A Day at the Theatre! Touring the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford

ArtsBuild Ontario recently had the pleasure of visiting the newly built Tom Patterson Theatre. After completing the $70-million capital project, the Stratford Festival was forced by the pandemic to cancel its 2020 season and delay the grand opening of the new building. Fortunately for fans eager to see the award-winning facility, the Festival began welcoming the public for tours in the summer of 2021, ahead of the official opening now rescheduled for 2022. 

The tour began with a land acknowledgment recognizing that the theatre is located on territory governed by two treaties. The first is the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant of 1701, made between the Anishinaabe and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an agreement to set violence aside and peacefully share and care for the land in the Great Lakes Basin. The second is the Huron Tract Treaty of 1827, an agreement made by eighteen Anishinaabek Chiefs and the Canada Company, an agency of the British Crown. 

As we began our tour, we learned about Tom Patterson and his significance to the Festival and Town of Stratford. In 1952, Tom Patterson received a $125 grant from the City Council to bring a 6-week Shakespeare Festival to life. Almost 70 years later, the festival has evolved into a world-renowned destination for theatre experiences, welcoming half a million tourists each year (28 million since it opened) and driving the local economy. 

The original Tom Patterson Theatre facilities were much different from the newly minted building we were standing in, which has just been awarded the international Architecture Masterprize. The theatre was previously housed in an adaptive reuse space, which included a community hall and a former curling rink. The old photos on display from the City’s archives of the former theatre spaces conveyed a rich history between the Festival and its community. The photos also illustrated how much the Festival has grown over six decades.

The Stratford Festival had leased the old Tom Patterson Theatre space from the City of Stratford since the 1970s but when the need for facility upgrades to the theatre became pressing, Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and Executive Director Anita Gaffney spearheaded a project that envisioned an entirely new, architecturally important building for the Festival. The provincial and federal governments contributed $20 million each to support project and the Festival raised an additional $60 million from private donors. In 2018 it purchased the community centre site from the City for $4.9 million and work began.

A worldwide search for architects was held. Several core elements needed to be met in the winning proposal. These included: maintaining the original intimacy of the old theatre space and creating outdoor gardens that would enhance the site. The project was awarded to Siamak Hariri, of Toronto-based Hariri Pontarini Architects, who had a vision for the new theatre to be a “shimmering jewel” on the water and engage with the ebbs and flows of the Avon river, which runs alongside the building. Standing inside and outside the new theatre facility, it’s clear this vision has come to fruition. 

In addition to its beauty, three features of the Tom Patterson Theatre project also caught our eye. 

Rentable Space 

Photo: Suede Productions

The new facility has three spaces available to rent.  

Spriet Members’ Lounge: This beautifully furnished space, complete with an impressive marble bar and fireplace is used during performances, with member only access. Outside of Festival Performances, the Lounge is available for hosting special events.

Lazaridis Hall: Suitable for solo shows, cabarets, spoken word, panels, discussions and other small-scale events, with seating for up to 200, this space overlooks the beautiful Avon River through the glass and bronze curtain that surrounds the theatre.

Dinner Rooney Workshop: This space is used for the Festival’s educational programs and production needs, but is also available to rent. It is situated next to Lazaridis Hall and offers similar views.

State of the art lighting and audio

Photo: Doublespace Photography
Photo: Doublespace Photography

The Festival’s own staff informed the technical design of the auditorium, which seats 600. The new audio system is one of few in the world designed to immerse audiences. Details of the design include speakers along the outside of the base stage and throughout the auditorium, allowing sound to follow the actor’s movement and a hidden catwalk. 

The design also includes a lighting system called RoboSpot. These are small lights that are controlled remotely, allowing greater creative opportunities and making the jobs of the lighting techs less arduous during productions. 

They bought a forest!

After much research and experimentation, it was decided that Canadian birch was the ideal choice for building the stage floor. One-thousand square feet were required, but with a shortage of lumber during the pandemic, there was not enough Canadian birch to be found to complete the build, so…the Stratford Festival purchased their very own wood lot! Now for generations to come, actors who tread the boards at the Tom Patterson Theatre will do so on locally sourced, sustainable Canadian wood, not Russian birch.

Throughout the creation and development of the new Tom Patterson Theatre, the original spirit of the old building still remains. Whether you wish to see a performance or dine in their new cafe along the river, the new theatre facility does not disappoint. 

Discover the New Tom Patterson Video Series 

Discover the New Tom Patterson Video Series Trailer 

A Space of Significance

Machinery of Magic

Beyond Beautiful

Inside the Jewel