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Amid Canada's rolling hills, a world-class theater

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When Shakespeare's "Richard III," starring Alec Guinness, launched the Stratford Festival on June 13, 1953, the place looked more like a circus than a theater.

"Originally, it was just a very large tent," states retiring properties master Roy Brown, who has worked at Stratford since 1967. A permanent structure for the Stratford Festival was eventually erected in 1955, and it introduced the now-familiar thrust stage.

Fifty years, four permanent performing spaces, and more than 550 productions later, it has become one of the world's premier theater venues.

"For many years, we used to tour," recalls Mr. Brown, who oversees the construction of special props. "We'd take shows to Minneapolis, we'd go to Chicago, and throughout Canada, but it just got too expensive." The festival's year-round touring schedule has evolved into an extended resident season, running from late spring to early November.

This year, 16 plays and musicals will grace its four stages, ranging from traditional fare (Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra") to popular favorites ("The King and I") and edgier entries ("No Exit").

Surrounded by rolling hills and lakes, Stratford has become a popular destination for visitors from the Detroit area, about three hours away by car, who might catch several plays in just one weekend. But with the threat of SARS in Toronto (a two-hour drive away), sales dropped 40 percent in April compared with the past two years, according to Antoni Cimolino, the festival's executive director. Profits bounced back to normal in May, but declined another 30 percent because of additional SARS news.

The Ontario provincial government is providing $400,000 to help promote the festival and boost tourism.

SARS may have slowed sales, but it hasn't impeded the company's dedication. "This is a company and an organization that carries with it such a great deal of prestige within the acting community," says Chicago native Kevin McKillip, making his Stratford debut in two Shakespeare plays.

"I knew the work would be difficult, and it was, because the commitment here is to produce the best work possible, and not be intimidated by any outside forces."

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