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Riding the buses » Canada, Cultural travel, Travel itinerary » A look behind Stratford, Ontario’s annual celebration of theatre

A look behind Stratford, Ontario’s annual celebration of theatre

Festival Theatre

Festival Theatre

I’ve always visited Stratford, a small Victorian city in southern Ontario, Canada, because of its world-renowned Shakespearean festival.  Well that’s not completely true. I can remember going there when my children were very young and I can’t imagine it was Shakespeare we saw although it was a matinee in the main theatre—the Festival Theatre. I remember we all loved the stage and how the actors kept disappearing through these trap doors. My sister Charlotte met us and brought a big lunch in a wicker basket that we ate on the lawn that runs by the Avon River, a sort of Stratford tradition.

I was last there in September and again it wasn’t to see Shakespeare but the rock opera Tommy and at the Avon not the Festival Theatre. I spent a few hours just visiting the town so all to say that Stratford is perhaps more than you first contemplate, more than just Shakespeare and even more than theatre.

There are some gorgeous old homes in the downtown area and several of them are B&Bs. Craftspeople were attracted to Stratford because of its furniture industry and that is probably why there are so many well-designed buildings, both public and residential. The Tourist Bureau has put together several walking tours that you can follow: Landmark walk, Historic Downtown Walk, Festival walk, Residential walk. You can obtain a copy at the Tourist Bureau or download the Stratford Strolls Map.

Places along the walking tour, Riding the buses

Places along the walking tour, Riding the buses

Three properties of particular interest are the Perth County Court House on Huron Street, built in 1853 in the Queen Anne Revival Style; City hall, a High Victorian building with many Queen Anne features constructed in 1898-1899, with a twelve-sided shape on either side and a hexagonal clock tower; and the Stratford Railway Station at 101 Shakespeare Street, built in 1913 in Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘prairie style’.

For years the town’s economy was supported by the railway and furniture industries but by the early 1950s both industries were encountering serious downturn. That’s when Tom Patterson, a journalist, came up with the idea of putting on a theatre festival devoted to the works of William Shakespeare.

Patterson wasn’t the first to make the link between Stratford, Ontario and Stratford-upon-Avon, England, the birthplace of playwright William Shakespeare. There was John Davis Barnett, a railway supervisor, who had 1,500 books related to Shakespeare in his personal library and who had 785 baths installed so his employees could clean up after work and spend their evenings reading too. This was in the late 1800s. I know this because the good people of Stratford care about their history and share their stories through the Tourist Bureau and on-line.

Parkland along the Avon River

Parkland along the Avon River

Along came R. Thomas Orr (1870 – 1957) who, according to the Ontario Heritage Foundation, oversaw the transformation of industrial areas into parkland and the creation of the Shakespearean Garden by the Avon River. He even visited the Trustees of Shakespeare’s birthplace and developed an ongoing relationship with them.

So when Tom Patterson said—“We ha[ve] a city named Stratford, on a river named Avon. We ha[ve] a beautiful park system… Why not a Festival?”—it indeed made sense.

Patterson and his team didn’t think small. No, they talked renowned British director Tyrone Guthrie into being the festival’s first artistic director and actor Alec Guinness to be in the first play.

Hoisting the theatre tent

Hoisting the theatre tent

No theatre? Not to worry. Instead they hoisted a giant canvas tent on the banks of the Avon River for a season that started July 13, 1953 and lasted six weeks. When the Festival Theatre finally opened in 1957 it was designed to look like the tent. Since then other permanent venues have been added, the Avon Theatre, the Tom Patterson Theatre, and the Studio Theatre, and you can choose from up to 8 performances each day.

The season now runs from April to November and over the years many of the world’s finest actors, directors and designers have been involved, such as Alan Bates, William Hutt, Christopher Plummer, Sarah Polley, and Maggie Smith. The list is rather breathtaking.

William Hutt's house

William Hutt’s house

And if you are a fan of Canadian novelist and playwright Timothy Findley (as I am), the place where he spent his later years is at 70 Ontario Street—right on the main drag. William Hutt lived at 4 Waterloo Street. CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge and his wife actor Cynthia Dale live in Stratford but their house was not listed on the walking tour. And of course, Justin Bieber was born and brought up around here but I couldn’t find out the address.

The Stratford swans

The Stratford swans

Stratford gets lots of other accolades beyond the theatre and historic homes too. Like for their annual Swan Parade. A railway worker introduced swans to the city in 1918 (how can you have the Avon River running through your town and not have swans) and now the swan is one of its symbols (and there are 24 white and two black ones). The swans can’t stay on the river over winter so they are marched down each spring serenaded by pipes and drums.  

Shakespeare's Garden, Stratford, Ontario

Shakespeare’s Garden, Stratford, Ontario

The Shakespearean Garden that Thomas Orr fought for is across the street from the Tourist Bureau. It is suppose to be made up of plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s literary works. Tourism Stratford says the elements that make a garden Shakespearean include shady walks, flower-wreathed arbours, banks of thyme, rosemary and woodbine, and intricate knots of bright blossoms bordered with thrift or boxwood. The garden was opened by the Governor General of Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir, in the 1930s (they don’t do things by half measure here in Stratford).

Gardening has continued to be part of Stratford’s legacy.  On the grounds of the Festival Theatre there are the Arthur Meighen Gardens, named for Canada’s 9th prime minister, with 32 terrace beds. Stratford was just recently named “the best of the best, the cream of the crop, and the champion of champions in the annual, national Communities in Bloom competition,” writes Jeff Heuchert of the Stratford Gazette.  And there are many pretty front yard gardens all around the town.  

Getting there
Stratford is 2 hours from Toronto and 2½ hours from Buffalo, New York. There is a Stratford Airporter that provides shuttle service between Stratford and Toronto airport and a daily return private bus from Toronto for $20.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2014

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