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Before the golden age: Stratford shines at 50… but Robin Breon finds things weren’t always this good

Before the golden age: Stratford shines at 50… but Robin Breon finds things weren’t always this good – Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario

Robin Breon

THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION OF THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL DELIVERED EVERYTHING THAT IT promised and more. With a dazzling season of programming that included twenty productions, the opening of a long-dreamed-of fourth venue — the 250-seat Studio Theatre — and a benchmark staging of King Lear starring Christopher Plummer and directed by Jonathan Miller, the Festival closes out its season on November 10 with a final performance of My Fair Lady.

Fifty years on and 2,469 actors later, we tend to view this remarkable yearly achievement as something to be expected — almost routine. But if anything, an anniversary celebration is a good way to remember the way things were at the beginning and how much the Festival has meant to the development of the arts in Canada.

“I was fully expecting an international festival to take root but I thought it might be in either Kingston, which had a lively theatre scene and was supported by a university, or in Peterborough, where Robertson Davies was writing and mounting plays in the summer season,” said Herbert Whittaker, drama critic emeritus for the Globe and Mail, in a recent interview.

“I must admit I was taken by surprise when Tom Patterson spoke up in Stratford. But from that point on, the Festival had the complete support of the Globe and Mail, which is more than can be said for Stratford’s own Beacon-Herald.”

In his book, Whittaker’s Theatricals, he recounts his own opening night review of Richard III, starring Alec Guinness, in which he called it “the most exciting night in Canadian theatre history.”

But it wasn’t an easy row to hoe. Mary Jolliffe, Stratford’s first publicist, remembers that, at first, not much notice was taken by the Canadian public.

“Except for Herbie Whittaker and Bill Boss (foreign correspondent for Canadian Press), it was difficult to get people’s attention — literally no one in the country sensed something significant was happening down there in southwestern Ontario. It wasn’t until Tyrone Guthrie and Alec Guinness signed on that anyone began to take notice — and then it came mostly from the U.S.,” she recalls.

“All of a sudden we were able to pull in the New York Times [again through Whittaker’s friendship with Brooks Atkinson, the Times drama critic], the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor — even U.S. television. I think the local citizenry was more concerned with the fear of all these libertine actors invading the community and lowering the moral fiber of the place — than the significance of a major cultural institution about to be born.”

Noreen Hood worked in the prop department that first season and still feels the intensity of those early technical rehearsals.

“I had just graduated from the Ontario College of Art and had some training for the job but I was still intimidated by it all. In those days we covered felt with layers of glue and they became helmets and armor — today they would use molded plastic. I’m told that some of the original masks we made for Oedipus Rex made it into the revival that was mounted a few seasons ago!”

At one point, Hood’s labours were interrupted by a bout of appendicitis for which she had to be hospitalized.

“It was just in the middle of constructing Richard III’s hump. We used layers and layers of kapok (thick cotton padding), and had to make more than one hump because Alec Guinness would sweat so much in rehearsal that they needed to dry out between shows. I was concerned because I hadn’t finished the task and every time I heard someone coming down the hospital corridor I thought: oh my god, it’s Guinness coming for his hump!”

And Mary Jolliffe recalls the budget wasn’t that significant either.

“Actually I didn’t receive any salary at all the first season. At that time I was really the first professional theatre publicist in the country and there was no job description. At the end of the season the board – a very committed group all from the town – arranged for me to receive an honorarium. It wasn’t until the second season that we actually established a payroll for administrative staff.”

Jolliffe, who is now a cheerful woman of 82, and living in the Performing Arts Lodge of Canada (PAL), a retirement community in Toronto, went on to enjoy a distinguished career in the arts that included acting as Director of Public Relations for the O’Keefe Centre (now the Hummingbird Centre) followed by several years with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company.

When asked to look back over the big picture, she isn’t overly enthusiastic about everything that has transpired over the past fifty years.

“I understand the economics behind the decision to mount musicals on the main stage, but I think the expanded gift shop is poorly located and all the emphasis on corporate sponsorship is a bit depressing. I look at the list of the current board of directors and wonder: who are these people?” she says. “I will say unequivocally that the food in the greenroom has improved immensely with the help of all those young chefs.”

But was it worth it?

“When I think back to that first year – with so many wonderful people involved that I had the privilege to work with – I feel so lucky to have been a part of it. I mean really, besides hockey, what institution of its age has represented Canada so significantly throughout the world?”

And the local people finally did begin to sit up and take notice.

“One day a farmer came up to the box office and wanted to order tickets to a play. We asked him which production he wanted to see – ‘Don’t really care,’ he said, ‘just as long it comes between hayin’ and harvestin’.’ I knew then we were on the way!”

Robin Breon is Administrator for the Museum Studies Program at the University of Toronto and a member of the Canadian Theatre Critics’ Association.

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