Northern footlights

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, Canada."

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 theaters' audiences.

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 world."

"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 musicals.

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. The first season will showcase five new one-act plays by young Canadians, as well as "The Mandrake," a comedy by 16th-century Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli and "Two Noble Kinsmen," a rarely performed collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

The year 2000 saw the Shaw Festival broaden its mandate beyond works by the witty British playwright and his contemporaries to include new plays set during that time period. Now Shaw, too, will commission its own new works.

For an actor, these repertory companies - increasingly rare among North American theaters - provide an unmatched opportunity to grow. Each can expect to play two or more roles, sometimes in the same day. On a recent weekday, Sean Arbuckle, one of a handful of Americans who've gone north to work at Stratford, played Nick in a matinee of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe" at the Avon Theatre, then rushed to the Festival Theatre a few blocks away to appear as Duke Orsino in that evening's performance of "Twelfth Night." The night before, he had played "Elijah" in "Inherit the Wind."

"It energizes me" to alternate the roles, says the young South Carolinian with a degree from Juilliard, now in his first season at Stratford. "The characters start informing each other."

Margaret Henry, in her 27th Stratford season, plays the physically and vocally demanding role of Martha in "Virginia Woolfe," as well as the central role of Irina Arkadina in Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull." In both, she works opposite an actor, Peter Donaldson, with whom she's worked many times at Stratford.

If it "is somebody you don't know, you literally spend rehearsal time getting to know the other actor, because you don't know how far you can go ..., you don't know if you can push," she says. With Mr. Donaldson, who plays her husband in "Virginia Woolfe," the two were able to "jump immediately into the wrestling of the relationship itself."

Ms. Henry first dreamed of acting at Stratford when as a teenager she saw a production there starring Christopher Plummer. "Shakespeare's language at that time was like Greek to me," she says, "and here was an actor who made it sound as if he was actually talking - just talking. And this was a miracle."

"It's the greatest theater in the world," she says of Stratford. "There is no place else that I know of where you can play such a multiplicity of parts."

The Shaw Festival is presenting 11 plays in repertory, including two ("The Millionairess" and "Fanny's First Play") by Shaw himself. Its season ends Nov. 25. Visit www.shawfest.com or call (800) 657-1106. The Stratford Festival presents 14 plays in repertory. Its season ends Nov. 11. Visit www.stratfordfestival.ca or call (800) 567-1600.

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