Stratford’s Big Stars, From The Bard To The Bieb

Most theaters let audiences know the show is about to start by blinking the lights. Stratford’s Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario, is a bit more festive. Four burgundy-uniformed buglers and a drummer quicken the pace of hundreds of theatergoers who’ve been ambling up the hill from the banks of the Avon River. When curtain time arrives, a cannon will boom.

Nora Polley works in the theater’s archives and has been with the festival since she was in high school 48 years ago. “When I was a kid here, the curtain was at 8:30, so if you were out playing, when you heard the cannon go off, you knew it was time to go home,” she recalls.

Polley now works in a huge warehouse filled with such stage treasures as the gown Maggie Smith wore as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the prompt books for every show that’s ever played the festival. The trove goes back 60 theatrical seasons.

“Not that anybody in 1953 thought it would last 60 years,” Polley muses. “Most people, I think, thought it wouldn’t last two.”

The skepticism was justified. The festival is now one of Canada’s largest cultural institutions, doing at least a dozen shows each year on a $60 million budget. But in the early 1950s, Stratford was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. The town’s chief industry was repairing steam locomotives, a trade that was all but dead by the time hometown reporter Tom Patterson flew to England to plead with stage legend Tyrone Guthrie.

The town was already called Stratford, Patterson told him, the river Avon (pronounced AAH-vun in Ontario) ran through it, and kids went to schools named after Falstaff, Romeo and Juliet. Would the great British director come there and do Shakespeare?

To nearly everyone’s surprise, Guthrie said yes.

“It was going to save the town,” marvels Polley. “The decision to have the Shakespeare Festival was actually an economic one.”

A circus tent was brought from Chicago and raised on a hillside. Alec Guinness started rehearsing Richard III, and critics and audiences flocked to see what these distinguished theater folks were up to in the Canadian wilderness. Meaning the little town that was going bust had another challenge: where to put everybody.

People opened their homes to strangers because there weren’t enough hotels, remembers Polley, and churches hosted dinners. “It was all about the little town and how they got behind what was, I think for most people, a ridiculous idea,” she says.

A ridiculous idea that has certainly paid off. What began as two plays in a tent is now a seven-month season, employing more than 1,000 people and attracting half a million ticket-buyers to this tiny town. Shakespeare is still the core, with this year’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline. And these days, the Bard is surrounded by his theatrical descendants, including The Matchmaker (which Thornton Wilder actually wrote at Stratford a half-century ago) as well as new works, a Greek tragedy, a one-man show starring Christopher Plummer and not one, but three musicals.

“The Stratford Festival,” says Polley, “replaced the CNR [Canadian National Railway] shops as the principal industry here.”

This counterintuitive leap from an antiquated industry to a centuries-old playwright in many ways did not change the town. Guthrie had warned Stratford not to get “twee” — no actors wandering streets in Elizabethan garb, no “ye olde” souvenir shops. The point was always to be performance — theater pure and simple.

Today, the 1,800-seat Festival Theater (one of five Stratford stages) is a substantial structure on the banks of the Avon River, but still designed to look like a tent. The chirp of crickets has been replaced by the chirp of electronic ticket scanners in the lobby, but the place still feels rural.

Being a 40-minute drive from the nearest town “unplugs” the festival, says Stratford’s incoming artistic director Antoni Cimolino, “from the madness of the city.”

“When you’re in New York City, how can you ever hope that whatever you’re going to see in the theater can be half as dramatic as what just took place on the street, with the sirens wailing. Here, on the other hand, when people leave the theater, they talk about the play,” he says.

At a recent production of The Matchmaker, the intermission chatter — especially among experienced theatergoers like 7-year-old Neyda Cakebread Mateus — is definitely upbeat. “I saw it before, and I like the second part the best,” she says, as she walks hand-in-hand with her grandfather Doug Cakebread.

“She’s taking me tonight,” he explains proudly. “We’ve been a number of times together. Neyda really likes the plays, and she remembers the people, their names and even the words they say.”

That’s one of the goals of the Stratford Festival, which plays to more than 100,000 schoolkids every year. Adults can be attracted with stars — Guinness that first season, as well as Kate Reid, later supplemented by the likes of Lorne Greene and William Shatner before they were TV stars in Bonanza and Star Trek respectively. Also Maggie Smith and even Christopher Walken, who once played Romeo.

But for kids, Shakespeare can be a hard sell. Happily Stratford’s found a fresh youth angle: It’s hometown to a superstar named Justin who has inspired T-shirts — “To Bieber or not To Bieber” — as well as street performers who’ve watched videos of him at age 12 earning enough money “busking” for coins on the steps of the Avon Theater to take his mom to Disney World.

On that same spot this summer, 12-year-old Liam Westman sometimes plays violin, inches from a bronze Justin Bieber star in the pavement. The singer earned as much as $200 a day, says a “Bieber-iffic” tourist map. And how does Liam do?

“The most I’ve ever made in one full day?” ponders Liam. “I think I made around $600. There was a garlic festival and [the theater] festival going on.”

Which is to say, theater isn’t all Stratford has going for it, which might be a good thing. Last year, the Stratford Fest made headlines for sending a smash revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar to Broadway, and also for suffering an alarming drop in attendance — 70,000 fewer than the year before, and down more than 200,000 from a decade ago.

Incoming director Cimolino attributes the drop to the economy, but also fretted about a post-Sept. 11 passport law. He remembers going to Washington to talk with the Homeland Security Department in 2005 as the law was being drawn up, and starting to explain what the Shakespeare Festival was, only to discover that the official he was talking to had been to the festival as a boy.

“I said to him: ‘What about the kids who come from Michigan, who come from Illinois, who come from across the United States?’ And that, I could see, kind of resonated with him,” Cimolino recalls.

A passport exemption for school groups helped stabilize that audience. Then the recession hit.

Still, folks find economies. Jim and Becky Reagan drove their three kids up from the U.S., saw Much Ado About Nothing, and saved on hotels by camping at a campsite in the nearby Wildwood Conservation Area. They’ll come again, they said.

As will folks who heard about Stratford from its nomination for Jesus Christ Superstar on this year’s Tony Awards, though archivist Nora Polley notes that in introducing its big production number, Ben Vereen garbled their message a bit by saying the show originated at the “Stanford” Shakespeare Festival.

“Hey, we’re just Canada,” she laughs, “those guys up, you know, just north of you.”

Those guys who quite literally bank on you remembering “Stratford” — though these days, if you don’t, you can leave it to Bieber, and ask the kids.

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