A LETTER FROM STRATFORD: The 2012 Stratford Festival in Canada Glistens With Christopher Plummer, Des McAnuff and More

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29 Aug 2012

Ken James Stewart in <i>You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown</i>.
Ken James Stewart in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

A report from Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, this year celebrating its 60th anniversary and its final season under Tony Award winner Des McAnuff. Christopher Plummer, Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna, Aaron Krohn and others trod the boards.


The Edinburgh Festival is annually the world's largest arts jamboree; the fringe alone this year had nearly 2,700 shows to choose from, all crammed into a three-week period, in an non-curated free-for-all (and many of them increasingly all for free, too, as the free fringe expands and putting on theatre turns into a form of busking where the hat is passed around after the show). I went direct from seeing 31 shows in a week at Edinburgh earlier this month to Stratford, Ontario, where an altogether more manageable, and also ultimately more satisfying, festival awaits every year, too: the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

I saw 11 out of the 14 shows in this year's wide-ranging program, that stretches from Shakespeare to Schulz's Peanuts (a production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown), by way of Sophocles (Elektra) and Gilbert and Sullivan (The Pirates of Penzance), plus a new Canadian play and musical, and two solo turns from a big Canadian star actor Christopher Plummer and an unknown one Alon Nashman. I was there for only five-and-a-half days, yet managed to take in so much because this is a true repertory festival, with performances twice daily in each of the three main houses, plus a Studio Theatre.

The sheer number of performances that are scheduled is a source of wonder in itself, not just for logistical reasons in terms of turnaround between shows, but also for drawing audiences: with a seating capacity of 1,833 in the main Festival Theatre alone, and a further 1,079 in the proscenium Avon Theatre, that's 5,824 seats to sell each day on a two-show day in those two houses; add in another 480 seats in the thrust-stage Tom Patterson Theatre and another 260 in the Studio, and there are over 7,000 seats to sell a day here. That's the equivalent of filling the U.K.'s National Theatre, with its three auditoria, three times over; or more than Radio City Music Hall.

Christopher Plummer in A Word or Two.
photo by David Hou

And that is in a town with a resident population of just 32,000, for a season that runs for nearly seven months. This is North America's single largest classical producing theatre, unrivaled by any city in the USA, and it attracts (and depends on) visitors from across Canada and the USA to fill its seats; but once bitten, you're bound to be smitten, and a large proportion of its visitors are returnees.

I went for the first time last year and fell in love straight away; which was better late than never, as this year the festival celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding in 1952, before beginning operations in 1953 in a giant canvas tent. Just five years later, its mainstage thrust-stage auditorium, built to resemble the tent that preceded it, opened, having employed the visionary Tyrone Guthrie as its first artistic director. That was both an amazing leap of civic faith in the power of theatre to regenerate a local economy, and the belief that if you build it, they will come.

The global theatrical legacy of this building has stretched from Minneapolis (where Guthrie has a theatre named after him) to Britain's Chichester Festival Theatre (which was modeled on Stratford) and New York's Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, and it has been a mixed blessing. I'm not sure that there's really a replacement for a conventional proscenium auditorium, where everyone is experiencing the same direct view, even if some people are inevitably closer to the action than others.

But neither is there any substitute for the excitement and sense of industry that permeates a town like this that is focused so strongly on a theatre plant at its center. You feel that the whole place revolves around it, and that it is now rooted into its very fabric. There's also a wonderful sense of theatrical continuity here, with actors like Brian Bedford and Christopher Plummer who have made Stratford their main theatrical home.


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