Our Story

The Shaw Festival was started in 1962 by Niagara-area lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty. During the summer, Mr Doherty organized eight weekend performances of Don Juan in Hell and Candida by Bernard Shaw under the title “Salute to Shaw”. For this event, the Assembly Room in the historic Court House on Queen Street was converted into a small theatre. Now, fifty seasons later, The Shaw produces and presents the work of Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and playwrights writing anywhere in the world during, or about, the era of Shaw’s lifetime.

Our 50th Season
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Jackie Maxwell, since 2003

Although Maxwell was well aware when she was at the Festival directing Picnic in 2001 that a search process was underway to find Newton’s successor, she had no notion of applying until executive director Colleen Blake suggested it to her. Even then she hesitated. She had spent many years running theatres, and was now enjoying a busy career as a freelance director. She had a home in Stratford, where her husband was a member of the Stratford Festival company, and two young daughters in school there. After family discussions, she did, however, put her name forward. What followed, Maxwell said, was an entirely “civilized process” that quickly led to the announcement of her appointment as artistic director designate in a Festival press release on 11 July 2001. Her many accomplishments as listed in the press release included several years as artistic director of Factory Theatre in Toronto (1987-95, and as associate director from 1983), followed by five years (1996-2000) as head of new play development at the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island. (Although it was not noted in the press release, Maxwell had also, at the invitation of Christopher Newton, spent part of two summers in 1984 and 1985 at the Academy of the Shaw Festival, working with the acting ensemble on scripts she was developing at Factory Theatre.)

A native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Maxwell grew up in a politically turbulent and dangerous environment, but also in a theatrically vibrant city. She acted with a youth group attached to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and, memorably, once played a corpse, a mourner, and an immigrant to Canada in a play called Famine, “truly one of the most depressing things ever written,” according to Maxwell’s mother (a drama teacher). In 1974 Maxwell left Belfast to study theatre at the University of Manchester. Like Belfast, Manchester was a theatrically exciting place, home not just to mainstream theatre, but to politically charged companies such as Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock. It was from such companies that Maxwell learned that theatre “could actually change things.” Manchester also happened to be the production centre for Coronation Street, where Maxwell was hired as an extra, working her way up on the TV soap, she recalls, “from a beer drinker to a darts player.”

It was in her final year at Manchester that Maxwell met Benedict Campbell, a Canadian who had recently graduated from the Bristol Old Vic acting school. After a brief acting career in Ireland and England (the nadir of which, she says, was acting in a Jack the Giant Killer pantomime in Wigan, three times a day), she followed Campbell to Canada in August 1978, where, the previous January, he had been hired by the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa to play Troilus opposite a fetching Jennifer Dale as Cressida. They married (on a return trip to Manchester) and then settled in Ottawa, but while waiting for their apartment to be available they stayed in Niagara-on-the-Lake where Benedict Campbell’s father, Douglas, was appearing in Major Barbara and Heartbreak House. Thus the future artistic director of the Shaw Festival, prophetically perhaps, made her first home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and some of the first plays that she ever saw in Canada were at the Festival.

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Christopher Newton, 1980-2002

A search committee – chaired by Calvin Rand – to find someone to replace Richard Kirschner was set up by the executive committee of the board on 27 February 1978. Unlike previous searches, this one started with a list of names of possible candidates, all of whom were Canadians or had substantial experience of working in Canadian theatre. Rand and Festival board chair Jack Mackenzie were given a mandate to consult within the Canadian cultural community on possible candidates, and to approach some of them directly to determine their interest in the position of artistic director of the Shaw Festival. The search committee gave a progress report to the board on 27 May 1978, informing them that an offer had been made to a candidate, but not naming the candidate, who, the board was advised, might not in any case be available until 1980. Just over two weeks later, on 12 June 1978, the candidate was identified as Christopher Newton (though his appointment was not formally approved by the board until 25 July 1978).

Newton’s extensive and accomplished experience in Canada was outlined in the press release announcing his appointment. British-born, he had done graduate work in English Literature in the United States, and then had begun an acting career with the Canadian Players and, briefly, with the Shaw Festival (in 1964). In 1968 he became founding artistic director of Theatre Calgary, before his 1973 appointment as artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, which, said the press release, he “totally restructured,” including the creation of a professional acting school. Newton’s work on the Theatre Advisory Board of the Canada Council was also mentioned a valuable asset for the Festival in light of the Council’s lack of enthusiasm for the Festival’s work under Paxton Whitehead.

Newton’s commitments to the Vancouver Playhouse meant that he could not take up his appointment at the Shaw Festival until 1 January 1980. Mackenzie expressed delight, nonetheless, that “a man whose initiative and drive, both as an actor and director, have been instrumental in the development of the regional theatre movement in Western Canada” would be coming to the Festival. Mackenzie was confident that Newton’s “intelligence and sensitivity will successfully mould the artistic future of the Festival.”

It had taken less than two months to select and appoint Newton, but he wasn’t as easy a catch at it might have seemed. Newton recalls being visited by Rand and Mackenzie at the Vancouver Playhouse. He was playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the time, “a rather exotic Malvolio in lederhosen.” He was “getting out my lederhosen” when Rand and Mackenzie appeared in his dressing room to ask if he would “take over the Festival.” The answer was no. Newton told them that in his view “all of the energies of the Festival had gone into making the new theatre and they had sort of lost their way in what they were actually putting on in the theatre.” And besides, he was “very happy” in Vancouver. And so “they asked me again,” and the answer was still no. And then they asked a third time.

The persistence of Rand and Mackenzie paid off to the extent that Newton agreed to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake. He “walked around” the Festival Theatre and “became disgusted” with the gardens, and it was “actually looking at he gardens and realizing that something could be done with them” he said, “that caused me to say ‘yes’.”

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Leslie Yeo, 1979

The Festival’s press release on 5 March 1978 announcing Kirschner’s resignation also said that a search committee for his successor had already been set up and was “currently considering candidates.” Three months later, the Festival announced that the search for Kirschner’s successor had successfully concluded with the appointment of Christopher Newton, artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse. Because of Newton’s other commitments, however, the appointment wasn’t effective until 1 January 1980, leaving the Festival in a quandary about the 1979 season.

In the meantime, Kirschner was still in charge of the 1978 season. Among the actors that he hired was Leslie Yeo, who played Boss Mangan in Heartbreak House. In hiring Yeo, Kirschner unwittingly both solved the problem of the 1979 season and hastened his departure from the Festival.

Yeo was no stranger to the Festival. He had acted in Man and Superman and Misalliance in 1966, in The Circle in 1967, and in Arms and the Man and The Apple Cart in 1976, the season in which he also directed Mrs Warren’s Profession. Although British-born and trained, Yeo had some thirty years of acting and directing experience in Canadian theatre – including running his own professional company in Newfoundland for several years in the 1950s – and on this basis he seemed to Newton to be the obvious choice to take charge of the Festival pending his own arrival. Thus, on Newton’s advice, Rand announced on 26 July 1978 that Yeo had been appointed “guest artistic director” for 1979.

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Richard Kirschner, 1978

Only five days after Whitehead’s resignation, the appointment of his successor was announced. It was Richard Kirschner. Not only was the rapidity of the decision surprising (as with Whitehead’s appointment, there was no formal search process), but a radically different leadership structure was also precipitously put in place. Kirschner’s title was Producer, which, as Calvin Rand explained in a press release on 29 August 1977, meant that Kirschner would have “the overall responsibility for both artistic and administrative direction of the Festival.” This was, Rand conceded, “a major change in policy for the Shaw Festival,” but one which was “appropriate, at this stage of our development, in order to foster growth and expansion of the Festival and provide greater service to the Canadian Arts community.”

Kirschner had been appointed executive director of the Festival in January 1976, having previously served as managing director of the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia and program director for the First American Congress of Theatre in New York. During his twenty months at the Festival before he succeeded Whitehead, Kirschner had helped secure federal and provincial government grants to eliminate the capital debt on the Festival Theatre and to reduce the operating deficit, but he had also experienced – and protested against –pressure from the Canada Council to “Canadianize” the Festival.

His specific task now was – somehow – to maintain the core mandate and artistic policies pursued by Whitehead, while responding to the concerns of the Canada Council and others who were demanding more Canadian content at the Festival. Thus, said the August 29th press release, “individual artists will be selected on the basis of talent and suitability for the job,” but the Festival will, “in employment practices,” at the same time “provide first opportunity for Canadians.” And while Kirschner and the Board reconfirmed the Festival mandate of producing the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries, there would, “from time to time,” be plays from outside the mandate. These would include “a new Canadian play,” to be commissioned “during the course of this next season” (an unfulfilled promise).

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Douglas Campbell as Captain Shotover and Susan André as Ellie Dunn in HEARTBREAK HOUSE, 1978 (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale).

Paxton Whitehead, 1967-77

Paxton Whitehead was a British-trained actor who had worked in British repertory theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company before making his Broadway début in 1962 in Ronald Millar’s play The Affair. He made his Canadian début at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg in 1965 in Shaw’s Heartbreak House before moving to Toronto, where he met Barry Morse. Morse hired him for the Festival’s 1966 season, when he played Octavius Robinson in Man and Superman, Lord Summerhays in Misalliance, and Magnus in The Apple Cart. When Morse decided that he would not return to the Festival after the 1966 season, he recommended that Whitehead succeed him. According to Calvin Rand, given Morse’s recommendation, no-one else was seriously considered for the position of artistic director. Whitehead was only twenty-nine years old when he took charge of the Festival, the youngest person ever to hold the position.

There were several Shavian highlights under Paxton Whitehead’s leadership, high among them the 1968 Heartbreak House. The second Festival production of the play (Andrew Allan had previously directed it in 1964), its large cast and set again posed difficulties in the Court House, but Whitehead knew the play well from having performed in it at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1965. In the Court House production he chose to reprise his MTC role as Hector Hushabye (played by Christopher Newton in Allan’s production). Rather than directing it himself, Whitehead brought in a director from England, Val Gielgud, well-known not only as actor John Gielgud’s brother, but also as Britain’s leading radio and television drama director. Like former Festival artistic director Andrew Allan, Val Gielgud had relatively little experience of live theatre, but Whitehead provided him with a strong cast. It included British actor Bill Fraser (Boss Mangan) who had recently played in a major London revival of Heartbreak House, experienced Stratford Festival actors Tony van Bridge (Shotover) and Frances Hyland (Lady Utterword) – both making their Shaw Festival débuts – and, Whitehead’s biggest coup for the production, Jessica Tandy, who, among many other acting accomplishments, created the role of Blanche Dubois in the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Tandy’s presence in the cast helped persuade leading New York critics that a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake was worth their while. Dan Sullivan, for example, came to see Heartbreak House, and liked what he saw. Yes, he told his New York Times readers, the Court House Theatre wasn’t quite up to Broadway standards–“The cast dresses behind curtains strung on a clothes-line; the audience sits on bridge chairs fitted out with blue pillows; you can’t enter the auditorium once the curtain is up because the floor creeks”–but the production itself “would be worth going to London to see.” He praised the acting of Tony van Bridge and Jessica Tandy, but applauded as well Maurice Strike’s set, which “does wonders in the tiny space assigned.”

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Norman Welsh as Fergus Crampton and Paxton Whitehead in YOU NEVER CAN TELL, 1973 (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale).

Barry Morse, 1966

The Shaw Festival’s second artistic director was the first member of the company to have actually met Bernard Shaw. Barry Morse was a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London when Shaw, one of RADA’s governors, dropped in on rehearsals for a student production of Androcles and the Lion, in which Morse was playing the Lion. Shaw thought that Morse could benefit from some advice on how to play the part, so he “lay on his back on the floor and waved his arms and legs back and forth in the air to show me how I was to behave as the lion when he said he ‘wants his tummy tickled.’” There had also been a Shaw connection for Morse when he auditioned for RADA. He chose the chaplain’s speech from Saint Joan, the one after the chaplain has just witnessed Joan’s execution, and one of the judges was Sybil Thorndike, who played Joan in the British première of the play in March 1924.

After RADA, Morse went on to a career in the British repertory theatre, BBC radio, and film. From 1951 he worked in Canada with CBC radio (where he met Andrew Allan), but his big break came with the ABC Television series The Fugitive, in which he famously played Lieutenant Philip Gerard in pursuit of Richard Kimble (played by David Janssen), who has been falsely accused of murdering his wife. The series began in 1963, and was still running when Brian Doherty invited Morse to become artistic director of the Shaw Festival.

Morse agreed because he could fit in his television commitments around the Festival’s still relatively short summer season, and although his tenure as artistic director turned out to be short-lived, his one season had an impact out of all proportion to the brevity of his stay. For Doherty, “working with Barry Morse was like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel,” and in one season, said Doherty, “Morse transformed the Festival forever.” Calvin Rand agreed: “The big year, the year that really made the Shaw Festival, was Barry Morse’s one year in 1966.”

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Tom Kneebone as Henry Straker and Barry Morse as John Tanner in MAN AND SUPERMAN, 1966 (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale).

Andrew Allan, 1963-65

Artistic leadership, venue, money, name. All were pressing issues as Doherty and his colleagues contemplated the move to professionalism. For artistic leadership Doherty turned to Andrew Allan, acclaimed radio and television drama producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Allan had minimal experience of live theatre, but this deficiency was balanced somewhat by the appointment of Sean Mulcahy as Allan’s associate director. Mulcahy had worked with Allan in radio and television, but prior to that had acted in Ireland and England. Allan appealed to Doherty in part because of his commitment to the ensemble concept (unlike Stratford, the Festival couldn’t afford stars–at least, not yet), and in part, as Mulcahy put it, because Allan’s “gentlemanly” demeanor would be valuable in community relations in Niagara-on-the-Lake, many of whose residents were far from convinced that having a theatre company in town was a good thing.

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Excerpts courtesy of Leonard Conolly, from SHAW FESTIVAL – THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS, written by L.W. Conolly and designed by Scott McKowen. $49.95 (hardcover). Available at Bernard’s, the Shaw Festival Shop.