The Stratford Story
The First "Glorious Summer"
That Stratford, Ontario, is the home of the largest classical repertory theatre in North America can be attributed to the dream of one man, Stratford-born journalist Tom Patterson.
In the early 1950s, seeing the economy of his home town endangered by the withdrawal of the railway industry that had sustained it for nearly 80 years, Patterson conceived the idea of turning Stratford into a cultural destination by mounting a theatre festival devoted to the works of William Shakespeare.
On January 22, 1952, Patterson presented his plan to Stratford City Council, which gave him a grant of $125 to seek artistic advice. On February 14, a Chamber of Commerce subcommittee was formed under the leadership of Harrison Showalter, a local soft-drinks manufacturer who proved to be no less dedicated in pursuit of this bold vision than Patterson himself.
The breakthrough came in May, when Dora Mavor Moore, an early pioneer of Canadian theatre, wrote to legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie, asking for his help. Intrigued by this opportunity to create a new venue that could radically transform the way Shakespeare was performed, Guthrie made the trip to Stratford to assess the situation for himself – and was sufficiently impressed by what he found that he agreed to serve as the proposed festival’s first Artistic Director.
A legal entity, the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada Foundation (subsequently changed to the Stratford Shakespearean Festival Foundation of Canada), was incorporated on October 31, 1952. A giant canvas tent was ordered from a firm in Chicago, and in the parklands by Stratford’s Avon River work began on a concrete amphitheatre at the centre of which was to be a revolutionary thrust stage created to Guthrie’s specifications by internationally renowned theatrical designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch.
By May 1953, it had begun to seem as if the entire daring venture would flounder for lack of funds; the day was saved, however, by the determination of the building contractor, Oliver Gaffney, who kept his men working on the project regardless, and by just-in-time donations from Governor General Vincent Massey and the Perth Mutual Insurance Company.
The fundraising campaign picked up speed, the tent was erected, and on the night of July 13, 1953, the Festival presented its inaugural performance: Guthrie’s production of Richard III, with Alec Guinness in the title role. When Guinness spoke the play’s opening lines – "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York" – his words aptly marked the beginning of an astonishing new chapter in Canadian theatre history.
The inaugural season’s other production, a modern-dress version of All’s Well That Ends Well (also directed by Guthrie, with Irene Worth as Helena), opened the following night. Both productions met with critical acclaim, and demand for tickets was such that their initial four-week run was extended to six.
Tom Patterson’s dream had become a reality, hailed by celebrated novelist, playwright and critic Robertson Davies 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."
A Stage for All the World
Time bore out Davies’s words, for the Festival’s thrust stage revolutionized the performance of classical and contemporary theatre in the latter half of the 20th century and inspired the design of more than a dozen other major venues around the world, including the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center and, in England, the Chichester Festival Theatre, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and the Olivier Theatre at the Royal National Theatre.
Moiseiwitsch’s stage represented a radical departure from the proscenium-arch or “picture-frame” configuration that had dominated theatrical presentation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired in part by the Elizabethan apron stage, it consists of a protruding platform with a balcony (corresponding to the “inner above” of Shakespeare’s time), trap-doors, nine acting levels and eight major entrances. Audience seating surrounds the stage in a semi-circular arc like that of the amphitheatres of ancient Greece, while in a device borrowed from the arenas of ancient Rome, two vomitoria, or “voms,” run diagonally from the stage into tunnels under the auditorium. Although the theatre seats well over 1,800 people, no spectator is more than 65 feet from the stage.
Over the years, the stage has undergone several changes without losing its essential character. The platform has been widened and the back wall simplified; and the balcony, which once relied on its pillars for support, can now be used without them or can be removed altogether.
The Festival Theatre
At the end of the Festival’s fourth season in 1956, with Michael Langham now serving as Artistic Director, 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 would be 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.
Faced with the difficulties of working in Stratford’s snow-belt location, 150 construction workers raced to meet the summer deadline. By January 26, 1957, when the cornerstone was laid by Governor General Vincent Massey, the building had already taken recognizable shape. It was formally dedicated on Sunday, June 30, and the next night opened its doors to the public for the first performance of the 1957 season: Langham’s production of Hamlet, with Christopher Plummer in the title role.
The Festival Theatre, which won its designer the 1958 Massey Gold Medal for Architecture, underwent various modifications over the years: in 1985, extensive backstage facilities were added, and at the end of the 1996 season, work began on a $15.6-million renewal of the auditorium and front-of-house. Designed by the award-winning architectural firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, these latter renovations were completed in time for the opening of the 1997 season, and the renewed building was visited by Queen Elizabeth II on June 28, 1997.
The Avon Theatre
This familiar downtown landmark opened in 1901 as the Theatre Albert, a well-appointed vaudeville house. Besides housing local amateur theatrical productions, it was a regular stop on the tour circuit for many of the stars of that period, including the Marks Brothers, the Dumbells and the McDowell and Tavernier companies. By the 1950s, however, it had come to be used almost exclusively as a movie theatre.
In 1956, the Festival began renting the Avon as a second venue for non-Shakespearean productions, musicals and such ancillary events as music concerts and film screenings. The building was purchased by the Festival in 1963 and its interior renovated under the direction of Tanya Moiseiwitsch. With its traditional configuration of proscenium arch and orchestra pit, the Avon Theatre now houses every kind of production from Shakespearean and other classics to large-scale musicals and modern drama.
The building’s exterior was remodelled in 1967 by John B. Parkin Associates, architects, and in 1983-84 a three-storey addition to the rear of the theatre was built to house expanded dressing-room facilities, a full scenery-production workshop to supply all of the Festival’s theatres, an actors’ lounge, a wig room, administrative offices and several rehearsal halls.
For the Festival’s 50th season in 2002, the Avon underwent its most extensive renewal to date. Architects Terry Marklevitz, Elizabeth Davidson and Peter Smith created a completely new facade and lobby; the project also involved a complete refurbishment of the auditorium (which seats nearly 1,100 patrons), the replacement of heating and air-conditioning systems and the installation of state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment. The theatre’s scene shop was moved off-site to a facility on Brunswick Street, and in its place was created a fourth performance space,the Studio Theatre.
The Tom Patterson Theatre
In 1971, under the artistic directorship of Jean Gascon, the Festival established the Third Stage, a small, modestly equipped theatre in leased premises (occupied in the winter months by the Stratford Badminton Club) on Lakeside Drive by the Avon River. It was to be used for workshops and performances of new Canadian plays and contemporary plays from abroad, for experimental productions of classical theatre and for chamber opera.
Closed to the public in 1976 and 1977 (though still used for workshop programs), the Third Stage reopened in 1978, and performances continued there until the end of the 1980 season. In 1981 it was again used only for workshops, being reopened in 1982 to house the Shakespeare 3 Company and the Virtuoso Performance Series. In 1983, when the Shakespeare 3 Company was renamed the Young Company, the space was renovated to accommodate a new stage designed by Desmond Heeley, along with seating for 410 people.
In 1987, while Robin Phillips was Director of the Young Company, a new modular stage was created and seating capacity was increased to 500. Further changes were made in 1990 by Debra Hanson, then Head of Design. The stage was stained to a deeper colour of oak, the back wall was moved forward by 10 feet, the heights and angles of entrances were reproportioned, and the end of the thrust was softened by angling the square corners. The venue maintained most of its capacity, seating patrons on three sides of the “runway-style” thrust stage.
In 1991, during the tenure of Artistic Director David William, the space was renamed the Tom Patterson Theatre in honour of the Festival’s founder.
The Studio Theatre
At the instigation of David William’s successor, Richard Monette, the Studio Theatre was created in 2002 as part of the extensive renovation of the Avon Theatre. With its own entrance on George Street, the Studio was constructed within the former Avon Theatre scene shop to the specifications of architect Elizabeth Davidson, set designer Michael Eagan and lighting designer Rob Thomson.
Harking back to the original vision of Tyrone Guthrie and Tanya Moiseiwitsch, the Studio’s stage is a smaller and modified version of the Festival Theatre’s thrust, with a pillared balcony and seating for 260 patrons surrounding it on three sides.
Ideally suited to experiment and innovation, the Studio made its debut with a season of new Canadian work: five original one-act plays and one adaptation, plus a full-length drama in verse. In the years since, it has been home to repertoire of all kinds, from Shakespeare to musical theatre. Because of the venue’s intimate nature, members of the company have affectionately nicknamed it "the chapel."
"Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On"
Ever since its first season, the Stratford Festival has set benchmarks for the production 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, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, 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 premièred – works by outstanding Canadian and other contemporary playwrights.
The Festival’s artists have included the finest actors, directors and designers in Canada, as well as many from abroad. Among the internationally renowned performers who have graced its stages are Alan Bates, Brian Bedford, Douglas Campbell, Len Cariou, Brent Carver, Hume Cronyn, Brian Dennehy, Colm Feore, Megan Follows, Lorne Greene, Paul Gross, Uta Hagen, Julie Harris, Martha Henry, William Hutt, James Mason, Eric McCormack, Loreena McKennitt, Richard Monette, John Neville, Nicholas Pennell, Amanda Plummer, Christopher Plummer, Sarah Polley, Douglas Rain, Kate Reid, Jason Robards, Paul Scofield, William Shatner, Maggie Smith, Jessica Tandy, Peter Ustinov and Al Waxman.