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Shakespeare or Bieber? This Canadian City Draws Devotees of Both

STRATFORD, Ontario — It’s a small city that practically shouts “Shakespeare!”

Majestic white swans float in the Avon River, not far from Falstaff Street and Anne Hathaway Park, named for the playwright’s wife. Some residents live in Romeo Ward, while young students attend Hamlet elementary. And the school’s namesake play is often performed as part of a renowned theater festival that draws legions of Shakespeare fans from around the world, every April to October.

Stratford, Ontario, steeped in references to and reverence for the Bard, has counted on its association with Shakespeare for decades to dependably bring in millions of tourist dollars to a city that would otherwise have little appeal to travelers.

“My dad always said we have a world-class theater stuck in a farm community,” said Frank Herr, the second-generation owner of a boat tour and rental business along the Avon River.

Then, about a dozen years ago, a new and typically much younger type of cultural enthusiast began showing up in Stratford’s streets: Beliebers, or fans of the pop star Justin Bieber, a homegrown talent.

William Shakespeare Street in Stratford.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times
A star dedicated to Justin Bieber outside the Avon Theater where he would busk as a child.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

Residents don’t have much trouble telling the two types of visitors apart. One clue: Look at what they are carrying.

“They’ve got the Shakespeare books in their hands,” Mr. Herr said of those who are here for the love of theater. “They’re just serious people.”

Beliebers, on the other hand, always have their smartphones at the ready to excitedly document the otherwise humdrum landmarks connected to the pop star: the site of his first date, the local radio station that first played his music, the diner where he was rumored to eat.

Unlike Shakespeare — who never set foot in this city, named after his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, England — Mr. Bieber has genuine and deep connections: He grew up here and is familiar to many.

“I know Justin,” Mr. Herr said. “He was always skateboarding on the cenotaph, and I was always kicking him off the cenotaph,” he added, referring to a World War I memorial in the gardens next to Lake Victoria.

A cutout of Justin Bieber in the Stratford Perth Museum. The setting is meant to replicate the steps of the city’s Avon Theater. Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

Diane Dale, Mr. Bieber’s maternal grandmother, and her husband, Bruce, lived a 10-minute drive away from downtown Stratford, where the fledgling singer, now 28, could often be found busking on the steps of Avon Theater under their supervision, collecting as much as $200 per day, she said in a recent interview.

Those steps became something of a pilgrimage site for Mr. Bieber’s fans, especially those vying to become “One Less Lonely Girl” during his teen-pop dreamboat era.

Another popular stop on the pilgrim’s tour was Ms. Dale’s doorstep. After fans rang her doorbell, she would assure them that her grandson was not home, though that didn’t stop them from taking selfies outside the red brick bungalow.

“Justin said, if you don’t move, we’re not coming to visit you anymore,” Ms. Dale, a retired sewer at a now shuttered automotive factory in town, recalled. She has since relocated.

Businesses in Stratford that benefited from this second set of tourists began speaking of “the Bieber Effect,” a play on the “Bilbao Effect” in reference to the Spanish city revitalized by a museum.

Justin Bieber’s grandparents’ former home in Stratford.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

But one of the problems with pop fame is that it can be fickle. As fans have aged out of their teen infatuation with the musician, “Bieber fever” has cooled and the number of pilgrims has dropped.

The issues that have long afflicted other Canadian cities, like increased housing prices and drug addiction, are more often peeking through the quaint veneer of Stratford, a city of about 33,000 people bordered by sprawling fields of corn in the farmland region of southwestern Ontario.

But more than 400 years after his death, Shakespeare’s magnetic force remains fully intact.

The theater festival, which draws over 500,000 guests in a typical year and employs about 1,000 people, features Shakespeare classics, Broadway-style musicals and modern plays in its repertoire.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, the festival returned to its roots, staging a limited run of shows outside under canopies, as it did during its first four seasons, starting in 1953. In 1957, the Festival Theater building opened with a summer performance of “Hamlet,” with the Canadian actor Christopher Plummer in the titular role.

The Tom Patterson Theater, a new addition to the Stratford Festival.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

This year’s production stars a woman, Amaka Umeh, the first Black actor to play Hamlet at the festival.

While it’s unknown how popular Mr. Bieber will be four centuries from now, the appeal of someone who has sold over 100 million digital singles in the United States alone doesn’t dissipate overnight.

And Stratford has taken steps to permanently memorialize his youth here.

Mr. Bieber’s grandparents had hung on to boxes of his belongings, including talent show score sheets and a drum set paid for the by the community in a crowdfunding effort — until a local museum presented them with an opportunity to display the items.

“It’s changed the museum forever, in a myriad of ways,” said John Kastner, the general manager of the Stratford Perth Museum.

After informing the local newspaper that the museum was opening an exhibition, “Justin Bieber: Steps to Stardom,” in February 2018, Mr. Kastner said, he was flooded with calls from international media.

“We were going to do one room, like one 10-by-10 room,” Mr. Kastner said. He called his curator. “I said, ‘We have a problem.’”

Angelyka Byrne walking through the Bieber exhibit at the Stratford Perth Museum.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

They cut the agricultural exhibition that had been planned for the adjoining space, which proved helpful in accommodating the 18,000 visitors in the first year of the Bieber show, a huge jump in attendance from the 850 who visited the museum in 2013.

The Bieber show, on view through at least next year, has brought in thousands of dollars in merchandise purchases, Mr. Kastner said, giving the modest museum some welcome financial cushion.

Mr. Bieber has also made a handful of visits, marking his name in chalk on the guest blackboard and donating some more recent memorabilia, including his wedding invitation and reception menu, featuring a dish called “Grandma Diane’s Bolognese.”

But even before the Beliebers descended on the town, young people had been coming to Stratford by the busload thanks to organized school visits, with 50,000 to 100,000 students arriving from the United States and around Canada each year.

With the exception of the pandemic border closures, James Pakala, and his wife, Denise, both retired seminary librarians in St. Louis, have been coming to Stratford for about a week every year since the early 1990s. Thirty years before that, Ms. Pakala traveled to Stratford with her high school English literature class from Ithaca, N.Y., and the trip has since become a tradition.

The Shakespearean Gardens in Stratford.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

“I love Shakespeare and also Molière,” said Mr. Pakala, 78, who was studying his program outside the Festival Theater before a recent production of Molière’s comedy “The Miser.”

Other guests enjoy the simplicity of getting around Stratford. The traffic is fairly light, there is ample parking and most major attractions are a short walk from one other, with pleasant views of the rippling river and picturesque gardens.

“It’s easy to attend theater here,” said Michael Walker, a retired banker from Newport Beach, Calif., who visits each year with friends. “It’s not like New York, where it’s burdensome, and the quality of the theater here, I think, is better than what’s in Los Angeles or Chicago.”

Here for Now Theater, an independent nonprofit that opened during the pandemic and plays to audiences of no more than 50, enjoys a “symbiotic relationship” with the festival, said its artistic director, Fiona Mongillo, who compared the scale of their operations as a Fiat to the festival’s freight train.

Performing “Take Care” at the Here for Now Theater in August.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

“It’s an interesting moment for Stratford because I think it’s growing and changing in a really lovely way,” said Ms. Mongillo, citing the increased diversity as Canadians from neighboring cities have relocated to a town that was formerly, she added, “very, very white.”

Longtime residents of Stratford, like Madeleine McCormick, a retired correctional officer, said it can sometimes feel like the concerns of residents are sidelined in favor of tourists.

Still, Ms. McCormick acknowledged the pluses of the vibrant community of artists and creative people, one that drew her musician husband into its orbit.

“It’s a strange place,” she said. “There’s never going to be another place that’s like this, because of the theater.”

And Mr. Bieber.

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