The Curse & Spirits of Stratford Shakespeare Festival

A Ghost Story About the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario
by Ronald Wolf

William Shakespeare was a playwright, poet, actor who died in 1616. He was not the Canadian actor who played Captain Kirk on Star Trek. That writer/actor was William Shatner.

Although their first names are the same and their initials are the same, the two actors and writers are not one of the same. So now we got that out of the way, we can start this true tale of what the men have in common and it’s more that their initials. Shakespeare wrote a play called Macbeth. The Tragedy of Macbeth (commonly called Macbeth) is a play about a regicide (the deliberate killing of a monarch, or the person responsible for the killing of a monarch) and its aftermath. It is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy and is believed to have been written sometime between 1603 and 1607.

In the back-stage world of theatre, some believe that the play is cursed, and will not mention its name aloud, referring to it instead as "The Scottish Play.” Over the centuries, the play has attracted some of the greatest actors in the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

The play has been adapted to film, television, opera, novels, comic books, and other media. In 1604 Shakespeare in his zeal to please King James I, an authority on demonology, cast caution and imagination aside and for the opening scene of Macbeth's Act IV he reproduced a 17th century black-magic ritual, to budding witches. Remember, during this time people were still being burned as witches. Without changing an ingredient, Shakespeare provided his audience with step-by-step instructions in the furtive art of spell casting:

"Round around the cauldron go; In the poison'd entrails throw. Toad, that under cold stone, Days and nights has thirty-one Swelter'd venum sleeping got. Boil thou first I' the charmed pot"...and so on.

The ritual's practitioners were not amused by this detailed public exposure of their witchcraft, and it is said that as punishment they cast an everlasting spell on the play, turning it into the most ill-starred of all theatrical productions.

Over the years many actors suffered from the curse. During its 1849 performance at New York's Astor Place, a riot broke out in which 31 people were trampled to death. In 1934, British actor Malcolm Keen turned mute on-stage, and his replacement, Alister Sim, (Scrooge) like Hal Berridge before him, developed a high fever and had to be hospitalized. In the 1942 Macbeth production headed by John Gielgud, three actors -- Duncan and two witches -- died, and the costume and set designer committed suicide amidst his devilish Macbeth creations.

So how does this have Canadian ties and how does Shatner fit in? In the town of Strafford, Ontario, Stratford Shakespeare Festival has been attracting visitors since 1953. The festival is based on Shakespeare’s plays and writings. Shatner got one of his first big breaks in the festival in the early 50s.

Even today, the Shakespeare festival walks on egg shells when it comes to the play Macbeth. They strongly honour the curse and refers to Macbeth as “the play” or “The Scottish Play”. The festival opens this month in Strafford.

Now, turn the lights down low, snuggle deep into your favourite blanket and read if you dare the paranormal aspect of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

The festival gave many struggling Canadian actors their first big breaks such as Shatner and Christopher Plummer. Plummer still graces the stage with his larger-than-life presents. The festival is also known for spirits as well.

George the ghost is a familiar name to a lot of the staff noted Jay Klassen who was a head stage carpenter at the festival from 1988-2002.

“In the early days I was frequently there alone in the theater late at night. I heard noises, inexplicable noises and I could never find anybody and that raised the hair at the back off my neck a little bit,” said Klassen during a telephone interview.

When he mentioned his experiences to another older employee he was told the strange tale of George who many believe was Ambrose Small who suddenly disappeared many years ago. Small owned a large chain of Vaudeville theaters in the early 1900s. For some reason Small was known as George.

The story goes that when the Avon was a cinema George was a janitor who was down on his luck and managed to make a small apartment in the theatre. The manager of the theatre was using the theater as a place for a rendezvous with someone’s wife.

“George either stumbled across them or were aware of this going on and that the manager murdered him at the theater and that’s why his spirit is on the prowl,” recalled Klassen.

A lot of people working by themselves have heard noises, he said. After the construction of 2000-01 of the Avon Theater he never heard the noises again.

“After the reconstruction was completed, I no longer heard the noises. If there were any truth to the story, I guess the resting place of the ghost was sufficiently disturbed by them.”

This article can’t be officially closed without the Ghost Light.

“The Ghost Light is just a bare light bulb with a cage on it that stands on something like a coat rack. It has a base and a single pole. When you finish at night you bring it out onto the stage and leave it light until the next day. It’s there so the ghosts are not in the dark,” stated Nora Polley, archives assistant at the SSF.  The staff takes the ghosts at the festival very seriously. In the question of to be or not to be, some souls continue to be or at least still want to be. That is their final answer.