The Stratford Festival: Everything You Need to Know About One of Canada’s Most Iconic Arts Festivals

The Stratford Festival is one of Canada’s most well known festivals, and that makes sense considering it’s head up by North America’s largest classical repertory theatre company. It’s one-of-a-kind, and not to be missed.

Stratford Festival

It strikes me that there’s legitimately always an occasion where you can justify attending Stratford’s nationally beloved festival. It could be for a memorable date, an excuse to bring your family to celebrate the arts, or, like me, to go on your own and lose yourself in the wonder of performance for a few cherished hours.

What I’ve always loved about the Stratford Festival is that it’s world class. From opera in Vienna to marionette theatre in Tbilisi, I’ve been fortunate to see the performing arts in action across the globe, and it’s even more clear to me now that the Stratford Festival is something to behold and to be sincerely appreciated.

The actors and actresses, the orchestras, the crew, the venues – well, they’re superb, and that’s why this article was very much an inevitability. If we here at We Explore Canada can encourage more folks to attend the Stratford Festival, then we’ve done our job, all in the spirit of respecting those who have done their part in making this festival a reality.

Let’s back up for a moment and look at how this all came to be.

The Beginnings of the Stratford Festival

In the early 1950s the railway industry pulled out of Stratford, causing plenty of concern in the community about Stratford’s economy. Well, Tom Patterson, a local journalist, decided that the best way to breathe life back into the town was a festival of Shakespearean theatre.

in 1952, he was awarded a $125 grant from city council to go to New York and seek artistic advice. That trip didn’t end up being very fruitful, but eventually he was put in touch with legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie who was so enticed by the idea, he came over to Canada to see if they could make this dream a reality.

When he traversed the ocean and liked what he heard, all of a sudden the Stratford Festival had its first Artistic Director.

It wasn’t an easy road, but within a year or so an amphitheatre (albeit with a tent roof) was built, and Richard III took flight on the night of July 13th, 1953. Suffice to say, a new chapter in Canadian theatre was born!

As the Stratford Festival notes on their site:

“Drawing inspiration from the Elizabethan apron stage, the ancient Greek amphitheatres and the Roman arenas, the thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch revolutionized the performance of Shakespeare.

It comprises a protruding platform, a balcony (now removable), trap-doors, nine acting levels and eight major entrances. Seating surrounds the stage in a semi-circular arc, while two vomitoria, or “voms,” run diagonally from the stage into tunnels under the auditorium.

The theatre seats well over 1,800 people, yet no spectator is more than 65 feet from the stage.

A Beloved Canadian Festival Spreads Its Wings

In the latter part of the 1950s, it became clear that the Stratford Festival needed a permanent theatre, and by 1957, they’d made that dream a reality with the now famous Festival Theatre.

In short order, some of the world’s most celebrated actors began to grace Stratford’s stage. The Avon Theatre was purchased in 1963 then another venue, now known as the Tom Patterson Theatre, came into use in the early 70s. Finally, in 2002 the Studio Theatre was added to the mix.

The Stratford Theatre organizers have done a remarkable job of updating and renovating these respective properties to ensure that theatre goers can take part in a state-of-the-art theatre experience. Their recent renovations to the Tom Patterson Theatre, which can now hold about 600 people, exemplify precisely that ethos.

The history of the Stratford Festival demonstrates a city and organization’s commitment to artistic excellence with the understanding that an investment in the arts has a myriad of benefits for the community at large when it’s done to this standard.

Having visited Stratford on many occasions, for everything from cycling to getting better acquainted with the city’s restaurant scene, I don’t want to give the impression that Stratford is synonymous with its festival. There’s much more to the city than that. However, I do feel as if the success of the festival established building blocks for the city of Stratford to find its stride and celebrate its place in Canadian tourism.

By the way, they’re now North America’s largest classical repertory theatre company. How incredible is that?

Attending a Performance at the Stratford Festival

Festival Theatre stage in Stratford, Ontario
Just before the second act of Chicago. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

Here’s some key information about attending a performance at the Stratford Festival to help you better plan your visit.

Firstly, it’s very easy to buy tickets on the Stratford Festival’s website. Each year, they put out a Visitor’s Guide to provide some key information about the shows in that year’s lineup, plus information about Stratford itself. This season, they’re running Hamlet, Chicago, The Miser, Little Women, Richard III, All’s Well That Ends Well, Death and the King’s Horseman, Every Little Nookie, Hamlet-911, and 1939.

I personally had the chance to see Chicago, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. The performances were some I’ll never forget, and I can’t recall a minute where I wasn’t utterly engaged by what I was seeing on stage. If you’re looking for something that’s fun for all, I’d strongly recommend it.

There are four distinct stages as we noted in the article up above – the Festival Theatre, the Avon Theatre, the Tom Patterson Theatre (and the Lazaridis Hall), and the Studio Theatre. Head here if you want to see the exterior, location map, seating map, and more for any of the theatres.

The Stratford Festival aims to be accessible for guests with low vision, who are hard of hearing, for guests that have restricted mobility and more. You can find out more information about how the Stratford Festival approaches accessibility here.

You’ve got a number of transportation options to get to and from Stratford. Many attendees take the Stratford Direct Bus service that runs to and from Stratford and Toronto for about $30.

What Else Should You Know About StratFest?

Here are a few other things worth noting that about StratFest.

  • The Stratford Festival rightfully acknowledges the guardians of the land that came before them, namely the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Wendat, and the Attiwonderonk. They note that “This territory is governed by two treaties. The first is the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant of 1701, made between the Anishinaabe and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an agreement to set violence aside and peacefully share and care for the land in the Great Lakes Basin. The second is the Huron Tract Treaty of 1827, an agreement made by eighteen Anishinaabek Chiefs and the Canada Company, an agency of the British Crown. As an organization and as individuals, we at the Stratford Festival are in a process of learning how we can be better treaty partners.”
  • Performances span April through November. If you can’t make it this year, take note of the Stratford Festival’s new subscription platform, STRATFEST@HOME. It’s essentially a high-definition streaming platform for the company’s productions, as well as plenty of other entertaining content. It costs around $10 per month.
  • If you’re interested in peeking behind the curtain, take note of the Tours and Exhibits on offer. On offer now, for example, are the Tom Patterson Theatre Tour, the Set Changeover Tour, as well as the Archives & Warehouse Tour. They’re all currently running from June to October.
  • The Meighen Forum was something launched during the pandemic, and features the opportunity to buy tickets for special performances, attend workshops, as well as hear certain speakers and panels in action.
  • Finally, there’s also membership to consider. There are five different membership tiers – Friend, Ambassador, Benefactor, Associate, and Sustainer. Benefits include things such as priority booking, priority access, rush tickets, reserved parking, complimentary and discounted tickets, access to the Eaton Lounge at the Festival Theatre, bringing a friend to selected performances and a whole lote more. More information here.

A One of Kind Festival in Canada

Stratford City Hall
Stratford City Hall. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

The success of the Stratford Festival has garnered the city a lot of attention, and has ensured it’ll remain a hotbed in Ontario for arts and tourism. Furthermore, this festival isn’t just attracting fellow Ontarians or Canadians – it’s a massive draw for American and even British and European guests.

Growing up in Toronto, I was able to attend shows at the Stratford Festival, but I’m not sure when I was younger I fully understood just how remarkable this festival is. As I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve travelled more, I’ve begun to recognize that there’s something truly special about the Stratford Festival, and that it’s very much one-of-a-kind.

I’m grateful to have the excuse to visit every year, and I hope this article encourages you to make your own visit, and to get the very most out of your experience.

Farewell, my friends. However long you’re in Stratford, and whatever performance you see, remember to smile and have some fun, for as Shakespeare himself noted, “All the world’s a stage.”

We want to humbly thank Visit Stratford for hosting us as media. All opinions are completely our own.

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2 thoughts on “The Stratford Festival: Everything You Need to Know About One of Canada’s Most Iconic Arts Festivals

  1. Joanne czeswik says:

    How can we get around Stratford for a week for the Festival. We are staying at the Arden Park Hotel. In past we walked everywhere. Now, we need transportation because my husbands health doesn’t allow much walking beyond a couple blocks. How can I check bus, or other ways to move around city?

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