The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s journey to diversity and inclusion

The Stratford Festival was already one of the world’s best-known and successful drama festivals – though probably one of the most homogenous with respect to its audiences and playbill. When staff set out to make both the audiences and plays more diverse and inclusive little did they know that their effort would be so transformative and rewarding for all stakeholders.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival sits in the picturesque city of Stratford, Ontario, less than two hours southwest of Toronto. For decades, Stratford has been known for its first-class cultural offerings and its beauty. It’s a place for the perfect romantic weekend, with inns and bed-and-breakfasts on tree-lined streets. Most neighbourhoods consist of charming Victorian homes and well-groomed gardens. Downtown, there are wide streets with excellent shops, restaurants and art galleries. And, even better, a river runs through it, the Avon.

If you visited Stratford in the spring or summer of 2004 and walked along the sunlit Avon, you would have noticed white swans gliding gracefully, white families having a picnic, and pairs or groups of white individuals strolling to or from the theatre. On the main streets or in the stores, you would have been hard-pressed to find a person of colour.

Although a relatively short drive from Toronto (a city that prides itself as the world’s most multicultural metropolis), Stratford showed few signs of racial or ethnic diversity. According to the 2006 Census, 3.9 percent of the population was members of visible minority groups. In 2004, a couple from Toronto joked that in the entire weekend they were visiting friends in Stratford, they saw only 3 persons of colour in the whole city – and they looked so much alike they might well have been the same actor wearing different costumes.

In 2004, the Festival’s board and executive decided it was time to make diversity a priority in its productions and in the audience. Central to the success of this new-placed priority was the leadership of artistic director Richard Monette, the executive director Antoni Cimolino, the chair of the board, Kelly Meighen, and board member Karlene Hussey, all of who saw a strategy of diversity and inclusion as a business imperative.

These efforts were ultimately recognized as a demonstration of leadership in the cultural arena. In fact, a prominent African Canadian actor-playwright, Andrew Moodie, wrote an article in the mainstream media pointing to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival as an example of inclusiveness. He was not the only one to praise the Festival. Well-known theatre critics in Canada and the U.S. were quick to applaud the Festival’s successful efforts to integrate diverse storylines and artists to make outstanding theatre. And today, if you read the Festival’s mandate on its web site, you will see that diversity of audiences is prominently mentioned — and not as a feel-good sop to the politically correct but as part of the Festival’s business model.

What happened?

Diversity was not new to the Stratford Festival. It had indeed several times tried to grow more diverse over the years since its founding. In fact, you could say the Festival was built on a quest for diversity and inclusion – of a sort. Prior to its founding, top-notch classical theatre seemed to belong to Britain and Western Europe, at least according to Canadians. In 1953, the Festival was launched with the hopes of putting Canada on the map of classical theatre and high culture. Although the great stars of the first seasons were British classical artists such as the great Alec Guinness and Tyrone Guthrie, the fact was that they were headlining Canadian productions in Canada, not the UK or the United States.

Somewhere along the way, however, the Festival had lost sight of the changing population of Canada — and the potential to attract the burgeoning population of immigrants and people of colour. This was a serious oversight for a festival so near to the Greater Toronto Area and to Michigan and New York, all of which have large multicultural populations. With some of Canada’s most prominent philanthropists belonging to the Jamaican and other “newcomer” communities, the Festival had also lost sight of the potential new donors in the new Canada.

The Festival, however, has a nose for business. And that business is based on staging imaginative productions that attract large audiences and potential donors.

In 2005, the executive and the board decided that the Festival needed an integrated plan for diversity and inclusion. It hired the consulting firm DiversiPro to consult with the senior team, working closely with it to create a multi-layered plan for diversity and inclusion. The plan utilized The Six Cylinders ™ Model (see Figure) to help the Festival provide unforgettable theatre experiences for its audiences, while growing its existing audiences in communities and sectors that were severely under-represented at the Festival — families, people under 35, people of colour and immigrants. In the following sections, we describe how the changes at the Stratford Festival involved all of The Six Cylinders™.

Figure: The Six Cylinders Model

Figure: The Six Cylinders Model

Cylinder 1: Leadership & Governance

In the Six Cylinders TM Framework, leadership is a critical driver of diversity and inclusion. What leaders say — and more importantly, what they do — makes all the difference in whether an organization will become more diverse. The leadership and governance cylinder focuses on the decision-makers who drive the organization’s development and implementation of strategy.

A strategic vision is needed in order to align all organizational systems with the diversity and inclusion agenda. The organization’s leaders are the stakeholder group with primary responsibility and accountability for creating and implementing strategy. Hence, they must develop an understanding of what diversity and inclusion mean for their organization and what the desired end state of the diversity and inclusion strategy will be. Once the leaders have articulated a vision of the desired end-state, they must develop a strategic plan to identify the actions needed to achieve the desired vision. Developing vision and strategy can be a very inclusive activity, and getting input from multiple stakeholders is extremely valuable; however, the leadership is the only stakeholder group with the legitimate authority to drive this agenda. As such, their commitment to fulfilling the diversity and inclusion agenda is absolutely essential to success.

At the Festival, leaders took the first serious steps to ensuring success by making diversity and inclusion a business priority, by keeping their eyes focused on the client, by seeing the need for an integrated strategy and plan, by ensuring that the project reported to senior management (who reported to the board) and by assigning a budget and timeline for the changes that they anticipated. For the Festival’s executive director, Antoni Cimolino, it was quite simply “a question of business and artistic survival.” Anita Gaffney, the Festival’s Administrative Director, noted that senior leadership support was essential to getting “buy-in” at the Festival. As well, the fact that Cimolino was such a powerful champion of diversity at the Festival had a strong impact on other leaders and the organization. She notes that, “When your whole senior leadership team across all departments is engaged and involved, it generates buy-in across the organization.”

It became apparent very quickly that Stratford’s leadership team had an unusually clear vision of how their organizations bottom-line could benefit from diversity.

Once the leadership had decided that diversity and inclusion were important, it quickly adopted The Six Cylinders™ Framework. Anita Gaffney notes that, “The board’s task force on diversity got us started, but it was important for every department to own it and integrate diversity into their annual plans. The integrated approach means that not just one manager or one department talks about diversity but that everyone in every department has ownership of it.”

The Festival’s leaders called for an assessment of the organization’s policies, practices and results in order to identify what was standing between them and success. Employing a combination of interviews, focus groups, surveys, measurements and simple observation, the Festival identified its current performance in a number of areas:

  • In the audiences who came to its plays, and the donors who contributed to the Festival’s coffers
  • In the productions on the stage
  • In the ranks of artists and trainee actors, staff and management
  • In the accessibility of its theatres and workplaces
  • In its recruitment of artists, craftspeople, management and support staff
  • In community partnerships and other relationships
  • In its communications and marketing activities
  • In its educational programs.

To some extent, the results revealed what everyone had expected:

  • Audiences and donors, for example, tended to be all middle-aged or elderly Canadian-born white men and women. The large populations of Caribbean-born, South Asian or Asian residents of the Greater Toronto Area, and black theater goers from Detroit, seemed to have not yet discovered the Festival. Similarly, well-known foreign-born philanthropists such as Jamaican-born businessman Michael Lee Chin (who gave $30 million to the Royal Ontario Museum at this time) had never been approached by the Festival. He was one of many immigrant philanthropists in the GTA who were either unknown to or not considered by the Festival, which lacked the connections and know-how to approach them
  • Improvements were needed in some of the theatres to allow patrons who were hard-of-hearing or vision-impaired to understand what was happening on the stage. Some accommodations were also needed to help those with special mobility needs
  • The Festival was attracting fewer families and under-35’s than it had thought, and the problem seemed to lie, not with the playbill, but with the affordability of tickets
  • Considerable outreach was being done to find or develop actors and playwrights from minority groups, but the results weren’t showing up on the stages in sufficient numbers
  • There was a dearth of directors from under-represented groups, and no serious ideas about where to find them or how to develop them
  • Managers already had diversity as a priority in the Festival’s overall strategic plan, but often lacked the knowledge, skills or connections to act
  • In some cases, the craftspeople lacked the materials, skills or confidence to provide make-up and hair services to black or Asian actors cast in classical roles
  • Artists outside the Festival had recently heard about or seen the outreach efforts of the Festival, but many were not convinced that the Festival’s new diversity priority would be sustained
  • Inside the Festival, senior artists were split about how far a classical theatre could afford to go in its efforts to be inclusive. How far should you go in adapting the settings of Shakespeare’s plays, for example? Would audiences accept a black Romeo or Juliet? These arguments were not unique. In fact they were similar to arguments being made in British theatre, TV and film in the early 2000’s.

With this information in hand, the Festival’s leaders now had a good idea of the gap they would have to close. By assessing their policies and practices, they now knew the baseline against which progress would be measured. But what was their destination? And what did the ideal future look like?

The leaders invited a cross-section of management, staff, artists and board members to join them in a one-day retreat to create a vision of the Festival at its most inclusive, and a mission statement. This vision would guide the Festival’s diversity and inclusion plan. One of the phrases in the vision helped to light the way boldly: it declared that there should be “no limits on talent or imagination” at the Stratford Festival.

Cylinder 2: Products and Services

The products and services cylinder emphasizes the critical importance of providing value to all customers and clients regardless of the client’s culture, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability/disability status, or other identity group memberships. Members of different cultural, ethnic and identity groups often have very different needs and preferences in the fields of education, health care, mental health services, food services, entertainment, financial services, personal services, clothing, sports, and the arts, just to name a few. Thus, in order to attract a more diverse clientele, organizations often need to make changes to the products and services they deliver, as well as to the methods of delivery.

The client experience is key at the Stratford Festival. This puts a great deal of emphasis on creating respectful, enjoyable experiences for the client – or, in the parlance of the Festival, “the patron”. Everything at the Festival – from the plays produced to the way visitors are greeted – is designed to create an unforgettable product for the patrons. Now, with a mandate to embrace diversity, the Festival’s big task was to understand who was ordering tickets and coming to see its plays – and who wasn’t.

The Festival decided to take the direct approach by conducting a head-count. Ushers were trained to identify patrons of different age and racial groups. Everyone calling to order tickets or memberships would be asked a series of questions about their income level, age, city of residence, accessibility needs, and, finally, ethnic or national group. (At this time in Canada, this was such an uncommon question for a cultural organization to ask that the customer service agents were uncomfortable asking it. Some callers were also uncomfortable answering it. With training, however, the call-centre staff became much more skilled at asking the question, and explaining why they were asking.) The overall information-gathering effort provided the Festival with a baseline metric for measuring the progress of its diversity and inclusion efforts, and is an example of the systems and metrics component of The Six Cylinders™ Model (Figure 1).

The Festival also decided that it needed to understand the experience of persons with disabilities. It asked the March of Dimes organization to visit its facilities and assess their accessibility. This experience was an important eye-opener for the Festival team and would lead to several changes in the facilities later on.

The 2006 season was marked by an increased sensibility about diversity not only in the audience, but also in the plays, the actors who were cast, and even the settings of some plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, was set in India, and its cast was somewhat multicultural, as were the casts of several of the other plays at the Festival that season.

Also in 2006, the play Harlem Duet opened – with an all-black cast. Already a winner of the Canadian Governor General’s award, an earlier version of this play had won the critics’ admiration. But it was being staged for the first time at Stratford. It was a perfect opportunity for the Festival to target the more diverse under-35 population of theatregoers and the Caribbean and black communities. As a result, it launched an advertising and relationship-building campaign to get the influencers in each group to attend the opening of the play.

The staging of Harlem Duet was a coup for the Festival on several fronts. It gave the Festival the opportunity to jump-start and learn from its efforts on all of The Six Cylinders™ at roughly the same time. For the first time, a play about the Black Canadian-American experience was staged at the Festival. The playwright-director, an African-Canadian woman, worked closely with the Festival’s artists, craftspeople and senior directors to stage an authentic and compelling production of her play, and one that performed to sold-out audiences made up of white and non-white patrons alike. A university professor in the audience, a regular Festival patron, was heard to remark: “White people like diversity at the theatre too, you know! As long as the work is excellent and interesting… that’s what matters.”

Some patrons who came explicitly to see Harlem Duet in 2006 stayed (or returned) to see other plays at the Festival that season. Some of the wealthier patrons from the Caribbean and black communities considered buying memberships or making a donation to the Festival for the first time. Both new audiences and existing core audiences came to see the play.

Other changes made to ensure success for Harlem Duet and the rest of the playbill started rubbing off on the rest of the organization, bringing principles of The Six Cylinders™ to life in front of everyone’s eyes, including the Festival’s human capital, work environment, marketing efforts, and stakeholder connections.

Cylinder 3: Human Capital

In The Six Cylinders Model ™, the Human Capital cylinder represents the human resources available to the organization. Research shows that access to a wider diversity of knowledge resources is associated with better work performance.1 Diversifying human capital often requires an examination and subsequent modification of the organization’s systems of recruitment, selection, training & development, promotions & career advancement, compensation, benefits, and succession planning. The processes of recruiting board directors and identifying suppliers and contractors also should be examined to identify ways to connect with more diverse human capital.

The production of Harlem Duet pushed the Festival to diversify its human capital. The all-black cast of Harlem Duet was made up of experienced actors who were immediately available to perform parts in other plays at the Festival that summer. As a result, audiences saw a greater diversity of actors in all of the Festival’s productions that year.

Talent from diverse groups was available because the Festival had worked to reach a broader talent pool in its search for actors and had invested in developing the skills of this more inclusive talent pool. The Festival’s training vehicle, The Birmingham Conservatory, had recruited a large number of actors of colour that year, ensuring that all skills were sharpened up before rehearsals began for the season. Even before rehearsals started, however, the Festival had already begun attaching a diversity and inclusion statement to all job postings, declaring that the Festival was working to become a more inclusive environment on its stages, in its audiences and in its workplace. All job openings at the Festival started to be communicated through more inclusive professional and community networks, and headhunters were being told to spread their nets more widely.

Cylinder 4: The Work Environment

A welcoming and supportive work environment for all is a critical component of inclusiveness for a diverse set of organizational members. Members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities, for instance, distinguish between organizations they view as being interested only in “the pink dollars,” and organizations that are truly committed to supporting their communities. Of critical support for these communities, as well as for all cultural and identity groups, is the feeling of being truly welcomed as organizational members.

To create a welcoming work environment, leaders can put formal systems and processes into place to encourage the types of informal interactions that create inclusion. All organizational members need to: 1) recognize the importance of interacting with each other in a supportive way, 2) take responsibility for creating a welcoming work environment, and 3) build the skills needed to create positive interactions across diversity.2 Raising awareness through diversity training and/or other messaging helps organizational members to recognize the importance of being supportive in their interactions with each other. Accountability mechanisms, such as feedback and performance appraisals, encourage members to take responsibility for creating an inclusive work environment. Skill building through coaching and training helps members to develop strategies for creating positive interactions across diversity and handling any slips that might occur in a constructive way.

All of these principles were put into place at the Stratford Festival, but informally rather than through the development of formal systems. With an increased emphasis on diversity and more artists of colour than at any other time in its history, the Festival became a more inclusive workplace. All managers had gone through a retreat process where they discussed how to implement the Festival’s diversity and inclusion vision in their everyday operations. As a result, they became more aware of the potential growth opportunities for the Festival and took responsibility for ensuring that the welcoming, supportive culture at the Festival extended to all organizational members. Staff and artists learned from and supported each other, as everyone wanted the season to be successful.

Cylinder 5: Marketing

For this cylinder to be functioning effectively, every marketing campaign has to automatically include consideration of how to build relationships with potential customers in a wide set of cultural groups and communities. The marketing function also includes the relationship with potential investors, donors, volunteers, and other critical supporters of the organization. In building these relationships, the organization is marketing itself.

At the Festival, marketing became more targeted toward communities that were under-represented among patrons and donors, but whom the Festival wanted to attract. Flexible pricing was introduced to make tickets more affordable and new bus tours were scheduled to bring in patrons from immigrant communities in Toronto.

Cylinder 6: Stakeholder connections

To create and sustain diversity and inclusion, organizations need to build ongoing relationships with a diverse set of communities involved in each of its stakeholder groups. For the Stratford Festival, activities in the Stakeholder Connections cylinder involved connecting with new sets of potential donors, media outlets, and community supporters, as well as new patrons. Relationships with communities changed, as culture-lovers under 35, as well as 40 and 50-somethings from immigrant communities suddenly started talking about the Stratford Festival in 2006. So did journalists in various TV, radio and newspaper stories. When the Festival named its entire 2007 playbill “The Outsider,” it touched a chord: it was seen as an acknowledgement of diversity by some, and reminded everyone that most exciting drama is about the interactions between people who consider themselves outsiders and others, as insiders.

The Six Cylinders ™ planning that touched every aspect of the staging of Harlem Duet in 2006 and the diversity plan for the organization had repercussions across the theatre. Suddenly, many people at the Festival could see the benefits of diversity applied across their whole organization. While some people may have still felt apprehension about diversity and inclusion at the Festival, many more were recognizing it for what is was: part of the lifeblood of a renewed and vitally important Canadian arts organization.

  1. Research by Robert T. Keller showed that project groups with greater diversity benefitted from connections to a wider variety of external networks. These external networks increase the groups’ access to knowledge and information resources, which subsequently improved performance: Keller, R. T. (2001). Cross-functional project groups in research and new product development: Diversity, communications, job stress, and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 44, 547-555.
  2. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, Kathryn Morris and Stephanie Goodwin provide a detailed description and supporting evidence for the value of the Confronting Prejudiced Responses (CPR) model for creating an inclusive environment in organizations. We have extended their thinking regarding raising awareness, taking responsibility and creating strategic behavioural responses beyond confrontation of negative events to apply it to proactive inclusionary behaviors.

About the Author

Hamlin Grange is the president of DiversiPro Inc. and has consulted with many corporations in Canada and Europe.

About the Author

Alison Konrad is a Professor and Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. Contact:

About the Author

Cynthia Reyes is an organizational change leader/facilitator and writer whose stories have appeared in a variety of Canadian publications.

About the Author

Alison Konrad is a Professor and Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. Contact:

About the Author

Hamlin Grange is the president of DiversiPro Inc. and has consulted with many corporations in Canada and Europe.

About the Author

Cynthia Reyes is an organizational change leader/facilitator and writer whose stories have appeared in a variety of Canadian publications.

About the Author

Alison Konrad is a Professor and Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. Contact:

About the Author

Hamlin Grange is the president of DiversiPro Inc. and has consulted with many corporations in Canada and Europe.

About the Author

Cynthia Reyes is an organizational change leader/facilitator and writer whose stories have appeared in a variety of Canadian publications.