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Desmond Heeley | 1931 - 2016

Stratford Festival News Item: June 11, 2016.

It is with the heaviest of hearts that once again we must share with you news of the passing of a beloved member of our Festival family.

Desmond Heeley, who died last night at the age of 85, played a formative role with the Festival second only to that of our founding designer, his friend and mentor Tanya Moiseiwitsch. Throughout a stellar international career that ranged from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to La Scala in Milan, from The Old Vic to Broadway, he treated the Festival above all as his true artistic home.

He designed nearly 40 productions for us, beginning with Michael Langham’s Hamlet, starring Christopher Plummer, which opened our newly constructed Festival Theatre in 1957. A cascade of acclaimed work followed, including The Duchess of Malfi (1971), Amadeus (1995 and 1996) and Camelot (1997). His last production for us, in 2009, was Brian Bedford’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which subsequently transferred to New York’s Roundabout Theatre.

One particularly stunning feature of that show was the massive “crystal” chandelier that only on very close inspection revealed itself to be made of plastic wine glasses. This was a defining quality of Desmond’s genius: his talent for – as he himself put it – “making dross look like gold.”

His costume design for Earnest won him his third Tony Award. In 1968, he had become the first person ever to win both the scenic- and costume-design Tonys for the same production: the Broadway première of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The whole Festival loved him as much as he loved it – and none more so than the artisans with whom he worked side by side, helping them translate his impressionistic design sketches into physical reality. He was a master not only of his art but of his craft as well. Our world is a poorer, sadder and less beautiful place without him.

We extend our deepest sympathy to all Desmond’s many friends here at the Festival and around the world, as we dedicate this season’s production of The Hypochondriac to his memory.

Antoni and Anita


From the Stratford Beacon Herald, June 13, 2016.

Acclaimed Stratford Festival designer Desmond Heeley died Friday night in New York City at the age of 85.

“Desmond played a formative role with the Festival second only to that of our founding designer, his friend and mentor Tanya Moiseiwitsch,” said artistic director Antoni Cimolino. “Throughout a stellar international career that ranged from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to La Scala in Milan, from the Old Vic to Broadway, he treated the Stratford Festival above all as his true artistic home.”

Heeley designed about 40 productions for the Festival, including Hamlet starring Christopher Plummer in 1957 at the newly constructed Festival Theatre.

His work on Festival productions such as Cyrano de Bergerac (1962), The Duchess of Malfi (1971), Amadeus (1995,1996), London Assurance (2006) and Camelot (1997) enjoyed wide acclaim.

His final production for the Festival was The Importance of Being Earnest directed by Brian Bedford in 2009. The production travelled to New York's Roundabout Theatre and won him a Tony award for best costume design.

Perhaps it was his set design for that production that illustrated the extent of his cleverness. The set featured a huge “crystal” chandelier. From the seats, even in the front row, patrons would never notice the dazzling chandelier was constructed with plastic wine glasses, picnic cutlery and packing tape.

“This was a defining quality of Desmond's genius: his talent for—as he himself put it--'making dross look like gold,” Cimolino said. “Our world is a poorer, sadder and less beautiful place without him.”

The Tony award he won for The Importance of Being Earnest was his third. He won in both the scenic and costume design categories for the Broadway debut of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1968. He was the first designer to win both categories for the same production.

In 2006 Heeley came out of retirement, the first time, to design the set and costumes for Bedford's production of London Assurance.

Heeley turned 75 on opening night and was called on stage by Bedford. Patrons, already on their feet, sang Happy Birthday. The set and costumes were unforgettable.

"I must confess I have always had the greatest of affection for the 'feel' of 19th century theatre: a world of gilded prosceniums, looped curtains," Heeley said in the program notes of that production. “The delights and artifices of painted canvas scenery, a larger-than-life world, the glow of footlights -- something we can only read about now -- in that all-but-vanished time, along with the wonderful backstage smells of my youth: the faint aroma of wood and animal glue."

That same year, Heeley was awarded a Bronze Star. Each Canada Day two extraordinary individuals are chosen by the City of Stratford and two are chosen by the Festival for the honour. Heeley accepted his star from former artistic director Richard Monette.

Monette joked his star may look like bronze but it's actually made of Styrofoam and packing tape.

After the ceremony Heeley said, “I always felt like I was a part of Stratford and having a star there, it's permanent. It's a wonderful thing to be honoured like that.”

Heeley came to Canada from England after developing a working relationship with former Festival artistic director Michael Langham. Heeley started out at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon where he developed his skills working with some of the biggest names in theatre including Sir Laurence Olivier. He also designed for opera and ballet in both England and Canada.

This season's production of The Hypochondriac will be dedicated to Heeley.

 
   
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