The (UofT) Student’s Guide to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

In a Nutshell

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is an annual theatre festival in Stratford, Ontario. Although it is primarily dedicated to the works of William Shakespeare, the Festival also produces musicals, contemporary classics, and new plays. The Stratford Festival has an international reputation for the high quality of its productions. Each show, from the largest musical to the smallest comedy, is the result of the talent and work of dozens of accomplished, gifted artists and producers. The Festival runs annually from April through October, and is the highlight of the summer theatre in Southern Ontario.

Choosing a Show

The Festival programme includes 12 different and diverse plays, but unfortunately, I’ve only had the chance to see 2. That hasn’t stopped me from making this handy-dandy guide as to which of those 2 shows – Tommy and Waiting for Godot is right for you.

I like plays to be…
  • Loud
  • Raucous
  • Exciting
  • Subtle
  • Clever
  • Thought-provoking
I want to talk about the play with…
  • Parents (& other nostalgic folks)
  • Music geeks
  • Professors and classmates
  • Theatre geeks
I go to the theatre to be… Entertained Educated
My ideal souvenir is… A soundtrack A mug with a witty message
I prefer… High-brow pop culture Accessible high culture

I want to see…

Tommy

Waiting for Godot

Or both!

Of course, you could also go with any of the other ten.

Buying Tickets

As you may have noticed, we at blogUT are really all about the green. That doesn’t end when it comes to theatre tickets – we’ve got the goods on getting the best (and most dramatic) bang for your buck. Play On tickets go for an even $25, but are available only for select performances and not always in advance. Don’t worry – there are plenty of Play On shows left before the festival ends. And if even that’s too much, Play On tickets are available for only $20 when you’re seeing Othello. All you need to do is prove that you are 16-29 years old with photo ID.

Getting There

Road trips and voyages out of town are often seen by students as too costly to be worth it, but the Stratford Festival has that covered. Tickets are only $10 each way on the Stratford Direct, and the bus drops you off at any of the four Festival theatres (pick-up is at Front and Simcoe at 10:00AM and 3:30PM). The buses are comfortable and roomy, and have wi-fi, a bathroom, and undercarriage storage for large bags. An added bonus: riding back into the city in a bus full of people to talk to about your experiences at the Festival. My perfect day at Stratford ended yesterday with a lovely conversation with some other festival-goers, who were sitting behind me. We traded reviews and recommendations for almost an hour.

Other Things to Do in Stratford

Only 30,000 or so people call Stratford, Ontario home, but there’s still plenty to do there. In addition to myriad book and antique stores, the best shopping prospects are the warm, inviting candy and chocolate shops that line the town’s quaint streets. A terrific place to sit down for a hot or cold drink after or before a show is Balzac’s coffee, a small chain with a few locations in Toronto as well. I had dinner at Boomers Gourmet Fries, a small burger shop with a big menu and fantastic prices. And, obviously, delicious gourmet fries. For dessert, you can head next door to Scooper’s Ice Cream, which also serves shakes and frozen yogurt at excellent prices. If you’re more of the picnicker type, I recommend staking out a bench by the water on Lakeside Drive and watching the swans and ducks go by.

 

Louis Goes to Stratford: Waiting for Godot

Like so many others with an interest in the theatre, I’m no stranger to Waiting for Godot. The now legendary play, which took the world by storm in the 1950s, deals with the hollowness of a life spent waiting for meaning and redemption. I’ve read Godot both for pleasure and for study, in high school and in university. I’ve seen amateur productions and professional ones; interpretations that adhered strictly to the original text and others that veered sharply towards the avant-garde. But none has compared to what I saw tonight.

The Stratford Festival’s production of Waiting for Godot is staged in the Festival’s lesser-known Tom Patterson theatre, a relatively small space adjacent to a community centre. The theatre’s most interesting feature is not its size but its structure: the seats are located in shallow rows along three sides of the stage, putting audience members closer to the action and giving each of them a different angle from which to view the play. This was perfectly suited to Jennifer Tarver’s direction of Godot. She made brilliant use of the show’s slapstick comedy and the stage’s layout to maximize the visual, physical element of the play and, with it, she truly brought out the piece’s humour. The audience often laughed out loud at the jokes and gags, although they were soon abruptly hushed by the show’s darker elements, which were captured with intensity by all members of the cast. This balance ideally represents why Samuel Beckett chose to label his masterpiece a “tragicomedy”.

It is impossible to summarize Waiting for Godot in terms of plot – all two hours and thirty minutes consist of men waiting, alone except for the occasional interaction with a passing traveller, for a mysterious man named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon are certain that Godot will arive soon, and with him, redemption from their meaningless, painful lives. But by the evening’s end, Godot is nowhere to be seen, and Vladimir and Estragon must prepare for another day of waiting.

Some plays deal with personal, emotional issues that their playwrights have experienced but other people have not. Some playwrights try to tackle broader societal problems, but in doing so become products of their generation and nothing but relics for the future. Waiting for Godot, which is personal and cultural, and also philosophical and psychological, is extraordinary because the themes it addresses are universal; international and timeless. There will never be a generation of people who don’t ask the questions that Beckett asks, and I hope, never a generation that isn’t stunned by the horror and humour of Beckett’s attempts to answer them.

from the Stratford Festival website:

Waiting for Godot

by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Jennifer Tarver

Tom Patterson Theatre
to September 26
Approximate running time: 2 hrs 40 min, including one interval

Louis Goes to Stratford: Tommy

I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to watch Tommy, the musical by Pete Townsend of The Who, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this afternoon. I didn’t have time to do much expecting, however, because before long the excited buzz of the eager audience was broken by a deafening riff on the electric guitar as the show began. Originally billed as a “rock opera,” Tommy is a musical narrative told almost entirely through rock and roll. It began as a concept album by The Who in the 1960s and, due to its popularity and creativity, enjoyed life as a movie and a concept concert before it was adapted into a Broadway musical in the 1990s by Townsend and director Des McAnuff. Yes, that Des McAnuff – the legendary director of musicals right here in Stratford  also directed this production of the show he helped to create decades ago. This time, he assures us in the programme, is different; this time he’s made use of all the technological innovations that have been developed since the show’s first production. And boy, he keeps that promise.

Tommy is, in a word, overwhelming. The music, by nature of its composition, is loud even when the volume is turned down; this afternoon it was cranked up to 11. The visuals, which range from actors suspended by wires to blinding light displays, make it impossible to turn away. At any given moment something is happening, singing, shouting, flying, preaching, dancing, murdering, or shattering

But this is not an accident – an excess of stimuli fits in perfectly with the plot of Tommy. The titular character, who is depicted at various ages from childhood to his 20s, witnesses an horrific murder through the reflection of a mirror when he is a child. Traumatized by what he has seen, Tommy stops communicating with the outside world, seemingly blind, deaf, and dumb. In fact, the only things Tommy seems to do are look at himself in the mirror and play pinball, at which he has a peculiar talent. Tommy comes to block out the sights and the noises of his life, the sights and noises that the audience experiences in supererogatory amounts.

Tommy is overwhelming, but not for no reason and certainly not for waste. The music, which is known to millions of people as a rock classic, is exciting and breathlessly paced. The visuals are stunning; the performances enthralling. The show is, from start to finish, a piece of theatre with so much energy, passion, and skill that it will dominate your every thought and action at least until you leave the theatre and possibly for long after. Or, in a word, overwhelming.

 

from the Stratford Festival website:

Tommy

Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional music and lyrics by
John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Originally produced on Broadway by Pace Theatrical Group and Dodger Productions with Kardana Productions
Directed by Des McAnuff
Approximate running time: 2 hrs 3 min, including one interval
Avon Theatre
to October 19

 

Louis Goes to Stratford: The Journey

A man walks onto a bus…

That man is me and that bus is the Stratford Direct Bus, the large, beautiful, flamboyantly-decorated beacon of hope for the cash-strapped, geographically-challenged Torontonian theatre-goer. For only $10 each way, the Stratford Direct picks passengers up on Front Street and drives them right up to any of the Stratford Theatres of their choosing. The bus’s schedule – Toronto pick-ups at 10:00AM and 3:30PM – coincides perfectly with show times, arriving a few hours before matinees and evening shows, respectively. It is a quick, cost-effective way of getting in town to see some shows while still making it home for bed-time.

But now that the boring stuff is out of the way, let me tell you about how much I love buses. I’m not talking about the TTC, or any kind of cramped, dirty municipal bus. I’m talking about fun buses, coach buses, the kinds of buses you only go on for long voyages. They’re comfy and they’re roomy, yes, and some even have wi-fi (thanks, Pacific Western!) but the main reason that getting on a coach bus delights me is that it always signifies the start of an adventure. No one ever gets on one to go the movies, or to school. We ride them to go to different cities, to do and see awesome things in far-off places. Like Pavlov and his dogs, stepping onto a coach bus incites in me an emotional reaction born from memory. Every other trip I’ve taken flashes through me the moment I take my seat; every scenery I’ve taken in through coach bus windows rolls through my imagination as I wonder what I’ll see today. What I’ll hear today. What I’ll do today.

Ah, the open road.