The 'Best' Shakespeare Theater Set to Open

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Shakespeare is a hot commodity in Stratford-upon-Avon, where visitors come to learn about the Bard's life and death – he was born, educated, wed and died in the town, about two hours from London. Soon there will be a new draw.

Later this month, the Royal Shakespeare Company is opening its doors to a new theater, but not just any theater.

This one comes complete with seats designed by Italian car seat manufacturer Poltrona Frau, which usually works on racing cars for companies like Ferrari; a thrust stage that reaches far into the audience; and even a lookout tower with views of the town and Warwickshire countryside.

"You need to find new ways of connecting people to Shakespeare," Liz Thompson, spokeswoman for the RSC tells AOL Travel News in Stratford. The new facility, she says, was created to serve the dual role of theater and visitor attraction.

RSC officials are already touting the new, state-of-the-art Royal Shakespeare Theatre as the "best space for performing Shakespeare anywhere."

The project, which involved gutting the center of an existing theater from the 1930s, was no minor transformation. The building, with a 1,000-seat main theater and smaller Swan stage, has been closed for four years. And the cost was about $181.8 million dollars.

Donations came in from more than 13,000 Shakespeare fans from 55 countries, "from Turkistan to Kuwait and much from the U.S., from American donors," Thompson says.

Name a famous British actor and they have probably walked across the stage – John Gielgud, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh, Ben Kingsley, et al.

Patrick Stewart, Captain Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek" movies, was particularly involved in fundraising efforts for the new theater, Thompson says.

In a cool move, parts of the original stage are now in public areas, so visitors can tread the same floorboards as legendary actors.

Shakespeare himself spent his career in London. And surprisingly, Shakespeare's works were not actually performed regularly in his hometown until the 1870s. The current theater opened in 1932.

The RSC was formed in 1961, the company celebrating its 50th anniversary in April. Both Shakespeare and new works performed in Stratford, London and in traveling productions around the world are on the roster.

About a half million tickets are sold each year to productions in Stratford, Thompson says.

Complaints about the old theater in Stratford included that actors were too far from the audience – the art deco style stage was cinema-like in design. In the new theater the distance between the furthest seat and the stage has been halved, providing a much more intimate experience, Thompson says.

Care too was put into the seats. "Three hours sitting is a long time and we wanted long-term comfort in mind," she says.

Tech wizardry and improved backstage facilities will be evident in future productions. For instance, a huge basement space allows for lifts tall enough to rise to the stage "a man with a sword on a horse," Thompson says.

Visitors can check out the new space when it opens for exhibitions and tours ($10.50) on Nov. 24, though full productions won't begin in the new theater until February, when "King Lear" will be performed. "Romeo and Juliet" follows in March.

In addition to a new, contemporary design, the building has a new rooftop, restaurant and bars and a riverside walkway and café overlooking the River Avon.

And then there's the impressive 118-foot tower, which looks a bit like the bell tower on St. Mark's Basilica in Venice (it was Italian-designed). A ride up an elevator to the top will cost about $4, with reservations recommended.

The RSC also shares profits in The Arden, a nicely redone and recently reopened 45-room boutique hotel across the street.

Thompson says the new theater is a fitting tribute to Britain's number on artist. "He speaks to people all over the world," she says.

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