Festival mourns the loss of Michael Langham

January 19, 2011

Michael Langham

It was with profound sadness that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival learned of the death of Michael Langham, the Festival’s Artistic Director from 1956 to 1967. Mr. Langham, 91, failed to recover from a chest infection contracted before Christmas and died at home near Cranbrook, Kent, at midnight on January 15.

Tyrone Guthrie, the Festival’s founding artistic director, passed the reins to Mr. Langham in 1956. What Mr. Langham inherited was a summer Shakespeare festival in a tent. Within a year he had overseen the building of the permanent Festival Theatre. He went on to extend the season and introduce student matinees. He established the Stratford Music Festival, originally founded under the leadership of Louis Applebaum, and introduced musical directors such as Glenn Gould. He advocated the purchase and renovation of the Avon Theatre and launched North America’s first film festival. In 1962 he worked with Tanya Moiseiwitsch to modify her original design for the Festival Theatre stage, making possible a more dynamic approach to productions there. During these years he also contributed to the establishment of the Canada Council and the National Theatre School.

“Michael Langham was one of the true giants of 20th-century international theatre. For that matter, in the 21st century he was still directing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, staging Love’s Labour’s Lost right before his 90th birthday in 2008,” says Artistic Director Des McAnuff.

“While great credit rightfully goes to Tyrone Guthrie as Stratford’s founding artistic father, it is important to recognize Michael as the intellectual architect of this theatre’s artistic policy. It was Michael who articulated the approach to Shakespeare’s text – a philosophy he described as ‘living thought’ – that to this day forms the aesthetic foundation of the classical work done at Stratford.”

Says General Director Antoni Cimolino: “For so many of us, for so long, and for the Stratford Festival as a whole, Michael was our father. It was Michael’s vision and attention that enabled Stratford to stand and grow as an institution of international renown.

“Michael Langham had a shrewd eye for talent. His commitment to so many young, untried but promising actors created Canadian theatre – Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid, Bruno Gerussi, Douglas Rain, William Hutt, Martha Henry, Christopher Newton and Richard Monette, among so many more.”

Mr. Langham’s directorial mastery of the thrust stage gave Stratford an extraordinary succession of stage triumphs. His Henry V in 1956 vaulted Christopher Plummer to the world stage and introduced William Shatner to prominence. He also brought the incomparable designer Desmond Heeley into the Stratford fold with Hamlet in 1957.

“Michael Langham more than anyone – even Tyrone Guthrie – solidified, matured and transformed the Stratford Festival into the finest theatre company in North America,” says Mr. Plummer. “He also gave me, quite literally, my career. Without his talent, taste, intellect and wit, God knows where I might have gone with my life. I owe him buckets for his wisdom, his deep friendship and astonishing loyalty – and so does North America, whose culture he so enriched.”

Adds Mr. McAnuff: “Michael Langham was, without question, one of the greatest directors of his generation, mounting glorious production after production of significant and memorable works. His ingenious stagings of Henry V and Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Christopher Plummer, were quite simply the stuff of legend.”

For Timon of Athens in 1963, with John Colicos in the title role, Mr. Langham featured music from jazz great Duke Ellington and a dazzling modern design from Brian Jackson, bringing new meaning to a rarely produced Shakespearean play. He tackled it again in 1991 with Brian Bedford in the title role. That production transferred to Broadway in 1993, winning three Tony nominations for best director, best actor and best revival of a play.

“We’ve lost a great man of the theatre,” says Mr. Bedford, who worked with Mr. Langham on a number of other productions in Stratford and the U.S. “Michael Langham was a great influence on me. He was a meticulous director and was relentless in his pursuit of an interpretation of a play. He put productions together like a sort of mosaic, paying tremendous attention to what we might think of as minutiae. It drove some people crazy but I don’t think I worked with him on a single production that wasn’t a tremendous success.”

Mr. Langham first directed what would become his signature work, Love’s Labour’s Lost, at Stratford in 1961. He directed the play three more times at Stratford in addition to productions elsewhere. In 2008 at Stratford, he directed what would be his last production, and fittingly it was Love’s Labour’s Lost. It featured the members of the Birmingham Conservatory, allowing him to touch a new generation of actors with his searing discipline and insightful direction.

“Rehearsal days with Michael were long, arduous but always rewarding,” says Mr. Cimolino, who worked with Mr. Langham on Timon of Athens and Measure for Measure. “No one left unscathed. From the stars to the apprentices, we were all pushed to our limits. At day’s end our reward might be to hear him mutter, ‘Well that was promising.’ Yet we all returned eager to see what the next day’s work would bring. So often it was marvellous.”

Mr. Langham’s 1962 redesign of the Festival’s thrust stage served to establish the famous diagonals between the downstage tunnels and the upstage entrances. He became the master of this stage, with an uncanny instinct for organizing movement on it to allow for perfect focus at each point in a play. It was one more in a series of accomplishments that established the Festival as a cultural leader.

“By the time Michael resigned his artistic directorship in 1967, he had steered the Stratford Festival to the undisputed position it has held ever since: the leading classical theatre in North America,” says Michael Bawtree, founder of the Atlantic Theatre Festival, in Wolfville, N.S., a former associate director at the Festival, and a dramaturge and assistant director to Mr. Langham. Mr. Bawtree later brought Mr. Langham to Wolfville to direct a number of productions, some co-directed by his wife, Helen Burns.

Mr. Langham was Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse in California in the 1960s during its dormant period when plans were being made for a world-class facility. Mr. Langham moved on from La Jolla in 1971 to become artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where he served until 1977. La Jolla Playhouse finally opened in 1983 under the direction of Mr. McAnuff, who served there for more than 20 years.
Mr. Langham also served as the Director of the Juilliard School’s Drama Division in New York, from 1979 to 1992, and continued to direct at Stratford and elsewhere. He was working on a book on his life in the theatre at the time of his death.

“Michael deserves much recognition for his key role as a leader in Canadian national theatre,” says Mr. McAnuff. “During the 1950s and ’60s, he mentored many theatre artists who went on to pioneer our country’s resident and alternative theatre scene. As a mentor and teacher, he had a profound effect on my own career: he called me after seeing a New York production of mine in 1978 and invited me to teach in the Drama Program at the Juilliard School, which he headed at the time. As I got to know him, he encouraged me to direct Shakespeare. Michael’s inspiration and my high regard for his work led me to follow in his footsteps as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I will greatly miss our meetings and his sage advice. I know for certain that I am not alone.

Concludes Mr. Cimolino: “While Michael Langham oversaw the building of our permanent theatre, he built something more important than bricks and mortar – he secured Stratford’s artistic foundations. The extraordinary example he set will guide us all in the important work ahead.”
To honour Mr. Langham’s legacy, the Festival established the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction in 2009. The inaugural session was held during the 2010 season.

The Festival will dedicate the 2011 season to Mr. Langham.

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