This past summer I got to enjoy an entirely new experience at the Stratford Festival: attending with my husband and two teenaged sons—who until now had not been interested in a family theatre experience. We decided to see two plays—Tommy and Fiddler on the Roof. Both are iconic musicals that have been made into films with wonderful musical scores. I had seen them many times but not through my children’s eyes. To make sure that we were well rested in between, I booked us a suite at the Arden Park Hotel--conveniently located right next to the Festival Theatre. We found it to be very comfortable with lots of space and a nice indoor pool.
Stratford is a perpetually lovely and tranquil town with lots of unique shops and restaurants. Add to that the scenic Thames river filled with ducks and wildlife and the intellectual theatre culture and you have a very unique getaway, just an hour and half from Toronto. I never seem to tire of it.
Even tourists who live nearby, often make a night or two of taking in plays and some theatre lovers , even come from distant countries and spend a whole week. There are enough historic bed and breakfasts and comfortable hotels to meet most any budget. Now, for those who would rather not drive, there is an inexpensive direct bus from both Toronto and Detroit.
But it is the theatre company which puts on 12 plays a season that is the center of the thriving tourism scene in Stratford. It all began with Tom Patterson, a Stratford-native and journalist, who wanted to revitalize his town’s economy by creating a theatre festival dedicated to the works of William Shakespeare, as the town shares the name of Shakespeare’s birthplace. He was gravely concerned about the imminent end of the railway industry in Stratford and the effect that it would have on the town’s economy. Happily, Patterson achieved his goal, and the Stratford Shakespearean Festival became a legal entity on October 31, 1952.
Over the years- the theatrical season has spawned a host of accompanying lectures, tours and special events known as The Forum. This include talks by academics, backstage tours and Q&A session with the actors. To add the interest in the season, each year the plays revolve around certain themes which are explored in more depth through the Forum events. For instance, last season’s Fiddler on the Roof fits into the theme– Inside/ Out: Stories of Cultural Belonging. To complement this play–a York University professor gave a free talk on the 1960’s—and how the generation gap of that time is reflected in the father-daughter conflicts throughout the play.
Des McAnuff wrote and produced a Broadway adaptation of the film Tommy in 1993 with Pete Townshend and then he had the opportunity to revisit Tommy during the 2013 season, at the end of his tenure as Artistic Director. The resulting play definitely fits in the with the another of the 2013 themes — Disability, Disillustion, and Self-Discovery.
This production was true to the original version and although backdrops were cleverly conveyed with the use of the technological advances of the 21st century, there was still with a vintage feel to the production.
There are many possible interpretations of Tommy’s condition of being unable to see, hear or speak–and the audience members can project their own feelings onto the situation.
My boys were so intrigued by the story that they bought the film version and watched it on the trip home. Although the setting was post-war Britain–the story of a boy who was locked in his own world due to trauma–definitely still resonates in the 21st century. Tommy goes from being seen as disabled and being cut off from society to being revered as a guru. He rejects this designation and seeks to motivate people to make their own choices and find a new way of connecting. As he expresses in the classic song: See me, Feel Me
Listening to you, I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet
One of the enjoyable things about seeing more than one play at Stratford is observing how well members of the company can morph into other characters. After watching some of them play tough aggressive adolescent roles in Tommy—the next day we recognized the same actors dressed as Orthodox Jews and Russian soldiers.
The actor who played Tevye, Scot Wentworth, was much slighter and less brusque than the traditional Topal or Zero Mostel actor but he brought a nimbleness and lots of fun to the role.
But this time—I really noticed the humour in the play—the sarcastic but loving comments between family members and town folk had us all laughing.
This year—the theme Madness: Minds Pushed to the Edge is the heart of the 2014 season. This season marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and In honour of this milestone, Artistic Director Anthoni Cimolino has planned five Shakespearean productions. These include King Lear, Cleopatra and A Midsummer Nights dream—all of which deal with madness in different ways—and all three plays have a different view of love and how it can push one over the edge. 2014 musicals Crazy for You and Man of La Mancha also deal with dreams and never giving up. “What excites me about this playbill is it contains plays in which the protagonists are driven to extraordinary plays,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Extreme stakes lead to great drama.”
Personally, I am greatly looking forward to the upcoming season as an opportunity to further explore the many facets of Stratford and this fabulous theatrical experience.
For more information on Stratford go to: www.visitstratford.ca