Amid Canada's rolling hills, a world-class theater

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Shakespeare's "Richard III," starring Alec Guinness, launched the Stratford Festival on June 13, 1953, the place looked more like a circus than a theater.

"Originally, it was just a very large tent," states retiring properties master Roy Brown, who has worked at Stratford since 1967. A permanent structure for the Stratford Festival was eventually erected in 1955, and it introduced the now-familiar thrust stage.

Fifty years, four permanent performing spaces, and more than 550 productions later, it has become one of the world's premier theater venues.

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"For many years, we used to tour," recalls Mr. Brown, who oversees the construction of special props. "We'd take shows to Minneapolis, we'd go to Chicago, and throughout Canada, but it just got too expensive." The festival's year-round touring schedule has evolved into an extended resident season, running from late spring to early November.

This year, 16 plays and musicals will grace its four stages, ranging from traditional fare (Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra") to popular favorites ("The King and I") and edgier entries ("No Exit").

Surrounded by rolling hills and lakes, Stratford has become a popular destination for visitors from the Detroit area, about three hours away by car, who might catch several plays in just one weekend. But with the threat of SARS in Toronto (a two-hour drive away), sales dropped 40 percent in April compared with the past two years, according to Antoni Cimolino, the festival's executive director. Profits bounced back to normal in May, but declined another 30 percent because of additional SARS news.

The Ontario provincial government is providing $400,000 to help promote the festival and boost tourism.

SARS may have slowed sales, but it hasn't impeded the company's dedication. "This is a company and an organization that carries with it such a great deal of prestige within the acting community," says Chicago native Kevin McKillip, making his Stratford debut in two Shakespeare plays.

"I knew the work would be difficult, and it was, because the commitment here is to produce the best work possible, and not be intimidated by any outside forces."

Halfway through her 12th season, actress Seana McKenna counts herself lucky to be part of the repertory company. No actor is guaranteed a permanent job each year, which gives the artistic director flexibility in selecting shows. "It offers me variety," says Ms. McKenna, who is performing in two contrasting roles: In "Taming of the Shrew," she plays the tempestuous older daughter; and in "Present Laughter," she is the efficient, subservient secretary. Another aspect of performing in repertory that appeals to McKenna is that "you can see the audience being surprised at seeing you in two wildly different roles, sometimes in the same day."

McKenna also appreciates the attention to detail paid by the artisans and craftspeople. Even the corsets are handmade, she says. "And they do it with plastic, not with whalebone, so you can get the correct silhouette for the character...."

With an acting company of 140 people, the festival staff this year numbers close to 1,000 employees including designers, costumers, and musicians. This summer's "The King and I" bristles with a cast of 46 actors, including 16 children, and glistens with specially created sets, costumes, and effects.

Brown recalls, "When Liza Minnelli performed here in 1994, she told me it reminded her of when her mother took her to visit the old MGM Studios," because of Stratford's acres of warehouse storage space with sets, costumes, furniture, backdrops, and theatrical props. As he winds down during his last year before retiring, Brown recalls his first season, which provided him the opportunity to work on shows that starred Alan Bates, and later, Zoe Caldwell. The following year, Christopher Walken played Romeo.

Even though the festival no longer tours, its productions have traveled to Broadway, including the Tony Award-winning "Barrymore" starring Christopher Plummer in 1997. Plummer takes his Stratford production of "King Lear" from last season to New York's Lincoln Center in February 2004.

"There are always 'stars' brought in, but equally important are the people who have spent 20 or 30 years doing the classics," says McKenna, "and that is what its history, its legacy, has always been, back to its earliest days."

Even the taxi dispatchers in town still refer to the main stage as Big Tent.

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