The History of Stratford’s Festival Theatre

The History of Stratford’s Festival Theatre

Stratford was destined for theatrical greatness as soon as the town was named after the birthplace of one of the most revered playwrights of all time, William Shakespeare, so it’s no surprise the Festival Theatre’s history is dramatic, heart-warming and, ultimately, one that marks the transformation of the town into a cultural hub of world-class theatre.

A Hometown Hero Takes a Stand for Ontario’s Most Charming Town

Tom Patterson grew up in the heart of Stratford, playing in its famous Shakespearean Gardens and walking along the Avon River. From a young age, Tom recognized the importance of the Bard to the town, and he wanted to amplify that connection by positioning Stratford as the go-to place for theatre in the area.

In 1951, he approached Mayor Simpson about the possibility of erecting a theatre where actors could perform Shakespearean greats and the townspeople could spend their time – and money – gaining an appreciation for the arts. Luckily, the Mayor recognized the economic and cultural potential of Patterson’s idea and a committee of prominent Stratford citizens came together to push the idea forward.

Theatre Lovers Come Together from Across the Globe

In 1952, the group, which was affectionately named the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada Foundation, solicited the help of Tyrone Guthrie – a world-renowned director from Ireland. Guthrie was enticed by the creative freedom the committee was willing to allow him to champion the construction of the theatre. Under his guidance, designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch and leading actor Alec Guinness were signed on. Subsequently, leading actress Irene Worth also joined the not-so-motley crew. These major players, who were all at the height of their careers, helped legitimize the theatre and create further excitement around its production.

The structure, which opened its doors in 1953, was originally a concrete amphitheatre with a tent roof. This design lasted for the theatre’s first four seasons, and in 1956, the tent came down and the building of a permanent structure began. Originally designed to resemble both a classic Greek amphitheatre and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the construction of the Festival Theatre required the incredible dedication and hard work of Gaffney Construction and 150 workers.

By June 30, 1957, the theatre was complete with seating for 2,276 and the designer, Robert Fairfield, maintained the integrity of the tent design – making the Festival Theatre’s architecture as famous as the acting taking place inside.

James Mason, Tom Patterson and Tyrone Guthrie - Stratford Festival
James Mason, Tom Patterson and Tyrone Guthrie. Photo by Peter Smith. © Stratford Festival

The Legacy of Exceptional Art and Passion Continues

Over the past several decades, the Festival Theatre has continued to be renovated to better reflect the needs of its patrons. The 1,826 seats at the Festival Theatre aren’t enough to contain the passion and excitement of the theatregoers who travel from across Canada, the United States and even Britain to see the incredible performances that take place on its hallowed stage. So, as the Stratford Festival runs from April to October, it has four permanent venues: the Festival Theatre, the Avon Theatre, the Tom Patterson Theatre, and the Studio Theatre. Although the Festival’s primary mandate is to produce the works of Shakespeare, its season playbills include a variety of classical and contemporary works and at least one musical.

Come Be a Part of Stratford’s Rich History

Treat yourself to a theatre weekend in Stratford that also includes beautiful accommodations, elevated comfort food and the charm of a town that loves the arts enough to build, protect and promote the vitality of Canada’s theatrical epicentre.