The long journey to opening the Tom Patterson Theatre at the Stratford Festival

The long journey to opening the Tom Patterson Theatre at the Stratford Festival

On May 10, the Stratford Festival will hold an official ribbon cutting for its new $70-million Tom Patterson Theatre – just ahead of the first performance in front of an audience in the building’s 600-seat auditorium.

Shakespeare’s Richard III, with well-known classical actor Colm Feore in the title role, will inaugurate the boards of the theatre’s unique elongated thrust stage – and it’s been a longer than expected journey to its first preview owing to the pandemic. A total of 1,708 days have passed since the final performance in the old Tom Patterson. Here are some of the milestones from along the way.

Sept. 24, 2017, 2 p.m.: Final performance in the old Tom Patterson Theatre

Tom Patterson Theatre Closing Party on Sept. 3, 2017.Rodrigo Beilfuss/Stratford Festival

The original Tom Patterson Theatre was located in a 1906 building that served numerous purposes over the course of its existence in Stratford, Ont. – from curling rink to dance hall to badminton club.

The Stratford Festival used the space for concerts in its early days (Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Glenn Gould were among those who performed), but the company only regularly started putting on plays there in 1971. The Third Stage, as it was originally dubbed, opened that year with The Red Convertible by Colombian playwright Enrique Buenaventura, directed by Michael Bawtree.

The Tom Patterson – renamed after the festival’s journalist-founder in the late 1970s – was a flexible theatre space for many years. In the 1980s, however, it settled down into a configuration the company refers to an “elongated thrust” – a long, wide catwalk stage – with seats on risers close to the action on three sides. Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino likes the way one American spectator described the audience experience: “It’s like watching a hockey game – and sometimes the puck comes right at you.”

The Madwoman of Chaillot at the Stratford Festival in 2017Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival

Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, directed by Donna Feore, was the final show performed in the old theatre. Afterward, in an emotional ceremony, the audience was invited to call out the names of performers they had seen on the stage over the years. A dance party was held for artists and staff on the stage.

Jan. 16, 2018: The launch of the fundraising campaign

The launch of the $100-million “Spirit of the Tent” campaign was just the cap on years of behind-the-scenes work. While the old building’s intimate auditorium was an audience favourite, its shortcomings, including the lack of a real lobby, were always apparent. “The stage worked, but the dressing rooms were appalling and the backstage was cramped and smelly,” Cimolino says.

Stratford executive director Anita Gaffney and her staff started laying the financial groundwork to build a proper theatre complex on the site in 2015, and began visiting with prospective donors the next year. The provincial and federal government each announced $20-million of support in 2017, and major contributions were lined up from Dan Bernstein, past chair of the festival’s board of governors, and Claire Foerster, his wife ($10-million), and Ophelia Lazaridis ($10-million initially, then an additional $5-million as a challenge grant). “We were at $70-million at the moment we announced the campaign,” Gaffney says.

From the left, Anita Gaffney, Daniel Bernstein, Ophelia Lazaridis, Siamak Hariri and Lee Myers at the Spirit Within kick-off event on Jan. 16, 2018.Scott Wishart/Stratford Festival

That amount covered the construction of the new undulating building, designed by Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects. The remaining $30-million sought was to augment the festival’s endowment, in order to supply regular income for the upkeep of the theatre and expanded activities within it.

Aug. 16, 2018: Ground is broken

The official groundbreaking and tree-planting for the new Tom Patterson Theatre on Aug. 16, 2018.Scott Wishart/Stratford Festival

While plans seemed firm by early 2018, the City of Stratford didn’t actually approve the sale of the property and the adjacent city-owned land on which it would sit to the festival until February of that year. (The theatre company had leased the old building.) For Gaffney, it was only when demolition began in spring 2018 that she felt, “This is really happening.”

In August, a groundbreaking took place that included the ceremonial planting of a katsura tree. It was, truly, ceremonial: The tree was put in the ground near the corner of Waterloo Street and Lakeside Drive because of construction. Only later was it moved to what would be its permanent home, on the corner of Morenz Drive and Lakeside. A plaque under the katsura has a quote from The Tempest: “Such stuff as dreams are made on.”

February 2020: Installation of the new stage

Crews work to install the stage at the new Tom Patterson Theatre in Feb. 2019.Greg Dougherty/Stratford Festival

While Hariri Pontarini was in charge of overall construction, the auditorium was an in-house project. Greg Dougherty was brought on to the festival team to oversee its completion and become the new Tom Patterson’s technical director.

Determining what wood to use for the stage was a particularly elaborate process. The festival’s scene shop ran off 4-foot-by-8-foot sections of different woods, stained them and invited lighting designers, prop makers, directors and performers to to test these mini-stages in a rehearsal hall setting. “They would tap dance on it, walk on it, distress it with chains and steel balls,” Dougherty says.

After months of research, Canadian birch was chosen – which posed a problem, because the most common form of birch available in Canada is actually Russian birch, which had a grain that took stain differently. In order to source enough Canadian birch, the festival ended up purchasing a wood lot.

Workers lower metal beams into place at the theatre.Greg Dougherty/Stratford Festival

Wood is sacred at the Stratford Festival: The wood from the old Tom Patterson stage was saved, then reshaped and resurfaced to become the stage of the new building’s Lazaridis Hall, where readings and cabarets take place. “In Shakespeare’s time, they weren’t performing on black Masonite, right?” Dougherty says. “There’s nothing quite like acting on a wooden stage.”

March, 2020: Shut down on the verge of opening

Richard III was supposed to have its first performance in the new theatre in the spring of 2020. About a week before the Stratford Festival shut down operations because of COVID-19, Cimolino took Feore and his castmate Lucy Peacock, who is playing Queen Elizabeth, over to the auditorium in hard hats. The scaffolding was still up and the seats were wrapped in plastic.

The two Stratford veterans took the stage and rehearsed Act IV, Scene IV. It was the first time Cimolino got to hear actors perform in the room and he was wowed. “It could support such simplicity,” the director says. (The ambient noise in the intimate soundproofed auditorium is around 12 decibels; it’s 25 decibels in the larger Festival Theatre.)

Notes Cimolino: “The beauty of that event was amplified because of the sadness that we were all beginning to feel because of what was coming at us.”

June-July, 2021: A series of firsts

The Stratford Festival returned to life in 2021, mounting a mid-pandemic mini-season of plays and cabarets on outdoor stages. After provincial restrictions were lifted, it even held some events indoors with distanced, masked audiences.

Members of the company in A Midsummer Night’s Dream perform in 2021.David Hou/Stratford Festival

The Tom Patterson ended up being used in ways the festival never could have foreseen. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first show to be rehearsed and then performed on the site’s redesigned grounds, on a stage set up in the parking lot under a tent. Director Peter Pasyk’s production had its first performance in front of an audience on July 13. The next show to play on that outdoor stage, Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters in a production directed by Jessica Carmichael, allowed audiences to visit a healing room set up indoors after performances.

Later that summer, audiences were invited inside the Patterson more regularly to attend forum events, readings and cabarets in Lazaridis Hall. But moving a show into the main auditorium was ruled out with social distancing still in place. “I didn’t want to open that theatre with people having to sit six or seven feet apart,” Cimolino says.

March 30, 2022: First on-stage rehearsal of Richard III

The newly completed Tom Patterson Theatre auditorium awaits its first performance and official opening on May 10.doublespace photography/Stratford Festival

On the first day of rehearsal for Richard III (take II) on March 5, Cimolino brought his cast into the auditorium and let the actors get up on the deck of the new stage. It was another emotional moment, complete with tears. Actor André Sills, who is playing Buckingham, recalls Cimolino “literally kissing the stage.” He was impressed as well: “It had that fresh new-car smell – and something about stepping on the boards was really special.”

Cast of Richard III at the first onstage rehearsal on March 22.Kaitlyn Krestiankova/Stratford Festival

The new auditorium recreates the audience-stage relationship of the old, demolished one, but the acoustics and the seating have improved. And the familiar elongated thrust has some new tricks itself. A “trap room” allows actors to emerge from the deck rather than make all their entrances from the vomitoria at each corner of the stage. Almost the whole stage – 80 per cent – can be “trapped,” Dougherty says, so props can pop up instead of be carried. If you wanted to, you could even create a pond in the centre.

Cimolino was eager to begin working in earnest on this stage, so he moved rehearsals onto it ahead of schedule to March 30. He dispatched actors to seats in different corners of the room to report back on how things looked and sounded. “There’s so much to learn about that space,” he says.

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