival information for me here today.
On July 1, 1957, the permanent theatre opened its doors for the premiere performance of Hamlet, with Christopher Plummer in the title role. The festival was so successful that in 1956 it began renting Stratford's Avon Theatre for non-Shakespearean productions, such as musical and concert productions, as well as film screenings.
In 1971, the festival established its third stage, renamed in 1991 in honour of its founder Tom Patterson. In 2002, the festival's fourth stage was created in the Studio Theatre, which debuted with a season of new Canadian work. Ever since that first season, the Stratford Festival has set benchmarks for the productions not only of Shakespeare, Molière, the ancient Greeks and other great dramatists of the past, but also of such 20th-century masters as Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Eugene O'Neill, and Tennessee Williams.
In addition to acclaimed productions of the best in operetta and musical theatre, it has also showcased and, in many cases, premiered works by outstanding Canadian and other contemporary playwrights. The festival's artists have included the finest actors, directors, and designers in Canada and the world, and Stratford's magnificent stages have been graced by such internationally renowned performers as Brian Bedford, Douglas Campbell, Brent Carver, Hume Cronyn, Brian Dennehy, Colm Feore, Megan Follows, Lorne Greene, Julie Harris, Martha Henry, William Hutt, Loreena McKennitt, Richard Monette, John Neville, Nicholas Pennell, Sarah Polley, Douglas Rain, Kate Reid, Paul Scofield, William Shatner, Maggie Smith, Jessica Tandy, and Peter Ustinov, the glitterati of the world.
Tom Patterson's vision endures today in the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, recognized as a “signature experience” by the Canadian Tourism Commission. Since its inception, the festival has drawn more than 26 million visitors to the community, generating $139 million in economic activity each year, creating thousands of jobs and stimulating tax revenues of $75 million.
Of all the visitors to the region, more than 95% of them come for the Stratford Festival. With an annual operating budget of $56 million, the festival receives Canada Council funding Heritage Canada funding. This and the box office revenues support training programs for actors and directors, the local community and those who provide goods and services in the region.
The New Democrats understand the value of investment in the arts for the intrinsic value of building our cultural identity. We also understand the value of investment in the arts for its economic value, creating good jobs and income for local communities and small businesses.
The NDP platform supports restoring support for Canadian culture that has eroded over the past 20 years of Liberal and Conservative neglect. The Canadian Arts Coalition reports close to $200 million in permanent cuts to arts and culture spending to be implemented in the 2014-2015 Canadian Heritage portfolio, at the same time as cuts from the two previous Conservative budgets are still being rolled out. The cuts include reductions to Telefilm, the National Film Board and Library and Archives Canada budgets, with the majority of the cuts being inflicted on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Moreover, while the government lauds its protection of funding to the Canada Council for the Arts, the reality is that on a per capita basis, government funding to the Council has actually declined 2.5% since the 2005-2006 fiscal year.
All of these institutions have a valuable connection to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The CBC has filmed and broadcast productions of Shakespeare from the festival, and in an effort to diversify and expand its audience, the festival is embarking on exciting new projects such as the live simulcast productions of its plays in widescreen movie theatres across the country.
The Canadian arts community needs the support of its government in real funding in order to thrive. These cuts not only represent a backward ideology that stifles free thinking, they jeopardize creativity and community building. In very real terms, cuts to culture and the arts represent closed storefronts and unemployment for the people and communities that take their livelihood from the arts. Cuts to arts and culture funding threaten the presence of Canada on the international stage.
It is remarkable to me that the connection between a thriving arts community and a thriving economy is lost on the Conservative government, and let us be honest here, on previous Liberal governments, which made the deepest cuts to the CBC and left promises to restore funding unfulfilled.
The NDP proposes increased funding for the Canada Council, and exploring the creation of a new international touring fund. The NDP supports these measures because they generate incredible economic activity and bring in tourist dollars. They are an important investment in Canadian arts and the Canadian people.
The value of institutions such as the Stratford Festival to Canada's culture, identity and economy is enormous. Aside from its entertainment value, the festival has incredible cultural, social and economic impact. It contributes to the education of future generations of students, artists, actors and directors.
Support for artists and creators is integral and vital to creating a thriving economy. Support for cultural events such as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is key. In the words of Prospero from the Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. Shakespeare's musings on our mortality still ring true. Governments come and governments go, but the theatre, its value ,and indeed the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, endure. It is up to all of us to protect that which is so precious to ensure that it does continue to endure.