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The Great Theatre Institutions

La Comédie-Française (Paris, France) | Moscow Arts Theatre (Russia) |
Abbey Theatre (Dublin, Ireland) | Piccolo Teatro (Milan, Italy) |
Le Festival d’Avignon (France) | Stratford Festival (Canada) |
Royal Shakespeare Company (Stratford-upon-Avon, England) |
Royal National Theatre (London, England) | Schaubühne (Berlin, Germany) |
Royal Dramaten (Stockholm, Sueden)

La Comédie-Française

© Philippe Bernard
La Comédie-Française, Paris, 2004.

The Comédie-Française is the world’s longest established national theatre. It was formed in 1680, when Louis XIV ordered two rival troupes to merge and form the Comédiens du roi, the only professional French company then playing in Paris. The spirit of this group, which endured through the upheavals of history, is still in evidence today. Despite various reorganizations, the most important of which occurred under Napoleon’s administration in 1812, its modus operandi remains largely as it was in the early 19th century. Each member holds a share of the profits within a democratically structured unit that allows for shared duties and responsibilities. After a year’s trial, the member becomes a pensionnaire or probationary member (currently twenty-three in total); after an indefinite period of time, he or she may gain full membership as a sociétaire (currently forty-three). Retirement with pension is awarded after twenty years of service. Throughout its long history, the Comédie-Française has exercised a lasting influence on French theatre, arts and letters. It has given the world some of its most illustrious stage actors: Sarah Bernhardt, Jean-Louis Barrault, Ludmila Mikaël, among many others. Members of the troupe are normally not permitted to accept theatrical engagements outside the institution. Three venerable Parisian theatres stage its productions: the salle Richelieu, the Vieux-Colombier and the Studio-Théâtre in the Louvre.

Web site:

On the Comédie-Française:

  • La Comédie-Française by P. Dux et S. Chevalley, Denoël (in French).

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Moscow Art Theatre

Le Théâtre d’art de Moscou dans les années vingt.

The most important Russian productions of the 20th century were presented at the Moscow Art Theatre. Founded in 1898 by two teachers of dramatic art, Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the Moscow Art Theatre offered works by such Russian masters as Chekhov, Gorky and Tolstoy, emphasizing the psychological sub-text, the underlying meaning of the playwright’s thought, as recommended by Stanislavsky. The institution invited several innovative artists to work under its roof: Meyerhold and Craig conducted research on acting and stage design. Although the company flourished, and its productions were on the leading edge of theatre until 1917, the Russian Revolution and the death of Stanislavski were serious blows to the institution. But after receiving support from Lenin, the Art Theatre toured Europe and the United States, garnering critical acclaim wherever it performed. Returning to Moscow in 1924, the theatre continued to produce new Soviet plays and Russian classics until its evacuation in 1941.Successful tours in the sixties and seventies re-established its pre-eminence in world theatre. Today, the Moscow Art Theatre presents contemporary works rooted in the dramatic traditions of the past. It has greatly influenced theatres the world over, spawning numerous experimental studios

  • C. Amiard-Chevrel, Le Théâtre artistique de Moscou : 1898-1917, CNRS.

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Abbey Theatre

Dublin’s Abbey Theatre is the national theatre of Ireland. It grew out of the Irish Literary Theatre founded in 1899 by the poet William Butler Yeats and Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory. In 1904 an old theatre in Abbey Street was converted into the Abbey Theatre. Mandated to present Irish actors in Irish plays, it initially focused on themes of national identity, folklore and the Irish peasantry before giving way to more urban realities. Such great Irish playwrights as J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey gave the theatre an international reputation, and much controversy as well: The Abbey's staging of Synge's satire The Playboy of the Western World(1907) stirred up so much resentment in the audience over its portrayal of the Irish peasantry that a riot ensued. Unusual for the time in the United Kingdom, the theatre began receiving state subsidies in 1925. After a fire destroyed its playhouse in 1951, the company moved to the nearby Queen’s Theatre; a new Abbey Theatre, housing a smaller, experimental theatre—The Peacock—was completed in 1966 on the original site. Today, although the Abbey has broadened its repertoire, it continues to rely primarily on Irish plays, both new and old.

Web site:

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Piccolo Teatro

La nouvelle salle du Piccolo Teatro, à Milan.

The first fixed theatre in Italy, as opposed to the itinerant troupes that were criss-crossing the country at the time, the Piccolo Teatro de Milan derives its name from the small (piccolo) theatre which housed it in 1947, the year it was founded by administrator Paolo Grassi and director Giorgio Strehler. These visionaries were the first to insist on a theatre intended for all levels of society, unlike the itinerant troupes who performed for well-to-do audiences. Their initiative quickly incited several other Italian artists to form similar institutions. In order to make its productions accessible to all, it introduced the policy of subscriptions to encourage all sectors of society—students, labourers, office workers, etc.—to share in the theatrical experience. The theatre’s choice of plays was a function of this social mission. Strehler favoured a repertoire that was open to Europe, and especially to France, where his productions enjoyed enormous success. The set designerEzio Frigerio is inseparable from the history of the institution, as is Italian author Carlo Goldoni, whose The Servant of Two Masters was produced in six different versions by Georgio Strehler. Although shaken by the director’s death in 1997, the Piccolo continues to write its innovative history, while its loyal followers continue to support its bold productions.

Web site (in Italian):

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Festival d’Avignon

Cour d'honneur du Palais des papes à Avignon, scène prestigieuse du Festival d'Avignon (France).

The French theatrical event with the widest international reputation is undoubtedly the Festival d’Avignon. Director Jean Vilar launched the festival in the southern city in 1947. While the first edition offered only three productions, the second, held in the sunny months of July, began to draw increasing numbers of spectators. Through Vilar’s unrelenting efforts, the event would continue to grow year after year, presenting the great classics of French and international drama. The historic buildings of Avignon, including the majestic Palais des Papes, serve as theatres for its numerous productions. The performance of Gérard Philipe in Corneile’s Le Cid (1951) is enshrined in the annals of the festival. In 1968 the festival began to expand, welcoming other art forms, increasing the number of sites and companies, and even encouraging the emergence of an “off-festival” scene—which today offers some seven hundred productions! After Vilar’s death in 1971, the director’s successors have managed to preserve the festival’s vitality and direction; over a half-century after its inception, it continues to resonate with the rhythms of the world. A number of Quebec artists, particularly Denis Marleau, have made an impression there.

Web site of the Festival d’Avignon (in French):

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Stratford Festival of Canada

© Stratford Festival (Canada)
Stage of the Stratford Festival, Canada, designed by Tanya Moiseivitsch.

For over half a century, the Stratford Festival in Ontario has been a national and international success. It began with the dream of Tom Patterson, a local journalist who founded the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada in 1952 as a summer event devoted entirely to the works of Shakespeare. The following year, Tyrone Guthrie, a leading British director, agreed to be artistic director and the festival opened in a tent theatre with Richard III, starring Alec Guinness. In 1957 the tent theatre was replaced by the Festival Theatre, and two more theatres were added over the next two decades. After focusing on Shakespearean works, the company began to stage other classics, including Greek tragedies, the comedies of Molière, and such modern authors as Beckett, Brecht, Tennessee Williams and Canadian author Timothy Findley. The festival also stages operas and musicals. Some of the greatest actors, Canadian and foreign, have graced the Stratford stages, including Christopher Plummer, Maggie Smith, Albert Millaire and Jean-Louis Roux. The season now extends from April to November, drawing close to 600,000 people a year, and offering a wide range of parallel activities: concerts, recitals, discussions and lectures. Richard Monette has directed the festival since 1994, consolidating its reputation as the leading classical theatre in North America.

Web site:

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Royal Shakespeare Company

© Royal Shakespeare Company
Vue extérieure du théâtre de la Royal Shakespeare Company à Stratford-upon-Avon, Angleterre.

Structured along the same lines as the Comédie-Française, the Royal Shakespeare Company is based in Stratford-upon-Avon, in England, where William Shakespeare was born in 1564. In 1960 Peter Hall formed the modern company, building on the tradition of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of the 1930s, and widening its repertoire to take in contemporary works and classics other than Shakespeare. Associated with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 1962, Peter Brookserved as a producer and co-director, staging not only Shakespeare but such works asJean Genet's The Screens and Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, whose unconventional style and staging shocked the theatre world and earned the company international fame. After Brook left for Paris in 1970, the Royal Shakespeare Company continued to expand under a succession of visionary artistic directors. Not only did it produce more and more modern works, but it began to use several stages at the same time. In 1986 The Swan Theatre was inaugurated, a magnificent replica of an Elizabethan theatre. Under a new artistic director since 2002, the company is continuing to stage both classic and contemporary works, which take advantage of the new technologies. Since its inception, the Royal Shakespeare Company has remained faithful to its mission: to create a high quality theatre that serves as a training ground for the artists and technicians of British theatre.

Web site:

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National Theatre

© Gauthier Deblonde
Extérieur du National Theatre de Londres (Royaume-Uni).

Considered England’s greatest theatrical institution, the National Theatre has a rich history. Although the idea of a national theatre was conceived in 1848, it was not until 1963 that the National Theatre saw the light of day. To mark the occasion, its first director Laurence Olivier staged a version of  Shakespeare’s Hamlet that would be a milestone in theatre history. The following year, the company embarked on its first world tour. With its production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1967, the National revealed to the world a young British author with a bright future: Tom Stoppard. In February 1976 the theatre gave its final performance at the Old Vic Theatre and later that year moved to its new home along the Thames, the three theatres of South Bank. From 1988 to 1997, director Richard Eyre guided the theatre from one success to the next, offering a highly diversified program, including avant-garde works and musicals. The directorship passed to Trevor Nunn (1997-2003), followed by Nicholas Hytner, both of whom have maintained the level of excellence of

this fabled institution.

Web site:

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Schaubühne of Berlin

© Picture: Schaubühne
Extérieur de la Schaubühne de Berlin (Allemagne).

Germany’s foremost theatrical institution, the Schaubühne was founded in West Berlin in 1962. Although a private theatre, it received financial assistance from the state. In the 1970s, the company’s directors established a theatre wholly dedicated to creation, programming works by contemporary authors who were not staged elsewhere in Germany. In 1981 the City of Berlin offered the troupe a full-time residence, the 1920s-era Mendelssohn Building, which was converted into three modular theatres. Since the 1980s, the Schaubühne has staged both classical and contemporary works, German and foreign, including ancient Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, as well as contemporary plays by Handke, Müller and Strauss. Although the company invites foreign directors on occasion, Klaus Michael Grüber and Peter Stein direct the lion’s share of its productions. Dynamic, adventurous and open to world theatre, the Schaubühne continues to revive the classics, while welcoming some of the most provocative authors of our time, including Sarah Kane and Canadian playwright Georges F. Walker.

Web site (in German):

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Royal Dramaten

© Roger Stenberg/Dramaten
Extérieur du Royal Dramaten, Stockholm, Suède.

One of Sweden’s two national theatres, the Royal Dramatic Theatre (commonly called the Dramaten), presents works on six different stages in Stockholm. A landmark on the theatrical landscape, the company fosters a collective spirit and camaraderie based on the same principles as the Comédie-Française. The Dramaten has earned worldwide respect through its international tours—and the brilliance of its director, Ingmar Bergman, with his ingenious interpretations of Strindberg, Shakespeare and Ibsen, among others. With a reputation for revisiting the classics, the group has also staged the majority of works by Sweden’s renowned contemporary playwright, Lars Norén. Sweden’s greatest actors have performed with the Dramaten, and numerous foreign artists, including Quebec’s Robert Lepage, have also been invited to collaborate. Since its inception, the theatre has made great efforts to promote the local culture, inside and outside Sweden. In 2003 the company demonstrated this once again by establishing a support program for young Swedish authors—yet another example of its vitality and foresight.

© Roger Stenberg/Dramaten
Intérieur du Royal Dramaten, Stockholm, Suède.


Web site (in Danish):

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