Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Stratford thrives on its world-class theater festival

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Stratford thrives on its world-class theater festival

<p class="MsoNormal">Canadian festival brims with quality.</p>

PHOTO: A hub of Canada's robust Stratford Festival is the Festival Theatre, site of an inventive type of stage. Warren Gerds photo

STRATFORD, ONTARIO, CANADA (WFRV) - One guy dreamed an impossible dream for his small city, and it came true. Today, the annual Stratford Festival is a place of continual discovery for people who feel that theater "is the best thing on Earth."

Interested? Come on along, and I'll tell you what the phenomenal festival is about.

I recently saw 12 plays in nine days there.

On top of that, I took in as many public programs as possible.

And ate extremely well at a choice of fine dining restaurants within walking distance of the city's four theaters.

The festival runs from spring to fall. The revolving offerings this year range from a bristling version of William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" to rock music's The Who's no brainer musical "Tommy."

Looking at a map, the festival is in an unlikely spot. The city of Stratford, population 32,000, is in the middle of farmland. No matter which direction you come from, a long drive is involved to get to Stratford. (From Green Bay, one route is a flight to Detroit and then a three-hour drive).

The festival is at Stratford simply because of the name Stratford. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. A promotion-minded townie named Tom Patterson thought Stratford, Ontario, should have a play festival because of its name. Really. It's that simple - once people bought into the idea. The festival is a case of, "If you build it, they will come," in real life. The festival is in its 61st season.

Stratford is a bit like Green Bay. In Green Bay, you bump into clerks in stores who will chat up the Packers. In Stratford, clerks and others will chat up (and gossip about) the festival. One Stratford clerk said, "'Waiting for Godot' is my favorite play." A clerk in Green Bay saying that would be looked on as some kind of weirdo, or asked, "When is Go-dot going to sign with the Packers?" Seriously, Stratford is proud of its place on the world theater map.

The festival organization has an archive that can tap into clothing, scripts, designs and just about anything about everything dating to its start in 1953. It's phenomenal.

Performances take place in four theaters. The largest is the Festival Theatre, the stage design of which influenced other theaters. The thrust stage "thrusts" into the audience, which sits on three sides of the action. The festival's first artistic director was Tyrone Guthrie of England. He was influential in the spread of the thrust stage. Ten years after the first performances at Stratford came the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis - also featuring a thrust stage and named for Tyrone Guthrie. Among other thrust stage venues that followed in the footsteps of the Guthrie Theatre were Herbert L. Williams Theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette and Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre at St. Norbert College in De Pere.

On most days at Stratford, it is possible to see two plays in a day. No performances take place on Monday, the traditional day off for professional theater.

This season's lineup includes four works by Shakespeare - "Romeo and Juliet," "The Merchant of Venice," "Measure for Measure" and "Othello." Other plays are "The Three Musketeers," "Blithe Spirit," "Mary Stuart," "Taking Shakespeare," "Waiting for Godot" and "The Thrill." The musicals are "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Tommy."

"The Thrill" is world premiere, a drama about a woman with severe physical disabilities and a razor-sharp mind.

"Mary Stuart" is about Queen Elizabeth and her troublesome cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. In a sidelight scholarly program, actresses who portray the queens read real letters from the two from the latter part of the 1500s.

I like going to the festival because it's a chance to see plays that are seldom performed in this area or at least not on a scale of production or professionalism.

I'm hard pressed to come up with any theater experience close to Stratford across North America.

Most of the actors are known primarily in Canada. Many actors in the resident company take on roles in multiple plays, and some actors have leading roles in two plays. For eight months, they are wholly committed to the festival and all it takes to put on its plays.

Daytime programs are fascinating. The festival provides opportunities to hear actors and directors talk about anything under the sun in sessions during which audience questions are invited. Questions often are smartly offered. Some questions are profound.

Current artistic director Antoni Cimolino makes himself available for question sessions, and he provides rich insights into all that it takes to program a season - picking plays, picking directors, overseeing productions and oh so much more.

The spontaneous "best thing on Earth" remark that opened this story came from a woman attending a discussion with Cimolino. She was inspired by the atmosphere.

Introducing actors and moderating many daytime programs is Pat Quigley, who has an astounding memory for plays and years, actors and their roles and details from various productions. I never saw anyone like her, a living memory machine.

Among sessions with experts that I attended was a look back at the making of "Fiddler on the Roof." The expert played audio clips from the creators. My favorite was a recording of composer Jerry Bock playing the piano and humming a piece that he asked lyricist Sheldon Harnick to put words to. The tune became "Sunrise, Sunset," which has become part of countless wedding ceremonies.

Part of the enjoyment of the festival is meeting people from many parts of North America who are drawn to good theater. They included a federal prosecutor from Louisville, husband-and-wife theater professors from Ohio, a farm woman who heads the festival's volunteer force, business people from Toronto and locals whose parents took them to the festival twice a season and today are taking their kids to the festival twice a season.

Simply seeing the costuming details can be riveting. Costumes made on site tend to have the perfect material for the period of the play - perfectly fitted to the actor. Many shoes are made specifically for an actor and a role.

Stratford has tourist shops that are beyond the trinket level. It has four bookstores within a few blocks of one another - across the street from each other in the case of two.

Walking to the theaters can be interesting. One route takes you along the Avon River (like in England) with knots of ducks, geese and swans. Other routes take you past homes of architectural and historical interest, with some adorned by a heritage sign naming the original owner and his or her occupation.

Among other locations are Gallery Stratford, an art gallery featuring Canadian artists; The Shakespeare Gardens, modeled after a classic English garden; and The Festival Exhibition, which this season is displaying costumes, props and other memorabilia of festival productions down through time of "Othello," "Romeo and Juliet," "Measure for Measure" and "The Merchant of Venice." You definitely get the impression that Shakespeare is open to interpretation, depending on the director and the tenor of the time.

THE VENUES: Three of the Stratford theaters feature a thrust stage, though each has different angles.

- Festival Theatre seats 1,833. Backstage tours tell you about the choreography that takes place when the set for the afternoon performance is torn down and the set for the evening performance goes up. The theater is on the original location of the festival. First performances were put on under a tent.

- Avon Theatre seats 1,079. It holds a traditional, proscenium, straight-front stage. The venue has the aura of an old movie theater with red cushioned seats.

- Tom Patterson Theatre seats 480. It once was a badminton court. The trust stage is a long rectangle.

- Studio Theatre has 260 seats, most on steep inclines. It's a place for intimate plays.

OTHER OFFERINGS: University courses, courses within the festival, seminars, forums, discussions and teacher conferences are a few of the selections. For anything about the festival, see www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Please email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com.

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