Romeos and Juliets, past and present, gather onstage for Stratford Festival’s 65th anniversary

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On July 13, 1953, the Stratford Festival hosted its first-ever performance on a thrust stage under a tent, surrounded by a concrete amphitheatre, and built where the Festival Theatre stands today.

On Thursday, exactly 65 seasons later, many of the actors who played Romeo and Juliet throughout the Festival’s history gathered on that same stage to pay tribute to one of Stratford’s most beloved institutions.

Following a matinee performance of this year’s production of Romeo and Juliet, the Romeos and Juliets, past and present, were called up onstage and introduced by the Festival’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino, who himself played Romeo alongside Megan Follows’ Juliet in 1992.

“The craft of acting is really something that is passed on from one artist to another, and over the years I’ve noticed there isn’t anything comparable to the relationships between the Romeos and the Juliets in this company,” Cimolino said. “I think it’s because when you play Romeo and Juliet you’re very young, sometimes it’s your first breakaway part, and it demands that you give it your all.

“So people who have played those parts before look upon those artists with a special eye and support each other in that way.”

From their seats in the second row at centre stage, Cimolino called up Colm Feore and Seana McKenna, who played the titular roles in the 1984 production, then Follows, Graham Abbey from the 2002 production, Gareth Potter and Nikki James from the 2008 show, Tom Rooney who played Romeo in Robert Lepage’s bilingual production of Romeo and Juliet in 1990, Annette av Paul who danced as Juliet with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens for the Festival’s opening night gala in 1979, and finally, this year’s Romeo and Juliet, Antoine Yared and Sara Farb.

“It’s a little surreal, but really moving and it’s kind of incredible to see, in-person, the legacy that we’re part of,” Farb said.

“You get a sense of how you’re connected to this, to the history of this place,” Yared added. “It’s overwhelming, really. It felt like we were having another opening night tonight. The energy was quite intense, but it was just really exciting to have everybody come and support this play and this place for its 65th anniversary.”

Before attending the afternoon’s performance of Romeo and Juliet, the actors ate lunch with each other and some of their former cast mates, reminiscing and sharing messages from the Romeos and Juliets who were unable to attend, including Louis Marleau and Christopher Walken (1968), Marti Maraden (1977), Albert Schultz and Susan Coyne (1987), Marion Day (1997), Claire Jullien (2002), and Daniel Briere and Sara Topham (2013).

Onstage, Cimolino also paid tribute to the Romeos and Juliets who have died – Julie Harris and Bruno Gerussi (1960), Richard Monette (1977), and Jonathan Crombie (1997).

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