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The Story of the Festival Stage

The following article has been slightly adapted from one that appeared in the Stratford Festival’s 1972 souvenir program. It was written by James R. Aikens, the Festival’s Archivist from 1971 to 1976.

The central and still the most important feature of the Stratford Festival is the Festival Theatre, and at the heart of that theatre is the remarkable thrust stage still known to artists and staff simply as the “Festival stage.” More than anything else, it is that stage that has given the Festival its unique and enduring character.

But the Festival stage was not entirely new even in 1953. It did not spring forth fully grown from the fertile mind of Tyrone Guthrie. The stage and the style of production it encourages have roots in the distant and also the more recent past. This account is intended to cast some light on the history and evolution of the Festival stage and to discuss some aspects of its importance and influence.

Part 1
Before considering the immediate predecessors of the Festival stage we should take a very brief glance back over the centuries of theatre history that lie behind it.

Among the more notable ruins of the Hellenistic civilization are the great theatres of the Greeks. In the remains of the theatre at Epidaurus we can see how the vast bowl-like amphitheatre wrapped itself around the open playing area.

When the Greek theatres and their Roman successors became ruins, the actors turned to the marketplace, where wandering minstrels and clowns brightened the “Dark Ages” from their improvised platforms.

These same market squares later provided the setting for the great religious epics of the middle ages. The crowding and excitement of these medieval performances were carried over into the playhouses that were built once again in Renaissance Europe.

In the Elizabethan theatre, as in the Greek, the audience virtually surrounded an open playing area. But the huge Grecian amphitheatre was gone; in its place was a crowded, noisy pit in which the “groundlings” stood, and galleries from which the gentry looked down. The playhouse became a place where actor and audience met in an inescapably close and intimate relationship.

On these open stage platforms, relatively barren of scenery, vigorous action played an important part in the staging. As well, in a theatre where only a few feet separated performer and spectator, there was ample opportunity for intimate conversation: for soliloquy and aside. It was for such a stage in such a theatre that the great classics of Elizabethan drama were written.

Within a few decades of the death of Shakespeare, the form of theatre began to change. Painted scenery became more prominent. When new playhouses were constructed in England after the Restoration, they were indoors with a stage placed at one end of a rectangular room. Plays were acted on a long fore-stage that jutted out from a background of changing scenery. A greater use of music in the theatre thrust an orchestra pit between the spectator and the stage.

The fore-stage gradually shrank and the scenic effects increased in importance until, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the actor performed completely surrounded by scenery and completely cut off from the audience by a picture-frame or proscenium which enclosed the setting.

On this kind of stage marvellous scenic effects were possible, and all its resources were exploited by the major producers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The kind of pictorial, realistic illusion that these theatres fostered reached its inevitable peak with the development of the motion picture. The proscenium now framed nothing but pictures; pictorial realism could go no further.

Before the end of the nineteenth century, attempts were being made to move away from the proscenium stage, particularly for the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. So much of the text of the plays had to be sacrificed, whole scenes eliminated or transposed to make it possible to provide realistic settings. Even then, the plays were broken by long, noisy waits for the scenery to be changed.

By far the most important of these experimenters was William Poel. He, and the English Stage Society which he founded in 1894, attempted production of old plays in their original form and under stage conditions for which they had been written.

Poel’s first such production was of Hamlet in 1881. Using the full text of the first Quarto, he staged the play at St. George’s Hall in London on an open stage without changeable scenery. This emphasis on open staging coupled with a concern with speech was Poel’s great contribution to the development of the theatre. Its importance was not fully realized till many decades later.

Many other producers followed Poel in trying to break away from the proscenium. In England, on the Continent, in America, plays were performed in arenas, in boxing rings, on all sorts of improvised stages. Although some new theatres were built on the principles of the open stage, the mainstream of the theatrical world continued to use the older forms.

Constructing a totally new theatre is an expensive business; few people are willing to experiment with millions of dollars. Thus, though there were a growing number of open stages, thrust stages, apron stages and arena stages, they generally had a temporary or inexpensive air about them and failed to produce any definite turn-about in theatre architecture.

Part 2
Tyrone Guthrie began his long theatrical career in the 1920s, just as William Poel’s was drawing to a close. In his autobiography, A Life in the Theatre, Guthrie tells of his growing conviction that, for Shakespeare, the proscenium stage was unsatisfactory.

This conviction was strengthened in 1936 by an accident of the weather at the castle of Elsinore in Denmark, where the Old Vic was to present an outdoor performance of Hamlet. Torrential rains forced the actors indoors to the shelter of their hotel ballroom where the play was staged “in the round.”

Guthrie commented: “I should never have suggested staging this rather important occasion as we did if I had not already had a strong hunch that it would work. At its best moments that performance in the ballroom related the audience to a Shakespeare play in a different, and I thought, more logical, satisfactory and effective way than can ever be achieved in a theatre of what is still regarded as orthodox design.”

Despite the success of this accidental experiment, Guthrie was not able to put his ideas into practice until twelve years later, when he was asked to direct a Scots play for the Edinburgh Festival. He chose a sixteenth-century work, Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaites, and a definitely unorthodox theatre: the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland.

In this large neo-Gothic hall he erected “a first sketch” for the sort of stage he had long hoped to establish. It was a large, open platform, longer than it was wide, accessible from three sides with a gallery across the back reached by two flights of stairs. So unexpectedly successful was this surprising production that it was revived in 1949 and 1959, and the Assembly Hall became an important theatrical arena.

By the early 1950s, the idea of producing Shakespeare on an open stage was a common one; the time was ripe for action. On March 24, 1952, Guthrie told the Shakespeare Stage Society: “There will be no drastic improvement in staging Shakespeare until there is a return to certain basic conditions of the Shakespeare stage. There is no need for an exact replica of the Globe Theatre, but it is essential to make the contact between players and audience as intimate as possible.”

In April, John Gielgud spoke in a lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, reiterating the same theme. Then, in May, in the midst of this active discussion of the open stage, came Dora Mavor Moore’s letter to Guthrie asking “unofficially” if he would be interested in an open-air Shakespeare festival in an obscure but aptly named Canadian town – Stratford, Ontario.

His reply was encouraging: “I am intensely interested to produce Shakespeare on a stage which might reproduce the actor-audience relation for which he wrote… I assume that at Stratford, Ont., the stage and auditorium are still to be made. And, if I could influence their design, I would be very happy to do so.”

This “unofficial” letter was soon followed by Tom Patterson’s famous trans-Atlantic telephone call and, in July, Guthrie was in Stratford. It is, perhaps, more than mere coincidence that at the same time a number of actors, scholars and ardent Shakespeareans were gathering in London to celebrate the centenary of the birth of William Poel.

Guthrie’s suggestions for a stage “embodying the functional but not the decorative features of an Elizabethan Theatre” were immediately accepted by the committee of Stratford citizens planning the Festival and he returned to England – to be followed soon after by Tom Patterson on a “shopping trip” for a director, a designer and a star.

Guthrie was the obvious choice for director; his first choice for a star was Alec Guinness. To everyone’s surprise and delight, Guinness accepted the offer, passing up many more lucrative opportunities. In Guthrie’s words, “the deciding factors were the opportunity to play Shakespeare in the particular conditions which our stage afforded, and also to take part in what he felt to be a pioneering venture of a gallant and unselfish kind.”

Patterson secured the services of Tanya Moiseiwitsch, a gifted English designer, to create not only the costumes for the plays but also the stage and theatre itself. Seldom is a designer given such overwhelming responsibility and opportunity; Tanya Moiseiwitsch was the ideal person for the task.

She had collaborated with Guthrie in the past and had long shared his dream of a new kind of stage. In 1949 she had designed a permanent set for his production of Henry VIII at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in which they “tried to ignore the proscenium situation.” Two years later, at the same theatre, she produced a brilliant single setting for Anthony Quayle’s production of the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays, incorporating a semi-permanent set with an extended fore-stage.

In designing the Stratford stage Moiseiwitsch was able to draw upon Guthrie’s experience at Edinburgh: “I had not seen the Guthrie production of 3 Estaites, but I had seen a photograph of the stage and setting for that piece, and the measurements and dimensions of the acting area were given to me as a sort of starting-point. The advantages of the raised stage with steps down to a moat area were all very much recommended to me, but with important improvements of measurements suggested, e.g. wider steps, shallower risers, and from experience of exits and entrances, as many ways on and off as possible, to allow speedy clearance after a crowd scene, and no piling-up and slowing-down of traffic to interfere with the next and probably overlapping scene.”

As they worked together through the autumn of 1952, “Rough sketches on the backs of envelopes gave place to careful drawings… Drawings gave place to detailed construction plans. Finally a model was made – an exact replica of the stage which was eventually built.”

The actual construction of the stage and auditorium began early in the spring of 1953. The architect was Robert Fairfield of Toronto, the general contractor the John Gaffney Construction Company of Stratford. As soon as weather permitted, grading and excavating work began, and concrete was poured for the auditorium and stage foundation.

In the centre of this concrete bowl, Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s stage became a reality, free standing at the focus of the circular amphitheatre. Around it was erected a huge tent, one of the largest on the continent. The Stratford Festival Theatre had been created.

Part 3
On Monday, July 13, 1953, Alec Guinness as Richard III stood on the jutting balcony and quietly spoke the first lines to be uttered on the new stage: “Now is the winter of our discontent /
Made glorious summer by this 
sun of York.” A winter of discontent and confusion, of hard work and dedication was indeed made glorious by the remarkable success of the Festival.

Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s daring stage was amply justified by Tyrone Guthrie’s fluid use of it. Herbert Whittaker of The Globe and Mail wrote: “The swirl of the production, the moments of ritualism, the violence of the battle scenes and general acts of assassination were flung against the olive-coloured framework of the set in never-ending flow.”

Of All’s Well That Ends Well, the second play of the opening season, Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Guthrie’s performance flows without effort across the apron stage up and down the stairs, through the forest of columns and out of the ports in the pit.” The experiment had succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Each year at the end of summer the tent was taken down, but the concrete auditorium and the stage remained in place through the winter. The growing success of the Festival made a permanent building a necessity, and immediately after the 1956 season construction work began. But the Festival company was not there to see it; they had journeyed to Edinburgh to present their productions of Henry V and Oedipus Rex in that same Assembly Hall whose stage had provided the inspiration for their own.

When they returned to Stratford for the 1957 season it was to virtually the same stage – window balconies had been added above the rear doors – but to a completely new theatre, also designed by Robert Fairfield. The exact centre of this new building was directly above the middle pillar of the stage balcony. The central importance to the Festival stage could hardly be more aptly illustrated. It had been lovingly enclosed within a building whose imaginative qualities matched its own originality.

The present Festival stage is not identical with that first one; the differences are small but important. Michael Langham, who first came to Stratford in 1955 and succeeded Guthrie as Artistic Director in the next season, developed an unsurpassed mastery over the open stage. His years of experience with it pointed out certain deficiencies, which were remedied in 1962.

Designers Tanya Moiseiwitsch and Brian Jackson, in collaboration with the directors, arrived at two major adjustments. The original balcony had been supported by nine slender pillars; it was indeed “a forest of columns.” These were replaced by five larger ones. The balcony height was raised and the floor beneath it slightly altered to make it into an independent area. The rear facade was dramatically changed. The original two entrances flanking the balcony were concealed by hinged panels and new ones built at the extreme corners of the stage area. Other smaller changes in décor were also made.

Why were these changes made? The answers are illuminating.

Michael Langham discussed the new stage at length before its first season: “The feminine character of the pillared balcony has seemed at odds with the more robust masculine works. The stage has seemed more in tune with the spirit of the comedies than with that of the histories and tragedies. As there are more of the latter in the Shakespearean canon than of the former, it seems reasonable, during at least the next decade, to bring about what might be called a change of sex. A bolder, more spacious, more rugged appearance is therefore planned.

“The two side stairway entrances have proved ineffectual for strong or dignified entrances. They seem to have a ‘backstairs’ aura, and tended to propel characters down a narrow flight of stairs straight into a pillar…

“Shakespeare’s plays frequently require a clash of opposing forces or characters – a situation effectively exploited on the stage if there is a direct diagonal approach from opposing corners leading to inevitable conflict in the centre. This is planned for in the new stage by setting the rear side doors directly opposite the tunnels.”

For all their importance, these alterations were primarily technical adjustments; the basic philosophy of the open stage remained unchanged.

The undeniable success of the Festival stage made it a model for theatres in many parts of the world. Its most direct descendants are the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England. Both were designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. Also in England, the Chichester Festival Theatre, patterned after Stratford’s, was first opened in 1962. It incorporated a thrust stage made of Canadian maple, a gift from the Stratford Festival.

Many other theatres have drawn on the principle of Stratford’s open stage without following it in detail: the Vivian Beaumont Theater of New York’s Lincoln Center and the theatre of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa are two notable examples. Looking far into the future, one can almost see the day when, in a world full of Stratford stages, some daring innovator creates a sensation by staging a play with scenery and behind a proscenium arch.

Part 4
What is this remarkable stage like? The basic stage is a small fourteen-foot by eighteen-foot five-sided platform, surrounded by three stepped levels descending to an encircling “gutter.” The balcony, an incomplete square with sides of ten feet, is built on a diagonal with one corner set in the rear facade and the opposite one jutting prow-like over the stage.

There are a total of nine possible entrances to the acting areas, not including the auditorium aisles, which are often used: a central entrance beneath the balcony, which is almost turned into two by the dividing effect of the central pillar; an upper door onto the balcony; the two hinged panels which replaced the original side doorways; the two new side doorways; the trap door in the stage floor; and the two tunnels opening on to the stage from beneath the auditorium.

These tunnels lead to the “underworld” beneath the stage, from which stairs ascend to the main floor and rear of the balcony. The number of combinations of entrance and exit is immense.

The auditorium surrounds the stage in a 220-degree sweep – in the original tent theatre the encirclement was even more complete – and the rear facade blends imperceptibly with the auditorium walls. The whole building, stage and auditorium, is thus made a single architectural space with a common focal point.

Those are the facts, the basic bones of the stage as a structure. Of the qualities as a playing area, however, there is much to tell. The Festival theatre is a complete environment intended for the production of plays, and it has its own very definite effect on the actor, the audience and the play itself.

The first and most obvious effect is the fluidity of the staging. The word flow, in fact, occurred in both reviews of the opening performances quoted above. The absence of scenery and hence of the necessity to change the scenery is, of course, one important feature, but this quality was inherent in the basic design of the stage.

From the beginning Tanya Moiseiwitsch was asked to consider “as many ways on and off as possible” to ensure “speedy clearance” and avoid “piling up and slowing down of traffic.” The speedier tempo possible on the open stage has give rise to something of a Stratford convention: that people tend to run off stage rather than walk. From centre stage to one of the rear exits is a long distance for an actor to walk. But far from distracting, such urgent exits often tend to increase the excitement of the play.

Finally, to Shakespeareans perhaps the most important advantage of such continually flowing productions is that the plays can be presented in their entirety. If they are cut or altered, it will not simply be an expedient to save time. William Poel would have been pleased.

Whether aswirl with motion or not, the stage presents a three-dimensional, plastic event rather than the flat, two-dimensional effect of a proscenium stage, especially in a large theatre. The stage itself, with its deep, rich stain, its many levels and harmonious balance, is a sculpture, different in perspective for every viewer yet always visually satisfying. Dressed and peopled with actors, it retains this quality; each spectator sees a slightly different scene.

One result, of course, is that an individual spectator will often find himself viewing someone’s back. Such a predicament can pose a problem, especially at those moments when words and facial expressions should be perceived together. On the other hand, the situation makes the words even more important than usual and forces the spectator to concentrate and deepen his or her attention.

Michael Langham’s comments, though in a larger context, are related to this effect: “On the picture frame or ‘operatic’ stage the actors must needs play to the audience and only pretend to play to each other, while on the open stage their bond of relationship is direct, true and complete, and serves to pull the audience deeply into the experience of the play.”

It has often been suggested that attempts to avoid leaving any one section of the audience staring at the actor’s back have led to excessive motion and “busy-ness.” Jean Gascon [Artistic Director from 1969 to 1974] found himself growing more and more resistant to this kind of movement for the sake of movement: “It is a terrible temptation to both actor and director, but it can be a dangerous trap. There is an inevitable tendency to repeat the same patterns.”

Much of this patterned movement arises from the fact that the actors are related to each other in a complex, three-dimensional way, but some arises from the structure of the stage itself. Directors and designers have often been vexed attempting to cope with the troublesome central pillar of the balcony.

Tanya Moiseiwitsch explained that she “did not want to favour one part of the audience more than another which I felt a centre entrance might do, and the centre column forces the stream of traffic to fan out, taking the whole house into its span. The column got there first, the ‘reasoning’ followed I suspect, and the column got there to support the balcony… The strong statement made by the balcony-angle I believe accentuated Guthrie’s preference for diagonally planned choreography.”

This innate impulse to sweeping diagonal patterns was furthered by the 1962 alterations, which made the side doors such strong and important entrances and placed them directly opposite the tunnels. Given these basic strictures, the degree of movement will, of course, ultimately depend on the director, his tastes and experience. Let it only be said that Stratford has seen some productions which suffered not at all from their restrained action.

As far as the actor is concerned, the open stage imposes great demands. He or she becomes very important indeed. Michael Langham commented: “Clearly – because of the absence of any visual distractions or competition in the background – great emphasis is placed on the actor – his personality seems twice the size it is in a picture frame.”

Being seen from virtually all sides at all times, the actor must bring a total concentration to his or her role. All acting requires concentration but, said Jean Gascon, “The minimum required on this stage is much higher than on a normal proscenium arch. The actor must constantly feel the audience behind him if he is to reach them. His body must be totally present, as much his instrument as is his voice.”

William Hutt, long one of the Festival’s leading actors, said much the same thing in a different way: “An actor cannot lie on that stage. On a proscenium stage he has the protection of scenery at this back. Here, if he is to be successful, he must be able to respond intuitively to the size and shape of the space which surrounds him.”

The demands of the open stage for bigness come into conflict with the intimacy of the auditorium. As Jean Gascon noted, “The actor is required to appear both natural and real, and, at the same time, be bigger than life.’ This is the paradox of all acting; the open stage intensifies it.

That the Stratford stage demands a special style is disputable; that its method is based on its own very special philosophy is not. Michael Langham put it most eloquently: “The philosophy of this Canadian Stratford is something like this: if you work with the actors they will create for you the totality of life. The stage will not be some literal, fixed location but at any given moment will constitute the crucible in which the living elements of the play will interact. We do not ask our audiences to believe that what they are seeing is really taking place, as in real life. We ask them to indulge with us in a game of make-believe, but to retain sufficient objectivity to be conscious of the parallel between real life and this heightened, ritualistic performance of it.”

The audience plays an important role in any performance. At Stratford its relation to the production is direct and immediate. The audience participates in the plays as it would in events in real life. There is not the kind of identification with the actor that can take place when he plays in that other world behind the proscenium. From its first view of the theatre interior, the audience is captured by the pull of the stage.

Another observer noted that “there is a relationship with the stage for which intimacy, the usual term, seems insufficient; there is in the relationship intensity and expectation, tautness rather than relaxation arising from the pronounced centripetal tendency of the design.”

The actor and audience share the same architectural space, the same room. They are involved together in a communal event. The resultant feeling of participation in the performance contributes immeasurably to the emotional attachment that has grown up between the Festival and its public. The audience has also come to accept the stage without thinking about it. It becomes simply another part of the building in which they watch the play.

While a completely bare stage has been rare in Stratford productions, additions and alterations have generally been minor. Occasionally a great deal of scenery is superimposed on the basic structure, but it never disguises it – if it attempts to do so, it always fails. A great deal of “lumber” is generally unnecessary. Very striking effects can be achieved with very little. A bright swatch of cloth, a few falling leaves, a little greenery can produce remarkable changes in mood.

The best way to decorate the stage, though, is to do it with costumed actors. Gorgeous pictures can be arranged – living, moving pictures, which do not have to be carried on and off as scenery so often does.

While this accepted architectural quality of the stage has been one of its greatest strengths, forcing attention onto the play and not what can be done to it, it is also one of its greatest challenges. When asked what changes he would like to see in the stage, Jean Gascon spoke of the inflexibility of the rear facade. The balcony is the most distinctive and noticeable feature of the stage – even when a balcony should not be noticeable. However, there always remains the question of whether a changeable background, detracting as it must from the aesthetic integrity of the structure, would not tend to lead to change for change’s sake.

As Gascon noted, “While it is certainly not a perfect stage, it is a very challenging one.” To William Hutt, “This stage serves Shakespeare better than any other, but it is still to my mind an experimental one. No one can prejudge what may or may not be done upon it.”

The continuing challenge and experiment can only help those concerned to stretch and grow in their endeavours to change it from inflexible tyrant to hospitable friend.


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