The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre Burns to the Ground in Stratford, CT

by Michael Eddy

A fire ripped through the historic American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, CT early Sunday morning. Firefighters received the call around 1 a.m. and arrived to find heavy fire coming from the building on Elm Street. The heaviest fire was in the area of the stage, according to fire officials. Firefighters fought the flames from outside the building due to the size of the fire, fire officials said. The building collapsed while firefighters were trying to put out the flames. Here’s a video from WTNH News 8 on the fire:

The boarded up American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford CT has been abandoned for over 30 years
The fire at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford CT on Sunday, January 13, 2019“The loss of this iconic and historic theater that holds a special place in the hearts of Stratford residents is devastating,” Stratford Mayor, Laura Hoydick said. “Those memories in that structure deserved better than to be destroyed by fire,” Hoydick said Sunday afternoon after visiting the site. The state fire marshal's office is investigating to determine if the fire was intentionally set, according to Hoydick.

Fire Marshal Brian Lampart said no one has been injured and the building was unoccupied. Lampart said dispatchers got several calls around 1 a.m. about a fire on the property. “When our units arrived, they found a heavy volume of fire in the building,” Lampart said. More than 50 firefighters responded — every one of Stratford’s units, as well as crews from Bridgeport and Milford. It will likely be some time before the blaze’s cause and origin are identified, according to the fire marshal.

The frozen aftermath of the fire at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford CT on Sunday, January 13, 2019The fire destroyed the building, leaving a massive pile of rubble, charred steel, and wood that was still smoldering Sunday afternoon as dozens of residents came by the scene to survey the damage. “Unfortunately, this one’s going to be a slow process because of the amount of damage,” Lampart said. “We’re trying to filter through what’s pertinent and what’s not.” As crews hosed down hotspots Sunday afternoon, a backhoe was leveling a wall that was still partially standing to give investigators better access. The unstable wall — separating what was the stage from the backstage area of the theater — was an area of interest.

History of The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre
Lawrence Langner, co-founder of The Theatre Guild and the Westport Country Playhouse, came up with the idea for The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in 1950. It was built with the help of Lincoln Kirstein and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed. The theater opened in 1955 on July 12 with American Shakespeare Festival Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar.

The poster for the initial production of Julius Caesar at The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre on July 12, 1955That initial production of Julius Caesar had leads including Raymond Massey, Roddy McDowall, Hurd Hatfield, and Jack Palance. It was Directed by Denis Carey, with a lighting design by Jean Rosenthal, a scenic design by Horace Armistead, and costume design by Robert Fletcher

During the 1960s and 1970s, high school students around the Northeast visited the theater for shows. But after Reed died in 1973, the money to keep the theater going was gone and the building struggled to stay open.

Katharine Hepburn and Alfred Drake at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, CTDuring the good years, which lasted through the late 1970s, the stage hosted such actors as Katharine Hepburn, Alfred Drake, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Richard Basehart, Roy Scheider, Fritz Weaver, Michael Moriarty, Jill Clayburgh, Frank Converse, Jerry Stiller, and Fred Gwynne.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre held its final full season in the building in 1982, which included King Henry IV, Twelfth Night and Hamlet with Christopher Walken and Anne Baxter. Other companies held shows there in the 1980s until the state took over the theater in 1983. The town of Stratford has owned the building since 2005. The town has floated various plans for the theater over the years and most recently planned to mothball the building. Shows were still held on the grounds of the property over the years.

The town took over the 12-acre property from the state in 2005, and it's been a sore point for residents ever since. The fire broke out just two days after State Rep. Joe Gresko applied for a grant to renovate the theater. “It always was a symbol of the town, and now I’m hoping that we can all be galvanized around this tragedy, and make something good happen here,” Gresko said.

Here's a video tour of the American Shakespeare Theatre from back in 2010 when they were discussing a renovation plan:

Sara Holdren the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Academy @ Stratford released the following statement about the fire and their future:

"In the early hours of the morning on Sunday, January 13, the historic Stratford Festival Theater caught fire and was ultimately destroyed by the blaze. We at SA@S are deeply saddened by the loss of this wonderful historic space — and we want to make clear that our program is alive and well. We will continue to bring top-notch immersive theater training and joyous, inventive site-specific productions of Shakespeare's plays to Stratford this summer. We mourn for the theater because it was a gorgeous, communally meaningful monument — a space full of history and legend and a proud, beautiful symbol of a legacy of art-making in Stratford. It was also, as all buildings are, only a building, and one that had been empty for many years. Our program has always performed on the theater's grounds, never inside its walls (its interior was no longer safe for performance use). We have performed Hamlet in a parking lot, Cymbeline in a living room, and The Tempest in a wooded glade on the theater's expansive grounds — to quote Peter Quince, “this green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn-brake our tiring house,” as they always have been.

We'll miss our big, beautiful, storied old friend and all that it meant to us, to the town of Stratford, and to Shakespeare lovers and theater makers across the country. And we will continue the work. We've got stories to tell this summer and are unhindered in our preparation for SA@S's sixth season. We look forward to presenting Coriolanus and The Winter's Tale—a story of rebirth and redemption—in the theater's honor and in the spirit in which it was originally created: a spirit of creative adventure and communal joy in the possibilities of Shakespeare, ensemble, and shared artistic experience. “Be cheerful; wipe thine eyes. Some falls are means the happier to arise.” 
Further information from the Shakespeare Academy @ Stratford: www.shakespeareacademystratford.org