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Monday, 27 October 2008


This letter to the editor was published in the Stratford Beacon Herald on Friday, October 24:

Save the Tanya Stage
by Walter Sugden

The cultural history of Canada and North America is intrinsically tied to the physical spaces -- the great halls and stages -- in which artists have shared their talent, inspiration and dreams.
Stages are very much alike ... good acoustics and a platform on which an audience can witness words spoken, songs sung, music played and dances performed.

Yet one of these stages is special, unique, to Canadian artistic heritage. It is a place of innovation and deep theatrical history for future generations, a place of immeasurable value. It is the Tanya Moiseiwitsch thrust stage, the flagship stage of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. And it is going to be destroyed.

The original Tanya stage was built at the insistence of Sir Tyrone Guthrie because of its importance to the spoken word of Shakespeare. Through the 1950s it evolved into a piece of brilliance from one of the world's best theatre designers. It is a piece of heritage for the City of Stratford, their tradesmen and volunteers who built it. It is the first of its kind since the late 1600s and has been copied by admiring and respected theatres around the globe.

However, the new artistic leadership at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has blueprints ready to turn the Tanya stage into a "modern" facility in which they hope to mount "modern productions of spectacular proportions." These plans involve the destruction of the Tanya stage, the platform of well trodden oak, capable of lasting centuries, on which acting titans like Christopher Plummer began their careers.

If these plans go ahead, no "replacement replica down the road" will be able to replace the heritage lost. It will not be original, it will not be special. The great pride and awe it inspires will be greatly diminished. The community around the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis knows something about this. They had one designed for them by the same brilliant designer. It was ripped out in the '80s.

Ours is the last one in existence, a North American icon. The kind of stage on which Shakespeare was meant to be performed, and unless artists and their supporters raise a cry of outrage, this unique Tanya stage will be destroyed to make way for a "modern" one, something akin to a Cirque du Soleil stage of sub-floor machinery and pyrotechnics of every possible design.

Unfortunately many artists are hindered from speaking out because they rely on the seven- or nine-month contracts that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival provides.

Although I am employed at the Festival as a stagehand and scenic carpenter, I feel I must speak out. It is my belief that the Festival's artistic director and senior management are given stewardship over the Festival's stages and history, not just licence. They may feel strongly that these planned changes are for the theatre's viability, but I beg to differ.

Shortly after I began working at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1973, I stole a moment to step out onto the centre balcony of the Tanya Moiseiwitsch stage. A feeling hit me so strongly, of being the focus, that it was frightening. Every actor appearing on that stage must feel like they've come to Mecca. You cannot hide. It is just you and the spoken word, and you must rise to the occasion, and challenge, that this stage offers you. I was awestruck and amazed that I would be working for that experience, building and servicing their shows.

I am a stagehand and scenic carpenter. I am not an artist but a skilled craftsman that helps all the artists' work come alive on that magical stage. I've had the honour of keeping it "in good nick" over the years, to watch its patina grow warm under the artists' feet. The artistic spirit of acting giants like Dame Maggie Smith, Bill Hutt, Jason Robards, Jessica Tandy, Alan Bates, Nicholas Pennel, Pat Galloway, Brian Bedford and dozens more is imbued in that strong oak stage for future generations.

This is my voice. Please lend yours to persuade the current artistic management and board of directors at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to let Canada keep her flagship stage. It has never been broken. It has never needed fixing. It is a marvel that can last for generations who have yet to discover a love for theatre on this stage.

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