Introduce your kids to the plays of Shakespeare and other literary lions with exciting productions of classics, musicals and more.
It may be celebrating its 55th birthday, but the Stratford Festival of Canada is livelier than ever. The 2007 season runs till November 4th, so there’s still plenty of time for theater-loving families to catch a few shows. Stratford, a sweet town of 30,000+ in Southern Ontario, lies two hours southwest of Toronto, three hours northeast of Detroit, and 2-½ hours from Buffalo. Like its British namesake, it’s set on the Avon River, and its leafy streets and riverside paths are ideal for strolling.
A summer Shakespeare festival was the inspired idea of Tom Patterson, a Stratford-born journalist who saw his town’s economy nose-diving with the decline of the rail industry. In 1952 he persuaded the Irish actor/director Tyrone Guthrie to join the project, offering him the chance to build a theater with a thrust stage. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed on a stage that extends out into the audience, but after the Globe Theatre burned down in 1618, there has not been a thrust stage anywhere.
The first season launched in 1953, with the legendary Alec Guinness (kids know him as Obi-Wan Kenobi) performing as Richard III under a tent to an audience seated on 1,500 folding chairs. By 1957, the tent had been replaced by the current Festival Theatre, with its crown-shaped zigzag roofline.
Since then the Stratford Festival has added three more stages, becoming the largest classical repertory theater in North America. And, as the current lineup indicates, it has also broadened its scope to include other playwrights. Countless actors of renown have trod its boards: Christopher Plummer, Lorne Greene, William Shatner, Maggie Smith, James Mason, Peter Ustinov, Hume Cronym, Jessica Tandy, Sarah Polley, and many more.
In 2007, 13 plays and musicals are being presented. While the productions are highly professional, audiences are mostly casual—attire ranges from jackets and ties to shorts and sandals. The best bets for families this season:
- Oklahoma!: The classic Rogers & Hammerstein love story set to music in the heart of turn-of-the-century Oklahoma territory. “The rowdiest, boot-stompin love triangle in Broadway musical history.”
- Comedy of Errors: Two sets of identical twins spell double trouble in Shakespeare’s zaniest comedy. Sheer confusion & delighful nonsense reign in this madcap comedy, culminating in a series of misunderstandings that bring everyone to the brink of hysteria.
- To Kill a Mockingbird: Based upon the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, this moving story captures the powerful lessons of love and tolerance from one man’s remarkable courage. The play deals with racial tension in Alabama during the Great Depression.
Part of the fun of seeing several productions is that the actors often perform in three different plays. Watch carefully and you might see someone declaiming a Shakespearean monologue in a matinee, and then cavorting in a frothy musical that evening.
Any kid will enjoy one of the backstage tours, held daily at the Festival Theater. You’ll get the chance to scamper down one of the theater’s two Roman-style vomitoria—openings set into the audience seating area that allow actors to suddenly appear and disappear.
Beneath the stage, our guide told a classic the-show-must-go-on anecdote about an actor who tumbled through the trap door and knocked himself out; stagehands deftly stripped off his costume so the understudy could go on in his place.
Another memorable story involved the actor playing Caliban in The Tempest a few years back: his costume got so stinky, the wardrobe people had to store it overnight in cat litter to absorb the odors. (Our guide found the method worked on his son’s hockey gear, too.)
To reserve seats, call 800-567-1600 or go to www.stratfordfestival.ca . While adult tickets rival Broadway prices (in Canadian dollars, though; current exchange rate is US$1 U.S. = CAN$1.08), tickets for children under 18 who are accompanied by an adult cost as low as CAN$39.95. Call or check the website if you’re wondering about a show’s suitability for children. You can also take a costume warehouse tour to catch a closer look at thousands of costumes and hundreds of props from producions throughout the festival’s history, or a tour through the beautiful gardens of the Festival theater. Adults pay $7 for tours; students $5; book when you reserve your tickets.
Other Nearby Activities
There’s always something to see along the Avon River, where swans and other waterfowl paddle about. Visit the tourist info center for directions to the T.J. Dolan Trail, a nature walk along the river and Lake Victoria.
African Lion Safari: (800/461-9453) About an hour’s drive east of Stratford, this drive-through game reserve houses 1,000 rare mammals and birds. Open through the Fall.
St. Marys: A charming town about 15 minutes from Stratford. Visit the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum (519/284-1838; closed after Thanksgiving weekend and stop for an excellent lunch at Smith & Latham at 145 Queen Street East (519/284-4469)
There’s a lot of fun rainy-day shopping back in Stratford. Family & Co. at 6 Ontario Street (519/273-7060) is a terrific toy store jammed with fun items—you can’t leave without buying something.
Another shop we liked is Earthwinds at 110 Ontario Street (519/272-0695). This is a good spot for older kids, selling imports from all over such as Indian clothing, Indonesian crafts and jewelry.
The best lodging option for families is Arden Park at 552 Ontario Street (877/788-8818 or 519/275-2936), a 144-room hotel with a bland exterior but good facilities, including a restaurant and an indoor pool. Suites with kitchenettes are available and the Festival Theatre is a five-minute walk away. The hotel can arrange babysitting for $6.50/hour. During high-season, prices for a double room range from $100-$200.
These are some of my favorite restaurants in the area: Pazzo Pizzeria at 70 Ontario Street (519/273-6666); go downstairs to the brick-walled cellar for “design-your-own” thin-crust pizzas, and more.
Garlic’s is at 104-108 Downie Street (519/275-2929). As its name implies, garlic is presented every which way, from burgers to Pad Thai. Across from the Avon Theater, where Into the Woods is showing.
York Street Kitchen is located at 41 York Street (519/273-7041), a busy street in summer. Your family can eat here (great sandwiches) or order a picnic to enjoy by the Avon River.
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