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 directors.
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 hall.
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. At the height of the season, nearly 500 people operate the theaters, box offices, gift shops, reading series, seminars, and other programs that support the operation.
Newton, an actor and director who founded the Theatre Calgary and moved on to serve as the director of the Vancouver Playhouse before assuming the helm at the Shaw in 1979, has expanded and deepened the artistic offerings since his tenure began.
Under his leadership, the Royal George was added to the festival's property list; an extensive series of readings, lunchtime plays, and seminars has been developed; and the regular menu of mysteries and musicals joined the dramatic offerings.
"It's only within the last decade that we've been doing the musicals and mysteries, and it came to a head when we did [Frank] Wedekind's 'Lula' at the Festival Theatre. We managed to get a lot of people who thought it was some kind of French farce, expecting plenty of laughs, and when it ends with the Countess being skewed by Jack the Ripper at the end, we had them running from the theater!"
Newton concluded that a separate house dedicated to thrillers, mysteries, and musicals would "stream the audience more carefully" to the type of plays they were interested in. "We had been doing only musicals there, eight times a week, and the company was feeling isolated from the rest of the festival, so we wanted to add something equally 'popular.' It occurred to me that not only was the musical invented during Shaw's lifetime, but the murder-mystery was also."
Along with Christie, fans of the whodunit genre can follow the clues each season in works by Emlyn Williams, Anthony Armstrong, and Dorothy Sayers.
Feather in actors' cap
For actors, being selected to work a season at the Shaw Festival represents significant prestige. Now in his fourth season, Gordon Rand, who alternates between leads in "The Devil's Disciple" and "The Playboy of the Western World," finds it "nothing but rewarding, because I'm sharing the stage with great actors who help me look good."
Following a year as an apprentice, he gradually rose to larger and larger parts. The contrast between his two current roles gives him a chance to stretch his talents. And the extended season - plays average 140 performances during their run - provides chances "to discover new bits about the play as you go on, especially the Shaw. It allows you to get better and better."
"I didn't have time to be nervous," confesses apprentice Kenneth Delaney, an understudy tapped to go on when a principal actor fell ill in the "Disciple" company. "I had to go to a costume fitting, be sure that I could work with all the props, get the blocking straight, and rearrange the transitions, all in four hours. There was no time for nerves. And I'm not sure I really remember what happened," he grins.
Serving as understudy for 10 different roles, along with assignments "as a 'spear-carrier' in two plays" leaves him little free time. "Any time I'm not doing a show, I'm at another show, watching it , to keep up." His vigilance paid off. Since the original actor is out for at least several weeks, Delaney has been moved into the larger role indefinitely.
Picked up for the company on his first audition, Delaney especially appreciates the ensemble atmosphere. "Everyone takes care of everyone else. You're treated as an equal, whether or not you're in the union, a lead player, or an apprentice. It's really nurturing."
While the festival's mandate period ends at mid-century, the surrounding region offers visitors recreational activities decidedly modern-day.
Tourists can choose from a variety of tour operators to glide over the pastoral Lake Ontario landscape in small planes, hover above Niagara Falls in choppers, or shoot the rapids on the Niagara River in speedy jet boats. Many tours welcome families with children and offer a different perspective on the stunning scenic district.
Local inns and hotels also insure that visitors experience the full range of possibilities. One of the most celebrated, the newly restored full-service Pillar and Post Inn, enhances its well-deserved reputation for attention to detail by providing guests free shuttle rides to all the festival's plays.
Newton now revels in the relationship between the festival and the region's other attractions, commenting on the various mutual programs in place between his organization and the fine restaurants, hotels, inns, wineries, and recreational activities.
"It didn't used to be terrific, because they didn't understand what we were," he admits. "But now, we're regarded as the little jewel in the crown for Niagara."