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Those who have visited us in-store know we are nestled in the heart of Stratford, Ontario's bustling downtown core. It's a home we share with many great neighbours, and perhaps the greatest of them all is the world renowned Stratford Festival.
It seems natural that a city settled by Europeans and named after Stratford-Upon-Avon is home to one of the leading repertory theatres in the world, known internationally for its stagings of Shakespeare's plays. However, it wasn't always this way. In the mid-1850s – when the city was still a small village – a major industry rolled into town: the railway. Stratford became a railway hub and jobs were plentiful, resulting in a thriving local economy. This held strong for nearly 100 years, until the Canadian National Railway abandoned steam power to focus on diesel, shuttering its local operations and pulling out of the city.
What could have been a death knell turned into a great opportunity, thanks to a young journalist named Tom Patterson. He knew his hometown needed economic infusion and it needed it fast. A Shakespearean theatre, he thought, seemed like a good fit for the city modelled after the Bard's birthplace.
Despite encountering his fair share of skeptics, Patterson pitched his project with vigour, convincing city council to grant him $125 to travel to New York City in January 1952, in hopes of tracking down British stage star Laurence Olivier. He failed but wasn't dissuaded. Eventually he was introduced to director Tyrone Guthrie, who was sufficiently intrigued by Patterson's vision. Guthrie signed on as artistic director and brought along some big-name stars for the Festival's premiere season. The creative team faced a bumpy road leading up to opening night on July 13, 1953. But when Alec Guinness took to the thrust stage in the title role of Richard III, the pieces fell into place. The critics loved the performance and the Stratford Festival was officially born.
Things have changed since the theatre's modest beginnings in the giant canvas tent in the park. It now boasts four theatres, from the impressive 1,800-seat Festival Theatre to the intimate Studio Theatre with seating for 260. It attracts nearly 500,000 patrons annually during its six-month season. The crowds come to see some of the biggest names in theatre perform. Over the years, the Stratford Festival has featured high-profile actors including William Hutt, Christopher Plummer, Colm Feore, Christopher Walken, Dame Maggie Smith, Brian Dennehy, Peter Ustinov, Jessica Tandy, Stephen Ouimette, Martha Henry, Graham Greene, Eric McCormack, Cynthia Dale and even William Shatner.
The seed of this season’s theme was planted in my mind more than a decade ago, when I brought the wonderful book Trickster Travels, by renowned Canadian scholar Natali Zemon Davis, to renowned Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad. That book’s story of a 16th-century Ottoman diplomat inspired Wajdi to write an award-winning play about a modern Israeli family: Birds of a Kind. We have paired this new play with a brilliant piec from the Enlightenment: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise. Breaking the boundaries of identity figures prominently in both these works.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.