There’s the film of each production to file away, along with the scripts, costumes and props chosen for immortality. The theater festival in Stratford, Ontario, invites playgoers in for a rare glimpse of backstage history during its Archives Tours.
The Stratford Festival Archives, begun in 1967, are now the largest performing arts archives devoted to one theater in the world.
Volunteer guides from Friends of the Festival lead the tours in the massive warehouse, the expanded headquarters of the Stratford Festival costumes, props and archives since 2005. With a dozen plays each year, Stratford Festival has treasures from hundreds of productions, from 1953’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” to 2013’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Tickets $1-$6---in 1953
In the Archives Reading Room, there’s an original poster from the first season, 1953, when the festival plays were performed under a huge tent. A poster promotes Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “All’s Well That Ends Well” that summer. Beneath the poster ests the rattan wheelchair that the great actor Alec Guinness used in his portrayal of the King of France” in “All’s Well,” starring opposite Irene Worth. Tyrone Guthrie, Stratford Festival’s artistic director for its first two seasons, directed this production.
Another royal Shakespearean prop nearby is the throne from the 1977 production of “Richard III,” directed by Robin Phillips.
Theater fans are welcome to pop into the Reading Room 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday and explore the Archives materials for free, under staff guidance. They can watch films of past plays and request files on certain aspects of the productions.
Christopher Walken as Romeo
“We began filming productions in 1968,” said Sandra Collier, a volunteer with Friends of the Festival who led a recent Archives tour. “Filming is in black and white, and shot with one camera. The first was ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Christopher Walken—yes, that Christopher Walken. Louise Marleau was Juliet, and since she didn’t speak English, she learned the part phonetically.”
Each production has its original scripts stored in a safe room with an argonite fire suppression system—obviously, no water can touch the paper. New directors review their predecessors’ scripts for insights and cuts, which are made “for relevance and time constraints.
“Modern audiences can’t sit for more than three hours, it seems,” Collier said. “And we are a repertory theater, so the matinee needs to end at 5 so they can set the next play.
“The Archives works with the daily concerns of the Festival,” Collier said. Each day, “directors arrive to look up old contracts, and actors search documentations for visas to work in another country. The Festival communications staff always needs photos.”
Bibles for costumes and wigs
Each production has its own costume bible, which starts with a designer’s rendering of each costume. Then the sketches go to wardrobe, where the head cutter “drafts a pattern to make the designer’s sketch come into being as a real costume,” Collier said. “It lists every fabric, every notion: Where it was bought, how much it cost, where the excess is stored.” A sequined bra for “42nd Street, for instance, cost $54, noted along with a costume swatch and the shopping source. Wig bibles retain designer sketches and hair samples.
Ass heads and cheap vodka
How are pieces chosen for the Archives?
“It’s a dialog between the archive director and the plays’ directors,” Collier said. “Sometimes it’s because of a costume’s uniqueness or cleverness of design. In ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in 2012, Jesus’ robe had a unique construction that would break apart in an instant when the actors tore at him. It was held together with tiny magnets, and that was archived.
“We always get Bottom’s ass head from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Juliet’s ball gowns [from "Romeo and Juliet"] and the three caskets from ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Why? If you’ve seen ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ it’s tradition.”
Most of the archived costumes are stored in boxes, away from light, air and public gaze. “Box No. 1 was from 1953,” Collier said, “and I helped refresh it with new acid-free paper. It took two hours for us just to lift the costume out. It gave me a whole new respect for the actors. Not only do they learn their lines, but they move with grace and ease, even though they may be lugging around 50 pounds.
“So many of the costumes are made of wool, and I asked wardrobe why. Wool is still the preferred fabric of choice because of the way it drapes and breathes. Synthetics and silks don’t breathe, so they’re hotter for the actors.”
Each actor wears a light cotton garment under his costume, which is washed after each performance. The costumes are dry cleaned, when possible. When not, the wardrobe department spritzes them with vodka to remove odors and refresh the costumes.
“There’s no smell, no stain,” Collier said. “We have a very large standing order for cheap vodka.”
Archived costumes are never worn again. Some archived props can be loaned out, but only to Festival productions.
Theater fans who are dying to see some of the archived pieces get their wish in the last room of the tour, a giant higgly-piggly warehouse space.
Evita’s portrait rubs shoulders with a flash showgirl from “42nd Street.” Camels and horses seem to roam at will, and witches and cartoon characters come to life in an otherworldly swirl of theatrical stardust.
When you go
Tours of the Archives, 350 Douro St., Stratford, are $8 per person, $6 for students and seniors. The one-hour tours are by reservation, online or 800-567-1600. Cameras are welcome only in the last room of costumes and props.