Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Raising the Tent - 1953

When the Stratford Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1953 Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s iconic stage was at the centre of a concrete amphitheatre. However there was neither sufficient monies nor assurance of longevity to do other than enclose the “wooden O*” with canvas. For the first four years of the Festival history the Bard was declaimed in a large tent, often to the sounds of pounding rain, whistles from the nearby train yards and umpires' calls from the local baseball diamond.

Nestled in Queen's Park the original home of the Festival rose 61' above the landscape and was 150' in diameter.  It's original cost was $23,000.

From 1953 to 1956 canvas covered Tanya Moiseiwitsch's thrust stage set in a concrete
amphitheatre. When money became tight that first year local contractor Oliver Gaffney
refused to stop work and completed the theatre in time for opening night.  His daughter
Anita is now the Festival's Executive Director. 

In 1953 Tent Master Roy "Skip" Manly and his crew - many of them local volunteers - raise the tent for
the first time.  It took two whole days to complete the operation.  Two miles of cable and 10 miles of rope kept audience and performers protected and dry - most of the time!  This photo was the inspiration for the sculpture group that now adorns the lawn in front of the theatre.

It's hard to imagine sitting for three hours of Shakespeare in
one of these original seats from the tent days.  And what's with the
single armrest?  I guess there was no fighting to see who got it.

At the end of the 1956 season when Christopher Plummer had sounded his final call to the troops at Agincourt the tent was struck for the last time.  By the opening of the 1957 season Robert Fairchild’s unique round structure resounded to the, by now, familiar sound of Louis Applebaum's trumpet fanfare and the answer to Plummer’s Hamlet was:  it is “to be”.  The building has undergone major changes since I first saw it back in 1958 most involved reconfiguring the stage.  But in 1997 the theatre itself was totally renovated with the addition of public spaces for talks, food and drink, a very pleasant members' lounge, as well as an expanded backstage.  And the Festival has grown to four theatres and a season that stretches from April until October - all of it inside without a train whistle to be heard**!

Robert Fairchild's innovative re-imagining of the original tent was expanded in 1997 and turned into an event centre that would have brought joy to the hearts  of Sir Tyrone, Tom Patterson, Miss Moiseiwitsch, "Skip" Manley, Oliver Gaffney and the incredible people who had a vision back in 1953. 
To celebrate the next stage in the Theatre's life and the first raising of the tent a sculpture grouping was created by a talented group of artisans working at the Festival.  As well as honouring the people who made the renewal in 1997 possible designer Douglas Paraschuk paid tribute to the remarkable "Skip" and stage carpenter Al Jones, who's handiwork included that first thrust platform.

This sculpture group on the lawn in front of the Festival Theatre celebrates the many people who's contributions made the renovation of the theatre possible.  But it also commemorates that first exciting day when "Skip" Manly and his crew - many of them local volunteers - raised the canvas on one of the four Queen poles. 

Design Coordinator Douglas Paraschuk's concept was realized in the Festival Workshops by property maker Ruth Abernathy with the assistance of Frank Holte and Brian Mcleod.  Another example of the exceptional creative work that comes out of the Festival shops.

Tent Master extraordinaire Roy "Skip" Manly (right) was known throughout the circus world as one of the greats - and as the years passed Festival veteran Al Jones (left) became as much a legend for his wizardry as a stage carpenter.
The one thing I find a bit puzzling is the little girl and her dog sitting in the bleachers watching - for some reason it strikes me as more Dorothy pointing the way to Oz than anything.  I don't really see where it was needed - those two figures straining at the ropes are enough, in my mind,  to convey the dream and the hard work that established the Festival.   I'm also not fond of the ostentatious statue of the Bard that stands nearby either.  However I do find the lovely rose garden with it's simple plaque remembering Ann Casson (Campbell) a touching tribute to a much respected member of the  company.

The gardens around the Festival Theatre are quite lush - almost too much so - however this simple rose garden serves as a memorial to Ann Casson.  The daughter of Dame Sybil Thorndyke and Sir Lewis Casson she came to Canada with her husband Douglas Campbell.  He was a member of the original company and she was to appear in subsequent seasons.

Though the Festival has grown well beyond the hopes of any of those original (in so many senses of the word) dreamers who watched as that first tent was unfurled in Queen's Park there remians a slightly homespun atmosphere to it all.   We are still in small town Ontario, there is still a nearby baseball diamond and there is still a wonder that this is all here.

*Well okay the concrete O in this case but let's be literary rather than literal!

**Stratford was once a railway hub with as many as 30 passenger trains going through a day - now there are only four though an old chap at the station was optimistic that there would be an increase in service in the future. 

September 9 - 1839: John Herschel takes the first glass plate photograph.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

This sculpture group is new since the last time I was in Stratford. I'll be sure to go look at it when I'm there again next week for the Festival. Great post! How iconic is the Stratford Festival to Canadian culture, eh?

Ur-spo said...

You did a lovely job summarizing this all. I hope the Festival contacted you to comment a salute.