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In Memoriam: American Shakespeare Festival Theatre

My best friend in high school was going on a Drama Club field trip one Saturday, and as the only guy going, he asked if I wanted to go, too, for bro company. Our high school was in central New Jersey (my dad was stationed at what was then called McGuire Air Force Base) and we were going to see William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night way up in Stratford, Connecticut. I didn't care about Shakespeare—I hated Julius Caesar in our 10th grade English class earlier that year—but a daylong bus trip with a bunch of girls sounded like a great way to spend a day.

This was the first of 564 live staged productions of Shakespeare's works that I've now seen, and that significance was magnified by the fact that Fred Gwynne played Sir Toby Belch. I didn't know that until I saw his name as we entered the theater. I was a huge Munsters fan, so just seeing Herman Munster right there on that stage was a blow-away moment for this 16-year-old kid. To this day, Gwynne's Toby remains an indelible performance, one seldom matched by the 26 Tobys I've seen since. Also on that trip was Sharon. I would soon love her, she would love me, she loved Shakespeare, and under her influence I would, too. I can trace all my life's worth of Shakespeareances to the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut.

This morning, just after midnight, that theater burned down. Firefighters responded to several calls around 1 a.m. and found "a heavy volume of fire in the building," the Greenwich Time quotes Stratford Fire Marshal Brian Lampart. He said the building eventually collapsed on itself, and photos of the fire's aftermath show little more than a tangle of metal around one of walls of the fly loft.

No injuries have been reported and the cause of the fire is yet unknown. The blaze's size and intensity required all Stratford fire units to fight it with the assistance of crews from Bridgeport and Milford while other community's crews covered the Stratford firehouses, the Greenwich Time reported.

The theater opened on July 12, 1955 with a production of Julius Caesar. The Festival and its theater, founded by Lawrence Langner, Lincoln Kirstein, John Percy Burrell, and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed, flourished for more than 25 years, attracting major stars to its boards, including Katharine Hepburn, James Earl Jones, Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave, Christopher Walken, Meredith Baxter, Pernell Roberts, and Will Geer. It also drew hundreds of buses filled with high school students from all over New England and the Middle Atlantic states.

After Reed died in 1973, the festival ran into persistent financial problems. It closed after the 1982 season and the state took over ownership of the building. It hosted several productions throughout that decade, but finally, with a one-person show of The Tempest in September 1989, the theater shuttered. The city of Stratford took over the property in 2005, and though the theater itself was in derelict condition, the grounds continued to serve as a theater space, including for Connecticut Free Shakespeare. Several attempts have been made to renovate and reopen the theater, including fund-raising events such as the ShakesBeer Festival held on the grounds. The city was considering several plans for the building, one involving reopening the theater and constructing an adjacent luxury hotel but, according to the Greenwich Time, the city most recently planned to mothball the building.

What remains is smoldering metal framework and lasting memories. The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre's influence on generations of Shakespeare lovers is immeasurable, and its place in my life profound.

Eric Minton
January 13, 2019

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