Saturday, October 28, 2017

Revisiting Stratford to see what's new and not-so-new this season

My far better half and I don't get to Stratford, Ontario as regularly as we once did, although we did manage two weekend getaways this year.  I wrote of the most recent visit two weeks ago when I reviewed the Stratford Festival's wonderful production of Guys and Dolls, which closes at the Festival Theatre November 5th.

But I promised at the time to write further about the changes we've seen this season and are on the horizon for the city, and there are several.

Perhaps it is the fact I don't get to Stratford as much as I used to when I regularly reviewed productions over the entire season - a perk I enjoyed in my previous career for about 32 years - but visiting the city now becomes more of an event anticipated by us both than it used to.  Visiting Stratford now has become, well, more special due to the increased infrequency of our visits.  And I say that with much reluctance as we both love immersing ourselves in the culture, dining and shopping experiences in abundance in the city.

We stay at the same B&B each year, Dusk to Dawn on Brunswick Street, which is perfectly situated to walk easily to all four theatres.  Hosts David and Tessa make you feel like royalty and the breakfast is exceptional.  Chrissy the dog, though not allowed in guest quarters, greets guests at the door upon arrival and is a treat.

My wife, who is vegan, is very particular where we eat while away, and now has three exceptional restaurants catering to her particular tastes without sacrificing mine.  There are others, of course, but the three she loves to visit are Stratford Thai Cuisine on Wellington Street in the heart of the city, and Fellini's and Mercer Beer Hall & Inn, both on Ontario Streets.  Though not entirely vegan, they have a wide variety of choices that can be easily adapted to a vegan lifestyle or are dedicated to it already.

For shopping, there is rarely time enough in the schedule to allow for enough browsing at Bradshaw's and Watson's Bazaar on Ontario Street, and several smaller shops in the city centre.  Watson's, incidentally, is still home to one resident cat, down from about three or four a few years ago, and I always come packed with kitty treats when I visit the store.

So those are the constants from year to year, more or less.  Each new season brings change, and this one is no different.  Let's look at a few of those now, as some will impact your next visit if you plan to go to Stratford in the future.

The first thing we noticed when strolling the city centre this past August was the reconfiguration of the venerable Market Square adjacent to City Hall.  For years the home of downtown angle parking and the city bus terminal, it was always a busy place.  Add in Ken's French Fries truck on the corner and the spot was usually teeming with people all day long.

Now the parking has been reduced and the centre section has been reconfigured to accommodate a true city square for public gatherings such as the Sunday Slow Food Market.  I like the look, especially when we visited in the summer when a giant bell collection was on display for use during the Stratford Summer Music performances in the space.

Not sure where Ken's French Fries has relocated to, but the bus terminal is now located outside the city core entirely, which is not too popular with the locals, I hear.

I am sure many have also grumbled about the lost parking spaces but really, there is still plenty of parking on most days in the city core, all of it unbelievably well-priced compared to other cities we have visited.  The Civic Square concept is one that is catching on in many cities and I hope soon it will take root again here in St. Catharines.

In the summer I also read with great interest the plans for the proposed Grand Trunk Community Hub.  Located at the Cooper site within the city, I am assuming the space would provide a larger and better-equipped community space available for use year-round.  Yet there is currently a lot of lobbying going on by local arts and cultural organizations for the inclusion of a dedicated Arts and Culture Centre within the hub, able to accommodate performances and events planned by the nearly 30 arts and cultural groups within the city.

Those groups, including Stratford Summer Music, Stratford Symphony Orchestra, Perth County Players, the Kiwanis Music Festival and a host of others, have formed collectively under the banner of the Stratford Arts & Culture Collective.  Co-chairs Ron Dodson and Chris Leberg say they are trying to create a more liveable city incorporating the arts and culture community to a greater degree.

Ideally, they would like to see the space include a new art gallery and perhaps even a 600-seat theatre space all members of the collective could make use of.  Sound familiar?  For years here in St. Catharines our local arts and culture groups lobbied hard for a dedicated space downtown and look what happened:  with forward-thinking city council members and the heft of all levels of government providing seed money, we now have both the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University and the adjacent FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

From humble beginnings great things can happen.  Not overnight but certainly over time, so I applaud members of SACC for pushing the envelope in Stratford and I wish you luck in the future.  Good things will happen when you present a clear vision and dedicate yourselves to seeing it through.

For more information on the SACC and the group's proposed Stratford Arts and Culture Centre, visit their website at

Finally, we cannot talk about events in Stratford without discussing the big news this year, the proposed replacement for the aging Tom Patterson Theatre.  The current theatre space, rented by the Stratford Festival from the city annually for over 40 years now, is well past its best-before date.  It includes the Kiwanis Community Centre and adjacent Stratford Lawn Bowling Club.

The Festival has secured a promise of $20-million in provincial government funding for the new theatre, and just this week announced Board Chair Dan Bernstein and his wife Claire Foerster are supporting the initiative with a whopping $10-million pledge.  Bernstein is Senior Strategist and Director of Bridgewater Associates in Westport, Connecticut, where they live.

Still, the Festival will have to launch a $100-million campaign to provide the capital for the new theatre and to establish a fund for future operations.  So if things go ahead as planned, expect to hear plenty about the fundraising initiative in the future.

The proposed new theatre will be designed by acclaimed Canadian architect Siamak Hariri and, according to a press release issued by the Festival, "envisions a theatre of warm stone wrapped in a glass curtain that both reflects and reveals the picturesque Avon River, which the theatre overlooks."  Warm stone?  Most of the stone I have encountered in my time is pretty cold, but hey, who am I to throw a damper on the fundraising party?

If the plan goes ahead, and it is still a big IF at this point, the old theatre would be torn down this winter and work would start immediately on the new venue, I'm told.  It would not be ready for next season, of course, to the new season would be scaled back just a bit to accommodate the reduced theatre space available.

Predictably, community groups are divided on the proposed new theatre, although most acknowledge the old one is due for replacement.  But many want to relocate the new theatre to a new space and leave the current community space for the community to use.  That would still necessitate considerable upkeep on the old structure and there have been no promises as to how that would be paid for, from what I can see.

The only logical choice is to build on the current spot and I am sure that is what will happen, but it would be nice to include a green space within the plan for the Stratford Lawn Bowling Club rather than move them out after all these years.

At two public meetings held at the Rotary Complex recently, it was learned the Festival could potentially purchase the land from the city rather than continue to rent.  That would save the Festival about $80-thousand a year in rental fees alone.  But there are still considerable costs to be incurred going forward on the project, so it is by no means a done deal yet, as I understand it.

Hey, the only constant is change.  I spent many an intermission in the summer months watching the lawn bowlers next door do their thing, and years earlier at the downtown Avon Theatre I recall going next door to Pounder Brothers Hardware for a browse during intermission at that theatre.  That changed and people survived, so hopefully the changes at the Patterson Theatre will result in positive change and few hurt feelings as well.

So, lots happening in Stratford this season.  I think I'll have to get back more often to keep up on what's happening in the future.  It could be an interesting off season to be sure.

Have a great weekend!

October 28th, 2017.

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