Post Card: Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Originally posted in Open Books’ Read All About It blog, August 19, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

1249721546_290146af98_zSo I recently took a week away from my Open Books internship desk for my annual trip with my partner Ernie to Stratford, Ontario, Canada for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Ernie has been going since he was in-utero. My first time, however, was during our first summer together in 2002.

Arriving at Niagara-On-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival for the first leg of this first trip together, it was time to get our former Theatre (and English) major nerds ON.  The highlight at Shaw was an amazing see-through set production of Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story, a play in which I had a brief comic relief character role at the top of Act 2 as a freshman in high school. In 2003, we dove into Stratford exclusively and with almost a vengeance.  Starting in 2004, we’ve “double-dated” with Ernie’s parents.  Stratford has become our equivalent to other families’ lake houses.

Over these ten summers of Stratford, I’ve seen a lot of plays with amazing actors and production values. While not every production has been five star, a less than stellar Stratford production is still pretty good quality.  Stratford has given me the opportunity to see plays and authors I’d read and/or learned about in college but never had the chance to see, Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, John Webster’s The Dutchess of Malfi, Sartre’s No Exit; plays I’ve seen before and love Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes; plays I’ll never see again for either their randomness or for my opinion of them…. These ten years have been a valuable continuation of my theatre and literary education, one that we hope to pass on to nieces, nephews, and any other little ones that may enter our lives.

I’ve learned a lot in this continuing education: aesthetics, tolerance, emotional reactions, a sense of history.  I’ve learned that I have a strong reaction against Shakespearean male chauvinistic protagonists (King Cymbeline anyone?) and that even Will has a clunker or two in there (Henry VIII, while containing brilliant moments, is just not a very good play in my humble opinion.)  I’ve learned that I can’t stand “crying girl” characters who are supposed to be funny, and that I just don’t like Hello, Dolly! (I blame the “Thornton Wilder Effect” for that one).

I’ve also reconnected with the beautiful power of theatre, what makes it all worth it.  Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending left us emotionally raw, and made a star (in my eyes) of Stratford diva Seana McKenna.  The final moment in last year’s Peter Pan had us sobbing into our playbills.  Our second row view of the Ascot Ladies’ appearance in My Fair Lady still makes me gasp.  Shakespeare & Fletcher’s more random The Two Noble Kinsmen is pretty awesome (especially the scenes with the jailer’s daughter!).  AND the lighting for the 39 lashes scene in this season’s Jesus Christ Superstar (looking to stop in Chicago before a Broadway run!) is what live theatre can be all about.

Me & Ernie this year outside the Studio Theater.

I have also realized that I appreciate some things more than I like them, and have debated with myself whether or not that’s enough.  AND I’ve held on to my preference for seeing over reading plays.  Which maybe I shouldn’t admit here, even if reading plays is still enjoyable and crucial, and you should totally stop by the theatre sections of both the online and brick-and-mortar Open Books store!  Growing up, Ernie’s parents said he could see anything as long as he read it first—a good combo that has  probably made him the only fourth grader ever to do a book report on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.

For a comprehensive list of all the plays we’ve had the opportunity to see together in our ten years (so far) of Stratford, go HEREIf you plan a trip, be sure to have coffee at our favorite haunt Balzac’s (as in French writer Honoré de), have dinner at Down the Street and Pazzo, and for your book shopping addictions go to Fanfare BooksThe Book Vault, and the Book Stage. If you’re not so much into making the eight hour drive (from Chicago) and dealing with border crossing, Chicago of course has a vibrant theatre scene. From Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier to suburban Writer’s Theatre to historically-minded Timeline Theatre.  To get the kids in our lives interested in theatre early so that all these institutions can carry on, Emerald City Theatre gives you plenty of read-then-see opportunities (full disclosure: Ernie is the current Artistic Director)!  Then maybe they won’t be so afraid of Shakespeare and may ask you “Hey, what’s this Stratford thing all about…?”

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