Monday, July 25, 2011

The Shaw Festival, Canada

Benedict Campbell and Deborah Hay in My Fair Lady
The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada is a national treasure I had never experienced until a week ago. Maybe that's forgivable since the nation whose treasure it is is not my own.

I had heard for years from friends that the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake is a delight, in a pretty little town on Lake Ontario, but not until this year I was able to make it. I saw Heartbreak House, The Admirable Crichton, My Fair Lady and The President. They are not all Shaw, as you see, but the mission of the Festival is to present the works of Shaw and others who wrote in the same genre at roughly the same period in time and place. According to the notes from Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, "The Shaw Festival was conceived in passion--a local lawyer’s passion for the plays of Bernard Shaw which led to Candida and Don Juan in Hell being staged for eight weekend performances in 1962. That passion swept up a town, hundreds more artists and thousands of theatregoers. It led to expanding the playbill, developing an acting ensemble as its center, adding theatre spaces, and slowly but purposefully becoming an internationally celebrated theatre company renowned for its rigorous intelligence, outstanding production values and brilliant artistry; all led, still, by a huge passion for what we do."

This is the most inspiring piece of writing about the love of theatre that I have ever seen; I do not know of any theatre company in the U.S. that would make such claims. One might think it hyperbole, and in the States I don't even know if it would sell tickets, but for a certifiable theatre nut like me the statement knocks the ball out of the park. It makes me wish I had been living in Niagara-on-the-Lake back in 1962 when the Festival started. I love the notion that the passion swept up the town--and the fact that the Shaw Festival is still a going concern, with crowds flocking to plays like Heartbreak House
is testament to the literal truth of the statement. I've seen local rep companies in the States, most quite well-funded and supported by their communities, but I daresay few of them swept up a town in passion for their mission, not even at the outset.

I always knew there were many excellent actors from Canada but had no idea how many were still practicing their art there in so many venues. The Shaw Festival is only one of many repertory companies that pepper the country. The caliber of talent is astonishing, and the enthusiasm of the audiences is encouraging to say the least. It reminds me of Edinburgh when I visited in the early 1970s--alive with citizens who liked nothing more than talking about plays. The maid in the hotel described her experience at My Fair Lady (she loved it) in great and excited detail. The audience at all plays was a mix of locals and tourists, and some appeared actually to be younger than 70.

I had to think that part of the difference is the removal of the need to be commercially viable; the many theatres of Canada must be line items on the federal budget, and have funding from individuals as well as corporations. The box office is busy and healthy because the country wants and needs a theatre but the boost from an enlightened government makes box office only one of the ways to keep a theatre afloat.
Michael Ball in Heartbreak House

Heartbreak House was my favorite of the plays I saw. Here the actors seemed very English, perfectly at home in the period of the play and the nonconformist message. It's a difficult play, talky and demanding, with strange, fantastical characters and situations; yet like all of Shaw's work there is a clear point of view coming from the playwright. It had laughs, it had romance, it had charm--but the overarching message was serious and profound. The actors were more than equipped to the task, with perfect diction and Shavian logic and intellect. I thought often how lucky they were to be Canadians and have that little touch of the U.S. overlaid with a touch of their English heritage--and their specifically Canadian determination, brilliance and optimism.

It is a theatre to be proud of. Now I look forward to finding the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and getting to know more of my neighbors to the north.