Tuesday 10 September 2013

The Play's the Thing

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York."
(Richard III, William Shakespeare)

Maclean's journalist Tom Patterson had a vision for his hometown of Stratford, Ontario:  why not build a Shakespearean theatre?  So, he approached the City Council whose members agreed to give him $125 towards finding an artistic director.  A giant canvas was ordered from Chicago and mounted by the Avon River.  The first play, Richard III, opened on July 13, 1953.  Sixty years later, the Stratford Festival, with 12 plays and four venues, is the largest Shakespearean festival in North America.

Back in the early 1950's, the town of Stratford, a railroad town for 80 years, was suffering with the decline of the steam engine.  Tom Patterson knew the answer to the problem:  make the town into a cultural haven.  First, he approached Dora Mavor Moore, a pioneer of Canadian theatre, who wrote to British director Tyrone Guthrie.  He became the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada's first Artistic Director, a company incorporated on October 31, 1952.  

In the meantime, contractor Oliver Gaffrey was hired to build a concrete platform by the Avon River which he started in May of 1953.  The project was running out of money fast, but Mr. Gaffrey continued to build; at the last minute, two donors, Governor General Vincent Massey and Perth Mutual Insurance Company showed up on the scene.  

Alec Guinness was hired to play Richard III in the Festival's first production.  A second production,  All's Well That End's Well, starring Irene Worth, was also mounted.  Reviews were favourable enough that a planned 4 week run was extended to 6 weeks.  Author and playwright Robertson Davies called the season "an achievement of historic importance" not just in Canada but in the "civilized world".  


In the meantime, ground was broken for an enclosed theatre on the Avon River.  The design, rather than a traditional picture frame, followed the Elizabethan "apron stage", featuring a prodtruding platformwith a balcony, trap doors, nine levels and eight entrances.  The audience seating would be in a semi-circle like in Ancient Greece.  The outer walls were shaped in a circle with a pie-crust roof, to resemble the original tent.  Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater and Lincoln Center's Guthrie Theater were both patterned after the Stratford Theatre.  

Fest Int

The canvas tent was dismantled in 1956 and construction began on the permanent theatre the following winter, hampered by the harsh snowbelt conditions.  Vincent Massey set the cornerstone.  On July 1, 1957, the new theatre opened for business.  Hamlet, starring Christopher Plummer, opened to rave reviews.  Many big names followed including:  Lorne Greene, James Mason and William Shatner, among others. 

While William Shakespeare would be the primary playwright, other plays were performed including those by:  Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.  

The Stratford Festival would acquire other venues including the Avon Theatre in 1963, the Tom Patterson Theatre in 1971 and the Studio Theatre in 2002.  

The 2013 Season, which lasts from April to November, features 12 plays.  My son Thomas saw Romeo & Juliet with his high school class this year while my husband and I saw Tommy.  Which brings us full circle.  The Tom who started the festival has passed away.  But the theatre lives, a testament to his vision.

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