The town of Stratford, Ontario is home to one of Canada’s largest cultural institutions, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. But as Bob Mondelo reports for National Public Radio, 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.
Of course, Minnesota theater fans know that Sir Tyrone Guthrie later came to Minneapolis, where he established the Guthrie Theater in 1963.