Archival photograph of the original Festival tent



When the railway industry pulled out of Stratford in the early 1950s, journalist Tom Patterson had an idea for breathing new life into his native city’s economy: a festival of Shakespearean theatre.

In January 22, 1952, City Council gave him a grant of $125 to seek artistic advice in New York. Unfortunately, he failed to connect with Laurence Olivier, his intended target there.

However, Canadian theatre pioneer Dora Mavor Moore subsequently put him in touch with legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie. Intrigued by a transatlantic telephone call, Guthrie visited Stratford to see if Patterson’s idea might be viable – and ended up becoming our first Artistic Director.


The Festival was legally incorporated on October 31, 1952. Guthrie rapidly began recruiting actors from across Canada and abroad, including stars Alec Guinness and Irene Worth.

A concrete amphitheatre was built to hold a revolutionary thrust stage conceived by Guthrie and designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch – the same stage that is the heart of the Festival Theatre today. For the inaugural season, though, and the three that followed it, the stage and auditorium were housed under a giant canvas tent.

The road to completion was fraught with difficulty. In May 1953, it seemed as if the entire daring venture would founder for lack of funds. But building contractor Oliver Gaffney kept his men working regardless, until last-minute donations by Governor General Vincent Massey and the Perth Mutual Insurance Company saved the day.


On the night of July 13, 1953, we opened our first season with Guthrie’s production of Richard III, starring Alec Guinness in the title role. The play’s opening lines – “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York” – marked the beginning of an astonishing new chapter in Canadian theatre.

The second of the season’s two productions, All’s Well That Ends Well (with Irene Worth as Helena), opened the following night. It too met with critical acclaim, and the season’s initial four-week run was extended to six. That first season’s company included several young actors who would go on to become major figures on the Canadian cultural landscape, including Douglas Campbell, Timothy Findley, Don Harron, William Hutt and Douglas Rain.


Drawing inspiration from the Elizabethan apron stage, the ancient Greek amphitheatres and the Roman arenas, the thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch revolutionized the performance of Shakespeare.

It comprises a protruding platform, a balcony (now removable), trap-doors, nine acting levels and eight major entrances.Seating surrounds the stage in a semi-circular arc, while two vomitoria, or “voms,” run diagonally from the stage into tunnels under the auditorium.

The theatre seats well over 1,800 people, yet no spectator is more than 65 feet from the stage.


In 1956, under Artistic Director Michael Langham, work began on a permanent theatre to house the Moiseiwitsch stage. Designed by Robert Fairfield, the Festival Theatre has a circular floor plan and a “pie-crust” roof, echoing the Festival’s origins under canvas.

Despite the challenges posed by Stratford’s location in a snow belt, building was completed in time for the next season. The new Festival Theatre was dedicated on Sunday, June 30, 1957, and the following night saw the opening of Langham’s production of Hamlet, with Christopher Plummer in the title role.

Over the ensuing decades, the Festival attracted some of the world’s most celebrated actors, including Alan Bates, Zoe Caldwell, Paul Scofield, Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov, and became a long-time home for such no less stellar artists as Brian Bedford, Brent Carver, Colm Feore, Martha Henry and Stephen Ouimette, to name just a few.


We began renting the disused Avon Theatre in 1956 and purchased it in 1963, when Tanya Moiseiwitsch led the renovations of the interior. A major remodelling in 2002 created a completely new facade and lobby.

In 1971, we began leasing premises by the Avon River in Stratford. In 1982, with a new stage designed by Desmond Heeley and seating for 410 people, those premises became the home of the Shakespeare 3 Company and its successor, the Young Company. In 1991 the venue’s name was changed from the Third Stage to the Tom Patterson Theatre.

In 2002, we added a fourth venue: the Studio Theatre. Created in what had been the Avon Theatre’s scene shop (relocated to premises on Brunswick Street), the Studio contains a smaller, modified version of the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage, with a pillared balcony and seating for 260 patrons.