North America

Niagara-on-the-Lake – The Shaw Festival Story

Photo credit:  Misalliance/Emily Cooper | Courtesy of The Shaw Festival

The world-acclaimed Shaw Festival, situated in picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, was initiated in 1962 by Niagara-area lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty. During the summer, Mr Doherty organized eight weekend performances of Don Juan in Hell and Candida by Bernard Shaw under the title “Salute to Shaw”. For this event, the Assembly Room in the historic Court House on Queen Street was converted into a small theatre.

The following year, the Shaw Festival Theatre Foundation was established, and the company’s mandate was to produce the dramatic works of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.

In its first decade, the Shaw Festival enjoyed explosive audience growth, and the company toured extensively in the United States and Canada. Then on June 20, 1973, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Festival Theatre was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This beautiful new building enabled the Shaw Festival to mount large-scale productions which drew national and international acclaim.

At its inception, the Shaw Festival specialized exclusively in plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries and is renowned internationally for both single-handedly revitalizing and re-energizing the works of Bernard Shaw (as he preferred to be addressed) and for tackling the vast array of theatre pieces in the mandated period – presenting them anew to appreciative theatre audiences.

(George) Bernard Shaw

Photo credit: Bernard Shaw (1922), courtesy of The Shaw Festival

(George) Bernard Shaw (He did not like his name George) was born in Dublin where he grew up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty. He attended four schools and was tutored by a clerical uncle, but left his formal education at the age of 15. He developed a wide knowledge of music, art and literature under the influence of his mother, a singer and vocal music teacher, and his frequent visits to the National Gallery of Ireland.

In 1876, he moved to London, where he spent his afternoons in the British Museum and his evenings pursuing his informal education in the form of lectures and debates. Soon he distinguished himself as a fluent and effective public speaker, and an incisive and irreverent critic of music, art and drama; his criticisms showed the sharp edge that would become characteristic of his dramatic writing.

Now, more than five decades after his death, Shaw’s fame continues to grow. He entertains and stimulates the 21st-century audience no less profoundly than he teased and delighted audiences a century ago. The themes Shaw articulated through more than fifty plays and many thousands of pages of critical writings are as relevant today as when he wrote them. Shaw’s plays succeed on two levels: they are delightfully witty, sophisticated entertainments; and, they are penetrating examinations of ideas or themes.

One of the many pleasures of The Shaw’s mandate period is finding buried theatrical treasures which were considered major works when they were written but which have since been unjustly neglected.

Remarkable playwrights such as Lennonx Robinson, St. John Hankin and Harley Granville Barker have been rediscovered by the Shaw Festival. With the focus shifting to lost plays by women writers, Cecily Hamilton, Lady Gregory and Githa Sowerby can now be add to the list. The Stepmother, written by Sowerby, received its North American premiere at The Shaw in 2008. Continuing The Shaw’s tradition of “archaeological” programming, Sowerby’s rarely performed A Man and Some Women will makes its North American premiere in 2012.

Every production that graces the Shaw Festival stages is built “from scratch,” from an original design. Although The Shaw sometimes revisits plays in its canon, the design is always created for that director and those actors in the new production. Each element is painstakingly researched, designed and created to enhance that particular production. The Shaw’s designs and production values are celebrated as some of the best in the English-speaking world.

Music played an important role in Bernard Shaw’s life – in fact, he wrote music criticism for several years under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto. The Shaw’s Music Director creates new orchestrations for virtually all of The Shaw’s musical productions and, if required, composes original scores for dramatic presentations. The Shaw also commissions scores from other contemporary composers such as Ryan deSouza, John Gzowski, Allen Cole, Marc Desormeaux and Leslie Barber.

The Shaw Festival’s permanent acting company is unique in the English-speaking world. The Company’s Artistic Director believes the actors are “the ones who ultimately carry on stage what I see to be the true spirit of the Shaw Festival. At The Shaw we draw from the vast wealth of the best plays from 1856 to today. Led by unequalled theatre artists, we explore each world with a passion and vitality that renders the stories anew, the pain and joy of each character vividly played out with a balletic combination of speed, energy, reflection and detail, using heart, viscera and brain.”

The Showplaces

Festival Theatre

The Festival Theatre stage is where major works from the Shaw Festival’s season are presented and was officially opened in June 1973. During the inaugural week, visiting dignitaries included Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, India’s Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. The proscenium-arch theatre seats 856 and is equipped with advanced technical facilities, making it an ideal venue for large-scale productions. Designed by Peter Smith and the late Ron Thom, the Festival Theatre is constructed of rose-coloured bricks and natural woods specifically chosen to harmonize with the historic setting of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Court House Theatre

The Court House Theatre combines a 327-seat auditorium with an intimate stage that is ideal for the plays presented here. The historic Court House was constructed on the site of Upper Canada’s first parliament, which convened in 1792. The Court House is a national historic site. The design of the Court House exemplifies the neoclassical style so popular in the early nineteenth century. It’s beautiful Assembly Room and Lord Mayor’s Parlour are still in use today. The Shaw Festival’s association with the Court House dates back to 1962. Despite some early hardships (such as building sets in the parking lot and no air conditioning), the Court House has continued to host Festival productions throughout the past fifty seasons.

The Royal George Theatre

The Royal George Theatre presents a modest exterior, but inside it is lovely Edwardian gilt moldings, red walls and golden lions. Built as a vaudeville house in 1915, this theatre entertained troops stationed on the Commons during World War I. Renamed the Royal George, it operated as a road house in the 1920s, but fell into neglect and disuse during the Depression. In 1940, it was reopened as the Brock Cinema. During the next two decades, the Brock Cinema was the focus for much local activity – even the town’s grocery store stayed open late on Saturday nights to serve local farmers who came into town for the movies. The Shaw Festival purchased the Royal George Theatre in 1980. New seating in 1994 completed the gradual restoration of this charming 328-seat opera house.

The Studio Theatre

The Studio Theatre is located within The Donald and Elaine Triggs Production Centre which opened in 2004 and has been home to many workshop presentations, the annual Directors Project and the well-known Reading Series. Serving as a rehearsal space early in the season, this space converts to the Studio Theatre in the later part of the season, allowing for the presentation of challenging works that may sit just outside the mandate. The existence of this space provides The Shaw with the opportunity to explore writers who, like Shaw himself, shook the establishment of their era and questioned existing notions and mores.

The Shaw Festival is located twenty minutes from Niagara Falls, Ontario Nestled in the historic village of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

In the early 1780s, the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was established as Butlersburg by United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. In 1792, renamed Newark by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe, the settlement became the capital of Upper Canada (later Ontario). One of the largest communities in Upper Canada at the time, it boasted energetic shipbuilding and farming industries, as well as a library, court house, newspaper, and apothecary shop.

Newark was the site of several strategic battles during the War of 1812. Although Fort George was built to guard the mouth of the Niagara River, American troops successfully invaded in 1813, burning the village to the ground and forcing a British retreat. By the time the first Welland Canal opened in 1829, Newark was rebuilt but had lost its lucrative shipbuilding trade to nearby Port Colborne. In 1854 Newark’s name was changed to Niagara, and again in 1900 to the more poetic-sounding Niagara-on-the-Lake. The town served as a training base for Canadian Armed Forces during both world wars, but still retained the elegant homes, wineries, shops and parks that now attract approximately three million visitors annually.

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