Discover Special Collections: S is for Stage Designs!

March 21, 2016 | Nicole

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S is for stage designs… Shakespeare and Stratford!

Portrait of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout

Portrait of William Shakespeare, by Martin Droeshout (1601–1650) from the First Folio

This year marks the 400th year since William Shakespeare’s death and all over the world programs and events are being held in his honour to acknowledge the profound influence he has had on the performing arts and all contemporary art forms. William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was a well-known English poet, playwright and actor, considered by many to be the greatest dramatist who ever lived. In celebration of Shakespeare and his work, let's take a closer look at some of the stage designs created for one of the most successful and popular Shakespearean festivals, the Stratford Festival. These designs, and many more, can be found in the Toronto Public Library’s Special Collections in the Arts.

The Toronto Reference Library’s Special Collections in the Arts has the largest stage design collection in any Canadian public library with more than 4500 designs (both costume and set) for theatre, dance, musical theatre, and opera companies in festival and regional theatres across Canada. It features set and costume drawings, designs for film and television productions, and works by award-winning designers. Stage designs can be accessed in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre, on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library, through finding aids indexed by production, designer, and company. The performing arts collection is an important resource for students, independent researchers and professionals looking for inspiration or background on performing arts in Canada.


Stratford Festival

One of the highlights of the stage design collection are the production designs from the Stratford Festival. This festival of Shakespearean theatre has been devoted to celebrating the playwright’s work annually since its inception in 1953. Held in Stratford, Ontario, the festival began with the vision of journalist Tom Patterson. Patterson was given a grant of $125 from City Council to seek artistic guidance to bring it to life. With the help of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, renowned British theatre director and the festival’s first Artistic Director, the festival found a promising start.

During the festival’s first season, Guthrie and British designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch designed a thrust stage. The most common type of stage employed during the Elizabethan era, the thrust stage projects into the audience, who surround the stage on three sides. This style of stage design fell out of favour for many centuries before coming back into use in the 20th century, to emphasize actor-audience contact and simulate the context of how Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. The 1953 thrust stage is still performed on today in Stratford’s Festival Theatre.

Stratford Festival Theatre 2009

"Stratford Festival Theatre, 2009" by Twin21956, licensed under CC BY 3.0

The first season of the Stratford Festival produced two of Shakespeare’s plays: Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well and was led by actors Sir Alec Guinness and Irene Worth. The Toronto Reference Library’s Special Collections in the Arts has many stage designs that date back to the first decade of the festival including designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s costume designs for Measure for Measure (1954) and Julius Caesar (1955) and Desmond Heeley’s costume designs for Hamlet (1957).

Alec GuinessSir Alec Guinness in 1973” by Allan Warren licensed under CC BY 3.0

Since its early days, the festival has continued to grow, acquiring new venues such as the Avon Theatre, the Tom Patterson Theatre and the Studio Theatre and expanding its season to include more performances. Productions today include Shakespearean classics as well as non-Shakespearean dramas, operas and musical concerts. In addition to the early designs, the Toronto Reference Library’s Special Collections in the Arts also includes more current designs from non-Shakespearean productions such as designer Ken MacDonald’s 2009 Trespassers set designs and Astrid Janson’s 2006 stage backdrop designs for Harlem Duet. In total, the library’s stage designs collection includes over 140 designs for both costume and sets from Stratford Festival productions spanning half a century’s worth of productions.  

Discover Special Collections talks


Discover Special Collections

To see some of our incredible collection of stage designs from Stratford’s Shakespearian productions, join us for this week’s Discover Special Collections talk, “S is for Stage Designs” Wednesday, March 23rd at 3pm in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre. No registration is required. Discover Special Collections talks are free presentations held weekly in conjunction with the Special Collections: A to Z, the current exhibit on display in the TD Gallery. If you can’t make it this Wednesday, be sure to join us for these upcoming talks showcasing other fascinating finds from our Special Collections:

  • Wednesday, March 30, 3 p.m.: “T is for Time”
  • Wednesday, April 6, 3 p.m.: “B is for Bloor Viaduct”
  • Wednesday, April 13, 3 p.m. : “S is for Sherlock”
  • Wednesday, April 20, 3 p.m.: “Q is for Quirky items”

Shakespeare buffs should also check out this month’s “As You Like It: All the World's a Stage” program on March 22nd in the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon, where Professor Alexander Leggatt will talk about the gender-bending Elizabethan comedy of As You Like It. This program is hosted by Dr. Jane Freeman and presented in partnership with the Stratford Festival.