The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario

View across a wide green lawn of the Festival Theatre with modern angles and tall glass windows.

The Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. Photo © Robert Taylor, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Stratford-born journalist Tom Patterson hatched the idea for a hometown festival devoted to William Shakespeare’s works. He then convinced British actor and director Tyrone Guthrie to become its first artistic director. The inaugural production—Richard III, with Alec Guinness playing the lead—took to the stage in July 1953 in a giant canvas tent.

Today, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (519/273-1600 or 800/567-1600) has produced thousands of plays, many by Shakespeare, but many also by other classical and more contemporary playwrights. The festival typically opens with preview performances in late April and early May and continues through October. July, August, and September are the busiest months, with multiple plays running in repertory and both afternoon and evening performances every day but Monday.

Beyond the plays, the festival offers a variety of theater tours, lectures, and special events. Some of the major events are listed below.

Tickets for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Ticket sales for the upcoming season typically open to the general public in January. If you’re hoping to visit during a July or August weekend or any holiday period, buy your tickets and book your accommodations as soon as you can. Many regular patrons who return year after year reserve their lodgings for the following season before they even leave town.

Ticket prices range from $50 to more than $110, depending on the type of play, the dates, and the seat location. Seniors, students, and families can purchase discounted tickets, and when shows aren’t sold out, you can buy last-minute “rush” tickets for 20–50 percent off. Rush tickets go on sale two hours before the performance by phone or at the box office, but not online.

Theaters

The Stratford Festival performs its plays at four venues. The largest, the 1,826-seat Festival Theatre (55 Queen St.), which was built in 1957, is located east of the town center in Upper Queen’s Park. The 480-seat Tom Patterson Theatre (111 Lakeside Dr.) is near Lake Victoria, just east of downtown, while the other two performance spaces are right downtown: the 1,090-seat Avon Theatre (99 Downie St.) and the 260-seat Studio Theatre (34 George St. E.), behind the Avon.

Festival Tours

For a behind-the-scenes look at the Stratford Festival, take the one-hour Festival Theatre Tour (55 Queen St., tours at 9 and 9:15 a.m. Wed.–Sun. mid-June–Oct., adults $8, seniors and students $6). You’ll also learn more about the current season and past productions.

On the one-hour Costume and Props Warehouse Tour (350 Douro St., 9:30, 10, 10:30 and 11 a.m. Wed.–Sat. mid-May–Oct., adults $8, seniors and students $6), you can visit the Stratford Festival’s massive costume and props warehouse, one of the largest in North America; it houses over 55,000 costumes and 10,000 pairs of boots and shoes. Amid the racks of gowns, pantaloons, capes, crowns, swords, and all manner of stage paraphernalia, you learn how staff create props from ordinary household objects (a foam pool “noodle” might become the foundation for an archway), how designers make a thin actor achieve the proper abdominal “jiggle” when playing a portly character, and how to remove body odor from elaborate costumes that can’t be washed. Wrap up the tour by trying on costumes.

Part of the costume-warehouse building houses the festival’s archives, the world’s largest performing-arts archives devoted to a single theater. If you’re interested in festival history, take the Archives Tour (350 Douro St., 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Wed. June–Sept., adults $8, seniors and students $6).

Reservations are recommended for all tours (they do sell out).

Festival Lectures

One way to learn more about the Shakespeare festival is to attend the informal Meet the Festival (9:30 a.m. Wed. and Fri. July–early Sept., 9:30 a.m. Sat. early–late Sept., free), a question-and-answer session with actors and artistic staff. Talks last about an hour, and they’re held at the Tom Patterson and Studio Theatres. After some Friday-evening performances, stick around for a 30-minute post-performance discussion (July–Aug., free) with the cast.

Before selected weekday matinees, you can come early for a Table Talk (Paul D. Fleck Marquee, Festival Theatre, 11:30 a.m.– 1:15 p.m. on certain dates, July–Aug., $35), which includes a buffet lunch and a lecture about one of the season’s plays (theater tickets are extra). The lecture schedule is posted on the festival website, where you can also reserve your lunch spot.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Ontario.

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