Founded in 1953, the Stratford Festival built its initial success on the annual production of the plays of William Shakespeare, but quickly grew into a major theatre with an international reputation for excellence in the classics. Attracting outstanding talent from across the country, it contributed to the development of Canadian professional theatre by creating and maintaining a resident company and providing training and experience to actors, directors, and others. It also helped to launch the careers of such notable Canadian actors as William Hutt, Colm Feore, and Christopher Plummer. Its Festival Theatre used an innovative thrust stage, envisioned by British director Tyrone Guthrie and designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, to provide a more intimate actor-audience relationship reminiscent of Elizabethan times. It had a powerful influence on the production of Shakespeare worldwide. As envisioned by its founder, Tom Patterson, the festival transformed the economy and the cultural life of its host city for residents and visitors alike, making Stratford synonymous with its famous festival.
The Stratford Shakespearian Festival grew out of a period of growth in Canadian theatre, fostered by a vibrant amateur theatre movement, radio drama, and rising cultural nationalism. It was the brainchild of two men: Tom Patterson, who sought to revive the faltering economy of his hometown of Stratford, Ontario and capitalize on its name, and English director Tyrone Guthrie, who envisioned a Canadian national theatre with a resident company. Guthrie recruited British actor Alec Guinness for Richard III, and American-born Irene Worth for All’s Well That Ends Well, but the rest of his cast and crew came from a pool of Canadian talent. After its opening 1953 season, Stratford quickly acquired a solid international reputation for high-quality classical theatre. Guthrie left to found another Shakespearean theatre in Minneapolis, and was replaced by Michael Langham. In 1957, the Festival Theatre, designed by Robert Fairfield, was built with an auditorium seating 1,838 people. Its thrust stage extended into the audience on three sides, with theatre-goers seated in a semi-circle around the stage.
The Festival grew substantially in the following decades, and helped launched the careers of notable actors and directors. It initiated training programs such as the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training, held in Stratford, and kept a core group of actors and other personnel from season to season. This provided employment and training to directors, technicians, and others and helped foster other theatrical companies in Canada. Eventually Canadian-born artistic directors were appointed, such as Jean Gascon, John Hirsch, and Richard Monette. The Festival continued to produce Shakespearean and classical plays, maintaining an international reputation, and added French classics such as Molière, as well as musicals. The festival remains a tremendous artistic and economic success, now running from May through to October with more than 700 performances each season.