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Stratford Festival

Memorial Set for Designer Desmond Heeley

Stratford Festival logoA memorial service for longtime Stratford Festival Designer Desmond Heeley, who died this past June, has been scheduled for noon, Sunday, Nov. 6, at the Stratford Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Canada. A reception will follow in the Paul D. Fleck Marquee.

Mr. Heeley died June 10 in New York City, at the age of 85.

“Desmond played a formative role with the Festival, second only to that of our founding designer, his friend and mentor Tanya Moiseiwitsch,” the Festival's Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino said in a press release. “Throughout a stellar international career that ranged from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to La Scala in Milan, from The Old Vic to Broadway, he treated the Stratford Festival above all as his true artistic home.”

Mr. Heeley began his career at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he worked with Peter Brook on productions including Titus Andronicus with Sir Laurence Olivier. He was soon designing for opera and ballet, as well as for theater, including the original productions of Loot by Joe Orton, Gentle Jack by Robert Bolt featuring Dame Edith Evans, and Carving a Stone by Graham Greene starring Sir Ralph Richardson.

It was a working relationship with former Stratford Festival Artistic Director Michael Langham that brought Mr. Heeley to Canada, where, in addition to the Stratford Festival he also designed for the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company.

Mr. Heeley designed nearly 40 productions for the Festival, beginning with the 1957 production of Hamlet starring Christopher Plummer, which opened the newly constructed Festival Theatre (a later Hamlet he designed for the National Theatre starred Peter O’Toole). A cascade of acclaimed work followed at Stratford, including Cyrano de Bergerac (1962), The Duchess of Malfi (1971), Amadeus (1995 and 1996), London Assurance (2006), and Camelot (1997).

His last production for the Festival was in 2009, The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by and starring Brian Bedford. The production subsequently transferred to New York’s Roundabout Theatre, winning Mr. Heeley a Tony Award for best costume design. The set featured a massive “crystal” chandelier that only on very close inspection revealed itself to be made of plastic wine glasses, picnic cutlery, and packing tape. “This was a defining quality of Desmond’s genius: his talent for—as he himself put it—‘making dross look like gold,’” said Cimolino. “Our world is a poorer, sadder, and less beautiful place without him.”

Earnest was his third Tony. In 1968 he had become the first person ever to win both the scenic- and costume-design Tonys for the same production: the Broadway premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

He was a master not only of his art but of his craft as well. Wherever he worked in the world, he shared his unique and inspired design techniques with generations of theater artisans with whom he worked side by side, helping them translate his impressionistic design sketches into physical reality.

October 27, 2016

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