HETRICK: Finding the “one thing” on the Stratford stages

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A few months ago, a family friend asked if we’d like to tag along on a midsummer weekend of cultural tourism. Ever eager to escape the same-ol’ routine and experience something new, my wife, my mom-in-law and I said yes.

So in the wee hours of a Friday morning in late June, we found ourselves on a bus full of Fort Wayne First Presbyterian Theater buffs bound for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.

The theatrical fare was well played. We saw four shows in three days—two by the Bard, two by others.

The biggest-name actor was stage and film star Brian Dennehy, who played Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

We also saw the musicals “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Camelot,” along with Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

While the productions were exceptional and the talent first rate, I found equally intriguing this tiny town’s ability to make such a big deal of itself despite natural assets no different from—and likely less than—what one might find in, say, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne or Muncie.

Located 470 miles northeast of Indianapolis, 160 miles northeast of Detroit, and 90 miles southwest of Toronto, Stratford sits smack dab in the middle of Ontario farming country. The landscape is flat, the fields fertile, the access roads two-lane. The nearest major airport is an hour away in London, Ontario.

The city has only 30-some thousand residents (on par with Marion, Westfield or Goshen).

The lovely Avon River runs through town. The city imports swans each year to make the river lovelier. There are nicely preserved neighborhoods, some with bed-and-breakfast inns. And there are several blocks of trendy shops in Victorian buildings along the main streets of downtown.

And somehow, from these simple roots found in similar small towns all over America, Stratford has built—from a single stage inside a single tent in 1953—a multimillion-dollar cultural powerhouse that now operates from four sophisticated theaters throughout the city; serves as a training ground for actors, musicians and technicians; drives the local economy; and annually draws more than half a million visitors.

It’s also a place that’s attracted to its stages the likes of Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, Peter Ustinov, Dame Maggie Smith and William Shatner.

Stratford’s success formula brings to mind my favorite scene from the movie “City Slickers.”

In the film, Billy Crystal plays an urbanite named Mitch who’s experiencing a midlife crisis. He heads off to a ranch to find himself. There, he meets up with Curly, a tough, philosophical cowboy played by Jack Palance.

Alone on a cattle drive one day, Curly gives Mitch some advice.

“Do you know what the secret of life is?” says Curly, holding up one finger. “This.”

“Your finger?” says Mitch.

“One thing,” says Curly. “Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean ****.”

“But, what’s the one thing?” says Mitch. 

“That’s what you have to find out,” says Curly.

In the middle of Ontario farming country, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival found its one thing: “to bring classical and contemporary theatre alive for an increasingly diverse audience.”

To be sure, the cultural landscape has evolved since 1953. And the theater’s mission has evolved, too. “What has remained constant, however, is our determination to create stimulating, thought-provoking productions of Shakespeare’s plays, to examine other plays from the classical repertoire, and to foster and support the development of Canadian theatre practitioners.”

One thing.

Over the years, I’ve worked with communities, not-for-profits, tourist attractions and businesses (including my own) working hard to adapt, survive and thrive.

Many times, I see them trying to be all things to all people, trying every possibility in the hope that something will stick.

And many times, I’ve seen them end up with superficial mishmash—a little of this, a little of that, and no singular sensation.

Thus, on the city side, we end up in look-alike communities with chain restaurants and big-box retailers; and vacant small-town storefronts; and crumbling, abandoned historic buildings; and declining small-town population and young people from the Heartland fleeing to faster-paced lifestyles in places with lots of this and that.

In Stratford, they started with an idea in 1953. The idea became a stage. The stage became a tent. The tent became a theater. The theater grew and blossomed into four theaters. The theaters attracted talent. The talent spawned schools and music festivals and shops and restaurants and inns and hotels and historic preservation and parks and swans and roadways and bus tours of Presbyterian theater buffs from places like Fort Wayne.

What’s your one thing? Will you sacrifice all else to pursue it with abandon? Who knows, it could make your world a stage, while all the rest are merely players.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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