One of the Stratford Festival's gifts to itself for its 50th anniversary is a fourth stage: the 250-seat Studio Theatre. This little gem of a theatre surrounds a contemporary version of the Festival's main thrust stage, designed by the Festival's first director, Tyrone Guthrie, and one of its original star designers, Tania Moiseiwitsch, in the 1950s.

The mandate of the Studio Theatre is experimental: to accommodate seldom-performed classics, new and developing works, one — person shows, musicals, lectures, and conferences. It is also an ideal venue in which to showcase the work of the students of the Stratford Festival Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. It offers actors, directors, and designers the opportunity to hone their various skills working on an often unfamiliar thrust stage.

Comfortable, purple-padded, fixed stadium seating from Irwin Seating faces, on three sides, the gun-metal gray and matte-black stage, with a pillared and removable balcony. It is an elegant, cozy space created from the former scene shop of Stratford's Avon Theatre by architect Elizabeth Davidson of Davidson-Langley Inc. Architects and a top-notch creative team. The new venue also has two rehearsal halls and five dressing rooms.

Group 1 Acoustics consulted on the noise and acoustics and met their greatest challenge, which was the complete sound isolation of the Studio Theatre from its much larger, 1,100-seat “neighbor” located in the same building, the Avon Theatre. Acoustic doors are carefully positioned to eliminate all street noise and mechanical noise and to allow completely separate yet full intelligibility in both spaces at all times.

Michael Eagan, a freelance stage designer and 10-year head of design of Canada's National Theatre School in Montreal, satisfied the needs of the interiors. His major challenges were the restricted space available, strict building codes, a small budget, and the adjacent Avon Theatre. “I listened to all the input from a wide range of Festival sources, juggled all those needs, and drew up a synthesis of requirements for the theatre. From there, I proceeded with the necessary details,” he says. “I had a strong enough concept to fiddle with. I coordinated with the architect and the designer working on renovations to the Avon to create a smallish, contemporary version of the Festival Theatre.”

According to the Festival's artistic director, Richard Monette, the Studio Theatre “is defined not by any single kind of performance, but by its openness to all possibilities. Its keynote will be exploration — not only of repertoire, but also of boldly innovative approaches to staging. Its presiding spirit is the Roman god Janus, that double-visaged deity who simultaneously looked backward to the past and forward to the future. Here our audiences will be invited to focus on the very essence of the theatrical experience — the actor and the text — and thus to experience with new clarity the continuing dialogue between the always resonant voices of the past and the bright and challenging tones of tomorrow.”

Veteran lighting designer of the Shaw Festival, the Canadian Opera Company, and the National Ballet of Canada, Rob Thomson not only designed the Studio Theatre's lighting but is also LD for the Festival's new production of King Lear, starring Tony Award winner Christopher Plummer. Thomson based his plot on a triodetic grid from Building Products Ltd., “which is very flexible and allows for focusing and hanging in the grid itself,” he says. “There is no light attachment to the room. The lights can be hung from buttresses on the walls. It is very versatile in a contemporary way and can easily be dressed up or stripped down.” Most of the lighting equipment was inherited from Stratford's other stages. The only major new piece of equipment is the AVAB Panther console, which is “very reliable,” according to head electrician Nick McDonald. “Technically it is a simple place to work in. It's about people and plays rather than high tech,” he says. “We have a single DMX universe but fewer color scrollers, dimmers, circuits and lamp inventories than the other venues, so we have to try a little harder. It's an adventure to work to a ‘T’ grid. All the lighting positions are diagonal so there's lots of stuff for us to learn. But at this point everything works.”

Stratford's resident sound designer, Peter McBoyle, a certified Meyer SIM System II operator who calibrates the sound systems for all the Festival theatres, also designed the sound for the Studio Theatre. With heavy budget restrictions and little time to cue the shows, McBoyle designed a “relatively simple system with flexibility, on a smaller scale,” consisting mainly of existing Festival inventory. The front end has two SFX systems by Stage Research Inc., put together by Sounds Alive of Toronto. There is an eight — track playback system and a Yamaha 03D digital mixer. “The front end allows for much greater flexibility, the sound cues are not limited, and they are all created off the computer,” he says. The main source has eight outputs and a center cluster with delay fills for the upper seats. Three single Tannoy T 300 subwoofers serve the doorways and vomitoriums. There is a single-channel surround with 10 EAW UB 12 loudspeakers for the full house, with an eight — channel digital patchbay, patchable to 16 different outputs. Sixty cues can be programmed in four hours, some of which may have 15-16 steps per cue; the number of steps can reach 25. Two Klark-Teknik DN410 parametric equalizers, three PVIDL 1000 delays, and a Yamaha DDC3 delay round out the system. The theatre is small enough not to require body miking.

Seven productions, two 1-man shows, five workshops, and a conference are being presented in the Studio Theatre's inaugural program. Its eclectic productions, in intimate surroundings, are a welcome addition to the Stratford Festival's 50th anniversary season and seasons to come. The Stratford Festival of Canada's 50th anniversary season runs until November 24, 2002, in Stratford, Ontario.