The American Shakespeare Theatre, known best as simply “The Shakespeare Theatre,” burned to the ground on Jan. 13. When I first heard the news, I just sat down, closed my eyes tight so I wouldn’t cry, and recalled all the years that theater played such a major role in my life. The loss is personal to me and many other theater lovers.
I was just a kid when my parents first took me to that theater. Everything about it — its unusual design, its shape and features and its moveable panels that allowed light to enter the stage — fascinated me. I imagined that this was how the theater that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre must have looked. It was almost magical to me because it connected me, via my imagination, directly to Shakespeare and his times.
At 16, when I first got my driver’s license, I was excited about going to this famous theater with my two best friends. It was great not having to rely on my parents to take me to the plays. Now, I was able to go to all the plays whenever they were mounted. I couldn’t get over that there were only three such theaters in the world — one in England, one in Canada, and one in nearby Stratford.
Shakespeare’s garden located on the grounds of the theater featured every plant mentioned in all of Shakespeare’s plays. It was amazing. There was even boxwood from his wife’s home in England located in Stratford.
When the theater closed in 1989, theater-goers and people who worked at the theater were at a loss. The word was that this amazing theater just wasn’t managed properly and/or the town of Stratford didn’t really support it. Yes, there were groups in Stratford dedicated to the theater and the Shakespearean plays, but overall, the word in theater circles was that the local population didn’t really come out for it.
When two prominent investors came forward to bid on re-establishing the theater, I was covering the arts for a news publication. These two investors met with me practically on a daily basis. I would get calls regarding that theater morning, noon, and all hours of the night. I covered that theater and its many other investors for 10 years. Some years after it had been closed, I went into the theater with a potential investor and nearly choked on the foul smell. On that amazing stage mice were nesting. I remember thinking that it was sacrilegious that such a fine theater that graced so many prominent actors would be reduced to this.
In retrospect, I wish that one of the two original men who wanted to take over the theater had been given the green light. However, we all know the value of hindsight. The thing is that as I watched televised images of the burning theater, commentators would remark that it was quite a loss to Stratford. I got pretty angry over that statement because the loss is far greater than to the Stratford community. This once great theater had a global reputation. This fire was a great loss to the arts. Many a fine actor had stepped on that venerable stage. Katharine Hepburn was especially close to it.
Jane Farnol, a director at several theaters, once graced those memorable stage boards. She was also distraught about hearing the news. She had been in eight plays from 1967-1968 and even got to play Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth.” So many theater people are deeply saddened over this loss.
I understand that the mayor of Stratford is a supporter of the arts. In a statement that I read, she said something to the effect that the town would build something there. Well, I just hope that something is not a condo developer’s dream come true.
I am greatly saddened by this fire. Ironically, Shakespeare’s original theater burned down to the ground in the 1500s. Let’s hope for a dramatic resurrection.