Story by Sandra Williams-Hervé
STRATFORD, ONTARIO — According to entertainment insiders, Toronto and Vancouver are two cities that make up Canada’s Hollywood North. However, die-hard thespians, like myself, believe that the roots of Hollywood North stem from a little Ontario town called Stratford.
The fact that it shares the same name as the birthplace of the Bard, Stratford-upon-Avon in England, inspired local journalist Tom Patterson to found a Shakespearean theatre festival. Despite its humble under-a-big-tent inception and its constant financial woes, the unwavering vision of Patterson, a group of spirited locals and an optimistic contractor, the development of the theatre company forged ahead. Several decades after the first inaugural performance of Richard III, the festival has grown into a revered national institution. More importantly, many of Canada’s brightest performers have graced the Stratford stage.
Preserving the Magic of the Bard
When I visited the new festival exhibit, I had an opportunity to look at some preserved artifacts and film footage dating to 1952. Included in this theatrical retrospective is the blueprint that respected theatre designer, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, created. At the time her intimate “thrust stage” open stage seating was called “revolutionary,” and consequently has been copied around the theatre world. Intrigued, I continued farther along the small one-level exhibit, and discovered several photographs taken from numerous shows, including the 1956 production of Henry V. It is with this play that actor Christopher Plummer, one of Canada’s greatest classical actors, made his Stratford debut in the title role.
The Christopher Plummer Effect
How serendipitous is it that the 60th anniversary of The Stratford Festival Theatre coincides with another milestone, Christopher Plummer’s first Academy Award?
This year Plummer will return to debut his one-man show In A Word or Two directed by Des McAnuff. The play is an autobiographical journey through the literature that once stirred his youth. From the Bible to Stephen Leacock, audiences will delight in the passages of poetry and prose that reflect a lifelong love affair with the written word (officially runs from August 2-26). I’ve got a hunch that it will be another runaway success, just like his earlier one-man show Barrymore. The production of Barrymore began at Stratford, then made its way to the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto and had its final curtain call on Broadway.
I asked Ann Swerdfager, a spokeswoman for the Stratford Festival Theatre, if she thought Plummer’s Oscar win would increase business. She said, “Not likely.”
And added, “There may be a slight bump in numbers, but he’s always been a box-office draw.”
From the mile-long lineups at book signings to a fortuitous connection on a local sidewalk or a café, Stratford has had a long love affair with Plummer.
Behind the Scenes
Costumes and sets can instantly provide actors with the preparatory insight they’ll need to tackle a role. To understand how the costumes and sets are painstakingly put together, I met Dr. Francesca Marini, the festival’s archives director, for a guided tour through the world’s largest performing arts archive.
After just a few steps into the grand archive, I immediately recognized a white sparkling floor-length gown that was tucked away in a corner.
I had a feeling that actress Chilina Kennedy, who played the role of Eva Perón in the presentation of Evita, wore the ravishing gown. Feeling compelled, I asked Marini to confirm my suspicion. She did, and went on to confide that the dress was a 1940s-era Christian Dior knock-off that the wardrobe department had recreated.
And so the tradition of the Stratford community coming together to put on a wonderful performance continues.
MORE ABOUT THE STRATFORD SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
LOCATION: The Festival Theatre is at 55 Queen Street, Stratford, ON (see map)
DIRECTIONS: From downtown Toronto, take Highway 401 West to Highway 8 West. When you enter Stratford’s city limits, turn right on Parkview Drive and take the second right onto Queens Drive East. The theatre will be on the right. The drive takes 2 hours.
TOURS: The archive tours, costume warehouse, theatre backstage and garden tours are available throughout the season. Price: Adults $8, students, $6, and seniors $6.
FESTIVAL EXHIBITION TICKETS: Adults $6, students $5, seniors $5, groups of 10 or more $4, and children under 5 years of age are free.
THEATRE TICKETS: Tickets to all of the shows can be purchased on the Stratford Festival’s webpage.
MORE INFO: For further information about shows, show times and festival tours, please visit www.stratfordfestival.ca, or contact them by phone at 1-800-567-1600.
NOTE: Christopher Plummer photo courtesy of Stratford Shakespeare Festival