NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO — George Bernard Shaw is "not an easy playwright. When I came here, I didn't like him," says Christopher Newton, now in his 21st season as artistic director of the Shaw Festival.
Since then, Mr. Newton has changed his mind, acknowledging Shaw as "the second-greatest playwright" in the English language, right after Shakespeare.
For Newton, Shaw and fellow playwrights of his lifetime (1856-1950) are the stars of the festival, not the actors.
Unlike many artistic directors, Newton doesn't import "name" actors in leading roles to draw crowds. Instead, the Shaw Festival prides itself on its stable of talented actors, directors, and artisans, who return year after year.
"We don't need star names, and we don't promote star names," he says. "The idea of the ensemble has taken root here" - an idea that he says fits in with the Canadian character, emphasizing cooperation and community over extreme individuality.
"As an established actor" in Canadian theater, he says, "you can make as much as a good teacher or a plumber or something like that. You don't make millions ... [but] you can make a living...."
Each season, Newton puts the major productions into the Festival Theatre, a beautiful 861-seat facility. Thrillers, mysteries, and musicals work well in the 328-seat Royal George, a restored 1913 vaudeville house. Intimate and less-well-known works end up in the 324-seat Court House Theatre, another historic building refurbished into a third venue.
The festival doesn't need to do "crowd-pleasers, 'raves from the graves' all the time," Newton says. "The audience trusts us" that whatever is produced, even if little-known, will be worth seeing.
As a director, Newton says he has been thinking about his role as a connect-the-dots exercise. The playwright gives characters certain lines to say and actions to perform. These essential elements are like the dots, and must be linked to form a picture. For directors and actors, connecting those lines and actions must be approached with utter truth.
"It has to sound as if the character made up those lines at that moment. It has to, I believe, sound almost like improvisation between these characters. If you do that, you invent a kind of parallel reality ... which connects at many points with the reality that you know in your own everyday life...."
"To try to create something truthful, as the major playwrights were [trying to do], and to release that, is wonderful. I think that's why people keep coming to the theater. It's that kind of moment of release of a truth, a reality. It's very exciting."