‘The Play’s the Thing’

The festival theatre at night.

But not the only thing to see when visiting Stratford
By Louise Rachlis

In 2011, after decades of attending a few Stratford plays a year, my husband and I decided to jump into the immersion experience for our annual visit to the southwestern Ontario city.

That first year we opted for the Stratford Seminar Society’s package of nine plays, plus talks by university professors, special theatre guests, and discussions of what we’d seen and would be seeing. We’ve continued doing that every year and are already signed up for the 2020 Stratford Seminar season, August 3 to 8. The group gathers daily at Knox Presbyterian Church on Ontario Street for the lectures and discussions, and after a break for lunch is off for the performances of the day.

The Stratford Seminar Society has been offering its program for 40 years.

Earlier in the summer, there’s also another immersion option, the McMaster University Stratford Seminar Series. Their dates for 2020 will be July 6 to 11, and 2020 marks the 61st year of their program. They hold their talks and discussions in the Best Western Plus The Arden Park Hotel on Ontario Street.

Both seminar programs are open to anyone and offer premium seating in productions, scholarly lectures and discussions, and an opportunity to meet some of the Stratford Festival cast and crew, as well as dine and socialize with other participants.

Theatre goers and the seminar societies will choose their plays from among the 15 offerings for the 2020 season.

Tom Patterson Theatre Centre: Richard III; All’s Well That Ends Well; World Première: Here’s What It Takes; World Première: Frankenstein Revived, and An Undiscovered Shakespeare.

The Festival Theatre: Much Ado About Nothing; Chicago; Hamlet, and The Miser.

The Avon Theatre: Wendy & Peter Pan; Monty Python’s Spamalot, and Wolf Hall.

The Studio Theatre: Three Tall Women; The Rez Sisters, and World Première: Hamlet-911.

It’s fun to introduce grandchildren to the theatre and the Stratford always has a family-friendly option. Last year, I took the delighted grandkids to see the musical Billy Elliot. This season’s children’s play is Wendy & Peter Pan, a retelling of the J.M. Barrie story through Wendy’s eyes.

Driving is not the only option to get to the city of 31,000. There’s daily bus service from Toronto and VIA Rail. The Stratford Visitors Guide lists a wide range of accommodation options including bed and breakfasts, hotels, motels, cottages and campgrounds, in all price ranges, within walking distance to the theatres and farther out.

A walk along the water is a great way to begin or end the day in Stratford.

Whether you opt to see one play or 10, or whether you’re a fan of the culinary arts, music, gardens, or shopping on the main streets — there are irresistible items in locally made crafts, chocolate, clothing and books — you’ll find lots to do.

For many Stratford visitors, the day begins with a leisurely walk or jog around Lake Victoria on the Avon River. Early morning, you’ll be joined by geese, ducks and swans on the sidewalk as they head into the water.

I’ve been doing the water circuit every summer for so long, that I remember being surprised by elephants in the water, bathing before their circus performance in the nearby auditorium.

As you circle the lake, you’ll spot the glistening, soon to be completed Tom Patterson Theatre Centre, named after the journalist who conceived the idea for a festival of Shakespearean theatre in the early 1950s. He wanted to breathe new life into his native city after the railway industry pulled out.

The first Stratford season opened in July 1953, and for the inaugural season and the three that followed it, the stage and auditorium were housed under a giant canvas tent. Now visitors can choose from four theatres, the Festival Theatre, the Avon Theatre, the Studio Theatre and the exciting, new Tom Patterson Theatre.

The old Tom Patterson Theatre was torn down two years ago, and the new $70-million facility designed by award-winning architect Siamak Hariri is slated to open for the Festival’s 2020 season. The building will feature a 600-seat auditorium with an elongated thrust stage as its centrepiece, and a beautiful terraced garden to complement the waterside site.

Further along the water, you may spot artists setting up for Art in the Park. They are along the banks of the Avon River between the Stratford Festival Theatre and the William Allman Arena, Wednesdays, Saturday and Sundays, from May to September, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.(

Crossing the bridge, admire the backyards of heritage houses, with beautiful gardens and mature trees, and you can end your circuit with a stop at the Shakespearean Gardens, one of five prizewinning gardens linked by the Avon River. The Shakespearean Gardens are framed by a pergola, the Perth County Courthouse, and the oldest double-arch stone bridge in Ontario. There are 60 varieties of herbs, flowers, and shrubs, all familiar to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and mentioned in his plays.

In the grounds surrounding the Festival Theatre is the Arthur Meighen Gardens, an oasis of fragrant rose arbours, water pools, and tree-filled parks. Just beyond the Festival Theatre is Millennium Park, filled with water plantings, lit fountains, native trees, and ornamental plantings.

At York and Erie streets, you will see the boathouse rental and visitor information centre. The Stratford Tourism Alliance office at 47 Downie Street can also help you decide what to do during your visit.

Refreshed and hungry, you’ll find many pleasant breakfast options to fuel your day. For instance, there’s bustling Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, 149 Ontario Street, established in 1996. Also great for a hearty breakfast are Features Restaurant, 159 Ontario Street; Sirkel Foods, a small cafe across from City Hall at 40 Wellington Street, and Old Man & Son, 75 Wellington Street, which is a worker-owned breakfast and lunch diner from the team that also owns The Red Rabbit, a popular dinner spot at 64 Wellington Street.

Photo: Louise Rachlis

Ample lunch and dinner options abound as well, and for luxurious dining and attentive service, The Restaurant at The Bruce, 89 Parkview Drive, can’t be beat.

There are also charming shops and things to do in the village of Shakespeare, just east of Stratford, and also in nearby St. Marys and St. Jacobs.

Stratford is located in Perth County, one of Ontario’s most agriculturally productive counties. The Stratford Chefs School offers Open Kitchen cooking classes, hands-on cooking and learning experiences devoted to home cooks and food-lovers in state-of-the-art kitchens on Ontario Street, the city’s main street.

Other culinary delights include Junction 56 Distillery which uses Ontario grown grains and ingredients to create small batch, high quality spirits; there is craft brewing from Black Swan Brewery, Jobsite Brewing Co. and Shakespeare Brewing Company. There are foraging tours with Pucks Plenty, some of which include a lunch using the wild edibles.

Stratford’s Farmers Market, which began in 1855, is one of Ontario’s longest running markets, open every Saturday from 7 a.m. until noon at the Agri-plex. Perth County Slow Food Market is open year-round on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Market Square (May-Oct) and indoors at Festival Square (Nov-Apr).

Stratford is also alive with the sounds of Stratford Summer Music, an annual multi-week music festival with over 100 events set in indoor and outdoor venues throughout downtown Stratford. For information, visit

You likely won’t spot Stratford’s native son and biggest pop star Justin Bieber, but you and your grandchild can visit his exhibit at the Stratford Perth Museum at 4275 Huron Road, see his star on the Stratford sidewalk and follow a walking tour of his favourite haunts.