Friday, June 18, 2010

The Play’s the Thing - Part 1

Over the past 50 years or so, I have gone to the Stratford Festival here in Ontario almost every summer. I have had the privilege of seeing, as they say, ‘the greats and the near greats,’ performing onstage in the finest plays written in the English language and I can still actually remember a few of those performances.

As a former English teacher, I also arranged countless field trips in order to expose my students to something a little more substantial than the work of that other Brit, Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose populist oeuvre has never been presented at the Festival until this year, a decision obviously driven by the desperate financial circumstances that many cultural institutions find themselves in these days. I guess it was inevitable. Years ago, the annual treat of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or a little something by Wolfie was replaced by flashy revivals of standard Broadway musicals, to attract the American audience, held in intellectual contempt by Canadians, so who knows? Without that generous government subsidy, we might all soon be lining up to see ‘Cats’, god forbid.

Wait a minute. On second thought, you can go by yourself, to that one.
I’ve suffered enough.

The first time I went to the Festival was when both it and I were a lot newer.
My summer camp had lofty cultural pretensions and chartered a bus for a day to transport the senior campers to the little town of Stratford, Ontario, to see a Shakespearean play. In those olden days, we studied one play by the Bard each year in our English Lit classes, so we were adequately prepped . I had already digested ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and, for some reason, ‘Henry the IV…Part 1’, the sanitized version, at my high school. I say ‘sanitized’ because one of my fellow students, Mona, brought a copy of the play from her home library, having lost the school version, and was fortuitously asked to read the part of Falstaff in a little classroom dramatization. Our school texts apparently omitted some of the more salacious lines Mona uttered that day. When the students collapsed in hysterics, our teacher quickly caught on sent her and her unabridged copy, quickly, from the room.

It was right then that I learned the valuable lesson that there’s a lot more to Shakespeare and, of course, to life, than first meets the eye, although I’d had my suspicions for a while.

On this maiden trip, we were to see ‘Othello’ with the Douglas’s Campbell and Rain and the elegant Miss Frances Hyland. After a lengthy journey through beautiful countryside scenery, which none of us noticed, we arrived in town. We had two hours to walk around (it takes about 10 minutes) and have lunch before gathering for the performance at the new Festival Theatre with its distinctive zigzaggy roofline. After taking turns posing provocatively for our Brownies astride the canon in the tiny WW1 memorial parkette, we loaded up on BLT’s and chocolate milkshakes at ‘Elams’, a run-down diner, which maintains, to this day, its shabby prominence on the main drag (not to mention the same menu and worn leatherette banquettes). We were too poor to enjoy the tempting Chinese banquet at the venerable Golden Bamboo, where all our counselors dined. I believe it also had a liquor license, but I could be wrong. Let’s say, the staff was a lot happier after their meal than we were after ours. (For the past few years, the restaurant and its large sign have been abandoned, but each time I drive past it, which cannot be avoided since it is right on the corner of the street you take a right at to get to the main theatre, I think of those ‘Golden’ years when people actually thought it was a great idea to go for Chinese food in Stratford).

To my chagrin, I drew a seat right next to the camp director, a raging intellectual and professor from NYU, who promptly nodded off as soon as the lights dimmed. My singular memory of the play was how high he jumped up from his seat when the Moor went in for the kill and Desdemona started screaming, in vain, for her life.

On my next visit, I was on staff and could afford the luxury of dining at the renowned Victorian Inn’s ‘all you can eat’ buffet. For a princely sum, you could line up at the trough as often as you liked, which for one of my friends, a young man with a prodigious appetite and very sparkly blue eyes, was an irresistible option. He had been barely surviving on camp food for weeks and was eager to top himself up. He went back so many times, that a waitress asked him if he had a twin brother! I don’t remember the play we saw, but we all had a great time posing for pictures with the vicious swans, that were probably paid more than the actors, to spend their summer by the Avon River attracting the tourists.

The following year I met my husband at Stratford, but I didn’t know it then. I was strolling around with a couple of girlfriends and we bumped into a skinny guy on a bike who one of them knew from school. She was very excited and immediately turned her back on the rest of us to chat with him. After he wheeled away, she disclosed that he was now a student at the National Theatre School in Montreal and was working at Stratford for the summer.
She was very impressed. I was not.
Little did I know.

A few years later, I met him under completely different circumstances, that is to say, at another summer camp, where I was a lowly counselor and he, the head of an elaborate drama program. As a ‘specialist’ he was free to dine anywhere he liked in the entire mess hall but chose, instead, to join me at my table of pubescent girls. There were no teen vampire TV series or movies in the 60’s, but these girls were the role models for all vixens to follow. Their manners left a lot to be desired, but everything else was up for grabs, you might say. Everyone at camp gave them a wide berth, except, of course, after ‘lights out’, when they would sneak outside the cabin and go on the prowl. One day, someone muttered to me that the Drama Head must really like me to sit at my table and put up with these piranhas at every mealtime. I felt flattered. Unlike other self-absorbed swains of his generation, he was a lot of fun. We hung around all summer and when we returned to the city, one of our first dates, as we used to call them then, was, of all things, to Stratford! He and his old NTS roommate had been invited to a party following the marriage of a couple of actors in the company and would I like to go for the evening to celebrate at ALAN BATES’ FARM?

Would I????

It is important to understand that in the year 1967, Alan Bates was pretty famous and extremely appealing, having just wowed the world (and me) in a sweet film called ‘Georgy Girl’, with the recently deceased, pre-weight-watching actress, Lynn Redgrave. I suppose that’s why he was invited to Stratford in the first place, following, as he did, in the footsteps of other great English thespians like Sir Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield, and setting the stage, so to speak, for renowned actors like Dame Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford to cross the pond for many summers to indulge their souls in theatrical bliss. It was Sir Tyrone Guthrie, himself, who created the Festival, in the first place, so it had a pretty strong reputation among those who mattered, dramatically. So here it was, one of the most popular movie/theatre stars of the time was having a party a mere few hours away from Toronto and I was invited!

I had a lengthy conversation with my father, who did not see the wisdom of hopping in a car with a strange boy (not that strange, in my estimation) and driving all the way to Stratford and back in one evening. (The ‘and back’ part completely goes without saying. It was 1967 in Ontario, not California, for goodness sakes! Sex hadn’t been invented, at least, as far as I knew at the time). I kept repeating the justification, “But it’s at ALAN BATES’ FARM?!” as if that would make the entire difference. In the end, we agreed to disagree and I escaped, taking my whole life in my own hands for the very first time. As you can see, I lived to tell about it, although it has taken a few decades.

It took a while to get to Stratford from Toronto in those days before the Kitchener bypass went in. The friend was driving, and his fiancée sat beside him in the navigator’s seat. We drove through the deserted town and got lost on the remote rural side roads, peering at mailboxes for the right address. After a while, we came upon a small man, leaning on a fencepost at the edge of a misty field. No kidding.

Our driver, an imposing young actor with resonant consonants, rolled down his window and boomed,

“Do you know the way to Alan Bates’ farm?”

“Yes, I do,” replied the mysterious little stranger.

“This,” he said, gesturing grandly towards the laneway, “is Alan Bates’ farm.
And I am Alan Bates! How’d ya do?”

Well you could have knocked me right over with anything that came in handy. This was the famous Alan Bates? I was not half as disappointed as the fiancé in the front seat. She was an imposing woman of considerable height, and I could see that Mr. Bates was immediately scratched from her ‘to do’ list. I was what was soon be known in fashion circles as ‘petite’ so I was able to cling to my faint hopes that he might fall instantly in love with me. It didn’t work out that way. (Bates was a ladies' man only in appearance). That was not my first brush, that evening, with the contrast of illusion and reality in show biz.

The farmhouse, itself, was quite a dump, disheveled as it was from the orgy that had been going on all day and night. Giant pots of crusty Chinese food lay strewn all over the kitchen. (It’s my guess that the Golden Bamboo had take-out back then). Used stemware and empty bottles of booze cluttered all horizontal surfaces. Also strewn all over the living room sofas and chairs were several actors, suffering from the consequences of binging and reveling. Among them, on the largest couch in the room, entwined in each other’s arms, were a young and not-dashing-at-the-moment Christopher Plummer and his leading lady, Zoe Caldwell. They were starring in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, although not right then. Their present state resembled a tacky production of ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’.

We couldn’t find the bride and groom at all, so we turned around and exited, stage left.


  1. What can I say - this is terrific - and you got it spot on.

  2. What a great story! I love hearing from people about the early years of the festival. The whole time I was reading all I wanted to know was who the actors were.
    Now that I'm right in the middle of it all I want to hear more and more of these stories. Thank you so much for sharing that with all of us.
    Aaron Kropf
    Social and Online Media Coordinator
    Stratford Shakespeare Festival