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-September are the busiest months, with multiple plays running in repertory.
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 start 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 $35 to more than $120, depending on the type of play, dates, and seat location. Seniors, students, and families can purchase discounted tickets, and you can sometimes buy last-minute “rush” tickets for 20–50 percent off; they’re sold two hours before the performance by phone or at the box office, but not online. On some Tuesday and Thursday evenings, two-for-one tickets are available.
The Stratford Festival plays are performed at four venues. The largest, the 1,826-seat Festival Theatre (55 Queen St.), 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.
Tours and Talks
For a behind-the-scenes look at the Stratford Festival, take the one-hour Festival Theatre Tour (55 Queen St., 9am and 9:15am Wed.-Sun. mid-June-mid- 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., 9:30am, 10am, 10:30am, and 11am Wed.-Sat. mid-May-mid-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, and swords, 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., 10:45am Wed. June-Sept., adults $8, seniors and students $6).
Reservations are recommended for all tours. The Festival offers lectures, post-performance discussions, and other informal ways to learn more about the current productions throughout the seaon. Check the festival website for schedules.