The Stratford Adventure: Capturing a historical event with no help from the organizers
When the first Stratford Shakespeare Festival was being organized in 1953, the National Film Board was approached to document it for posterity. Unfortunately, the decision to go ahead with filming this important event was only reached a couple of months before the first performance. This led to a crazy shooting schedule.
Director Morten Parker and his wife Gudrun prepared a script as they were scrambling to shoot the preliminary sequences of the tent being built and costumes being prepared. Time was not in their favour.
The NFB had decided to shoot the film on 35 mm and in colour and conceived it as a short-feature film destined for the nation’s cinema screens. The idea was to show Canada and the world that we were not just a country of beautiful landscapes, but capable of producing a cultural event that we could be proud of.
At the time, the NFB produced films as part of several series destined for television, the educational market and the theatrical market. The theatrical films were mostly of the newsreel variety, showcasing Canadian news stories in a few short minutes (under 15 minutes in most cases) as in the Canada Carries On series. To shoot the Stratford Festival in colour and on 35 mm meant a very big budget and producing the film separate from any of the NFB’s well established series.
With the go ahead coming so late, the Parkers had to do a great deal of recreating of major events. They had the festival director Dr. Tyronne Guthrie and the town folks recreate their first meeting together to discuss the creation of the festival (surprisingly, this sequence, although staged, comes off very well). The film crew shot sequences of the many preparations for the festival, including the building of the tent and manufacturing of the costumes.
When it came time to film the actors rehearsing, the Parkers hit a huge snag. Guthrie would not allow them to shoot his rehearsals! He did not want to disrupt the rehearsals to accommodate the cumbersome 35 mm camera and large crew. These had to be recreated as well with Guthrie and the actors going through their paces. Guthrie looks particularly short-tempered in these sequences, no doubt judging these a waste of time.
As with the rehearsals, Guthrie refused to let the crew film the actual performances. Once again, the whole thing had to be recreated. All this extra shooting caused a major increase to the film’s budget, which by now was twice the original estimate.
During all this, the Parkers shot some sequences with the actors appearing at the festival including English stage star Irene Worth and internationally renowned star Sir Alec Guiness. Interestingly, the Rank Organization, which owned Mr. Guiness’ film contract, categorically refused to let him appear in any sequences other than those related to the plays he was starring in. Guiness went ahead and shot one quick sequence where he discusses breathing technique with a very young Timothy Findley.
The original release of The Stratford Adventure was slated for Christmas 1953 but this proved impossible as the film was not ready in time. Columbia pictures picked up the theatrical distribution rights for Canada and released the 40 minute film (as part of a double feature) in April 1954 to excellent response.
Continental Distributing bought the rights for the US and released it in New York as of August 1954. The film was a huge hit and was nominated for an Oscar© in the category of Best Documentary Feature losing to the Walt Disney film The Vanishing Prairie. It eventually played theatrically in the United Kingdom also to excellent response and throughout the world on television. By the way, Alec Guiness’ name could not be used in any way to promote the film as his rights were owned by the Rank Organization.
Time has been kind to the film. Gudrun Parker’s script captures very well the idyllic town of Stratford and the excitement of the festival. The decision to shoot in 35 mm and in colour greatly adds to the film’s beauty. There is a certain innocence to the film that never fails to make me smile. Kudos to the Parkers for persevering with this difficult project and seeing it through to the end.