'Ontario's Flourishing Shaw Festival

By Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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'Ontario's Flourishing Shaw Festival

Henkin, Stephen, The World and I

The only such venue exclusively devoted to plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, has steadily grown from promising yet humble origins into a world-class event.

With a candidness that perhaps best characterizes his acumen and acerbic wit, the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said: "In England, as elsewhere, the spontaneous recognition of really original work begins with a mere handful of people, and propagates itself so slowly that it has become a commonplace to say that genius, demanding bread, is given a stone after its possessor's death." Yet, the author of such works as Man and Superman, Mrs. Warren's Profession, Pygmalion, and Saint Joan might well be amazed to see a theater festival devoted to plays by himself and his contemporaries.

Indeed, it was only twelve years after Shaw's death, in 1962, when lawyer Brian Doherty, seeking the economic improvement of Niagara-on- the-Lake, Ontario, established just such an annual event. In his book on the first years of the Shaw Festival, Not Bloody Likely, Doherty recalls saying, "Let's do something for the town we love, something we believe in." When theater was suggested, he exclaimed, "Shaw! Shaw would be wonderful." One thing led to another. The assembly rooms of the town's historic courthouse were converted into a 324-seat theater, with the background sets painted out back. That summer, eight weekend performances of Shaw's Don Juan in Hell and Candida were presented. The following year, the Shaw Festival Theatre Foundation was established as a nonprofit organization.

The festival, known as the Shaw, has become one of North America's finest cultural attractions. Its eclectic array of comedies, dramas, and classics has been captivating audiences for the past thirty-nine seasons. The Shaw is the only ongoing theatrical event specializing in plays about the early modern world. With such a rich historical period for its mandate--1856 to 1950--the festival has soared to national and international prominence.

Established in the 1780s, Niagara-on-the Lake offers intellectual stimulation, bountiful orchards and wineries, historic sites, and elegant inns. Theater played a role in the town's social life from the beginning, as British officers entertained citizens with a limited repertoire of comedies, farces, and melodramas in local productions. Long before Niagara Falls gained fame as a honeymoon capital, the comedy The Honey Moon was staged in the quaint town.

As festival operations grew, the courthouse's limitations became apparent. The impressive Festival Theatre, which seats over 800, opened in 1973. The stately Court House Theatre, much improved since the festival's early days, is now reserved for plays that require an intimate setting and a great deal of audience participation. The third venue, the 328-seat Royal George Theatre, restored and beautifully decorated in Victorian elegance, presents lighter plays, musicals, murder mysteries, and popular lunchtime theater productions. During the past decade, the festival has attracted attention for its stylish (and often rarely produced) productions, directed and designed by leading artists from Canada and around the world.

In an impressive annual season that now spans mid-April to mid- December, great classics, forgotten masterpieces, and seminal works are presented by a company of gifted directors, designers, artisans, and a permanent acting ensemble renowned for its distinctive style and authoritative approach. Indeed, The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre acknowledges the Shaw as "home to one of the finest acting ensembles in North America."

"While we continually bring new members of the ensemble onboard, we have a core of actors who return year after year," notes Odette Yazbeck, festival senior communications manager. "Some stay for five years, go away for three, and then come back for more, and so forth, thus allowing them to continue the work at an even higher level year after year.

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