The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is one of the most respected cultural treasures of Canada and a major tourist attraction.
The annual Stratford Festival flyer always fills me with excitement.
Like the robin, the colourful calendar of plays is a sure sign of spring. I look forward to its arrival because it tells me that winter’s over and summer’s on its way ...and that means sunny days, road trips, and glorious days of discovery. I usually pick up the brochure in my local library, and leaf through it to see what’s on the menu for the coming 8 months.
I’m not alone. Every year, thousands of theatre fans flock to Stratford for more than 700 different events. Because of the name, you might think that they only present Shakespeare’s play but this is not true! They also put on light-hearted comedies by more modern writers, music concerts and even readings and lectures by famous authors and thinkers. Some fans attend weeklong play series and lectures by directors and actors. Some are local visitors, who subscribe to the annual series of plays for a reduced price, and many others are visitors from Canada and abroad who drop in for a play or two.
As the name suggests, the theatre is located in Stratford, a small city about a 2-hour drive west of Toronto. You can read more about the city in my article: Stratford Ontario.
Although it began in a tent on the banks of the Avon River, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has expanded so much that today it owns four different theatres. The main one, Festival Theatre, is a 1,826-seat building at 55 Queen Street in Upper Queen’s Park. The architect was a Canadian, Robert Fairfield. The theatre opened in 1957 and was the first permanent structure for the festival. Its unusual shape suggests a round tent. Although it has been through several renovations over the years, it still has this vintage 1950s vibe going for it, which I love.
The interior design of the Festival Theatre is quite interesting too. The stage is different from many other theatres you may have visited. The designers were inspired by the Elizabethan theatres of Shakespeare’s period, where the buildings were semi-circular and an “open” stage jutted out into the middle of the audience, the seats surrounding the stage on three sides. This design is brilliant, as it gives the majority of the audience wonderful sightlines even in the cheap seats. The Globe Theatre, a reproduction of Shakespeare’s original theatre in London England offers the audiences a similar viewing experience (although the theatre in England is a lot more colourful... and has no roof).
In the Festival Theatre’s hallways, you’ll find displays of artwork including costume designs and pictures of former actors. There’s also a place to buy drinks at intermission and washrooms of course.
Across from the theatre, in a separate building, you’ll find a shop selling books and gifts, mostly Shakespeare-inspired. (If you miss the shop, though, don’t worry. Many other shops in town feed off the Bard theme and offer similar souvenirs.)
The grounds of the Festival Theatre are well worth a visit too. Pieces of art work dot the lovely gardens.
The photo of Shakespeare at the top of this page comes from one of the garden’s unusual statues. There’s another statue in the gardens as well, entitled Act III, which was erected to honour theatre donors. (Although the Stratford Shakespeare Festival receives government subsidies, private donors also contribute to its upkeep and operations.) The scene recalls the first years of the festival, when the plays were performed under a tent and the audience sat in bleachers. The men hauling on the ropes are helping erect the tent. A little girl and her dog wait in expectation.
In addition to the main theatre, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival owns and operates three other buildings. One is the Avon Theatre which is now famous worldwide as the place where Justin Beiber busked before he became famous (he sang on the steps outside the theatre, for small change). The Avon often hosts light-hearted musical comedies.
There’s also the Tom Patterson Theatre (Patterson is the brilliant man who came up with the idea of starting the festival as a sort of job-development project for the city). Finally, there’s the smaller Studio Theatre.
Ticket prices for plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival start around $39 and go up to over $100. This is live theatre, which is labour-intensive and very expensive to produce. However, the Festival offers several different ways to save, so check their web site before you book. Also check online for “promo codes” and Stratford Festival and you’ll occasionally run across deals. For more details including the calendar, times and prices, see http://www.stratfordfestival.ca.