Sixty years ago Stratford became a theatre town

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An aerial view looking east shows the original tent structure of the Stratford Festival 60 years ago. (BEACON HERALD FILES)



By Laura Cudworth, The Beacon Herald
Friday, July 12, 2013

“The testing time will come when the novelty, local and national, has worn off,” warned The Times Weekly Review in London, England in 1952.

Saturday is the Stratford Festival’s 60th anniversary of the first opening night. The novelty has worn off, the Festival has been tested and passed each test as a first-class cultural institution.

It’s well known Tom Patterson’s crazy dream was to leave the hometown he loved with a lasting financial and cultural industry. He was smart enough to know when he didn’t have the answers and brave enough to ask the people who did, most notably big-time British director Tyrone Guthrie.

There were two plays instead of just one that first season – “Richard III” and “All’s Well That End’s Well” — based on the advice of Guthrie in a report to the Shakespeare Festival Committee.

“I suggest for the first year one production is insufficient: 1. Too skimpy an effort to justify all the ballyhoo. 2. Advisable to have a second barrel, in case the first shot is a miss.”

The first shot, “Richard III”, wasn’t a miss. The standing ovation lasted until Alec Guinness (Richard III) made a curtain speech.

“The audience just rose as one person, it went on for 15 minutes,” said actor William (Bill) Needles, who was in the cast opening night.

He recalled some members in the audience were crying.

“We were standing on the stage bawling and crying too. It was a good omen for the years to come. The impact was immediate, we’ve got something here.”

Before that first performance no one knew how the Festival would be received. The whole idea was so extraordinary. Canadian theatre was under-developed and the concept of a thrust stage was outside the box, never mind in a 1,500-seat canvas tent weighing in at three and a half tons.

The tent may seem like a crazy detail in a crazy plan but it was a relatively cautious concept.

“To build would be madness before the idea has been proven seaworthy,” Guthrie concluded.

The famous stage and tent were not ready when rehearsals started June 1 so a mock-up stage, in the agricultural building, would have to do. The first rehearsal in the tent was June 28.

Guthrie wanted a top-notch cast with big names in leading roles. One of those, of course, was Guinness, famed actor of stage and screen.

In a letter to the actor, Guthrie stressed the name “Guinness” would help with fundraising and ensure the whole endeavour wouldn’t become just a “small town jamboree.”

In his letter, Guthrie suggested perhaps Guinness might play Hamlet and Angelo in “Measure for Measure” that first season, “but only if there’s a really luscious lady around for Isabella, eg. Mdme Eileen Herlie.”

“I do most eagerly and keenly hope you’ll embark on this project, dear Alec,” he concluded.

Guinness agreed to come, and like Patterson and Guthrie, he threw his heart into the project. He turned down film and theatre roles (good-paying jobs) to come to Stratford.

Guthrie was keen to have British stars but was just as keen to have a Canadian cast and production staff. In December 1952, Guthrie held auditions in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Stratford and talked to about 400 actors.

Needles recalled his audition with Guthrie as “brisk.” Like most other Canadians with a desire to act back then, he had experience in radio — he spoke clearly — a plus because it was a large tent and the actors needed to be heard. It was one of the reasons Needles was hired, after first promising to do as he was told.

“I was hired for the next 47 years,” he quipped.

James Colbeck was just 13 years old when he was auditioned and hired to play the Prince of Wales.

“(Guthrie) wanted a Canadian but when he heard my Canadian accent speaking Shakespeare’s glorious English he said, ‘Would someone take that boy away and teach him to speak English?’”

On top of it all, the two other dark-haired boys in the production looked like brothers. Colbeck was a redhead. He was demoted to the role of page.

Colbeck thought he had failed his family and his school –Upper Canada College — which released him a month early to join the Festival. He was mortified.

“Alec Guinness took me around then and explained the realities of theatre. He explained the right person had to be in the right job,” recalled Colbeck, who now lives in Stratford.

In his 30-minute pep talk, Guinness stressed the change in roles wasn’t a failure and got Colbeck’s “sniffles” under control.

“I remember that like it was yesterday,” said Tony Rotherham, who played the Duke of York in “Richard III”. “It was truly emotional for a star of that calibre to take that much concern for a kid.”

Jack Merigold, assistant stage manager back in 1953, remembered Guinness as a private man who, with time, opened up.

“I used to help with his soliloquies, so did Timothy Findley,” he said.

Irene Worth added glamour but she was so much more than just glamorous, Merigold said. She worked extremely hard at her craft.

She had a “fantastic theatre voice” and practised two to three hours a day, he said.

She became a very good friend, he said.

“She was ahead of her time as a health nut.”

As a busy stage manager Merigold found himself eating more hamburgers and drinking more milkshakes than any one person should. In fact, during one performance, Guinness came off stage and asked who was rustling Kleenex. It was Merigold reaching into the bag to get his hamburger.

There were about 30 members of the company — 10 of them Canadian — and the expectations from Guthrie were high.

“(Guthrie) was a taskmaster. He’d say, ‘I’m sitting in a paid seat back here and I can’t hear a damned thing. Speak up!’ Guthrie was fascinating. He had great training but he was experimental in a way,” Needles said.

Guthrie wasn’t one to pull punches in rehearsals even with humble actors who had relatively little experience.

“Dear boy, do you know what you were doing in that last scene?”

Needles replied, “Yes.”

“Well, don’t,” was the response.

During the last rehearsal before the opening it was unbelievably hot, Merigold said. The heat inside the tent was so intense rehearsals ended early and the stagehands put a clothesline up at the back of the tent to hang the costumes before the actors went on — Guinness’ coronation robe was massive.

After the rehearsals, the unionized IATSE crew was released for the afternoon and there was no one to sweep the stage before the opening. Merigold left on his bike but only made it as far as the Queen’s Hotel before he turned around.

“If I didn’t do it, who would?”

When he got back to the tent he found Guthrie and his wife, Judy, sweeping the stage.

“That night cemented my relationship with Guthrie,” Merigold said.

He went on to work as a stage manager for Guthrie for a decade.

Outside the tent, the excitement was at its peak. Lori Colbeck’s dad Alex Smith was the radio programmer and was one of the few in Stratford fortunate enough to get a part. He played Lord Grey.

Some very big names came to dinner at the Smith home as a result, including Douglas Campbell, Michael Bates and Douglas Rain, who came in shirt and tie and was very shy, she recalled.

Those big names walked the streets of Stratford and there was an understanding they weren’t to be harassed.

“No one was a gawker. You were just really pleased if you saw Guinness walk by,” she said.

But once opening night finally came around there were crowds outside to watch the spectacle. Lori was outside the tent and described it as “magic.”

“There was a fly past, they shot an actual canon, the bells were ringing. And seeing those women in their gowns and the cars …”

Inside the tent actors did their best to quell their jitters.

“On opening night we were all terribly nervous, even the professional actors. We went on apprehensively,” Needles said.

It all went smoothly, for the most part.

“In the battle scene the train went through with the whistle blowing. For us back stage, I suspect we were laughing our heads off,” Colbeck said.

The train times were changed or the whistle was stopped after that, Lori said.

No one knew how this whole venture would turn out. It was a huge risk for everyone involved. There were financial risks taken and careers potentially on the line. Even the staunchest supporters had their moments of doubt.

After rehearsals one afternoon Needles offered Guthrie a ride home in his car. Guthrie, who was living on Norman St. at the time, accepted. He invited Needles in for dinner.

“His wife Judy was in the kitchen making Irish stew with a cigarette hanging over and the ashes falling in,” Needles recalled.

“Early in the meal he grabbed my arm and said, ‘You know this could be the most disastrous failure.’ And he howled with laughter.”

From the start, Guthrie warned the committee the venture would lose money in its first year but that would be offset by “invisible assets of prestige.” The Festival was at 98% capacity that first season with more than 68,000 people attending. The five-week season was extended to six and the theatre pulled in $206,000 over 42 performances.

Like Patterson, Guthrie was convinced this was Stratford’s time.

“If Stratford doesn’t do it, some other Canadian community will,” Guthrie told Guinness.

The Times Weekly Review editorial took a wait-and-see approach even after the success of opening night, but the paper did acknowledge, “something quite unexpected, and potentially important, has happened in Canadian cultural life.”

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