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Destination Art

Stratford's Big Stars, From The Bard To The Bieb

Originally published on Tue August 7, 2012 5:00 pm

Most theaters let audiences know the show is about to start by blinking the lights. Stratford's Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario, is a bit more festive. Four burgundy-uniformed buglers and a drummer quicken the pace of hundreds of theatergoers who've been ambling up the hill from the banks of the Avon River. When curtain time arrives, a cannon will boom.

Nora Polley works in the theater's archives and has been with the festival since she was in high school 48 years ago. "When I was a kid here, the curtain was at 8:30, so if you were out playing, when you heard the cannon go off, you knew it was time to go home," she recalls.

Polley now works in a huge warehouse filled with such stage treasures as the gown Maggie Smith wore as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the prompt books for every show that's ever played the festival. The trove goes back 60 theatrical seasons.

"Not that anybody in 1953 thought it would last 60 years," Polley muses. "Most people, I think, thought it wouldn't last two."

The skepticism was justified. The festival is now one of Canada's largest cultural institutions, doing at least a dozen shows each year on a $60 million budget. But in the early 1950s, Stratford was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. The town's chief industry was repairing steam locomotives, a trade that was all but dead by the time hometown reporter Tom Patterson flew to England to plead with stage legend Tyrone Guthrie.

The town was already called Stratford, Patterson told him, the river Avon (pronounced AAH-vun in Ontario) ran through it, and kids went to schools named after Falstaff, Romeo and Juliet. Would the great British director come there and do Shakespeare?

To nearly everyone's surprise, Guthrie said yes.

"It was going to save the town," marvels Polley. "The decision to have the Shakespeare Festival was actually an economic one."

A circus tent was brought from Chicago and raised on a hillside. Alec Guinness started rehearsing Richard III, and critics and audiences flocked to see what these distinguished theater folks were up to in the Canadian wilderness. Meaning the little town that was going bust had another challenge: where to put everybody.

People opened their homes to strangers because there weren't enough hotels, remembers Polley, and churches hosted dinners. "It was all about the little town and how they got behind what was, I think for most people, a ridiculous idea," she says.

A ridiculous idea that has certainly paid off. What began as two plays in a tent is now a seven-month season, employing more than 1,000 people and attracting half a million ticket-buyers to this tiny town. Shakespeare is still the core, with this year's Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline. And these days, the Bard is surrounded by his theatrical descendants, including The Matchmaker (which Thornton Wilder actually wrote at Stratford a half-century ago) as well as new works, a Greek tragedy, a one-man show starring Christopher Plummer and not one, but three musicals.

"The Stratford Festival," says Polley, "replaced the CNR [Canadian National Railway] shops as the principal industry here."

This counterintuitive leap from an antiquated industry to a centuries-old playwright in many ways did not change the town. Guthrie had warned Stratford not to get "twee" — no actors wandering streets in Elizabethan garb, no "ye olde" souvenir shops. The point was always to be performance — theater pure and simple.

Today, the 1,800-seat Festival Theater (one of five Stratford stages) is a substantial structure on the banks of the Avon River, but still designed to look like a tent. The chirp of crickets has been replaced by the chirp of electronic ticket scanners in the lobby, but the place still feels rural.

Being a 40-minute drive from the nearest town "unplugs" the festival, says Stratford's incoming artistic director Antoni Cimolino, "from the madness of the city."

"When you're in New York City, how can you ever hope that whatever you're going to see in the theater can be half as dramatic as what just took place on the street, with the sirens wailing. Here, on the other hand, when people leave the theater, they talk about the play," he says.

At a recent production of The Matchmaker, the intermission chatter — especially among experienced theatergoers like 7-year-old Neyda Cakebread Mateus — is definitely upbeat. "I saw it before, and I like the second part the best," she says, as she walks hand-in-hand with her grandfather Doug Cakebread.

"She's taking me tonight," he explains proudly. "We've been a number of times together. Neyda really likes the plays, and she remembers the people, their names and even the words they say."

That's one of the goals of the Stratford Festival, which plays to more than 100,000 schoolkids every year. Adults can be attracted with stars — Guinness that first season, as well as Kate Reid, later supplemented by the likes of Lorne Greene and William Shatner before they were TV stars in Bonanza and Star Trek respectively. Also Maggie Smith and even Christopher Walken, who once played Romeo.

But for kids, Shakespeare can be a hard sell. Happily Stratford's found a fresh youth angle: It's hometown to a superstar named Justin who has inspired T-shirts — "To Bieber or not To Bieber" — as well as street performers who've watched videos of him at age 12 earning enough money "busking" for coins on the steps of the Avon Theater to take his mom to Disney World.

On that same spot this summer, 12-year-old Liam Westman sometimes plays violin, inches from a bronze Justin Bieber star in the pavement. The singer earned as much as $200 a day, says a "Bieber-iffic" tourist map. And how does Liam do?

"The most I've ever made in one full day?" ponders Liam. "I think I made around $600. There was a garlic festival and [the theater] festival going on."

Which is to say, theater isn't all Stratford has going for it, which might be a good thing. Last year, the Stratford Fest made headlines for sending a smash revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar to Broadway, and also for suffering an alarming drop in attendance — 70,000 fewer than the year before, and down more than 200,000 from a decade ago.

Incoming director Cimolino attributes the drop to the economy, but also fretted about a post-Sept. 11 passport law. He remembers going to Washington to talk with the Homeland Security Department in 2005 as the law was being drawn up, and starting to explain what the Shakespeare Festival was, only to discover that the official he was talking to had been to the festival as a boy.

"I said to him: 'What about the kids who come from Michigan, who come from Illinois, who come from across the United States?' And that, I could see, kind of resonated with him," Cimolino recalls.

A passport exemption for school groups helped stabilize that audience. Then the recession hit.

Still, folks find economies. Jim and Becky Reagan drove their three kids up from the U.S., saw Much Ado About Nothing, and saved on hotels by camping at a campsite in the nearby Wildwood Conservation Area. They'll come again, they said.

As will folks who heard about Stratford from its nomination for Jesus Christ Superstar on this year's Tony Awards, though archivist Nora Polley notes that in introducing its big production number, Ben Vereen garbled their message a bit by saying the show originated at the "Stanford" Shakespeare Festival.

"Hey, we're just Canada," she laughs, "those guys up, you know, just north of you."

Those guys who quite literally bank on you remembering "Stratford" — though these days, if you don't, you can leave it to Bieber, and ask the kids.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Over the next couple of weeks, we're going to take you on a little tour. We're calling it Destination Art. Every stop will be a town that has made culture a big part of its economy despite being off the beaten path. That description fits the town our movie critic Bob Mondello visited, except that the path has been pretty thoroughly beaten. It's Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Most theaters let audiences know the show's about to start by blinking the lights. Stratford's Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario, is a bit more festive.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLES)

MONDELLO: Four buglers and a drummer quicken the pace of hundreds strolling up the hill from the river. When curtain time arrives, a cannon will boom.

NORA POLLEY: When I was a kid here, the curtain was at 8:30, so if you were out playing, when you heard the cannon go off, you knew it was time to go home.

MONDELLO: Nora Polley works in the theater's archives and has been with the festival since high school 48 years ago. The treasure trove around her goes back even further.

POLLEY: We have stuff going all the way back to 1953 - not that anybody in 1953 thought it would last for 60 years. Most people, I think, thought it wouldn't last two.

MONDELLO: The skepticism was justified. The festival is now one of Canada's largest cultural institutions, doing at least a dozen shows each year on a $60 million budget. But in the early 1950s, Stratford was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. Its chief industry was repairing steam locomotives, a trade that was all but dead by the time a hometown reporter flew to England to plead with stage legend Tyrone Guthrie. The town was already called Stratford, he said; the river Avon - pronounced Avun in Ontario - ran through it; kids went to schools named after Falstaff, Romeo. Would the great British director come there and do Shakespeare? To nearly everyone's surprise, Guthrie said yes.

POLLEY: It was going to save the town. The decision to have the Shakespeare Festival was actually an economic one.

MONDELLO: A circus tent was brought from Chicago and raised on a hillside. Alec Guinness started rehearsing "Richard III," and critics and audiences flocked to see what these distinguished theater folks were up to in the Canadian wilderness. Meaning the town that was going bust had another challenge: where to put everybody.

POLLEY: People opened their homes because there weren't enough hotels. It wasn't like you were running a B and B. They were just, like, guests in your home. A couple of the local churches did suppers, so you could buy dinner. It was all about the little town, how they got behind what was, I think for most people, like, a ridiculous idea.

MONDELLO: A ridiculous idea that has certainly paid off. What began as two plays in a tent is now a seven-month season, employing more than 1,000 people and attracting half a million ticket-buyers. Shakespeare is still the core, with this year's "Henry V," "Much Ado about Nothing" and "Cymbeline."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) (Unintelligible) my throne a sheet for baseness.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) No. I rather added a luster to it.

MONDELLO: And these days, the Bard is surrounded by his theatrical descendants, say, "The Matchmaker," which Thornton Wilder actually wrote at Stratford a half-century ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Well, (unintelligible) left my money in the pocket.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) We're talking marriage, aren't we, Mr. Vandergelder(ph).

MONDELLO: Also new works: a Greek tragedy, a one-man show starring Christopher Plummer and not one, but three musicals.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Unintelligible) the lullaby of Broadway.

POLLEY: The Stratford Festival replaced the CNR shops as the principal industry here.

MONDELLO: From steam locomotive to Shakespeare - a bold leap forward? That in many ways did not change the town. Guthrie warned Stratford not to get twee - no actors wandering streets in Elizabethan garb, no ye olde souvenir shops. The point was performance - theater pure and simple.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What can I do for you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I'm picking up my tickets?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Sure. What's the last name?

MONDELLO: Today, the 1,800-seat Festival Theater, one of five Stratford stages, is a substantial structure but still designed to look like a tent. The chirp of crickets has been replaced by the chirp of electronic ticket scanners, but the place still feels rural.

ANTONI CIMOLINO: It unplugs it from the madness of the city.

MONDELLO: Incoming artistic director Antoni Cimolino.

CIMOLINO: When you're in New York City and you go into the theater, how can you ever hope that whatever you're going to see in the theater can be half as dramatic as what just took place on the street, with the sirens wailing. Here, on the other hand, people leave the theater and they talk about the play.

MONDELLO: True enough on this particular afternoon. And the conversation, especially amongst the experienced theatergoers like Neyda Cakebread Mateus is definitely upbeat.

NEYDA CAKEBREAD MATEUS: I saw it before, and I like the second part the best.

MONDELLO: You come to the theater a lot?

MATEUS: Last time we saw about five plays last year.

DOUG CAKEBREAD: She's taking me tonight.

MONDELLO: Grandpa Doug Cakebread.

CAKEBREAD: We've been a number of times together. Neyda really likes the plays, and she remembers a lot of the people, their names and even the words they say.

MONDELLO: That's one of the fervent hopes of the Stratford Festival, which plays to more than 100,000 school kids every year. Adults can be attracted with stars - Lorne Greene and William Shatner early on, Maggie Smith, even Christopher Walken, who once played Romeo. But for kids, Shakespeare can be a hard sell. Happily Stratford's found a fresh youth angle: It is hometown to a superstar named Justin who has inspired T-shirts - To Bieber or not To Bieber - and also street performers who've heard how at age 12 he earned enough money to take his mom to Disney World playing for coins on the steps of the Avon Theater.

JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) You're my (unintelligible) in my (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: On that same spot this summer, 12-year-old Liam Westman sometimes plays violin, inches from a bronze Justin Bieber star in the pavement. The singer earned $200 a day, says a Bieber-iffic tourist map. And how does Liam do?

LIAM WESTMAN: The most I've ever made in one full day? I think I made around $600. There was a garlic festival and a festival going on.

MONDELLO: Which is to say, theater isn't all Stratford has going for it. Maybe a good thing. Last year, the Stratford Fest made headlines for sending a smash musical revival to Broadway, and also for suffering an alarming drop in attendance - 70,000 fewer than the year before, and down more than 200,000 from a decade ago. Incoming director Cimolino attributes the drop to the economy, but also fretted about a post-9-11 passport law.

CIMOLINO: I went to Washington and visited with some people in Homeland Security Department in 2005 just before this legislation. And I was trying to explain to them what Stratford was - and this was the head of the program at the time. And he looked at me and he said I went to Stratford when I was young, and I'm pretty sure the people who come to you already have passports. But I said to him what about the kids who come from Michigan, who come from Illinois, come from across the United States? And that, I could see, kind of resonated with him.

MONDELLO: An exemption for school groups helped stabilize that audience. Then the recession hit. Still, folks find economies. Jim and Becky Reagan drove their three kids up from the States, saw "Much Ado About Nothing," and are saving on hotels at a campsite in the nearby Wildwood Conservation Area.

BECKY REGAN: This is our first time. We're actually renting the campers.

JIM REAGAN: Facilities are very nice everyone's nice and friendly here. We did a lot of driving yesterday, so today's our vegging out day or relaxing day.

MONDELLO: Well, I can recommend "Matchmaker."

REAGAN: I'm already married.

MONDELLO: They'll come again, they said, as will folks who heard about Stratford from its nomination for "Jesus Christ Superstar" on this year's Tony Awards, though archivist Nora Polley notes that Ben Vereen garbled their message a bit.

POLLEY: When he was introducing the production. He said that it got its start at the Stanford Festival.

BEN VEREEN: Started in Stanford, a six-year festival, presented here...

POLLEY: Hey, we're just Canada. We're those guys up, you know, just north of you.

MONDELLO: Those guys who quite literally bank on you remembering Stratford - though these days, if you don't, you can leave it to Bieber, and ask the kids. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing) It's better if you had a plan. Why choose a backwards time in some strange land. If you come today, you could have erased day, 'cause it's ready for me. She had no mass communications. Don't get me wrong, don't get me wrong...

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.