After six hours waiting at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, I got the bad news: My colleague’s flight had been cancelled, so I’d be attending a weekend’s worth of theater by myself at the legendary Stratford Festival. Since half the fun of seeing a show is talking about it afterwards, I figured I was in for a lonely trip.
Was I ever wrong! All weekend long, wherever I went, the play was the thing to talk about. I traded “The Diary of Anne Frank” stories with the waitress who refilled my breakfast coffee, dished about “Hamlet” with the bartender over post-theater libations, and raved about the Jewish Maria with seatmates during intermission at “The Sound of Music.” The artistic caliber was on par with New York, but the infectious energy reminded me of high school drama club: Everyone in this theater-mad town seemed to have an opinion about the shows — and was eager for mine.
As I learned the fun way, Shakespeare and his ilk are at least as popular in Stratford, Ontario, as they are in Stratford-upon-Avon, the poet’s English birthplace and home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Within hours of arriving, I saw a bust of Shakespeare presiding over a rose garden, the Bard’s 400-year-old armchair in the lobby of the Festival Theatre, and swans gliding along — you guessed it — the Avon River.
The new world Stratford has more than a little old world charm. Romantic footbridges arch across the river, which winds through a shady, garden-dotted greenbelt; just steps away, the Victorian downtown boasts elegant brick buildings and sidewalk cafés. When I visited on a sunny July day, sightseers cruised down the Avon on the “Juliet III” riverboat, snapping photos of the scenery while families picnicked along the shore.
It’s a bucolic setting typical of summer theater, but Stratford is hardly a festival in the traditional sense. With shows running at four small, intimate theaters from April to October, it’s more like the city season in reverse — which makes sense when you consider the location in a rural Snow Belt. A vast majority of the 500,000 annual Festival attendees come from out of town (Canadian cities, the Midwest and — increasingly — the Northeastern U.S.); Shakespeare is at the heart of the lineup, but musicals, modern works and premieres round out the season.
The Jewish quotient amps up during Festival time in this Canadian farm region, where Teutonic place names — Baden, New Hamburg — reflect German immigrant roots. Local Jewish life is centered around congregations in the nearby towns of Kitchener and Waterloo, and the Festival regularly engages rabbis to consult on cultural and religious authenticity for the many Jewish-themed productions — “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Merchant of Venice,” to name a recent few.
Jewish patrons, artists and scholars are well represented throughout the Festival. During my visit, the buzz centered around the bravura performance of Stephanie Rothenberg — an NYU-trained American-Jewish actress — as Maria, the nun-turned-singing-governess in “The Sound of Music.”
Sara Farb, the Jewish star of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” prefaced her own performance with a moving tribute to her grandmother, who survived a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Later that weekend, the Forum – an ongoing series of lectures, workshops and concerts on Festival themes – featured a talk by the Canadian-Jewish writer Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker and “Another Sound of Music,” a presentation about music in the Nazi camps.
Indeed, Stratford works hard to keep its visitors engaged, with plenty to do before and after the shows (there’s even a “Sound of Music” picnic lunch series, with potato salad and sing-alongs down by the river). At the show itself, moments after the last strains of “Climb Every Mountain” died away, I watched more than a hundred audience members eagerly fill seats for a post-show Q&A with the actors.
The enthusiasm was so contagious that I stayed until midnight despite my post-flight fatigue. Then I went for a drink at Down the Street, a few blocks away on a lively stretch of Ontario Street — and bumped into half the cast, toasting and unwinding after another great show. The next morning, getting coffee at Revel Caffé, I saw Farb at the next table.
How has Stratford come to enjoy such a passionate following? By investing in an impressive audience-building effort that should be an example for arts communities everywhere. Stratford ensures its next generation by sending its actors into Ontario schools for theater workshops, filling matinées with class trips, sponsoring summer theater camps and offering a variety of discounted tickets for children, students, teachers and families.
The Festival even takes care of transportation: There’s a $20 round-trip festival bus that departs twice daily from Toronto’s Intercontinental Hotel. Those flying into Toronto on Porter Airlines, the fabulous little gem of an airline that lands right in downtown Billy Bishop Airport, can shuttle to the Intercontinental for free — so out-of-town theater buffs can make a smooth two-hour connection from one aisle seat to another for just $10.
As I sipped on free espresso in the Porter lounge, waiting to board my flight home, I spotted fellow travelers clutching “Hamlet” programs. We started chatting, agreed that Jonathan Goad’s Dane was one for the ages, and traded opinions on the minimalist sets and costumes. The Stratford spirit is contagious — and as I learned on one whirlwind trip, all the world truly is a stage here in summertime.