Stratford Festival founder Tom Patterson dies

Tom Patterson, the former journalist who spearheaded the Stratford Festival of Canada in the 1950s, has died.

Tom Patterson, the man who founded the Stratford Festival in 1953, changing the face of theatre in Canada, has died.

Patterson died Wednesday at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital following a lengthy illness. He was 84.

"Without Tom Patterson, there would be no Stratford Festival of Canada," artistic director Richard Monette said in a statement. "His was an extraordinary vision at an extraordinary time."

The Stratford, Ont.-born Patterson had always thought that his hometown – through which flowed a river called Avon – would be the perfect venue for a festival celebrating the work of William Shakespeare. After returning to Canada after the Second World War, he set about trying to make it happen.

"The notion of trying to do what Tom was suggesting certainly must have seemed crazy for this little town in the early 1950s, and yet, he didn't give up on it," said Antoni Cimolino, the festival's executive director. "His commitment and his enthusiasm were infectious."

Patterson passionately appealed to and won the support of the city council and, eventually, the entire town. The Stratford Festival of Canada opened in July 1953.

Though many doubted the success of a plan to stage an acclaimed Shakespearean festival in a town of about 16,000, "by 1951, I knew the festival was going to happen. I was going to make it happen," Patterson wrote in his memoir, First Stage.

Constant enthusiasm and dogged persistance pay off

Patterson, who was a Toronto magazine writer at the time, initially sought out actor Laurence Olivier to head the proposed festival. However, after consulting with Canadian theatre maven Dora Mavor Moore, he was steered towards Tyrone Guthrie, whom Moore called "the greatest Shakespearean director in the world."

"Great," Patterson, a self-proclaimed theatre neophyte, replied, not recognizing the famed British theatre director. "Let's get him."

Patterson "had no great influence to back him, no great reputation, no great fortune," Guthrie recalled in his book Renown at Stratford. However, he had piqued Guthrie's interest enough for the director to plan a trip to Canada. Once he arrived, Guthrie was instantly charmed by Stratford's beautiful riverfront, its earnest people and the opportunity to fulfill his own dream of building an authentic Shakespearean theatre: one where the audience is seated almost completely surrounding a low-level stage, necessitating performances that returned to the old style of acting.

Though most people would abandon great ideas as simple daydreams, Guthrie wrote, "not so Mr. Patterson. His perseverance was indomitable."

After agreeing to become the festival's first artistic director, Guthrie helped bring other prestigious names aboard, including actors Alec Guinness and Irene Worth - who starred in the opening productions of Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well - theatre designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, who designed the festival's thrust stage, and production manager Cecil Clarke.

The festival brought a much-needed boost to the town, which was suffering from the withdrawal of the rail industry that had helped sustain it for almost 80 years. And as the Stratford Festival developed into the largest classical repertory theatre in North America, tourism replaced furniture-building as the town's main enterprise.

The enterprise also altered the spectrum of Canadian theatre. One of the first professional companies in Canada in the 1950s, it was arguably the country's largest theatrical undertaking of the time.

From theatre neophyte to celebrated patron

Patterson served as the festival's general manager during the first season and worked in other capacities until 1967. He also founded the touring company Canadian Players with actor Douglas Campbell and took part in the establishment of a number of cultural institutions, including the Canadian Theatre Centre and the National Theatre School.

In 1991, organizers rechristened the festival's Third Stage the Tom Patterson Theatre to honour him and the town itself named an island in the Avon River after him.

Patterson was honoured as an officer of the Order of Canada, received the Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Medal and held honorary degrees from several universities.

Though funeral arrangements have yet to be finalized, the Stratford Festival has planned a service to commemorate his life at its Festival Theatre on March 13.