In the Suburbs / Shakespeare Theater didn’t deserve to die in a mound of ashes
Early last Sunday morning, while we slept in our home, just 10 minutes away from the Shakespeare Theater (aka Stratford Festival Theater and American Shakespeare Theater), this icon of theatrical history burned to the ground. I was very sad to hear that.
Fortunately, according to a Connecticut Post piece, buildings and resources for the Shakespeare Academy at Stratford survived the blaze, and the academy does plan to do outdoor performances of some Shakespearean plays this summer. That made me feel that at least a part of the theater, which opened in 1955, will live on as the town decides the fate of this once beautiful building and property.
When my wife and I moved to Fairfield in June 1982, we immediately heard about the Shakespeare Theater from our late friend, Mort, a brilliant writer and playwright, who lived in Philadelphia. Mort announced that he was coming to Fairfield so we could all take in a production of “Hamlet.” Knowing how much Mort loved Shakespeare, we scrambled to purchase tickets for the following Saturday evening, but the best seats we could find were in the second-to-last row.
The last time I had seen a Shakespeare play was “Henry IV” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis when I was 16, so this was a real treat and it was 15 minutes away in Stratford. Before the production, which featured actors Christopher Walken and Anne Baxter, we walked around the grounds, which looked out on the Housatonic River. It was just a beautiful spot.
While our seats were in the back, the acoustics in that theater were spectacular and in the Connecticut Post account, a local Stratford resident shared the same comment. “It was acoustically perfect anywhere you sat in the theater — so my Elizabethan English teacher told me.”
We all loved the show and Mort raved about the acting. He vowed to return, but sadly the Shakespeare Festival Theater closed at the end of that season, so Mort never got the chance to see another performance. I’m so glad we had at least one experience with the theater as patrons.
I did get the opportunity to return to the Shakespeare Theater once more about eight years ago when the Fairfield Museum, where I was doing public relations, created an amazing theater exhibition. The museum displayed incredible pictures from all the early theaters in Fairfield County and the Shakespeare Theater was well represented.
At the time, I learned that friends of the theater were giving tours and I was able to travel to the Shakespeare Theater one evening after work. While the theater interior was just a shell, I could remember the one performance we’d seen and visualize the theater alive and vibrant.
In those nearly three decades of performances, brilliant actors like Kathryn Hepburn, Christopher Plummer, James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Roddy McDowell, Ann Baxter and a host of other well-known celebrities not only performed but spent summers as temporary residents of Stratford. Some of our tour guides on the evening I visited had seen actors enjoying picnic lunches on the grounds or walking along the river between performances.
I read an editorial by Hugh Bailey, editorial page editor, in this past Tuesday’s Connecticut Post, which I believe captured the essence of this special theater.
“For a generation of theater lovers, it was a destination to see the biggest stars on a Connecticut stage. For school children, it was the site of trips for what might have been many people’s first experience with live theater. For history buffs, it was a connection between Stratford, Conn. and Stratford-on-Avon, England, the 16th century birthplace of William Shakespeare. ... And for residents who saw it every day, even as it fell out of use and was the subject of innumerable resuscitation efforts, it was a point of pride. Without question, it is irreplaceable. .. There might not have been a viable future for the theater, but no one wanted to see it end this way.”
One of the classes where I assist in the charter school I’m at in Bridgeport has been reading “Hamlet” and has really developed an appreciation of Shakespeare from the experience. How wonderful it would have been if the Shakespeare Theater Academy would have been able to do a special performance of “Hamlet” for students like ours and others. But sadly, those kinds of performances will only happen outdoors during the summer.
I can only hope that the town of Stratford will at least consider restoring the Shakespeare Theater, perhaps as a museum with a smaller auditorium for performances. For now, ardent fans will just have memories of performances and the outstanding actors who made the Shakespeare Theater the gem it was.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.