The Voice of Experience on a Shakespeare Theatre
By Ted van Griethuysen
I have lived in Stratford since the fall of 1982. It’s a very good place to live. My previous acquaintance with Stratford had been in the summers of 1960 and 1961, when I had been employed by the American Shakespeare Festival Company. I came because it was a job. Not so long ago a friend, also an actor, who also lives here, asked me what our relation had been to the town. I thought for a moment and then said, “We didn’t have one.”
How could we have done? The Festival had been conceived in New York City, and was run by the New York Theatre Guild. They wanted to open a Shakespeare Theatre. They chose Connecticut because it was close to New York. Originally, the idea was to build it in Westport, or so I was told, but they couldn’t get the property they wanted so they settled on Stratford.
Did Stratford really want the theatre? As far as I know the town was never asked. But the Guild didn’t really care. The Guild’s eye was on audiences from across the country. The whole thing began with a Mistake. The idea did not come from the town.
Look to the north: Stratford, Ontario. The town wanted a Shakespeare theatre. They went to work. In time they put up a big tent and invited some of the finest Shakespearean actors the world had to offer and opened. That was 1952, and it is still going on at full tilt. It was what the town wanted, the people who lived there.
Lately there has been a revival of interest from people who live here, though not all, I believe, for long. My best guess is they never saw the Festival in its brief golden time, when the ever-present budgetary gap was covered by Joseph Verner Reed until his death, which pretty much signaled the end of the theatre.
Editor’s Note: American Shakespeare Festival Theater and Academy in Stratford, was founded in 1961 Lawrence Langner.
A couple of years ago I was invited to be part of a committee to consider the future of the Shakespeare property. There was one other actor, Ken Tigar – the one who asked me about my experience with the Shakespeare theatre—and he was also a participant. It was a good group, but it sort of faded away in time. There was never anything to sustain it.
There simply has never been general interest in a thriving cultural center, possibly built around a Shakespeare theatre—or a performance center of any kind. If you were to go into Stop and Shop, or Walmart, or your neighborhood CVS would you find encouraging interest?
Above and beyond that there is something of greater importance. That magical little box in the corner of one’s living room to which one may easily repair, casually dressed or undressed, with something nice to eat or drink, and which costs really nothing at all, has done its work.
The theatre itself is universally in trouble, and COVID-19 has cut unforgivingly into its life. It would seem history itself is working against the theatre for the moment. These things are of course cyclical in nature, and I have an undying belief in the power of the theatre as an art form. But it has to be fought for.
In keeping with which, two things:
1.The Shakespeare Academy, sponsored by the Mighty Quinn Foundation, just realized its tenth summer season, offering a kind of beginning training in Shakespeare that is scarcely available anywhere else in the country. I am unaware of any active interest or encouragement coming from the Mayor or the Town Council.
2. Square One Theatre, the community theatre created by Tom Holehan and Richard Pheneger, begins it’s 33rd season this year. They have built a sustaining audience, though without—as far as I can tell—any substantial interest or support from the town itself. (If I am wrong about this, I would be glad to know it.)
Finally, this: There are 17 towns in the country bearing the name Stratford. To the best of my knowledge, not one of them has a Shakespeare Theatre. Why should they? It just happens to be the name of Will Shakespeare’s hometown. Stratford upon Avon didn’t have a theatre in his day. The theatre where he worked was in London. The Globe–and don’t get me started on that. We do not need to spend millions on one more New Globe. I’ve seen perfectly acceptable Shakespeare, only a year ago, in the front room of the White House on Elm Street.
What do the people of Stratford want? Let’s find out. Another election is coming. Get it on the ballot. Resolved: the formation by the town of a cultural center for Stratford, putting to use the property once occupied by the American Shakespeare Festival. (Or words to that effect.) Vox populi, vox dei. Well, not always, but enough to make it very worth hearing.
About the Author
At eighty-four, Ted van Griethuysen has seen, done, and learned a great deal about Shakespeare; for thirty-two years he has been an affiliated artist with Michael Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.
He also managed to find time for twenty-five years Off and On Broadway, and founded a theatre company, the Opposites Company, with his wife, Rebecca Thompson. He has taught at Columbia University, the University of South Carolina, and privately in New York City.
Currently, he teaches master classes at Manchester Municipal University in the UK and at the Shakespeare Academy in Stratford.
Ted has eight Helen Hayes Awards, the Will Award, and the Richard Bauer Award for outstanding contribution to Washington theatre. Most recently, he received the Helen Hayes Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.