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Tracking the Bieb and the Bard

Updated: 2012-09-04 09:29
( Agencies)

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.

If you go

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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