The Stratford Festival (named the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, 1953–57; Stratford Festival, 1957–99; Stratford Festival of Canada, 2000–08; Stratford Shakespeare Festival, 2008–12) is an annual repertory theatre festival. It is recognized internationally as one of the premier festivals of classical and contemporary theatre.

Founding and Early Years

In 1951, Stratford businessman Tom Patterson formed a local committee to explore the prospects for an annual drama festival in his hometown on the banks of the Avon River, some 177 km west of Toronto. His real motive was to find a way to save Stratford’s dying economy. Patterson had thought of an open-air festival prior to the Second World War, but it was not until 1951 that his idea grew to an obsession. However, he knew nothing about professional theatre and, in fact, believed that it was possible to use a park bandstand as a festival stage.

Tom Patterson won a grant of $125 from the Stratford City Council with which to proceed. A volunteer festival committee was formed, whose members included Alf Bell (vice-president of Seal Power Pistons), his wife Dama Bell (an architect), Harry Showalter (entrepreneur of non-alcoholic beverages) and Dora Mavor Moore(actress and founder of the New Play Society in Toronto). After Patterson failed to secure the services of Sir Laurence Olivier to run the theatre, Moore enlisted the assistance of playwright John Coulter who, in turn, made overtures to celebrated English director Tyrone Guthrie, who agreed to be artistic director and to present a Shakespeare festival in a tent theatre. Guthrie was eager to present Shakespeare on a stage that might reproduce the actor-audience relationship of Shakespeare’s era. He convinced the festival organizers that an open platform or thrust stage would better serve Shakespeare’s plays than one with a conventional proscenium arch. However, he insisted that such a stage be enclosed rather than left exposed to the elements. He commissioned Tanya Moiseiwitsch, already a famous English theatre designer, to design the stage, while the tent itself (designed by Canadian architect Robert Fairfield) was completed in Chicago and moved to Stratford. There it was raised under the supervision of Roy “Skip” Manley, an American, who had worked all over North and South America as a tent-master, much of the time with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Rehearsals took place in an old barn besieged by mating sparrows and falling eggs. Financial problems plagued the enterprise, but Tyrone Guthrie took a very small fee for his initial expenses, and contractor Oliver Gaffney, for his part, refused to stop construction of the theatre. The festival opened on 13 July 1953 for a six-week season and presented Richard III, with Alec Guinness playing the lead, and All’s Well That Ends Well, starring Guinness as the ailing King of France and Irene Worth as Helena. The 1954 season ran for nine weeks and included Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (in W.B. Yeats’ translation).

Musical programs, including jazz and pop concerts, symphony concerts, opera, comic opera and solo performances, were introduced in 1955. In 1957, the tent theatre was replaced by the Festival Theatre, designed by Robert Fairfield, at a cost of more than $2 million.

The Stratford Festival Matures

Tyrone Guthrie was succeeded by Michael Langham (1956–67 seasons), followed by JeanGascon(1968–74), Robin Phillips (1975–80), JohnHirsch (1981–85), John Neville (1985–89), David William (1990–93) and (1994–2007). Richard Monette held the record for the longest tenure as artistic director, and the only one to have staged the entire Shakespeare canon during his reign. The festival took a new administrative direction after Monette, with the appointment of former company actor and executive director Antoni Cimolino as general manager and three co-artistic directors: Des McAnuff, Don Shipley and Marti Maraden (former company actress and head of the English section of the National Arts Centre). In 2008, Des McAnuff became the sole artistic director until 2012, when Antoni Cimolino replaced him. Cimolino, who was born in Sudbury, Ontario, joined the company in 1988 as a performer and directed his first solo production in 1997. Before being appointed artistic director, he worked as both a general manager and general director of the Stratford Festival.

Such actors as William Shatner, William Hutt, Tony Van Bridge, Douglas Campbell, Richard Monette, Frances Hyland, Douglas Rain, Kate Reid, JohnColicos, Christopher Plummer, ColmFeore, Brent Carver, Seana McKenna, Stephen Ouimette, Tom McCamus and Lucy Peacock have graced the stages of the Stratford Festival, which has made a great contribution to the training of Canadian actors, designers, technicians and directors (see Stage and Costume Design).

One of Richard Monette’s great contributions to the theatre was the formation in 1998 of an acting school, the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training, first under the leadership of the late Michael Mawson, and later under David Latham. Terms at the school last 20 weeks, during which time participants train in voice, movement, and text interpretation. The course culminates in the presentation of a classical play for an invited audience. Actors are then integrated into the festival’s company for the upcoming season. In 2008, veteran actress Martha Henry assumed the role of director of the school, with Latham acquiring the position of director of theatre training.

The stage of the main theatre, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch with Tyrone Guthrie, was revolutionary for its time. Guthrie wanted a return to the open stage of the Elizabethans, but not an antiquarian copy. The amphitheatre is steeply sloped, with a 185-degree sweep around the stage. Although the auditorium seats 1,838, on three sides of the stage, no spectator is more than 19.8 m from the stage. The festival later acquired two more stages. The Avon Theatre (seating 1,083) in downtown Stratford was purchased in 1963 and redesigned by Moiseiwitsch. It has a conventional proscenium stage. Since 1971, the festival has also presented drama and music at the Tom Patterson Theatre, a small, modestly equipped theatre suited for workshops, experimental work and the training of young actors. During Monette’s tenure, the Studio Theatre was added in 2002 as part of the festival’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Located behind the Avon Theatre, it seats 260 patrons and is a modified thrust, with seating on three sides. It was built to stage experimental works, new plays and rarely performed classics.

The Stratford Festival is an internationally acclaimed drama festival. It offers a program of classical and modern plays and musical productions. The festival has grown appreciably since the inaugural season of 1953, which lasted only 6 weeks and offered 42 performances. The season now often runs 31 weeks with more than 700 performances and regularly attracts over 600,000 visitors. The festival has a permanent administration and requires an acting corps of around 100.

Antoni Cimolino’s term as artistic director was extended to 2022, which coincides with the festival’s 70th season. In 2012, the year before Cimolino took over, the festival reported a deficit of $3.4 million. Since then, attendance has increased by 9 per cent and the festival’s endowment has risen from $56 million to $71 million. Cimolino introduced a number of new initiatives to the festival, such as the Laboratory, a workshop program that provides a hub for theatre artists to experiment with and develop new approaches to working with the classics. By the end of the 2016 season, six productions fostered by the Laboratory will have been produced at the festival. Cimolino has also dedicated the festival to filming the entire Shakespeare canon. King John, Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear have already been committed to film, airing on CBC in the fall of 2015.

Though the festival is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario provincial government, most income is generated from box-office receipts and private contributions. The theatre possesses a major archive, which maintains records of all productions. Foreign tours to the United States, Australia and Europe have consolidated its reputation as the leading classical theatre in North America.

Artistic Directors of the Stratford Festival

1953–55
Tyrone Guthrie

1956–67
Michael Langham

1968–74
Jean Gascon

1975–80
Robin Phillips

1981–85
John Hirsch

1986–89
John Neville

1990–93
David William

1994–2007
Richard Monette

2007–08
Des McAnuff, Marti Maraden, Don Shipley

2008–12
Des McAnuff

2012–
Antoni Cimolino