Inside the spacious, but still intimate Festival Theatre, it's
another opening night.
But first, the audience stands to sing a hearty rendition of "Oh,
That's a tradition at the Stratford Festival, in Stratford,
Ontario, located about midway between Detroit and Buffalo, N.Y.
Two of the best repertory theater companies in North America make
their homes in two scenic little Ontario towns. The Stratford
Festival, founded in 1953 by the legendary British director Sir
Tyrone Guthrie at the urging of Stratford citizen Tom Patterson,
will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year amid flower gardens
and footpaths along the Avon River. The Shaw Festival, in its 40th
season in picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, north of Niagara Falls,
lights up its three theaters from April to November with works by
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and his contemporaries.
Many Americans, especially from Great Lakes cities like Detroit
and Buffalo, have discovered these nearby theatrical gems and
stream across the border. They make up about 40 percent of the
From their innovative sets and well-researched costumes to their
resident acting troupes, both organizations set a high standard.
"Both theaters are among the best on this continent," says Donovan
Marley, artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, a
leading American regional theater. "And where classical repertory
is concerned, the Stratford Festival is among the finest in the
"In terms of nonprofit theaters in Canada, the Big Three are
Stratford, Shaw, and the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto," says
Marti Maraden, artistic director of English theater at the National
Arts Center in Ottawa. Stratford and Shaw are "really anchors in
professional theater in Canada," she says.
Earlier in her career, Ms. Maraden spent 15 years at Stratford
and seven at Shaw, as an actress and director. At both venues,
actors, directors, and craftspeople are "challenged to meet the
highest international standards," she says. While any individual
production in a given season may been deemed more or less
successful, the overall quality has been consistently high over the
years, she says.
Maraden says in recent years cutbacks in government subsidies to
the festivals (both receive only about 6 percent of their income
from this source) have pushed the festivals to mix in more light
fare along with the classics to ensure that seats are always
filled. This year, for example, Stratford's main stage is hosting a
wildly popular revival of the Broadway musical "The Sound of
Music," along with its usual Shakespeare and other challenging
works. The Shaw devotes its small opera house, the Royal George
Theatre, almost exclusively to crowd-pleasing murder mysteries and
But at the other end of the scale, both festivals have also
stepped up their interest in new and obscure plays. Stratford
announced this month that it will open a new 250-seat Studio
Theatre next year "as an exploration space for artists," says
artistic director Richard Monette. …