I’ve been charmed by the Stratford Festival – and the small city of Stratford, Ontario – for 50 years now.
Last Sunday as I watched an expertly acted Oscar Wilde play, I dimly remembered my first introduction to Stratford in 1968. That summer I signed up for a two-week Stratford Seminar with Prof. John Fisher and other Goshen College students. I’d never seen live professional theatre before, so Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Festival Theatre thrust stage mesmerized me.
By the next summer, I had moved to Ontario to marry draft resister Sam Steiner. In our discussions of where to live, I longingly wondered about Stratford, where I dreamed of being an usher at the Festival Theatre. But common sense prevailed! We made Kitchener our home, and a Mennonite Church-owned bookstore employed me.
We didn’t own a car for our first two years of marriage, so we rode the Greyhound bus between Kitchener and Stratford and made a day of it. In those years, people really “dressed up” to see Stratford plays, so we came attired in our funkiest. A late bus from Stratford to Kitchener got us home in the wee hours of the morning. Shakespeare plays we saw together early on included Hamlet (1969) and The Merchant of Venice (1970).
We followed the Stratford career of actor William Hutt, especially enjoying his Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Wilde (1975), and his reprise of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2005). It turned out to be his last role at Stratford before his death in 2007.
By this time we were already enamored with the acting of Brian Bedford, taking in Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya (1978) and just about any other play in which Bedford carried a lead role. Over the years, we also followed the Stratford career of Martha Henry, and later loved Cynthia Dale in The Sound of Music (2001), My Fair Lady (2002) and other musicals.
When seeing a play, we almost always arrived in time to walk around the Avon River where it widens into Lake Victoria. We’d start walking east along Lakeside Drive, continue across the bridge, and take the dirt path on the other side, ending at the William Hutt Bridge on Waterloo St. Sometimes we brought a picnic lunch to eat at one of the tables beside the lake.
Slowly other charms of the city of Stratford beckoned us also. At 40 minutes from Waterloo, it became a perfect location for winter getaway weekends. Over the years we chose various of its small hotels at off-season rates, settling most recently on The Annex Room Inn. Knowing our interest, two different churches which I pastored gave us gift certificates for a weekend in Stratford as a parting gift!
We started eating Italian food at Fellini’s for special occasions in Sam’s life. For a while we joined Monforte Dairy’s artisan cheese CSA, and met cheesemaker Ruth Klaussen. She liked Sam’s “Russian” hat made of rabbit fur and thus somehow assumed we were “Russian Mennonites.” And of course I found women’s clothing shops and gift shops to visit twice a year….
In the last 10 years or so, we haven’t seen Stratford plays as often, alternating years between Stratford and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But the memory of beloved bygone plays and musicals continues to nourish my spirit, as do our weekend and shorter jaunts to the city of Stratford.
Questions for Reflection:
- To which theatre or music or art venue have you consistently gone to nourish your spirit over the years?
- Which town has charmed you in repeated getaways?
Next week: TBA