The American Shakespeare Theatre was a theater company based in Stratford, Connecticut, United States. It was formed in the early 1950s by Lawrence Langner, Lincoln Kirstein, John Percy Burrell, and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed. The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre was constructed and the program opened on July 12, 1955, with Julius Caesar. The theater building burned to the ground on January 13, 2019.
Plays were produced at the Festival Theatre in Stratford from 1955 until the company ceased operations in the mid-1980s. The company focused on American interpretations of William Shakespeare's plays, but occasionally produced plays by other playwrights. Other playwrights included: T.S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw, Sophocles, Giuseppe Verdi, Thornton Wilder, and William Wycherley.
When founded in 1955, the first artistic director was Denis Carey, who had managed The Old Vic. Under Carey's reign, the results were neither impressive financially nor artistically. John Houseman took over as artistic director in 1956, and his associate director was Jack Landau (director). Houseman resigned his position in August 1959 and Landau was promoted one month later.
The Hartford Courant has posted a poorly-organized but nearly complete history of productions at the theater.
It was the home of the American Shakespeare Festival.
The last full season of the festival as a producing organization was 1982. The last production on the theater stage was a one-person show of The Tempest in September 1989. Previous efforts had included plans to raise money to renovate the structure as well as alternate plans to demolish it and construct an amphitheater and black box theater in its place.
Notable actors involved with the American Shakespeare Theatre included:
One of seven crests donated by the Timex corporation was stolen in March 2012. Each of the crests represented a different Shakespearean play. Timex has had a long affiliation with the theatre, starting with a donation of "the world's only properly calibrated sundial" in 1956.
In 2013, Beer Manager Steven Bilodeau of Wines Unlimited and Pete Rodrigues of Captain's Keg organized a beer festival on the grounds of the American Shakespeare Theatre called the ShakesBeer Festival in order to raise funds towards the restoration and reopening of the famed theatre. The ShakesBeer Festival held on August 23, 2014, raised over $30,000 and donated $20,000 to the restoration efforts after final expenses. This event was designed to be an annual event in order to bring in a source of revenue to the theatre and to raise awareness.
The 9th Festival! Stratford presented A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by the Connecticut Free Shakespeare, on the grounds July 31 through August 1, 2013.
On Sunday, January 13, 2019, the theatre burned to the ground from a massive fire. The structure was unoccupied at the time and had been vacant for thirty years. No fatalities or injuries occurred, and nothing was recovered from the building.
The cause of the fire remained unknown for several months. In April 2019, three local teenagers – Logan Caraballo, Vincent Keller, and Christopher Sakowicz – were charged as adults with arson, burglary, and other felonies, in connection with the theatre fire. The three teenagers were charged with starting five additional fires in the months following the theatre fire. As of February 2020, the case remains pending.
The Shakespeare Academy at Stratford said it plans to continue to stage outdoor performances at the property during the summer of 2019.