New Tom Patterson Theatre a jewel in the Stratford Festival’s theatrical crown

The Stratford Festival is giving patrons and future audience members their first look inside the new Tom Patterson Theatre ahead of what would have been the festival founder's 101st birthday this Friday.

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The last time the public was invited to tour the Stratford Festival’s new Tom Patterson Theatre, it was little more than a shell.

As construction workers lifted the final steel beam in place in the spring of 2019, artistic director Antoni Cimolino, executive director Anita Gaffney and architect Siamak Hariri spoke about everything the future theatre would offer – from hosting community events to improving the flow of patrons through its lobbies and cafés – while offering a familiar, yet state-of-the-art, theatrical experience unrivalled anywhere in North America.

But while the Stratford Festival leadership’s enthusiasm for the $70-million theatre project never wavered, public attention soon shifted to the global pandemic as the Tom Patterson’s grand opening was postponed to some undefined post-COVID future.

The Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre as seen from across the Avon River. (Photography by Ann Baggley)
The Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre as seen from across the Avon River. (Photography by Ann Baggley)

It may be some time yet before patrons can enjoy a play on the new, elongated thrust stage, but Cimolino and Gaffney were still eager to show their dreams come to fruition ahead of what would have been Stratford Festival founder Tom Patterson’s 101st birthday this Friday.

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“We knew what we wanted in the theatre, we knew what we wanted in the spaces and we have a team of 1,000 people in a normal year,” Cimolino said. “Of course we had consultants – theatre consultants and other consultants that worked with us – but basically this was driven by the Stratford Festival staff.

“For many of these theatre-consulting groups, … most of their clients are municipalities, so they don’t always know what’s best, whereas we came to the table knowing exactly what we want. And we wanted to build something very specific with a point of view. We didn’t want an all-purpose space. We had something on our hands that had evolved over time, and it was really successful, so we wanted to better support it with new technology and new systems.”

The Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre front entrance. (Photography by Suede Productions)
The Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre front entrance. (Photography by Suede Productions)

Nowhere else is that purpose-built design more apparent – or perhaps less apparent if you’re watching a play – than in the theatre auditorium.

Described by the Festival executive as a jewel set in a brass ring, the theatre space at first glance is reminiscent of the original Tom Patterson Theatre auditorium – an elongated thrust stage as the centerpiece with rows of burnt-orange theatre seating surrounding on three sides.

But unlike the original Tom Patterson Theatre, which lived previous lives as a community hall and even a casino, the new stage and everything around it has been designed and built to the tiniest detail to enable the best artistic performances while creating the most enjoyable and immersive audience experiences.

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The Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre auditorium as seen from the actor’s perspective onstage. (Photography by Suede Productions)
The Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre auditorium as seen from the actor’s perspective onstage. (Photography by Suede Productions)

From the catwalk tucked away above, allowing lighting technicians to make quick adjustments in between shows, to a sound system that allows amplified voices and sound effects to follow actors moving across the stage, every detail of the auditorium has been tested and retested to keep audiences focused on the unfolding story and not what’s going on behind the scenes.

“Keeping the dynamics of (original Tom Patterson stage), the intimacy’s, the things that worked about that stage was really important to us, but we wanted to improve it in terms of sound and lights and acoustics and air handling,” Cimolino said. “There are a lot of really simple things in a theatre that are really critical to its success.”

Even the wood used to build the stage was scrutinized to minimize light reflection, bounce sound up to the audience and create the foundation on which the actors can ply their craft.

“It was months of sampling products,” said Greg Dougherty, technical director of the Tom Patterson Theatre. “We had the shop make a module … and we did an oak, which is what the Festival Theatre has, we did a maple, we did a composite, and we did a birch, and we had our paint department mix up different stains and different processes.”

Dougherty said staff would then take the different sample stages into a rehearsal room to see how they responded with different sounds and volumes and in different lighting.

“We finally settled on Canadian birch, which is very specific because normally most of what you find (on the market) is Russian birch, but it takes the stain differently,” Dougherty said. “So, we found the Canadian birch took the stain how we wanted it.”

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Then, the festival had to find 1,000 square feet of Canadian birch, a task that proved nearly impossible.

“We couldn’t find it, so what we ended up doing is we bought a woodlot. So, we actually bought the trees and we had a local mill cut the boards for us,” Dougherty said. “It’s a locally grown, sustainably harvested stage.”

And that attention to detail extends beyond the walls of the auditorium.

Thanks to the bank of windows looking onto Lake Victoria and spanning the width of the building, the Tom Patterson Theatre lobbies, bars, indoor seating areas and rooms blend seamlessly with adjacent walkways and the natural vistas of Lakeside Drive.

A raised outdoor seating area and the use of natural-looking stone and wood on both the building’s exterior and as porous barriers separating the theatre’s indoor lobby and seating spaces also serve to smooth the transition from outside to in.

The Theatre Café (a gift from donors Raphael & Jane Bernstein) inside the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. (Photography by doublespace photography)
The Theatre Café (a gift from donors Raphael & Jane Bernstein) inside the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. (Photography by doublespace photography)
The Alonzo Terrace at the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. (Photography by Suede Productions)
The Alonzo Terrace at the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. (Photography by Suede Productions)

But with form, there is also function.

Spaces such as Lazaridis Hall, the theatre workshop room and even the catering kitchen have been soundproofed and designed so, unlike the Festival’s other theatres, multiple events, shows or gatherings can take place simultaneously at the Tom Patterson.

Efficiency was also a key theme in the design. Whether it was moving people in and out of the auditorium or to and from seating areas, getting audiences back to their seats in time for the next act was a priority.

“Other architecture firms interpreted the brief as separate buildings,” Gaffney said. “What was kind of great about Siamak’s design is he brought this all in and really made this an immersive experience, which is what we were trying to convey. People are coming to the theatre, but they want these moments of connecting with one another, connecting with other theatregoers, and having a chance to do that informally or formally in the forum space.”

Lazaridis Hall inside the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. (Photography by Suede Productions)
Lazaridis Hall inside the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. (Photography by Suede Productions)
The Spriet Members’ Lounge inside the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. (Photography by doublespace photography)
The Spriet Members’ Lounge inside the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. (Photography by doublespace photography)

That theme of efficiency also comes into play with the theatre’s use of electricity, as the building was designed and later certified as a gold-level building in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.

Even as audience members are milling around on the main floor, the backstage, rehearsal rooms and other spaces beneath the theatre’s public areas will constantly be buzzing with activity as actors, support staff and production crew work to ensure each production is worthy of the Stratford Festival’s reputation for world-class theatre.

“This is where our core audience comes,” Cimolino said. “People can see seldom-produced plays here; Shakespeare done to a quality they can’t find anywhere else.

“This is where the hardcore aficionados come and we want them to get together. We want people to come to Stratford, make friends that may come from the other side of the continent and get to know each other here. That builds the support for Stratford, Ont., and for this theatre.”

gsimmons@postmedia.com

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