A Visit With the Bard…Sort of

 

In late September, 1999, I visited Stratford, a small, idyllic town in southwestern Ontario dedicated completely to theater. This trip, with my friend, Mary and her adult daughters, was like traveling back in time, a visit to another world.

The Stratford Festival which began in 1953, as a modest annual Shakespeare festival had grown to a season of nine plays running in repertory from May through November. The 1999 acting company, comprised of slightly more than ninety actors, was enrolled in either their classical theater training program or their academy for life-long learners. They performed a variety of plays in one of three theaters.

Seven days a week, anywhere from four to six plays were scheduled at 2:00pm or 8:00pm at the Festival Theater (1,836 seats), the Avon Theater (1,083 seats) or the Tom Patterson Theater (487 seats).

It was a nearly full house for each play we attended. During our trip we saw: The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pride and Prejudice, The Alchemist and West Side Story. Five plays in three days! Grueling but fun.

This was a four day bus tour arranged by the drama department of a local liberal arts college. Half the bus passengers were students and the other half people who had heard of the trip and signed on. The first day, the ten hour bus trip began well before sun rise and ended with just enough time to unpack and get to the theater. We stayed at the Queen’s Inn, a 150 year old landmark hotel located in downtown Stratford. Accommodations were lovely.

The next morning, we thought it imperative to seek out a coffee shop. There on the main street, we found Balzac’s (how apropos). The names of many stores were a derivation or combination of theater related terms or a noted actor or character.

We leisurely sipped, chatted and watched the cadre of local gentry and international travelers streaming in and out. I wanted to ask each one what was their story. We were certain we’d rubbed shoulders with actors we’d possibly see performing later and stage hands we wouldn’t see. In spite of the noise and bustle, we emerged refreshed and ready to see all we could cram into the time available. Shopping or lunch was carefully scheduled around the play bill.

Even though it was late September, the weather was mild enough for comfortable walking. And walk the town we did. The five blocks to the Festival Theater was a breeze with each street lined by old, beautiful, predominantly brick homes all with impeccable gardens. We meandered along the shore of the Avon River, leaves in full color. Swans swam close to the bank. One was walking near our path and allowed us unbelievably close before squawking off frantically.

Entering the theater, felt like a scene from Shakespeare in Love, hurrying to our seats as the lights dimmed. Just part of the huddled masses of common folk, suspending our busy day to be awed by the tension, moved by the emotion. Since I’d never been to Broadway, I lacked the experience to compare, but the actors were phenomenal, the productions superb.

Before, after and between plays we headed for town in search of bargains, coffee or local delicacies. The downtown reminded me of Door County with its myriad of specialty shops, friendly sales people and slow pace. The exchange rate made each find all the more appealing. We visited the Shakespeare store, various other theater related gift shops, a Scottish clothing store, several garden shops and some art and book shops. Most unusual, was the “Growling Gourmet,” a bakery for dogs.

The only challenge involved the travel itself. And that’s on two counts. First, the distance, the schedule and just the time it took was wearing. We had mechanical problems on the way home and ended up, for several hours in the middle of the night, stranded in an all-night coffee shop waiting for bus repairs. But, these things happen. We were quickly on the road again and home on schedule.

Second and most disappointing, the behavior of some of our travel companions left something to be desired. I assumed because they were college students, enrolled in a drama class that they’d be enthusiastic and rather the scholarly type. Not so. Instead, they were a bit unruly and not too sensitive to the needs of their fellow travelers. I was embarrassed by their thoughtless behavior toward the staff at the all night coffee shop we imposed upon; I was disillusioned when many of them skipped plays due to compelling card games, sleeping off hangovers and other hanky-panky.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip and a first time experience that we’d repeat for several years. But we’d opted away from bus and group travel to finding a better way. Next time, we’d drive and once take the Lake Michigan Car Ferry across which would cut our travel time in half.

Each year, as planning began with the selection of the plays we’d be seeing it was exciting to think of that time when our lives would be suspended. We’d enter the exciting world of theater. Who was it who said “all the world’s a stage?” Oh right. That was Shakespeare. So, each year we got to walk on that stage, the village of Stratford, and pretend. A grand pleasure for a few short days.

 

 

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