I saw my first Shakespeare play performed there. Had my first motorcycle ride there. My first job out of journalism there. My first (and only) dance with CTV anchor Lloyd Robertson. My first (and only) performance on the Festival stage.
How do I write about the Stratford Festival and how it fits into My Canada in a few hundred words?
When you grow up in southern Ontario, you take the festival for granted: that’s where you go for the annual English bus trip to see a play. It wasn’t until I lived in Nova Scotia and was studying Renaissance Theatre as part of my MA studies that I realized what was at my childhood doorstep: my classmates had never seen a Shakespeare play live on stage because they grew up in parts of the world without a company that mounted classic works.
Some of my drama-club friends from high school went on to become professional actors and there was much joy when one of the gang got hired for what was then called an “apprentice” role (no speaking parts) at Stratford. My visit with actor pal Tony was the occasion of that almost-ill-fated motorcycle ride. He had a bike, took me out on it when I came to visit and see his shows, and I didn’t realize you needed to lean with the slant of the bike until almost too late.
For many years I worked as a journalist in London, Ontario, did some on-the-side freelance reviewing for the now-defunct Theatrum magazine, and served on the board of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. When the Festival was looking to hire someone to run its media office, I threw my hat in the ring and found myself with an office in the Festival Theatre building where I had spent so many memorable afternoons and evenings as a theatre-goer.
I will likely babble these facts when I am an incoherent crone in a nursing home: The Stratford Festival is Canada’s largest non-profit arts organization and the largest repertory theatre in North America. It has four theatres: the largest is the Festival Theatre, with 1,824 seats built in 1956, replacing and emulating the tent pitched over the thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch in 1953; the proscenium arch (aka “normal”) Avon Theatre, built in 1901, taken over by the festival in 1963 and refurbished in 2000/2001; the Tom Patterson Theatre, with 487 seats (although now more with a recent change from U shaped audience seating to “arena” seating); and the 260-seat Studio Theatre, opened in 2002 and located in a 1980s’ addition to the Avon that used to house the set-building shops, which themselves are now located at a separate building in Stratford, along with the theatre’s extensive archives and costume warehouse. The Festival launched in 1953 under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie featuring two Shakespeare plays: Richard III, starring Alec Guinness (aka Obi-Wan), and All’s Well That Ends Well, with Irene Worth as Helena and Don Harron as Bertram.
And yes, I typed that last paragraph in three minutes flat without looking anything up.
I worked at the Festival for five years and one sure thing I took away from my tenure was the enviable level of knowledge everyone who worked there absorbed about the Festival story. From the custodian to the usher, everyone knew the Festival narrative: about how Stratford-born Tom Patterson, who served in the Second World War and initially worked as a journalist, thought his hometown needed something to boost its economic future as railway and manufacturing jobs declined. How he convinced the city council to give him $125 to pay for a trip to New York to talk to Laurence Olivier, who wouldn’t see Patterson. How against all crazy-ass odds, Tyrone Guthrie became interested, hired some British stars and a core of Canadian actors, and made theatre history.
I was fortunate to work at Stratford during the Festival’s 50th anniversary season in 2002, when attendance hit 673,000 tickets to 18 plays (albeit a few of them one acts paired up as single evenings of theatre), an astonishing high-water mark. In recent years, attendance has settled in the 450,000-ticket range, with much popping of metaphorical corks in 2016 when it moved up to 512,000 tickets.
What was so golden about 2002? Christopher Plummer in King Lear was a big draw, for certain, but it was also a chance for everyone who had ever been to Stratford, or wanted to go, to make it a destination trip for that special anniversary year. The previous Sept. 11, planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in an act of terrorism, and Americans were nervous about getting on planes: tightened restrictions on the U.S.-Canada border, and requirements for passports for border crossings were yet to come, so a summer vacation in bucolic Stratford seemed a lovely choice in 2002. The festival was opening the Studio Theatre. CTV National News with Lloyd Robertson live broadcasted its evening news from the front of the Festival Theatre (which is how I ended up dancing with Robertson at the post-show reception held in a tent pitched on the Festival grounds). As a media-relations lead, I knew the 50th would get a lot of media attention: my job was to “supersize it”, to quote a fast-food marketing term. That, we did.
The festival then had about 1,000 people in its employ, some year round, although the majority on seasonal contracts: actors, musicians, technicians, designers, directors, craftspeople (to make costumes, jewelry, boots, swords and props), carpenters, front-of-house staff (ushers, bartenders), and we administrators. It’s its own village within the small city of Stratford, population 32,000. There’s something called the “Stratford swivel”: if you were going to talk about anything going on at the theatres in a public place, you first did a 360-degree scan to see if anyone you knew was sitting near.
However, like in a small town, the festival community cared for its own. When Libby Anderson, a much-beloved long-time administrator of the company, was in cancer treatments, one of the Festival actors, David Hogan (“Hogie”), decided to organize a fundraiser in her honour. This became “Grand Night”, which ran for five years at the end of each season. Everyone donated their time.
While after the inaugural year actors lined up to perform numbers in this variety show, in the first year, David solicited some volunteers from the administrative and backstage employees. My boss remembered from my CV that I had sung in choirs, and suggested I get tapped, which is how I ended up part of an octet of performers singing and dancing to “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” from the musical State Fair as the evening’s opening number. As a teen-aged actor, I’d dreamed of performing on the Festival stage. Not quite what I had in mind but, that’s how life goes. My mother, this same fall, had been diagnosed with cancer and was too ill to attend. Actor C. David Johnston, who was in the audience and had taped the show, heard about my mom, and lent me his tape. I remember playing that video for mom at her hospice, weeks before she died, and the last time she laughed in her life was at some hijinks from that show.
I went on to other career opportunities but return to Stratford to see plays and to catch up with friends and colleagues. Everyone who goes to Stratford, I think, has my sense of connection, of owning their special Stratford story. The place inspires deep loyalty in its audience: when I worked there, about 20 per cent of ticket buyers bought 80 per cent of the tickets, people buying for themselves and children and grandchildren, or people seeing the entire season plus additional lectures and events. There is recognition that this loyal, older audience needs to expand; much is done now to attract younger audiences through everything from last-minute sales deals on social media to popular, inexpensive Festival-run buses to Stratford from Toronto.
The actors who work at Stratford have that sense of connection to story: newcomers hear the tales of seasons past from veterans. Theatre patrons who meet up at restaurants and pubs tell their stories, too, of past productions they loved (or loathed). The Festival invests in traditions, such as having a quintet of musicians play Fanfares prior to each Festival Theatre performance, that create shared memories. There are swans by the river, and gardens galore. There is space, and time, to reflect. Theatregoers experience some of the best stories ever told, by Greek playwrights, by Shakespeare, by contemporary authors. Those stories onstage open our hearts’ doors to let out the stories tucked inside each of us that make us who we are.
Main photo on the Festival Theatre exterior balcony: Chris Moorehead.