The Stratford Festival

Origins

A man name Tom Patterson had a vision. A journalist, Patterson had seen his town of Stratford fall into economic ruin as the main industry had moved away. Stratford was no longer a centre for rail traffic. A bright guy; Patterson knew that his town had been named after a sister town in England; a town with a world-famous product; William Shakespeare

Why couldn't this rough working class town with tough-talking men transfer itself into the hub of English theatre? A simple concept. But not an easy one with which to convince the locals. Undeterred, Patterson made it his mission to transfer his beloved town into a theatre centre.


In those days, it was not only the locals that resisted such ideas as men in tights speaking incomprehensible turns of phrase as they jabbed at each other with their thin metal foils. Canada had very little professional theatre of any kind. The Domino Theatre had been founded in 1952 by my parents and some ex-brits. Amateur theatre in those days was perhaps as powerful as the professional ones. Patterson came to Kingston and shared his ideas and a bottle of whiskey with my parents one soggy night in their apartment in Princess Street at the corner of Frontenac Street

By force of will, Patterson started to move that rock up that hill. My mother tells me a story of Patterson who had a young family at the time, and his street in Startford was being excavated for sewer renovation or something similar, and VIPs and newspaper men were having to negotiate the dug-up street and then the clothes lines of kids clothes in order to get an audience with Mister Patterson.

World-famous director Tyrone Guthrie agreed to helm that first season as artistic director. On a summer evening in 1953, as the stars aligned in perfect harmony over the mighty canvas tent which backed onto the Avon river, Alec Guiness limped onto the stage and into the light as the hump-backed Richard the Third. Only one other show was performed for audiences that summer; Alls Well that Ends Well.

A festival was born


British designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch designed the festival stage which was open for business in 1957. It was a thrust stage and so effective, it has been copied a number of times. At The Wellington Street Theatre we use the thrust stage.

Robertson Davies(who served on the board of directors for the festival) chronicled an early season of Stratford's, perhaps the '57 season with an illustrated book describing the season, which we had on our bookshelves for a long time. Fantastic costumes designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch were part of the illustrations.

A costume designer from Kingston who I knew quite well; Douglas Grass went off to Stratford to design. His life was tragically cut short, but my mother has several of his original creations hanging in her wardrobe of which she is immensely proud.

A touring group of Stratford players would come to Kingston and perform at the local highschool; KCVI. They would then spend the night at one of the local houses of a theatre supporter and do what actors like to do: drink.

Stratford today has moved from a dream, a twinkle in an irishman's eye, from a midsummer night, where an actor mused about 'The winter of our discontent' under a star-lit sky, from the death of one industry to the birth of another. The Stratford Festival is now a cultural institution in Canada of international reach and significance. The trains may no longer bring material and goods, but they do bring people. People come in the thousands to take part in a dream, Tom Patterson's dream.

Keeping the Dream alive

Chilina Kennedy is one of many young performers that have benefitted from Kingston's abundance of training for youth in the arts. Chilina was a dance student of Len Stepanick at Kingston School of Dance, a theatre student of Valerie Robertson at Theatre 5 and performed in school shows at K.C.V.I. high school

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

--Prospero (The Tempest)

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