“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” — Bernard Shaw.
A Canadian lawyer and a Buffalo banking heir brought imagination, will, and creativity to the table when in 1962 they decided to produce two plays by Irish playwright (George) Bernard Shaw at the town hall theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Those eight performances, promoted as “Salute to Shaw”, became the foundation of what is now the second-largest repertory theatre company in North America, with an annual budget of $29 million and drawing 230,000 or more playgoers during its spring-to-fall season.
The lawyer, Brian Doherty, also wrote plays; and the son of a wealthy Buffalo banking family, Calvin Rand, was more interested in philosophy, art, and theatre than finance. Their passions went into the founding, and long-term support, to launch the Shaw.
The first seasons began in that town hall Court House Theatre; in 1973, the now-flagship Festival Theatre, designed by Canadian architect Ronald Thom, opened. In the next decade, the Festival took over operation of the historic Royal George Theatre, built in 1915 and in use later that century as a movie theatre.
Although I’d been to Niagara-on-the-Lake several times to take in its historic War of 1812 sites, I first went to the Shaw Festival as a university student to attend a weekend-long program led by Canadian author and academic Robertson Davies. I was smitten: not only by the performances, but by the way the gardens enveloped the modern Festival building; by the intimate-if-cramped spaces of the Court House and the Royal George theatres. I had not yet studied Bernard Shaw’s plays in school and they were a revelation: enormously talky, yes, but witty, complex, sometimes infuriating.
For its first few years, the festival focused exclusively on Shaw, then started introducing playwrights contemporary to Shaw, then extended to plays written throughout Shaw’s long (95-year) life. It later morphed, under the leadership of Artistic Director Christopher Newton (1980 to 2002) to plays “about the beginning of the modern world”, eventually embracing works set in that era even if they were written later. The current mission: “The Shaw Festival celebrates the life and spirit of Bernard Shaw by creating theatre that is as entertaining and provocative as Shaw himself.” Which is rather a sky’s-the-limit definition, one that can embrace a greater diversity of artists and artistic expression.
I’ve usually taken in plays at the Shaw as part of a “theatre binge”: seeing one or two shows daily over a two- or three-day visit. The Shaw since the early 1970s has operated with a resident company running their plays “in rep”: instead of a group of artists coming in and doing one show for four weeks, while another group rehearses a show and opens it when the first one is done, the theatre will mount up to a dozen plays over a six-month season and actors will perform in up to three of those shows. An actor might be playing a comic housekeeper at the matinee and then a grieving widow at night. The logistics for running a theatre in this fashion borders on nightmarish, but it gives visitors a chance to see several plays in one visit and you have the pleasure of watching actors tackling a variety of roles.
It’s hard to pick favourites from among the many shows I’ve seen at the Shaw: the visually stunning production of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade, whose sweeping romp through British history was animated by a remarkable rotating set and then-revolutionary projected visuals; the rarely produced eight-hour Shaw play Back to Methuselah (performed in three sections with breaks, and where the actors applauded the audience at the end); and modern-era works housed under the “provocative” banner such Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (about Martin Luther King) and Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, both produced at the Festival’s Maxwell Studio Theatre, opened in 2009 and later named to honour Jackie Maxwell, artistic director from 2002 to 2016.
Before or after a show, you can see the historic sites in Niagara, visit wineries, cycle, and gawk at the residential gardens. Niagara-on-the-Lake’s main street, along which all the Festival’s theatres are located, teems with tourists from all over the world doing a swing through Niagara Region. Twenty years ago, they all bought fudge. Now, it seems, they all buy gelato, judging by the proliferation of ice-cream shops along the strip. Only a fraction of these folks actually get to one of the Shaw Festival theatres.
But visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake and sharing those provocative ideas from the stage, Shavian or otherwise, is to be in “the grip of the Life Force,” as Shaw’s Jack Tanner says (albeit with a wail rather than enthusiasm) in Man and Superman. And if you don’t feel the Life Force at any particular production, well, there’s always a really good glass of Niagara Riesling to be had, when the play is done.
Main photo of the Shaw Festival Theatre: Kelley Teahen