The Stratford Festival was born in 1953 when – through the vision of Tom Patterson – a group of players, aside the River Avon in Stratford Ontario, took stage under a canvas tent and wowed the audience with a live performance of Richard III. Since then, for the last sixty one years, hundreds of thousands of people have come from countries around the globe to partake in the festivities. And finally, after much anticipation and long overdue, this Local Lux has partaken in what is arguably a theatre experience of a lifetime.
Most known for it’s river-side Festival Theatre – the Stratford Festival is actually made up of four theatres within Stratford. The other three are the Avon Theatre, the Tom Patterson Theatre and the Studio Theatre each of which I’ve yet to have the pleasure of setting foot inside. Each a historical site in Stratford by rite or simply by the fact that they are part of this prestigious theatre company.
Unlike other Ontario theatres, like the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Festival Theatre, Avon Theatre, Tom Patterson Theatre and Studio theatre all adopt what I’ve learned to call a “thrust” stage. New to me, this setup erases the lines between audience and players as imposed by most traditional stages and has the stage thrust out into the middle of the theatre. Visually speaking, the stage pokes out from the backdrop of the performance like the round connecting part of a puzzle piece. From lights up I was immediately entranced and felt not so much like the member of an audience but more like I was privy to a private performance.
A STAR IS BORN
Many great players of the 21st century were born on the stages of the Stratford Festival. A true piece of Stratford history, this Festival has hosted the likes of Christopher Plummer, William Shatner and Maggie Smith before their names were nearly as memorable as they are today. And, although never accomplished on the stages of the festival, it isn’t uncommon for Justin Bieber to busk on the steps of the theatre every now-and-again – after all, Stratford is where Justin Bieber was born, raised and discovered.
Today, the Festival Theatre continues to train the most promising up-and-comers in the business of theatre – from elementary, high school and college/ university students through to teachers and theatre professionals, there are education and training courses for anyone looking. Not to mention, the Stratford Festival offers a wide array of tours, activities for families, musical workshops, debates, panel discussions, events and other ways to engage you and I in a fun and meaningful theatre experience beyond being an audience member.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
During this first visit to the Stratford Festival, I had the great pleasure of seeing Fiddler on the Roof. Starring Scott Wentworth, this musical tells the story of a devout, poor, Jewish, milkman named Tevye living in a small village surrounded by his wife and five daughters. The musical dialogue is a balance between Tevye talking to the “man upstairs” and the happenings of the many players in this classic tale. Experiencing this show was actually quite nostalgic – as a child my parents enjoyed watching the movie and their love for it was contagious. By my tween years I owned the CD and could both sing and play on the piano just about every song. When I was 13 my father took me to see my first play – Fiddler on the Roof at the O’Keefe Center (now the Sony Centre) in Toronto starring Chaim Topol who played Tevye in the original movie. Speechless and star-struck it was there, at that particular show, that I absolutely fell in love with the theatre. And, since then, every year I have been attending performance after performance and, in doing so, opening my eyes to a world of fiction, fantasy, adventure and lore that even some books cannot match. My experience at the Stratford Festival – to date – outdid them all. It was also especially special because I invited my mother and father along – very reminiscent of my Toronto memory for sure.
Such performances, like Fiddler on the Roof at the Stratford Festival, make me wish that I had no need for blinking.
The raw energy and heart on that thrust stage spread through me like wildfire and I found myself laughing and crying and yearning for more despite the knot in my stomach from all the emotion. I was wholly transfixed – heart and soul – to the story, cast and am sure that this was the first of a life-long love story that is to be written between myself and the Stratford Festival.
PROPS, COSTUMES AND ARCHIVES
As if the performance itself wasn’t enough, earlier in the day I had the opportunity to visit the Costume and Props Warehouse – all 75000 square feet of it. Also located in this warehouse, although not open to the public, are the great Stratford Festival Archives. Each year some of the pieces from each play are put aside to be stored in the archives so that, years from today, those who aren’t with us now will have the pleasure of living our experiences through the stories told by the archives.
Seeing as Google Maps turns you the wrong direction on Douro Road, hubby and I were happy to find the warehouse in time for the tour. When we arrived we were pleased that there were only seven people in our group – it allowed for a more intimate tour, more questions, more answers and – best of all – more browsing! However, I wish I had more time to explore the aisles and make myself better acquainted with all the pieces. From clothing and shoes to gold-feathered pears, from barrels to foam food and severed heads in boxes – the costume and props warehouse has treasures and surprises around each corner. I must, at this point, say thank you to Joanne, our guide, for welcoming us so warmly to the warehouse and send her my congratulations for graduating from the Stratford Festival volunteer program as a tour guide. There is so much to know and she did a fabulous job telling us all about
ROOTED IN SHAKESPEARE AND THE GLOBE THEATRE
During the tour I had the pleasure of meeting who I would describe as quite a refined British gentleman. Having arrived a few short days before from London, England he knew (to say the least) much about the Shakespearean mecca known around the world as The Globe Theatre. Built as a replica of Shakespeare’s own theatre, the Globe Theatre and its original creator – William Shakespeare – is where the Stratford Festival draws their inspiration. Hence, you will always find the Stratford Festival showcasing the talented stories of William Shakespeare (among other classics).
Neil – my new British acquaintance is actually a well-known theatre “aficionado” and was being hosted in Stratford to experience all the graces that the Festival has to offer. Thankfully, much like myself, he was slow to jump into the “dress-up and have your picture taken on a fake throne” portion of the tour. I must say, it was nice to observe from the sidelines with someone like-minded and chat about theatre life in the UK. Needless to say, inspired by being in Stratford a chatting with this fine British fellow, my decision to visit The Globe Theatre in England sometime in the near future was solidified; how great it would be to stand on the same soil as Shakespeare himself. And, here’s hoping that I may have the opportunity to run into this refined British man again and learn more about his pride and joy – The Globe Theatre and the almost complete Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
STRATFORD FESTIVAL ARTISTIC DIRECTOR – ANTONI CIMOLINO
While on the warehouse tour we learned that the 2013 season has brought with it a new Artistic Director for the theatre, Antoni Cimolino. Having been involved with the Stratford Festival in many different roles for the majority of his life, Antoni brings a marriage of tradition and fresh vision to the stage. I especially like this quote found on the Stratford Festival website as it tells us a lot about his love for theatre and puts into words what I’ve always believed to be true about the collective theatre experience:
I believe that the essential role of theatre is to help us feel and understand. We go to the theatre to enter into the experiences of others – the characters on stage. We hope to be moved to laughter and to tears in the company of others – our fellow audience members. And from that collective experience comes empathetic understanding. ~ Antoni Cimolino
But I will say, the Stratford Festival experience was much enriched for me with my stay in Stratford and my tour of their warehouse. I daresay – you shouldn’t ever visit one without the other. As for me, this Lux already has plans to return this summer to see a matinee of Romeo and Juliet and partake in a behind the scenes tour of the Festival Theatre itself.
Theatre is a great equalizer; whether young or old, butcher or banker, doctor or patient – the theatre brings us together to share in one human experience. That said, the Stratford Festival is a must-visit landmark for anyone who finds themselves, as I do, in love with theatre. You will not be disappointed – instead you will find yourself bursting with energy and emotion as the players whisk you away into a world where the lines are blurred between actor and audience and you will most certainly be left with no other desire but to return again and again.
All pictures for this Local Lux feature were provided by the Stratford Festival