BORN: Stratford, Ontario • 11 June 1920
EVERYONE WAS SO ENCOURAGING ABOUT THE project,” Tom Patterson recalled, because “they did not think it would happen.” The project was the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, and in 1951 Canada, culture was something that existed else¬ where, and certainly not in southwestern Ontario.
Patterson was a product of the Stratford gentry, a short, balding young man who had gone off to the war and served in the Canadian Dental Corps as a sergeant for five years. His brother had been killed in action and his father had died while he was overseas, but he himself emerged unscathed.
After the war, he went to university and found a job on a Maclean- Hunter trade journal, Civic Administration, where he was the resident expert on sewage plants.The idea of capitalizing on his home town’s name, on its Avon River and its superb park system had occurred to Patterson before the war—as a way of countering the Depression’s unemployment.
He had raised it again in 1946, and once more in 1951, and it was third time lucky. The mayor was supportive:“I don’t know anything about Shakespeare…But if it’s good for Stratford, then I’m all for it.” Persuasive, enthusiastic, a natural salesman, Patterson fostered interest in the town, talked to theatre people in Toronto, and persuaded British director Tyrone Guthrie of the possibilities of Stratford.
He and Guthrie then brought actor Alec Guinness and designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch aboard. Though everyone worked for peanuts, the required funds were substantial. The money to stage the festival was raised in Stratford—$72,000 from its 15,000 citizens—and across Canada. In an era before the Canada Council existed to help the arts, this was no mean achievement.
Patterson’s plan originally had been to use the town’s bandshell to put on a play (not much different from Mickey Rooney saying “My Dad has a barn” in 19.30s’ films), but, working with a local volunteer committee, Guthrie made it a condition that things be done right.
Stratford’s Festival went on stage for the first time on 13 July 1953 in a huge tent, and so compelling was the production, so brilliant was Guinness in Richard III, that the critic Herbert Whittaker gushed that it “was the most exciting night in the history of Canadian theatre.” It was, too, and it was Tom Patterson’s doing.
The first season had two plays over six weeks which played to 98 per cent of capacity, and the next year the season was nine weeks. Today it is six months long, and two additional theatres are used for the festival’s productions, which generate 480,000 ticket sales.
Patterson was also behind the construction of a superb permanent theatre in 1957, with an innovative thrust stage and every seat within 65 feet of the actors. It was the first major theatre to be built in North America in the twentieth century.
The festival transformed Stratford. The sleepy industrial-agricultural centre was invigorated by the half million visitors who spent millions each year, leaving behind $25 million in tax revenue, and by the 500 permanent jobs created at the festival. Amazingly, Stratford largely avoided the vulgarization that could have resulted in Hamlet snack bars on every corner.
Just as remarkably, Stratford trans¬ formed theatre in Canada—an art that was ripe for transfor¬ mation. Shrewdly, Guthrie built on a permanent company of Canadian actors who soon assumed starring roles, generously suggesting that “Canadians can speak English clearer and better to the rest of the English-speaking world and be more readily understood than even our English actors.”
Very soon, trips to Stratford became a regular part of summer for tens of thousands who had hitherto believed that Shakespeare was finished with after grade ten.For his part, Patterson had quit his job with Maclean- Hunter in 1952 to become the festival’s general manager, then its director of planning, and finally director of public relations.
In 1960 he created the bilingual National Theatre School in Montreal, another brilliant and innovative idea. He offered his ideas to the Dawson City Gold Rush Festival and to the West Indian Festival of the Arts. Sadly, Patterson left the festival in 1968 after a dispute over its management, his reward a very modest Si00 weekly pension.
Unassuming though he was, and initially no expert on either Shakespeare or the theatre in general, Tom Patterson had transformed the Canadian cultural scene. Critics carped that Stratford produced too much Shakespeare and too little Canadian work.
Locals in Stratford grumped that Patterson had become too big for his boots. Perhaps this was so, but without Patterson there would have been no festival, and without the festival Canadian culture, while it might still have blossomed, would have remained mired in the slough of cultural despond for years to come.