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Fire destroys storied Shakespearean theatre in Stratford, Connecticut

[NEW YORK] A Connecticut theatre that was known for its Shakespearean productions and where Oscar-winning actors once took their bows was reduced to a smoldering mound of mangled steel after a fire early Sunday morning, officials said.

The 1,500-seat venue, which was modelled after the Globe Theatre in England, opened in 1955 as the American Shakespeare Festival Theater, with teakwood donated by the French government and brass drinking fountains.

But while the stage once featured performances by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken, the Stratford, Connecticut, theatre struggled with its identity over the years and has been closed since the late 1980s.

In recent years, a group of supporters was working to revitalise the site, which sits on a wooded plot on the banks of the Housatonic River, where theatregoers once picnicked and children explored a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in Shakespeare's works.

"It was a national asset," said Beth Daponte, the chairman of a group that envisioned reviving summertime festivals and stage productions.

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Throughout the day Sunday, tributes streamed in online. On Twitter, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda called it "heartbreaking".

Like many who grew up in Stratford, a town of 50,000, Ms Daponte got her first job at the theatre as a teenager and remembers watching actress Lynn Redgrave in Twelfth Night.

For Ms Daponte and the community members who worked to convince sceptics that the theatre could be a useful tool for economic development, the fire was a "tremendous loss."

To the dismay of some, the town has long been tethered to its English cousins.

In 1927, the mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon, England, visited the Connecticut town in a gesture of "friendship between one of England's old historical towns associated with the name of its greatest poet, William Shakespeare, and the town of its namesake in the new world", according to a letter from the English town to its American counterpart.

The idea for an American Shakespeare theatre was credited to playwright and producer Lawrence Langner, who enlisted the help of Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed.

The theatre was barely completed in time for its first performances of Julius Caesar in 1955. Christopher Plummer, Raymond Massey and Jack Palance (who later became host of the television show Ripley's Believe It or Not! and an Academy Award winner for the 1991 movie City Slickers) took the stage for performances that The New York Times called "routine and uneven".

Nevertheless, the theatre became central to the production of Shakespearean plays in America.

By 1982, the theatre had run out of money and benefactors, and the state took ownership. In 2005, the town reclaimed the deed and struggled to figure out what to do with it.

"You've got half the townspeople thinking it's our legacy, it's our heritage, it's our privilege and responsibility to maintain this," said Wendy Canfield, whose grandmother ran the theatre's costume museum and whose mother and two aunts had summer jobs there, told The Times in 2009.

"And you've got a lot of other people who think of it as an arsonist's dream, an albatross. It had its time, it had its place. All great things come to an end."

A "ShakesBeer Festival" fundraiser was organised as part of an effort to revive the theatre. Ms Deponte's group held public meetings to prepare the site to be sold, but getting to that point required cleaning out layers of mold and trash and protecting it from squatters, including raccoons. Supporters unsuccessfully sought state funding to install a fire-suppression system.

No one was injured in the fire, which was reported around 1am. Its cause was under investigation.

Howard Sherman, an arts administrator and advocate who worked at the theater in 1989, worried about its fate.

On Facebook, he wrote, "I fear that someone has now had their way and cleared the land for other use, but even if this was somehow accidental, it seems to assure that this site will never be used for theatre again — unless by luck proper insurance will allow a new, modern theatre to be built in its place."


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