My annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival stimulated the thought once again about what it’s like to be in a community that devotes itself to beauty. That beauty matters in a town of Stratford’s size and geography is not only unusual, but it summons a reflection about what beauty entails and why it is important for our lives.
For example, beauty is about having a sense of place.
Stratford, population 30,000, is located in the southern Ontario 90 minutes west of the Toronto metropolis. It sits in the heart of the agricultural belt where farmers raise corn, squash, melons, pumpkins, strawberries and pork while industries make products in advanced manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, high tech and financial services. This strong economic base helps support the Festival and the farms that dot Route 7 make driving there pleasant and picturesque.
The Festival has utilized the town’s name as a mirror of the original theatre of Stratford on Avon in England. For more than 50 years it has provided not only the very best in repertory theatre (including Shakespearean classics, American Broadway musicals, French and British farces, ancient Greek tragedies and native Canadian plays), but the very finest in cuisine, gardening and architecture.
A touch of English haute couture pervades the town partly because of Canada’s historical alliance with England but also because of the number of British Isles nationals who have migrated there. However, Canadians are unpretentious and visitors soon discover that they are appreciated not just for their money but because the locals want to share their town and its amenities with them. In this way, theatre-goers become an integral part of the Stratford community, and they gladly return nearly every year during the April to November season.
Beauty is also about enhancing the interplay between the natural world and the urban environment.
Because Stratford is small, it is easy to get around town by walking. This factor allows visitors to see and appreciate the clean, flower-bedecked streets, tidy shops and vibrant neighborhoods firsthand.
The townspeople have also taken full advantage of the Avon River, which provides a natural setting for leisurely strolls amid the old, leafy trees that line the shore or a paddleboat or pontoon ride on the calm waters. Visitors mingle among young parents out with their babies, youngsters riding their bikes to soccer practice, and retirees with their grandchildren feeding the ducks, geese, gulls and swans with corn seed, not bread! (Actually, a conscientious local girl has made a business of bagging and selling corn seeds to the tourists and residents in order to feed the waterfowl safely.)
A fanciful, little, wooden bridge connects the mainland to an island in the middle of the river where a modest but reverent plaque to the Festival’s founder, Tom Patterson, has been placed.
Upriver is the Gallery Stratford, an architecturally quaint building that formerly served as the city’s water pump station. This small gallery usually features one exhibit on contemporary art and the other on Stratford theatre art. Outside the Gallery is yet another display of the city’s bountiful flowerbeds and a rock garden with a gurgling waterfall surrounded by tall, fragrant pine trees.
On the way back downtown a walk through the town’s neighborhoods presents a variety of vintage red and yellow brick houses with manicured lawns and lovely wildflower gardens.
The downtown commercial district offers all the cultural accoutrements a visitor could imagine: oriental rugs, books, china, antiques, Inuit art, Scottish-ware, Canadian winter-proof clothes, restaurants, pubs, pastry shops, cafés, a chocolatier, juice bars and gift shops. Incidentally, all of these shops are locally-owned and managed so the money stays in town.
Beauty is about paying attention to details.
The Festival’s fashion artists research and design the actors’ elaborate costumes for historical integrity while a full-time wardrobe staff custom fits each actor’s outfit by hand. Master craftsmen carefully construct every table, bowl of fruit, spear, and wagon. Shoemakers cobble all footwear with “mufflers” on the soles to minimize unwanted sounds on the stage. Choreographers carefully plan battle scenes while musicians compose and perform original works with period instruments.
These preparations augment the work of the actors who move across the stage with the poise and grace as they believably and ably portray their characters. This repertory theatre emphasizes acting and staging rather than the usual diet of special effects.