Stratford Festival’s ‘beautiful and intimate’ Tom Patterson Theater reopens after $72m makeover

The transformed Tom Patterson Theater at the Stratford Festival has officially reopened to public performances after being blocked by two long years of the pandemic.

“[It’s] a historic day for the Stratford Festival, which has taken years to prepare with some interruptions along the way,” artistic director Antoni Cimolino said at an inauguration ceremony on Tuesday.

In 2018, the facility – a former curling rink turned theater – underwent a $72 million demolition and reconstruction, a project completed in 2020. However, due to the health and safety measures of the pandemic of COVID-19, the reopening of the theater has been postponed to this week.

The Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theater reopened to the public with a grand opening event on Tuesday morning. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

On Tuesday, the theater marked its reopening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony followed by its first-ever public performance of Richard III.

The touches of a Toronto architect

At first glance, it’s hard to miss the new theater’s floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap around the entire facility and overlook the River Avon. Upon entering, the lobby space is decorated in pale yellow brick walls with wooden floors and ceilings.

The new facility, designed by Toronto architect Siamak Hariri, offers multiple rehearsal spaces, a forum room, members’ lounge, education space and two refreshment areas.

The Lazaridis Room at the Tom Patterson Theater where members of the audience and theater can meet for various functions. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

“It’s a very welcoming space,” said Anita Gaffney, executive director of the Stratford Festival.

“What we added…was spaces for people to gather before and after shows…to have a space where people could go to forum events, i.e. our conferences, our debates, our panel discussions, our concerts, our comedy nights and everything from a morning movie screening to a late night comedy event,” she said.

The old facility was essentially an auditorium with a small lobby, with fewer production elements, gathering spaces, and amenities.

The transformed auditorium, which can accommodate up to 700 people, has additional rows, comfortable seating, accessible aisles and high-end production and lighting equipment. One of the most striking distinguishing features retained from the previous installation is its long push stage, which extends into the audience for more intimate interaction.

Intimate experience

The benefit of the reopening delay was extra time to work on logistics, Gaffney said.

The space was also used last season for storefront services and shows in the parking lot, as the Festival Theater hosted an outdoor season.

“We did a bit of testing,” she said.

Colm Feore plays the lead role in Richard III. He was among several actors who took part in Tuesday’s dedication ceremony at the newly renovated theater. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Meanwhile, eager actors waiting for the big debut used the theater’s rehearsal space.

“We were on it for a really, really long time, and then going into suspended animation was super weird,” recalls Colm Feore, who plays the lead in Richard III. “Now we are ready, finally.”

It was designed to be closer so we could be softer, quieter, more intimate.— Colm Feore, actor, on the Tom Patterson Theater makeover

Feore said the key experience in the transformed theater will be the intimate relationship between actor and audience.

“It was designed to be closer so we could be softer, quieter, more intimate,” he said. “Lines of sight are going to be much better. The distance between an audience and an actor standing in the middle of the stage is less.”

Feore said the technical improvements also allowed actors to perform quieter when needed, while maintaining sound quality.

“It gives you tremendous creative flexibility, and I think the audience will be able to tell the difference,” he said.

“[It] has improvements in a lot of ways to help with the sound, and the possibilities for magic inside that space are a little bit bigger than what we had before,” added Andre Sills, who plays the Duke of Buckingham in Richard III.

Community reaction

Hundreds of people from all over the region eager to be among the first spectators attended the preview on Tuesday.

John McCarroll and his wife had been waiting for this moment for two years, since they had tickets for the original grand opening, which had been postponed.

Marcia Glick and Bernie Glick drove from Waterloo to Stratford to attend the first public preview at the Ontario Theater. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

“It’s truly a moving experience,” McCarroll said.

“It was a lovely space as it was, but it was custom built for the whole experience… of theater in Stratford,” he said. “It’s just fabulous. The space is really exciting and the way they performed this production is just brilliant.”

Marcia and Bernie Glick have already secured tickets to nearly 10 shows this upcoming season, which opens in June.

“We miss him and it’s good to have him back,” Bernie said. “That’s good theatre.”

“It’s beautiful,” Marcia added. “All the seats are very comfortable and there are good sightlines throughout the theatre.

“I would say there is not a single bad seat in this house, and also the acoustics are fantastic. I can really notice the difference,” she added.

“It’s more intimate…I would say there are no bad seats in the house,” echoed Kelly Baker.

“My behind loves it. The seats are fabulous,” Baker joked. “It went so well.”

The Spriet Members’ Lounge provides a space where theater members can congregate before performances. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

The federal and provincial governments have each invested $20 million in theater transformation. People with past and current ties to the festival donated an additional $25 million.

The theater’s fundraiser, Spirit of the Tent Campaign, exceeded its $100 million goal by about $5 million, officials said Tuesday. The remaining money will be used for operation and maintenance costs.