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Stratford diary, excerpts

And a river runs through it... Stratford Ontario
And a river runs through it... Stratford Ontario

May 31, 2002: Moving day, from Toronto to Stratford. For a month I have gone back and forth, now there is no going back. I have moved from three floors to one, from a twisting, narrow urban street to a wide, quiet, small-town street, where the houses are not so close together but for some reason the neighbours are more visible. From a city that is increasingly clogged, noisy, impersonal and unnecessary to me, to a town that is comparatively serene. There is a river running through it.

The Toronto house is clean, bare, ghostly when I walk around picking up the final odd things. The Stratford house has stuff piled everywhere, one almost working bathroom, another gutted, and nothing in the kitchen except a new floor, a new window, and a fridge. It will be like this for two months.

June 20: The river and the theatre: I realize, going to see My Fair Lady today, that one of the reasons I have come here is that I love deeply the theatre. It thrills me. I have deep connections with theatre; it has always been a love, a love I have set aside often, but it can be re-awakened. I could see a show ten times over and not tire of it. I sometimes seal off the memories, of Oh What a Lovely War, for example, at the Theatre Royal in London's East End in 1969, when I was the assistant stage manager and wardrobe mistress. Ironing, every day, those white satin costumes and the blue nylon river, hovering back stage to hook and unhook costumes and move props and hold my breath as actors rushed past, and tears smarting almost every night at specific moments in the show. I remember, here, the absolute perfection of that other theatre, the long bar, the long drive home to Kew every night. Peter Cook on a benefit night, with all those actors whose names I still look for in English movie cast lists.

This theatre, the festival stage is a magical and dramatic space. I have been coming here since the early 60s; my parents would drive down from Kirkland Lake, not often I think, but enough to capture my heart forever.

This is a summer evening. The river glitters, smells green, the swans swan, people picnic in the shade and stroll. My garden is bursting with fragrant old-fashioned plants: peonies and French lilac and best of all mock orange blossom, the thing I have planted in every single garden, because of my grandparents' house in Michigan. I think Stratford resonates with many things in me: theatre, the landscape of northern Michigan, rivers. I love the church bells, the quiet of the streets in the evening. I have always wanted to live in a town with a river, and now I do.

July 14: Today I attended a very public memorial service for a very public man. Timothy Findley's memorial service took place on the festival stage, with a huge bouquet of white roses on a pedestal beside his photograph. Martha Henry read a scene from The Wars, and evoked with no more than a trembling hand, a slightly slurred voice, the alcoholic mother. Brent Carver sang "Fear no more the heat of the sun" from Cymbeline, as performed in Findley's Elizabeth Rex, and I wept for my brother, who died a year ago today. Bill Whitehead, mopping his face with TIF's red neckerchief, recounted the last days of TIF's life and I recognized that deep, healing need to tell the story of death, again and again. Bill Hutt read, and you could hear so clearly the voice of TIF himself, and that seems to me the very best kind of memorial service, at which the person being celebrated is palpable, in a sense brought to life again.

August 24: The opening of Lear: the wooden O, the bare isle, just the stage, the warm, resonant wood and stairs, and simple openings, and the words; no need of set and props; the whole design of the play springing from the moment when Edgar persuades blinded Gloucester that he has fallen off a cliff, making believe. Costumes that are so rich they can be read; Edmund in ironic Puritan garb, Cordelia in pale blue with a Puritan collar, Lear's boots and socks and vests, and his expressive hair. Swords, many letters, long sustained exits and entrances that begin off stage. Clear, clear words, bared feelings. A cranky forgetful grumpy Lear. The bones of the play revealed: old men especially; the scene between mad Lear and blind Gloucester bursting with pathos and finally sobs. Plummer; flexible, shuffling, whining, scratching his ass but suddenly elegant in profile, with fiery eyes and long expressive hands. To me, this is the definitive 50th anniversary production.

September 1: A poignant end of summer feeling in the air today. Sharply defined in this town, perhaps a mark of small towns versus the city, where seasonal demarcations are not so sharp, things overlap, signals lost in the hubbub. I have been here three months, and I feel at home.