A Conversation With ... Ann Swerdfager, The Tom Patterson Theatre
This new theatre in Stratford, ON, is being hailed as an architectural marvel, and Bill King came away suitably impressed. Learn more in his chat with the Stratford Festival's publicity director.
By Bill King
It was one of those invitations too intriguing to pass up. Media relations rep Paul French of Hariri Pontarini Architects invited me for a tour and preview of the newly minted Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, the epicentre for engaging theatre in southern Ontario. The original Tom Patterson Theatre was in a 1906 building that served various objectives over the course of its survival in Stratford – from curling rink to dance hall to badminton club.
The new design is something to marvel at. From waterside to a landscape moulded from the smallest pebble, blade of grass, to the broad sweeping windows that overlook the horizon, the building, a monument to light. Light that embraces every inch of the exterior, interior, yet shunned when experiencing the inner workings of theatre.
The following morning, I crossed paths with my knowledgeable friend and ‘art speak’ champion, author Susan Perly, who, upon reciting the lines of perhaps a Shakespearean quote across the T-sheet I was wearing, spoke so eloquently about her experience only hours before. I asked her to repeat in print.
“Like a vison of the here-and-now, the new Tom Patterson Theatre rises above the Avon River, pulls the water up the hill, fills its glass with the moss water.
I first saw the Patterson on a Saturday in an August heat wave, entering with great anticipation to see Richard III. The floor spoke to the pebbles on the river bank, the soft golden sage of the café chairs, the banquettes were echoes of the duck and swan feathers.
I’d been to the old Tom Patterson theatre many times. I’d loved Jacques Brel, I’d adored Waiting for Godot there, but comfortable it wasn’t. It was a friendly re-purposed curling rink. But this new building: whoa. Full of soul and intention.
Like the river below it, the building seemed to change in the light. One minute it was Gilda-on-the Avon, glamourous, alluring, the next minute, your favourite cozy modernity.
Inside, those downy café chairs made for an ideal perch for people-watching, the fun of making up little stories about strangers. The architect seem to know about attending the theatre, too. How you love your own entrance, how a building can begin the playgoing enchantment.
The inside and the outside were playing a duet. The day felt harmonious, even in the bitter world chaos.
Richard III’s bones, DNA, modernity, Colm Feore rising from the grave with his scoliosis zipper on tyranny leather. Andre Sills, a marvel as loyal Buckingham betrayed. And the women! Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna especially, the soft fierce queens undulating anger against the hardscape of Richard. Like the beautiful, red-tipped grasses in the garden on the site, the play of wind, water, she/he/they was magical. The acoustics were magic, too.
In the dark on the bus back to Toronto, we knew we’d seen more than one great performance. The Shakespeare, yes.
But also-- the Tom Patterson Theatre, the new protagonist of Stratford, talking day and night to the river.”
I had the pleasure talking with Ann Swerdfager, director of public relations for The Tom Patterson Theatre for an in-depth screening of the work behind the campaign, design and eventual unveiling. This is where we begin today’s FYI podcast.
Siamak Hariri is a founding Partner of Hariri Pontarini Architects. His portfolio of nationally and internationally recognized buildings has won over 70 awards, including two Governor General’s Medal in Architecture, and, with his Partner David Pontarini, the 2013 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Architectural Firm Award. In 2016, he gave a TED talk entitled 'How do you build a sacred space?' that has garnered over 1.3 million views, and was celebrated as one of Canada’s Artists who mattered most by the Globe and Mail.
Susan Perly is a novelist who has worked as a war correspondent and radio producer for the CBC.
Her novel Stella Atlantis was named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best fiction books of 2021. And her novel Death Valley was longlisted in 2016 for Canada's prestigious Giller Prize. The main character in both novels is a female war photographer.
Susan's focus in writing is how art gets made, how artists persist, at home and in exile.
She has been going to the Stratford Festival to see Shakespeare since she was a child. Susan lives in Toronto with her husband, the poet Dennis Lee.