Stratford's Big Stars, From The Bard To The Bieb When it opened in 1953, nobody expected much of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. But what began 60 years ago as two plays in a tent is now a major theater festival. It attracts half a million ticket-buyers a year to the small Ontario town — which also boasts homegrown heartthrob Justin Bieber.
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Stratford's Big Stars, From The Bard To The Bieb

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Stratford's Big Stars, From The Bard To The Bieb

Stratford's Big Stars, From The Bard To The Bieb

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Over the next couple of weeks, we're going to take you on a little tour. We're calling it Destination Art. Every stop will be a town that has made culture a big part of its economy despite being off the beaten path. That description fits the town our movie critic Bob Mondello visited, except that the path has been pretty thoroughly beaten. It's Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Most theaters let audiences know the show's about to start by blinking the lights. Stratford's Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario, is a bit more festive.


MONDELLO: Four buglers and a drummer quicken the pace of hundreds strolling up the hill from the river. When curtain time arrives, a cannon will boom.

NORA POLLEY: When I was a kid here, the curtain was at 8:30, so if you were out playing, when you heard the cannon go off, you knew it was time to go home.

MONDELLO: Nora Polley works in the theater's archives and has been with the festival since high school 48 years ago. The treasure trove around her goes back even further.

POLLEY: We have stuff going all the way back to 1953 - not that anybody in 1953 thought it would last for 60 years. Most people, I think, thought it wouldn't last two.

MONDELLO: The skepticism was justified. The festival is now one of Canada's largest cultural institutions, doing at least a dozen shows each year on a $60 million budget. But in the early 1950s, Stratford was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. Its chief industry was repairing steam locomotives, a trade that was all but dead by the time a hometown reporter flew to England to plead with stage legend Tyrone Guthrie. The town was already called Stratford, he said; the river Avon - pronounced Avun in Ontario - ran through it; kids went to schools named after Falstaff, Romeo. Would the great British director come there and do Shakespeare? To nearly everyone's surprise, Guthrie said yes.

POLLEY: It was going to save the town. The decision to have the Shakespeare Festival was actually an economic one.

MONDELLO: 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 town that was going bust had another challenge: where to put everybody.

POLLEY: People opened their homes because there weren't enough hotels. It wasn't like you were running a B and B. They were just, like, guests in your home. A couple of the local churches did suppers, so you could buy dinner. It was all about the little town, how they got behind what was, I think for most people, like, a ridiculous idea.

MONDELLO: 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. Shakespeare is still the core, with this year's "Henry V," "Much Ado about Nothing" and "Cymbeline."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) (Unintelligible) my throne a sheet for baseness.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) No. I rather added a luster to it.

MONDELLO: And these days, the Bard is surrounded by his theatrical descendants, say, "The Matchmaker," which Thornton Wilder actually wrote at Stratford a half-century ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Well, (unintelligible) left my money in the pocket.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) We're talking marriage, aren't we, Mr. Vandergelder(ph).

MONDELLO: Also new works: a Greek tragedy, a one-man show starring Christopher Plummer and not one, but three musicals.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Unintelligible) the lullaby of Broadway.

POLLEY: The Stratford Festival replaced the CNR shops as the principal industry here.

MONDELLO: From steam locomotive to Shakespeare - a bold leap forward? That in many ways did not change the town. Guthrie warned Stratford not to get twee - no actors wandering streets in Elizabethan garb, no ye olde souvenir shops. The point was performance - theater pure and simple.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What can I do for you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I'm picking up my tickets?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Sure. What's the last name?

MONDELLO: Today, the 1,800-seat Festival Theater, one of five Stratford stages, is a substantial structure but still designed to look like a tent. The chirp of crickets has been replaced by the chirp of electronic ticket scanners, but the place still feels rural.

ANTONI CIMOLINO: It unplugs it from the madness of the city.

MONDELLO: Incoming artistic director Antoni Cimolino.

CIMOLINO: When you're in New York City and you go into the theater, how can you ever hope that whatever you're going to see in the theater can be half as dramatic as what just took place on the street, with the sirens wailing. Here, on the other hand, people leave the theater and they talk about the play.

MONDELLO: True enough on this particular afternoon. And the conversation, especially amongst the experienced theatergoers like Neyda Cakebread Mateus is definitely upbeat.

NEYDA CAKEBREAD MATEUS: I saw it before, and I like the second part the best.

MONDELLO: You come to the theater a lot?

MATEUS: Last time we saw about five plays last year.

DOUG CAKEBREAD: She's taking me tonight.

MONDELLO: Grandpa Doug Cakebread.

CAKEBREAD: We've been a number of times together. Neyda really likes the plays, and she remembers a lot of the people, their names and even the words they say.

MONDELLO: That's one of the fervent hopes of the Stratford Festival, which plays to more than 100,000 school kids every year. Adults can be attracted with stars - Lorne Greene and William Shatner early on, Maggie Smith, even Christopher Walken, who once played Romeo. But for kids, Shakespeare can be a hard sell. Happily Stratford's found a fresh youth angle: It is hometown to a superstar named Justin who has inspired T-shirts - To Bieber or not To Bieber - and also street performers who've heard how at age 12 he earned enough money to take his mom to Disney World playing for coins on the steps of the Avon Theater.

JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) You're my (unintelligible) in my (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: On that same spot this summer, 12-year-old Liam Westman sometimes plays violin, inches from a bronze Justin Bieber star in the pavement. The singer earned $200 a day, says a Bieber-iffic tourist map. And how does Liam do?

LIAM WESTMAN: The most I've ever made in one full day? I think I made around $600. There was a garlic festival and a festival going on.

MONDELLO: Which is to say, theater isn't all Stratford has going for it. Maybe a good thing. Last year, the Stratford Fest made headlines for sending a smash musical revival to Broadway, and also for suffering an alarming drop in attendance - 70,000 fewer than the year before, and down more than 200,000 from a decade ago. Incoming director Cimolino attributes the drop to the economy, but also fretted about a post-9-11 passport law.

CIMOLINO: I went to Washington and visited with some people in Homeland Security Department in 2005 just before this legislation. And I was trying to explain to them what Stratford was - and this was the head of the program at the time. And he looked at me and he said I went to Stratford when I was young, and I'm pretty sure the people who come to you already have passports. But I said to him what about the kids who come from Michigan, who come from Illinois, come from across the United States? And that, I could see, kind of resonated with him.

MONDELLO: An exemption for school groups helped stabilize that audience. Then the recession hit. Still, folks find economies. Jim and Becky Reagan drove their three kids up from the States, saw "Much Ado About Nothing," and are saving on hotels at a campsite in the nearby Wildwood Conservation Area.

BECKY REGAN: This is our first time. We're actually renting the campers.

JIM REAGAN: Facilities are very nice everyone's nice and friendly here. We did a lot of driving yesterday, so today's our vegging out day or relaxing day.

MONDELLO: Well, I can recommend "Matchmaker."

REAGAN: I'm already married.

MONDELLO: They'll come again, they said, as will folks who heard about Stratford from its nomination for "Jesus Christ Superstar" on this year's Tony Awards, though archivist Nora Polley notes that Ben Vereen garbled their message a bit.

POLLEY: When he was introducing the production. He said that it got its start at the Stanford Festival.

BEN VEREEN: Started in Stanford, a six-year festival, presented here...

POLLEY: Hey, we're just Canada. We're those guys up, you know, just north of you.

MONDELLO: Those guys who quite literally bank on you remembering Stratford - though these days, if you don't, you can leave it to Bieber, and ask the kids. I'm Bob Mondello.


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