A Place Where Beauty Matters

My annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival stimulated the thought once again about what it's like to be in a community that devotes itself to beauty. That beauty matters in a town of Stratford's size and geography is not only unusual, but it summons a reflection about what beauty entails and why it is important for our lives.

For example, beauty is about having a sense of place.

Stratford, population 30,000, is located in the southern Ontario 90 minutes west of the Toronto metropolis. It sits in the heart of the agricultural belt where farmers raise corn, squash, melons, pumpkins, strawberries and pork while industries make products in advanced manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, high tech and financial services. This strong economic base helps support the Festival and the farms that dot Route 7 make driving there pleasant and picturesque.

The Festival has utilized the town's name as a mirror of the original theatre of Stratford on Avon in England. For more than 50 years it has provided not only the very best in repertory theatre (including Shakespearean classics, American Broadway musicals, French and British farces, ancient Greek tragedies and native Canadian plays), but the very finest in cuisine, gardening and architecture.

A touch of English haute couture pervades the town partly because of Canada's historical alliance with England but also because of the number of British Isles nationals who have migrated there. However, Canadians are unpretentious and visitors soon discover that they are appreciated not just for their money but because the locals want to share their town and its amenities with them. In this way, theatre-goers become an integral part of the Stratford community, and they gladly return nearly every year during the April to November season.

Beauty is also about enhancing the interplay between the natural world and the urban environment.

Because Stratford is small, it is easy to get around town by walking. This factor allows visitors to see and appreciate the clean, flower-bedecked streets, tidy shops and vibrant neighborhoods firsthand.

The townspeople have also taken full advantage of the Avon River, which provides a natural setting for leisurely strolls amid the old, leafy trees that line the shore or a paddleboat or pontoon ride on the calm waters. Visitors mingle among young parents out with their babies, youngsters riding their bikes to soccer practice, and retirees with their grandchildren feeding the ducks, geese, gulls and swans with corn seed, not bread! (Actually, a conscientious local girl has made a business of bagging and selling corn seeds to the tourists and residents in order to feed the waterfowl safely.)

A fanciful, little, wooden bridge connects the mainland to an island in the middle of the river where a modest but reverent plaque to the Festival's founder, Tom Patterson, has been placed.

Upriver is the Gallery Stratford, an architecturally quaint building that formerly served as the city's water pump station. This small gallery usually features one exhibit on contemporary art and the other on Stratford theatre art. Outside the Gallery is yet another display of the city's bountiful flowerbeds and a rock garden with a gurgling waterfall surrounded by tall, fragrant pine trees.

On the way back downtown a walk through the town's neighborhoods presents a variety of vintage red and yellow brick houses with manicured lawns and lovely wildflower gardens.

The downtown commercial district offers all the cultural accoutrements a visitor could imagine: oriental rugs, books, china, antiques, Inuit art, Scottish-ware, Canadian winter-proof clothes, restaurants, pubs, pastry shops, cafA(c)s, a chocolatier, juice bars and gift shops. Incidentally, all of these shops are locally-owned and managed so the money stays in town.

Beauty is about paying attention to details.

The Festival's fashion artists research and design the actors' elaborate costumes for historical integrity while a full-time wardrobe staff custom fits each actor's outfit by hand. Master craftsmen carefully construct every table, bowl of fruit, spear, and wagon. Shoemakers cobble all footwear with "mufflers" on the soles to minimize unwanted sounds on the stage. Choreographers carefully plan battle scenes while musicians compose and perform original works with period instruments.

These preparations augment the work of the actors who move across the stage with the poise and grace as they believably and ably portray their characters. This repertory theatre emphasizes acting and staging rather than the usual diet of special effects.

Restaurants throughout town offer a variety of specialties and price ranges, however, the gourmet venue available in Stratford is particularly spectacular. Taste, quality and presentation abound in each exquisite dish. There's even a gourmet French fries shop! Stratford's secret is its Chefs School where many local restaurateurs teach and then practice what they preach in their own establishments.

Beauty is about hospitality and good conversation.

Stratford accommodations include hotels and motels in and around town as well as cottages and campgrounds. However, a stay at a bed & breakfast provides a unique experience.

Stratford has become a magnet for retired Canadians who buy an old Edwardian or Queen Anne house, restore it, and rent out rooms for theatre guests. B&B hosts are warm and welcoming and visitors often make repeat stays. Over the years both host and visitor get to know each other and spend time catching up on the year's events. Of course, B&Bs also offer visitors enriching conversations with their fellow travelers about the plays and restaurants, however, what is particularly interesting is when Canadians and Americans visitors compare notes about U.S. politics.

Beauty is about leisure.

Taking time away from the regular work and home routine is a state of mind that enables people to do the things they like to do without guilt or fear. Leisure also tends to have a slowing down effect that allows them to be comfortable spending time alone or with another. As a result, visitors at Stratford can easily indulge themselves in contemplation and quiet reflection without the noisy distractions of modern life.

Finally, beauty is about feeling safe.

In this post-9/11 era where security is tantamount to breathing, it soon becomes apparent in Stratford that anyone can walk down the street at any time of the day or night without the fear of being attacked or surveiled. For Americans, such a feeling is a refreshing luxury and becoming almost a forgotten memory.

All of these elements work together to illustrate that beauty DOES make a difference in people's lives even if it only entails a short visit to a special place like Stratford once a year. We need such reminders. Even more, we need to bring such examples of good living to our own cities and towns so that we can have them all year long!

Olga Bonfiglio teaches an urban revitalization class at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She is the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq and writes on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at olgabonfiglio@yahoo.com.

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