George Bernard Shaw
HOME OF THE SHAW FESTIVAL
There's lots of stage work in pretty Canadian town
By DAVID ZINMAN
Hi diddle dee an actors life for me.
Walt Disneys Pinocchio (1940)
I took a trip to an actors paradise--a place just across the border in Canada where cast members own their own homes, send their kids to neighborhood schools, and go to work by strolling or biking to the theater.
No touring for these thespians. No living out of suitcases. No schlepping from one audition to another.
This is the Shaw Festival, the worlds only company specializing in plays by the Irish-born dramatist George Bernard Shaw. It all takes place at picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, a town of 12,000 that has won an award for being Canada's prettiest."
Located 20 miles north of the historic falls, the town is chock-a-block with trendy boutiques, pricey gift shops, and a melange of restaurants, hotels, and inns. It even has a 128-year-old golf course professing to be the oldest existing golf layout in North America. But most visitors come to see the plays--11 were put on this year--in the Festivals three theaters.
During the season from April through November, about 300,000 flock here. Most come from Canada. But a sizable number--almost 40 percent--are Americans. The stronger U.S. dollar lets them enjoy a 25 per cent discount (as of mid-October, 2003) on everything they buy. Another one per cent of visitors hail from Europe and as far as Japan.
If the Festival is a tourist magnet, it is also a plum for actors looking for a normal lifestyle. Its really a dream come true, said Brigitte Robinson, a mother of two who is in her tenth year with the Shaw Ensemble. The troupes 74 actors are nearly all Canadians.
My husband is also in the company, Robinson said. So it made sense to buy a house and live here year-round. My kids have been in the same school for eight years--an unusual situation for parent actors. And they (the kids) live in a safe community that is culturally rich with music, fine restaurants, and theater.
In my three-day visit, my b.w., Sara, and I saw five plays. They included Shaws first drama, Widowers Houses, and the companys fifth production of his Misalliance. Our favorite was the contemporary Irish playwright Brian Friels Afterplay, a one-act fantasy that has two Chekhov characters meeting 20 years later in a Moscow café.
Photos by David Cooper.
At left, colorful shipboard scene from 'The Coronation Voyage.' At right,
Jane Perry with Graeme Somerville in Shaw's 'Misalliance.'
Plays are staged in two intimate houses--the Court House and the Royal George--as well as the flagship venue, the more spacious Festival Theatre with 869 seats. Tickets range from $30 to $60 (U.S. currency). Within strolling distance are bed and breakfasts whose rates range from about $60-$130 a night.
We stayed at a comfortable b. and b. called Turner House. It had a neatly tended garden in its backyard (where we had a picnic lunch) and the proprietress, Donna Turner, gave us a hearty full English breakfast as part of its $90 room fee.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Turner is calling it quits after 10 years. Its nice meeting new people, she said. But I have to be up at 7 a.m. to make the breakfasts. I bake all the bread and iron all the bed sheets. Then, I clean my three guest rooms. And I have to smile all the time--except on Monday when we usually dont have guests. Thats my crabby day.
The Festival started in 1962 as a showcase for Shaw and his contemporaries -- playwrights who wrote during his 94-year lifetime (1856-1950). Still, Shaw clearly was the focal point.
Why Shaw? The founders picked him not only because of his thought-provoking scripts but because he was one of the few major English playwrights whose body of work--more than 60 plays--was extensive enough to support a festival.
The other prolific playwright, of course, was Shakespeare. Ironically, the Bards 38 plays now compete for theater-goers at another Canadian festival at Stratford only 100 miles away.
Shaw's plays are wide-ranging in quality. But they stimulated theatre-goers. He tossed out ideas with abandon--brilliantly and playfully challenging conventional wisdom. His wit added epigrams to the language including such lines as:
"Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach.
"England and America are two countries divided by a common language.
"Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever followed it.
"I never resist temptation because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me."
Most critics rate his best work among the finest of the modern dramas. "We shall probably not see his like in a century," said the critic John Gassner. In fact, Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925--two years after he wrote his masterpiece, "Saint Joan"--but he refused the money.
For the first two years, the Shaw company performed his plays exclusively. Thereafter, the bill of fare expanded to include Ibsen, Chekhov, Wilde, Synge, OCasey, Pirandello, and others. That gave the festival an international air.
The best works retain their relevancy. Polished performances and innovative sets add to the productions-many of them comparable to those on Broadway.
But as the years rolled on, some dramas seemed dated to audiences weaned on TV's snappy, sound-bite dialogue. That included Shaw's later plays where his discussions overwhelmed the plot line.
So when the Festival moved into the 21st century, its menu expanded to include dramas by playwrights of today who wrote about Shaws era. Jackie Maxwell, who became Shaws first woman artistic director this year, mounted two such works by contemporary Canadians Michel Marc Bouchard and Sharon Pollock.
Maxwell, born in Belfast, said the newer plays add a creative kick to the program. It lets us juxtapose plays written during Shaws era with contemporary plays dealing with that time. There is a kind of creative friction you get in that,
Critics applauded the new programming. But subscribers--many well into their 60s--did not always support the newer works. When we saw The Coronation Voyage by Quebec playwright Bouchard, three-quarters of the seats were empty in the Festival's largest theatre..
In fact, the over-all attendance this season (which ends November 30) is projected to be 282,000--down about 10 per cent from 2002. And the company will absorb its first deficit in many years.
Maxwell said attendance was also affected by external factors like the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) breakout in nearby Toronto, the Iraq war, bad weather, and the slumping economy.
All of this is out of your control, said Maxwell. All you can really do is focus on the work itself. From that point of view, Im proud of what transpired. The reaction from letters weve gotten has been positive But, yes, the box office was lower. Anything new is going to take a while to settle in.
The jury is still out on the changing bill of fare The challenge for Maxwell, the Toronto Globe said, is to undertake change while preserving both Shaws loyal but aging audience and its strict artistic focus.
It will be interesting to see what happens in 2004. Along with two of Shaw's most celebrated plays ("Man and Superman" and "Pygmalion"), Maxwell has scheduled works by another two contemporary Canadians: George F. Walker and John Murrell.
The 12-play program will also include two musicals ("Pal Joey" and "Floyd Collins"), a Wilde comedy ("The Importance of Being Ernest"), and, for the first time, a Eugene ONeill play (his only comedy, "Ah Wilderness!"). For more information, call up the Shaw website (www.shawfest.com).
©2003 by David Zinman. The Zinman caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photos are courtesy of the Shaw Festival.
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