Tracking the Bieb and the Bard

Updated: 2012-09-04 09:29


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Tracking the Bieb and the Bard

A statue of William Shakespeare stands outside the Festival Theater of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Photos Provided to China Daily

Tracking the Bieb and the Bard

A street in downtown Stratford, Ontario.

Tracking the Bieb and the Bard

Souvenirs for sale in the shops of Stratford.

Pop idols separated by four centuries are drawing crowds to a small town in Ontario, Steven McElroy discovers.

On a sweltering afternoon recently, I stood in a dusty skateboard park in Stratford, Ontario, surrounded by about a dozen sullen-looking boys, all around 17. I mentioned someone they might know, someone who a few years ago used to hang out there, too, and a couple of them said he was a jerk. They could have been jealous, of course: We were discussing Justin Bieber, who not long ago was a local kid busking on the street a few blocks from this park and is now a pop star estimated by Forbes magazine to have earned $55 million, even before the release of his third full-length album, Believe.

Related: A walk in the park

Now I was trying to learn my way around this very small town known for the Bard and the Bieb.

Stratford, much like its most famous native son, is a town with humble beginnings that now draws hundreds of thousands of fans - or rather, tourists - for the Shakespeare festival, celebrating its 60th-anniversary season through October.

And while the festival is the main draw in town, it is not the only one; increasingly, Stratford is becoming known for its food and music culture, and of course for its homegrown pop idol.

I arrived in Stratford just as the festival's productions were beginning previews and before the crowds were there in force.

Fresh off a flight to Toronto, I rented a car for a journey of about 80 miles that takes me past farms, the Mohawk Race Track, an occasional Motel 6 and a small village called Shakespeare that predates the festival by about a century.

Stratford itself, whose population is about 32,000, has the feel of a sleepy suburb where the "everyone knows everyone" cliche could have originated.

Related: Thinking tours

Until you consider the festival. The annual event is a mammoth presence every April through October.

This year, a season of 14 productions is being produced on an annual budget of $60 million - enough to employ 1,000 people.

The program includes Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline and Henry V - all by the namesake playwright - as well as Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker and crowd pleasers like the musical 42nd Street.

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