by Karen Isaacs
It was an audacious idea and its ending was equally spectacular.
The American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford is no more, consumed by fire.
While its beginning was auspicious, perhaps the seeds of the problems that would haunt theater were also present.
From decay to final destruction….
In 1950, Lawrence Langer had the vision and proclaimed that a theater patterned to some extent on the Old Globe would be built on the banks of the Housatonic River. It would be the third Shakespeare theater/festival in towns named Stratford. Besides the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford on Avon, there was a successful festival in Stratford, Ontario.
Langer was a man of multiple talents and interests. A patent lawyer who founded the National Inventors Council, he was also a playwright (Sunrise at Campobello) and had established with Theresa Helburn, The Theater Guild. Langer enlisted other people into his project, most notably Joseph Verner Reed, another wealthy business man with deep theatrical interests.
The funds for building the 1600 seat theater came mainly from large private donations. Opening in 1955, it quickly became a major tourist attraction in Connecticut. It operated only during the summer months and often people would travel by boat, via Long Island Sound, docking a short walk from the theater.
For thousands of Connecticut (and farther afield) students, their first experience with a live Shakespeare production and most probably their first professional theater going experience came from the successful Spring “student” season which offered one of the season’s shows during school hours. Buses from throughout the region traveled to Stratford.
The potential for problems developed during this time: A large theater (1600 seats), a massive and deep stage, and a short season. Deficits occurred but most were covered by the backers. No real effort was made to attract individual small donors, corporations and grant-making institutions. Funding was dependent in large part on a small group of aging men and women. Langer died in 1972 and Reed in 1973.
In the early 60s another potential threat to the theater arose: the rise of the regional professional theater. During that period, Long Wharf and Hartford Stage were founded offering fall to spring professional theater of high quality. Stamford established a theater. Yale Rep was revitalized under the direction of Robert Brustein.
But the theater got national attention – critics from New York media, as well national media trekked to Stratford to see and review productions.
Quality was variable. Some shows were excellent and others less so.
Michael Kahn arrived in 1967 to become artistic director. Kahn was young and audacious. He obviously found his calling in Shakespeare; when he left Stratford, he became head of the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC, retiring just a few years ago.
If you attended production, you saw a mixture of performers. In the early years some were victims of the blacklist (like Morris Carnovsky and Will Geer), others were young actors who made names for themselves later in their careers, and some were movie names whose qualifications might be questioned.
But in those first 10-15 years, audiences saw Carnovsky, Mildred Dunnock, Jessica Tandy and many others. Among the performers who went on to major careers were Christopher Plummer, Ed Asner, Kim Hunter, Carrie Nye, Josef Sommer, Fritz Weaver, Ruby Dee, Philip Bosco, Donald Madden and more. Katherine Hepburn lent her support by performing multiple productions at the theater from an early production of Much Ado about Nothing with Alfred Drake to Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night and others.
Much Ado was the first Shakespeare production I ever saw; I wasn’t even a teenager yet.
In Kahn’s first year, 1969, he presented a radical reinterpretation of Henry V which had been viewed, due in part to the Olivier film made during WWII, as a play that extolled war. But in the time of Vietnam, Kahn turned it into a play with strong anti-war statements. The cast included Len Cariou, Joseph Maher, Roberta Maxwell. Later that year Charles Cioffi, Brian Bedford, Maria Tucci, Kate Reid performed.
This period in the early 70s was probably artistic highlight of the theater. Reading casts lists is like reading a who’s who of theater in the last 60 years and the same can be said for the directors, as well as the scenic, costume, lighting and sound designers.
But deficits not only continued but rose. Just 10+ weeks of performances plus the 5 week student season could not support the building and grounds and the large casts needed for the productions.
Productions often garnered raves. In 1974, the first play by a living American playwright was produced; Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened with Kier Dullea, Fred Gwynn and Elizabeth Ashley, moving to Broadway for a limited run.
The finances got worse in the mid-seventies and in 1976, Kahn departed and the board cancelled the 1977 season due to the finances.
It was heading down hill. In 1978 a new artistic director took over, the student season was restarted and Lynn Redgrave starred in Twelfth Night, though the performance schedule was limited. A state grant for the theater helped some. It seemed as though may be the theater was on the right track.
But it continued to be a bumpy ride with productions that were mainly works of other companies, and a rotating list of artistic directors and people in charge of the student season. One exception was the 1981 Othello directed by Peter Coe and starring James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago. It later played on Broadway, winning the Tony award for best revival of a play.
After that many events conspired to destroy the theater. The state of Connecticut bought the theater though it was expected that Shakespeare performances would be presented. Various approaches were tried: Shakespeare & Co. from the Berkshire brought in productions, Zoe Caldwell attempted to revive the student season later, New York’s Theater for a New Audience brought in productions including one directed by Julie Taymor (Lion King).
Aborted attempts were made to find a new production company to run the theater but, as a state property, it had go through proposals and bids; the first selected company seemed dubious at best to many interested in the theater.
Mostly the theater stood empty with some occasional touring productions (Barnum, Saint Joan), concerts (Michael Finestein) and even a pre-broadway tryout or two.
But in 1989 the theater closed; until the fire no progress had been made on reopening it though the town of Stratford took over from the state. The building had decayed with water damage, mold and more. The grounds were still used occasionally. But the theater was dead.