VISIT STRATFORD FOR THEATRE, FOOD AND FUN
"Why do I always get talked into these things?"
We are at the end of a wonderful tour of the Stratford Festival's Costume and Props Warehouse, the world's largest performing arts archive, when we are afforded a chance to try on some of the stage-worn costumes. I had hoped for Macbeth, Hamlet or Lear, but instead am coerced into dressing up as some Scandinavian opera singer, in gown, horned-helmet and golden pigtails, while the rest of the group giggles and snaps photos that I know will not be flattering. I had hoped for a Shakespearean lead man, but was rather playing the fool.
Macbeth - the Stratford Festival's Costume and Props Warehouse
Still, it has been an enlightening behind the scenes look at how the costumes and sets are painstakingly put together here in Stratford, the vibrant Ontario town which hosts Canada's finest Shakespearean festival-an annual celebration of the Bard's plays that is about to enter its 63rd year.
I had taken my wife and folks to the Stratford festival on a summer's weekend to enjoy Colm Feore's brilliant performance as King Lear. It was my wife's first visit to this beautiful and quaint town. The last time I had attended was to see Maggie Smith play the role of Lady Macbeth, and I guess that dates me - but more so my parents, who reminisce about the beginning of the Stratford festival, when they had attended performances under the big tent, before the theatres were even built.
The fact that it shares the same name as the birthplace of William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon in England, inspired local journalist Tom Patterson to found a Shakespearean theatre festival in 1952. Despite its humble inception, several decades after the first inaugural performance of Richard III, the festival has grown into a revered national institution. The theatre company now puts on 12 plays a season and is the center of a thriving tourism scene in this town of 32,000. More importantly, many of Canada's brightest performers have graced the Stratford stage, and had their start here.
Stratford boasts the small-town life with the kind of world-class entertainment and cuisine that big cities dream of. Of course, there's more to do in Stratford than theatre. The municipality's support for the arts has fostered a strong, creative community that makes the region a great destination for lovers of theater, music, art, and food.
Speaking of food, an easy way to sample the local specialties is by trying one of Stratford's three different specialty-themed Tasting Trails; self-guided tours that are a fun way to explore the community. The Chocolate Trail, Maple Trail, and Bacon and Ale Trail each allow six delectable tastings at various downtown shops and restaurants. I favour the beer, while my wife is all about chocolate. Unable to compromise, we pick up a $25 trail pass for each trail, and then head out for a true taste of Stratford.
If you are looking for a wonderful dining experience at a very reasonable cost, the Stratford Chef's School is a non-profit culinary institution where students obtain a thorough grounding in the business of operating successful restaurants. At the Bijou restaurant or The Prune, guests can enjoy a three to six course lunch or dinner for as little as $30, as the student chefs create their own menus. Professional culinary chefs, many who got their start at the school, work their magic at many of Stratford's splendid dining establishments.
No visit to Stratford is complete without a stop at Monforte Dairy, where owner Ruth Klahsen shares her passion for crafting tasty artisanal cheeses out of four "dairy streams," cow, goat, sheep, and water buffalo. We visit her at the Sunday morning Slow Food Market, and take home a good supply of her excellent cheese selection.
Stratford is a lovely and tranquil town with plenty of unique, eclectic shops and restaurants. Add to that the scenic Avon with its beloved swans, the intellectual theatre culture, and the food and music festivals, and you have a wonderful getaway, just a short drive from Toronto. It is the perfect weekend escape, whether you come for the shopping, the food or the theatre, or because it is the hometown of another Canadian personality, Justin Bieber, who got his start busking on the steps of the Avon Theatre.
IF YOU GO
Directions: Stratford is about one and a half hours west of Toronto. It costs about $20 to get a round trip bus ticket from Toronto to Stratford using the Stratford Festival chartered buses and Via-Rail provides year-round rail service.
Stay: There are enough historic bed and breakfasts and comfortable hotels to meet most any budget. I would recommend both The Ballantyne B & B (www.172ballantyne.ca) steps from the theatre or the historic Mercer Hall Boutique Inn (www.mercerhall.ca) downtown.
Festival: The 2015 season will include Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as The Sound of Music. The show calendar is posted and tickets can be purchased online at www.stratfordfestival.ca or by telephoning 1-800-567-1600 (toll free).
Tours: The archive tours, costume warehouse, theatre backstage, food trails, heritage walks and garden tours are available throughout the season.
Visit www.visitstratford.ca for more details.
Images by Jamie Ross
1. Macbeth - the Stratford Festival's Costume and Props Warehouse
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