11 things you (probably) didn't know about Stratford Festival

In most professional theatres in North America, a company picks one show and runs it for a set number of weeks — but not at Stratford Festival. At full capacity, the festival has 12 shows on three stages. Here's how they make the magic happen.
Twice a day Stratford Festival's theatres get stripped down and built back up from the floorboards. (Erin Samuell/Stratford Festival)

In most professional theatres in North America, a company picks one show and runs it for a set number of weeks — but not at Stratford Festival. At full capacity,  the festival has 12 shows on three stages.

Here's how they make the magic happen. 

1. Stratford Festival is a repertory theatre. 

That means by the time the summer is in full swing at the beginning of August, there are 12 shows running on three stages.

Most actors are cast in more than one show, and each day, the stages go through two complete transformations, with crews replacing everything from the set and floorboards to swapping out costumes and resetting the lights.

And they do it all, in about 75 minutes. 

2. Shows are staggered through the summer

Though five productions open at the end of May, other plays premiere through the summer.

So musicals like Billy Elliott begin rehearsing in January or February, but late openers, such as The Front Page have their first rehearsal at the beginning of June. 

In 2018, the Rocky Horror Show became the longest running show in Stratford Festival's 66-year history, with performances from June to December. 

3. No room for coat racks

A pulley system is used to make costume storage at the Festival Theatre more manageable.

There's no room to wheel coat racks full of costumes around back stage, so a mechanical pulley lifts the racks up into the ceiling of the dressing rooms and out of the way until they're needed again.

To save space, costumes are stored overhead in the dressing rooms of the Festival Theatre and are swapped out by a mechanical pulley system. (Jason Clarke/Stratford Festival)

4. Farewell, Febreeze. Hello Vodka!

You won't find any Febreeze in the dressing rooms. It's a longstanding theatre tradition to use vodka to freshen up costumes that can't be laundered.

It's odorless and tasteless and keeps even the most delicate costume from getting too ripe.

5. Directors take off

For the most part, the show's director leaves after opening night.

Their job, shaping the vision and direction of the play, is over by then, and the director moves on to their next project while the show's stage manager steps in.

The stage manager's job is to make sure the show is consistent, with the same experience on opening night as a matinee two months into the season.

Stage manager Cynthia Toushan stands in the stage manager's booth at the very top of the Festival Theatre. Toushan makes sure hundreds of lighting, sound and stage cues happen on time, every time. (Erin Samuell/Stratford Festival)

6. Stage managers run the show 

There's a working disco ball in the stage manager's booth at the top of the Festival Theatre.

That's where the show is "called" — every entrance, exit, lighting change, sound effect and moving set piece is cued by the stage manager.

In a musical like Billy Elliott, there are hundreds of each type of cue. 

7. Keeping it cool

Theatres are intentionally kept a bit chilly; it's for the comfort of the actors who are performing under hot lights and wearing layers of period clothing — imagine wearing a fur-trimmed velvet cloak in the dead of summer!

8. Ever seen a yak with a beard?

Because actors are often cast in more than one show, male actors change their look with realistic-looking fake moustaches, beards and sideburns — made from yak hair. Yes, yak hair.

Each strand is woven through a fine mesh lace, knotted and cleaned after every show. 

Wigs and facial hair are used in almost every production at Stratford Festival. (Erin Samuell/Stratford Festival)

9. Feeding the masses

There's a full catering kitchen and cafeteria in the Festival Theatre building with a menu that caters to every possible dietary restriction and changes daily.

It's for administration staff, show crew and actors who often don't have much time between rehearsals, warm-ups and shows. 

The staff cafeteria at the Festival Theatre is affectionately known as the 'Green Room' — a generic term in performing arts venues for a waiting room or lounge for performers before, during and after a show. (Jason Clarke/Stratford Festival)

10. A live orchestra plays along

You can't see it from the seats, but a live orchestra provides the soundtrack to the festival's musical productions, such as Billy Elliott and Little Shop of Horrors. 

The orchestra doesn't sit in a "pit" in front of the stage at the Festival Theatre. Instead, musicians are in a loft above the stage.

There are separate rooms for brass instruments, percussion and the drum kit — so they don't drown out the more delicate sounds of woodwinds, piano and guitar.

11. New takes on old classics

The Stratford Festival has a duty to show the works of Shakespeare — it's part of the theatre's mandate. But that doesn't mean their shows are stuck in the past.

The festival always has new plays in development and classics are often given new life through adaptations commissioned by Stratford Festival.

In August, for example, the festival mounts the world premiere of a new take on The Front Page, adapted by Canadian playwright Michael Healey.

Designer Francesca Callow and director Antoni Cimolino present their design plans for a late-opener in the season: Birds of a Kind. When the play opens in August, it will be the English-language premiere of an adaptation of the Wajdi Mouawad's book of the same name. (Tristan Urry/Stratford Festival)

More stories from Stratford Festival 2019:


Jackie Sharkey is a producer for CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo and an occasional guest host. She has been been based in Kitchener, Ont., since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.


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