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Canadian History for Kids: Stratford Theater

1953, July 13 – British producer Tyrone Guthrie directs Alec Guinness in William Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, to open the First season of the Stratford Festival, held in a tent.

This Canadian History for Kids exclusive looks at the legendary Stratford Theater.

On the evening of July 13, 1953, the dream of journalist Tom Patterson was fulfilled with the opening of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

In 1859, Stratford, Ontario, was incorporated as a town. It was originally a railway junction. By the early 1950’s, almost 100 years later, Stratford was losing the railway industry. Tom Patterson concerned about the economic future of Stratford without the railway, came up with the idea of turning Stratford into a cultural destination. He decided on a theatre festival devoted to the works of William Shakespeare.

In 1952, he brought his idea to Stratford City Council, and a Chamber of Commerce subcommittee was formed headed by Harrison Showalter.

Dora Mavor Moore, a pioneer of Canadian theatre, wrote to British director Tyrone Guthrie. Guthrie made the trip to Stratford, was impressed with the idea, and agreed to be the festival’s first Artistic Director.

At that point work began on a concrete amphitheater located in the parklands by Stratford’s Avon River. The amphitheater’s revolutionary thrust stage was designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. A giant canvas tent was ordered from a firm in Chicago as well. By May of 1953, it seemed the idea was doomed when funds ran out, until the building contractor, Oliver Gaffney, who continued with the project, and funding from Governor General Vincent Massey and the Perth Mutual Insurance Company, saved the day.

The tent was erected, and on the night of July 13, 1953, the Festival opened with Guthrie’s production of Richard III. Actor Alec Guinness appeared in the title role. The other production, Guthrie’s modern-dress version of All’s Well That Ends Well opened the following night. Both productions met with critical acclaim, and their initial four-week run was extended to six.

In 1956, at the end of the fourth season, the tent was dismantled and a new permanent facility was erected around the stage. The new building, designed by architect Fairfield had a circular floor plan and pie-crust roof. The building was completed in 1957 and the first performance of that season was Hamlet with Christopher Plummer.

Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh attended at the Festival on July 2, 1959 for a special performance of As You Like It.

The Festival Theatre has undergone various changes over the years. Other theatres have also been added to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

In 1956, the Festival began renting the Avon Theatre, an old vaudeville house and later movie theatre, as its second theatre for non-Shakespearean productions. The Avon was later purchased by the Festival in 1963 and renovated. It now produces everything from Shakespearean to musicals and modern plays.

The third stage, the Tom Patterson Theatre, named after the Festival’s founder, was established for workshops and performances of the productions of new Canadian and contemporary playwrights.

Many renowned actors who have performed at the Festival are Hume Cronyn, Brian Dennehy, Colm Feore, Megan Follows, Lorne Greene, Paul Gross, William Hutt, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Sarah Polley, William Shatner, Maggie Smith, Jessica Tandy, Peter Ustinov and Al Waxman.

And that’s this week’s Canadian History for Kids, exclusive!

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