Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Designer Who Laid Stratford Fest's Planks With Passion, Dead at 88

Obituaries   Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Designer Who Laid Stratford Fest's Planks With Passion, Dead at 88 Tanya Moiseiwitsch, the London-born scenic and costume designer who would become the founding designer of Canada's internationally-renowned Stratford Festival, died Feb. 18 in London, England, at the age of 88, according to the Ontario festival.
Tanya Moiseiwitsch in 1953.
Tanya Moiseiwitsch in 1953. (Photo by Stratford Festival Archives)

Her most lasting contribution, beyond the more than 40 productions at the festival, was designing the flagship thrust stage there known as the Festival Theatre.

"Tanya loved Canada and she gave something to her adopted country that will go down as part of world theatre history," said Tom Patterson, the founder of the Stratford Festival, in a statement. "The Stratford stage has been copied around the globe and we Canadians will be ever grateful to her. She was not only a talented artist of the first rank, but a wonderful person who gave generously of her talents to the younger generation. We shall all miss her greatly."

"Tanya Moiseiwitsch was one of the 20th century's great theatre artists," said Stratford artistic director Richard Monette. "Apart from the brilliance of her productions, she left behind a unique and enduring legacy: the thrust stage she designed for the Stratford Festival of Canada. That stage revolutionized the performance of Shakespeare throughout the world, and it also revolutionized the way in which plays are written. For this alone she has earned her place in history. Yet though her talent was immense, it was matched by her modesty. She will be greatly missed."

When Tyrone Guthrie accepted the directorship of the Stratford Festival before its first season in 1953, he engaged Ms. Moiseiwitsch to design a stage for the Festival that would break away from the convention of the proscenium-arch or "picture-frame" theatre and return to the "thrust" style of stage on which Shakespeare's own company played. The design was revolutionary because it was the first thrust stage built in the Western theatre since Shakespeare's time, according to the festival. (After the theatres were shut down in the mid-1600s, the re-opened ones and ones built thereafter in the 18th century were in the proscenium style throughout Europe and later in North America.)

Ms. Moiseiwitsch's design for the Festival stage, first housed in the theatre tent and now covered by the permanent building, has since been widely imitated. Ms. Moiseiwitsch herself created variations on the Stratford stage for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Crucible Theatre in England and her designs influenced the stages of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York, the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre in England, the Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon Avon, the Chichester Festival Theatre and countless university auditoria. In recent weeks, Ms. Moiseiwitsch was named an Honorary Officer of the Order of Canada.

Her costume design from a previous Stratford production of Tartuffe was reproduced for a 2000 revival there.

Ms. Moiseiwitsch was born in London in 1914, the daughter of pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch and violinist Daisy Kennedy. She attended London's Central School of Arts and Crafts and apprenticed in scene-painting at the Old Vic. She then worked at the Westminster Theatre, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Duchess Theatre in London's West End before her first collaboration with the Stratford Festival's founding artistic director, Tyrone Guthrie, at the Old Vic in Liverpool in 1945.

Ms. Moiseiwitsch designed more than 40 Stratford Festival productions, including the two plays of the inaugural season, and also worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre in England, the Old Vic, the Edinburgh Festival, the Abbey Theatre, the Crucible Theatre, the Guthrie Theatre, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera and London's West End. She was, at various times, principal designer at the Guthrie Theater, consultant designer at the Crucible Theatre and associate director Laureate at the Stratford Festival.

For her work on the stage, Ms. Moiseiwitsch was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Toronto (1988) and the University of Minnesota (1994).

Arrangements for funeral services are not yet complete. The Stratford Festival will hold a memorial service in her honour during the Festival's 2003 performance season.