As the red-brick clock tower on Queen Street strikes 8, hundreds
of eager visitors file into three theaters in tiny
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The Shaw Festival, now in its 35th
year, serves up plays, musicals, and mysteries 40 times each week
from April through October, celebrating the life, times, and
legacies of George Bernard Shaw.
"We call them plays about the beginning of the modern world,"
explains festival artistic director Christopher Newton, who heads
the venerable Canadian institution. Their mandate, he says, is to
present the plays of Shaw (a total of 52) and those who wrote
during his lifetime (1856-1950), encompassing "all the great plays
of the modern world." He explains: "During that period, ideas took
over from sensations."
Because the festival operates on a repertory system, with 11
plays operating on a rotating basis throughout its six-month
season, visitors can see all the productions in a week.
This season's diverse choices include Shaw's "The Devil's
Disciple" and "The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles," as well as
Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband," the 1930s musical "Mr. Cinders,"
J.M. Barrie's "Shall We Join the Ladies?," and Agatha Christie's
"The Hollow," all featuring Canada's top actors, designers, and
Major productions, such as "Disciple" as well as "Hobson's
Choice" and "Rashomon," are presented in the Festival Theatre, a
sleek, modern structure with 861 seats, banked by outdoor garden,
flagstone terrace, and lily pond.
Musicals and mysteries find their home at the Royal George
Theatre, a turn-of-the-century, 328-seat house reminiscent of a
more traditional era. Experimental, smaller, and more esoteric
selections such as "Simpleton" and J.M. Synge's "The Playboy of the
Western World" play at the Court House Theatre, its 328 seats set
up each May within the confines of the town's courthouse banquet
In all, nearly 300,000 audience members a year fill the venues
for 733 performances. All three are located within blocks of one
another, along the provincial town's beautifully manicured streets.
Each production remains true to its origins. "The Devil's
Disciple" rings with its towering message of hypocrisy amid
imposing wooden bastions from the 18th-century colonial wars of
North America, capturing the isolation, irony, and greed Shaw laced
throughout the text.
On the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum is "Rashomon,"
written by Fay and Michael Kanin, based on the stories of Ryunosuke
Akutagawa that inspired the acclaimed Akira Kurosawa film about
feudal Japan 1,000 years ago. The powerful production pulls
audiences into the surreal world of the imagined myth, combining
original haunting music with a set that includes miles of red silk
and a perilous hillside to weave its ambiguously lurid tale.
Bouncy production numbers, vivid costume, and wildly exaggerated
acting heighten the fun of "Mr. Cinders," a role-reversing satire
of the Cinderella fairy tale. The play is set in 1930s England,
with Art Deco settees and tennis rackets as dance props.
And dinner jackets, teacups, and French doors abound in "The
Hollow." The suspense is heightened by the design choice to present
the Christie mystery in a black-and-white motif, accented sparingly
with flashes of bold red.
All this theatrical activity, unique in its scope, has proven
popular with audiences. Their support is evidenced by the
festival's income breakdown: 72 percent of the festival's operating
budget comes from ticket sales, with an average price of $31. And
with another 19 percent contributed by corporate and private-sector
sponsorship, only 9 percent is derived from government funding.
Its proximity to Niagara Falls, a 20-minute ride away, channels
visitors to the festival by thousands, with roughly two-thirds
coming from Canada, another one-third from the United States, and 1
percent from other countries. …