Mention the name Stratford, Ontario, to most people, and its annual celebration of Shakespeare is the first thing to come to mind.
Though the town has enjoyed a connection with William Shakespeare since Thomas Mercer Jones gave a picture of the Bard to the owner of the Shakespeare Hotel in the 1830s, it was only in 1953 that the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada Foundation was created. Tom Patterson, a veteran of the Second World War and a Maclean’s journalist, saw the creation of a theatrical festival as a way to offset the tough economic times brought on by the decline of the town’s railway and manufacturing sectors.
Patterson and his festival co-creators chose well and ended up with a double stroke of good luck: English theatrical director Tyron Guthrie was brought on board for the launch, and he recruited his friend Alec Guinness, who recited the first lines at the festival, from Richard III.
That inaugural season took place under a tent on the banks of the Avon River and featured only two plays. By 1957, the Festival Theatre opened, and the festival was firmly established in Stratford’s fabric.
In the years since, Guinness went on to become Sir Alec Guinness (and was later known to a younger generation as Obi-Wan Kenobi), and dozens of the world’s leading actors and actresses have graced the festival’s stages. Now known simply as the Stratford Festival, it runs from April to October, with more than 10 plays at four permanent venues. Though the focus is on Shakespeare, the festival also showcases other classical and contemporary works.
Thanks to the festival, this little town of 30,000 residents has become the home of the largest classical repertory theatre in North America, welcoming not just the best and brightest talents of the performing arts, but also nearly a half-million visitors every year.