Stratford Festival Souvenier Stratford-Perth Archives

“With one bold stroke that has left our big cities gasping, Stratford, Ont…will this summer claim its birthright with a Shakespearean festival starring Alec Guinness on the banks of the Avon” proclaimed Maclean’s magazine on May 1, 1953.

This week’s treasure from Stratford-Perth Archives includes a piece of the original Shakespearean festival home – an enormous tent. The now famous tent was where Alec Guinness played Richard III in the festival’s first production to great acclaim. The tent served well for the first four seasons. Then a permanent building, the Festival Theatre, was built and pieces of the tent were sent out as mementoes to supporters in appreciation of past and continuing interest in the Canadian Festival Theatre.

The idea for a theatre in Stratford first came to Tom Patterson while he was attending the Stratford Collegiate in the 1930s. While pondering the future of his home town with friends in the Shakespearean Gardens, as the story goes, his idea came to light.

In 1951, Stratford City Council and the Chamber of Commerce began to look for new industries. The CNR’s steam locomotive repair shops were going to be phased out and something new was needed to revitalize or even reinvent Stratford.

In January of 1952, Tom Patterson came forward with his proposal to the City for a new theatre. He made a presentation to Council, and it caught the attention of the local newspaper, the Stratford Beacon Herald. The headline read: Council told of Idea to make Stratford world famous Shakespearean Centre. When Patterson completed his presentation, he asked council for $100 to go to New York to meet Sir Laurence Olivier. Council gave him $125. He went to New York, and though he did not get to meet Olivier, he came back feeling encouraged to keep exploring the idea. Patterson’s commitment to this new endeavor never wavered, and he had the support from not only City Council but also from the citizens.

The thrust stage at the Festival was introduced by artistic director Tyrone Guthrie. A thrust stage lets the audience surround it on three sides, as opposed to a proscenium-style stage, which removes the audience from the action. Guthrie worked in tandem with designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch on the stage design and it was built by Toronto architect Robert Fairfield. The first stage was covered by the tent and the peak of the tent was directly over the stage.

Robert Fairfield also designed the new permanent building, with its thrust stage, for the Festival to resemble the original tent structure. It was 200 feet in diameter and approximately 70 feet in height. Design became reality thanks to the work of local company, Gaffney Construction. It took 150 construction workers to complete the building by June 30, 1957. They had a dedication ceremony that same day and on July 1st opened their doors to audiences. The new theatre included a balcony above the amphitheatre and there was seating for 2,276 people. In 1958, Fairfield won the Massey Gold Medal for Architecture for his design of the iconic building. Though we still treasure this reminder of the Stratford Festival’s early years under the tent.

Source: 50th Anniversary Blog Posted September 22, 2022 Stratford-Perth Archives