Times Past: Stratford was receptive to idea of Shakespearean Festival

  • History   Friday, May 13, 2022   Betty Jo Belton

In July of 1952, Tolten’s Garage on Downie Street was selling “the all new Canadian Built Nash Rambler” for a little less than twenty-three hundred dollars. The Stratford Wolf Cubs were enjoying their time at Crehwing, the boy scout summer camp on the River Nith.  The Avon Theatre was screening Paramount Pictures’ “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick – the musical that’s got everything.”  And, at a special meeting of Stratford City Council held on July 8, the minutes record that the number one item on the agenda was “a civic reception for Mr. Tyrone Guthrie, British producer-director, who will visit Stratford to survey and report on the proposed Shakespearean Festival.” This article is based on information found in Stratford City Council minutes, back issues of local newspapers, the Orr family papers and reference books also available at the Stratford-Perth Archives.

Having been advised that Tyrone Guthrie was the world expert on directing Shakespeare’s plays, Tom Patterson had, as Guthrie later wrote,” bombarded the [city], bewildered the Parent-Teacher Association, bothered the clergy, bored the Rotarians, browbeat the Elks and bullied the Lions” until he raised enough money to bring Guthrie across the Atlantic for a couple of weeks to provide advice on setting up a Shakespearean Theatre festival in Stratford.  Supporters had raised upwards of a thousand dollars and City Council added another six hundred at their special meeting to help cover the expenses of civic receptions for Guthrie.

Two receptions were planned for Toronto, with a third in Stratford. The Toronto receptions were held at the Royal York Hotel with one for leading figures of the Canadian theatre and another for leading representatives of Canadian press and radio.  The Stratford reception was to be “open to representatives of Stratford organizations and persons interested and who would be active if the proposed scheme were acted upon.” A  photograph of Guthrie with the mayor and other dignitaries was published in the local paper with comments that “Stratford evinced new enthusiasm for creation of a Shakespearean theatre in this city and for a Shakespearean festival following encouraging remarks and suggestions Thursday night by Tyrone Guthrie...Those, along with their partners, invited to meet Mr. Guthrie were members of the Stratford City Council, the Shakespearean Festival Committee, the Board of Park Management, representatives of the judiciary, industry, service clubs, ministry, Perth County Council, little theatre, education, press and radio, the Perth members of Parliament and Provincial Legislature and representatives of labour. Also invited were the mayors of St. Marys, Mitchell, Tavistock, and Listowel and former mayors of Stratford.”

Tom Patterson described Guthrie’s first visit here in an interview with Richard Ouzounian for his book Stratford Gold – “I think...he met every shopkeeper in Stratford. Went and introduced himself and said, “How are you?” And by the time he left, people were meeting him on the street and saying, “Hi Tony, how are you doing?” Guthrie’s assessment of the local reaction is summed up in a comment that he made at a Rotary Club luncheon held in his honour - “seldom have I come into a community which shows so much enthusiasm for a project labelled mad.”

Guthrie returned in December 1952 with a “salesman’s model” of the proposed stage as designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch to give Festival board members an idea of how it would look when the first plays opened in the summer of 1953. On the left, those admiring the model are: Dr. Harrison A. Showalter, Board Chairman; Tom Patterson, General Manager of the Foundation; and, on the right Tyrone Guthrie and Ven. Archdeacon F. Gwynne Lightbourn. The board must have liked what they saw as they approved the now iconic design. Guthrie was scheduled to interview actors in Toronto the next day but opted to stay in Stratford overnight to carry out a dawn inspection of potential sites to set up the stage. The site, he said, would depend largely on surrounding beauty and distance from any noise factor. It would be somewhere along the river, the board agreed. The board also approved a recommendation that Showalter be authorized to write to Alec Guinness, described by Guthrie as “probably the most popular star in the world today, bar none” to encourage him to grace their new stage.  Of course, the board did find a beautiful spot near the river. Alec Guinness did sign on to play Richard III the next summer. And, the 2022 Festival season will once again bring many, many welcome visitors back to Stratford.