Artistic Director Emeritus
Christopher Newton returns to The Shaw this season to direct St. John Hankin’s The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists. He has previously directed two other Hankin works – The Return of the Prodigal and The Cassilis Engagement – to great critical acclaim.
Christopher retired as Shaw Festival Artistic Director in 2002 after 23 years, but continues to be a major contributor to Canadian theatre and continues to direct across the country. His first projects after leaving The Shaw were to direct The Turn of the Screw for the Canadian Opera Company and to appear in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Romeo and Juliet. He has also directed The Innocent Eye Test, (Manitoba Theatre Centre and Royal Alexandra Theatre), Albert Herring (Canadian Opera Company), Macbeth (Theatre Calgary), The Price (Theatre Aquarius) and Glorious! (Canadian Stage, Arts Club and Belfry Theatre). Most recently, he directed Vertigo Theatre’s production of Gaslight and Much Ado About Nothing at the Stratford Festival.
He was born in England and educated at Sir Roger Manwood’s School in Kent, the University of Leeds, and Purdue University in Indiana. He earned a Master of Arts from the University of Illinois.
In 1961, Christopher moved to Canada and established his acting career with the Canadian Players, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Shaw and Stratford Festivals, and on Broadway. In 1968, he founded Theatre Calgary and served as Artistic Director until 1971. He then took over as Artistic Director of Vancouver Playhouse, where he established The Playhouse Acting School with his friend and mentor, the late Powys Thomas.
In 1979, Christopher was appointed Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. During his 23 seasons in Niagara-on-the-Lake he directed many of the Shaw Festival’s major works, including Cavalcade (1985-6, 1995), Misalliance (1980, 1990), Man and Superman (1989), You Never Can Tell (1988, 1995), Caesar and Cleopatra (1983), Heartbreak House (1985), Major Barbara (1987), The Millionairess (1991), Pygmalion (1992), The Silver King, Candida (1993), Sherlock Holmes, Hobson’s Choice, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Peter Pan (2001), Caesar and Cleopatra, and Hay Fever (2002), The Cassilis Engagement (2007) and After the Dance (2008). In 2003, he adapted and performed a dramatic reading of Horton Rhys’ A Theatrical Trip for a Wager for the Bell Canada Reading Series and in subsequent seasons directed Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and R.C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End. In 2011, Christopher revisited Heartbreak House and directed a new production for The Shaw’s 50th season. He has worked extensively with the Birmingham Conservatory of the Stratford Festival.
During his tenure, Christopher brought a new vitality to the mandate of the Shaw Festival, plays written and set in Bernard Shaw’s lifetime, 1856-1950. He was also instrumental in re-examining the works of forgotten playwrights such as Granville Barker and J.B. Priestley. His choice of programming mixed lesser-known playwrights with well-known favourites such as Shaw, Wilde and Coward.
In addition to his distinctive programming, Christopher established an internationally renowned permanent Acting Ensemble. The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre noted: “Newton’s greatest contribution [to The Shaw] has been his dedication to assembling and nurturing one of the premiere acting ensembles in North America.” Newton explains, “For me, there are three essential ingredients of theatre: an idea, an actor, and an audience. The Acting Ensemble lies at the heart of the Festival because ultimately it is the relationship between actor and audience that determines the success of a production.”
In 1985, Christopher created The Academy at the Shaw Festival as a skills exchange among members of the Shaw Festival Company. The Academy has since grown into an exacting professional development programme featuring voice and movement classes, scene study, and specialized workshops for members of the company. The Academy also offers company members the opportunity to create workshop productions and sponsors the annual Directors Project. In addition to these programmes, the Academy also sponsors Shaw Seminars, Saturday Conversations and has published several books on Canadian theatre history.
In addition to establishing the Academy, Christopher forged many international alliances between the Shaw Festival and other theatre companies. The Shaw has worked with the Bolshoi Dramatic Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia; the Stary Theatre in Krakow, Poland; the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland; and Melbourne Theatre Company in Melbourne, Australia. Designers, craftspeople and administrators from the Bolshoi Dramatic Theatre have worked at and visited The Shaw, while Shaw staff travelled to Russia and Poland to work on productions there.
He was also instrumental in the establishment of the International Repertory Theatre Conference. This annual event, first hosted by The Shaw, provided a forum for the five largest repertory theatre companies in the English-speaking world. The other four companies were the Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company of England, The Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis and the Stratford Festival of Stratford, Ontario.
Despite his responsibilities as Artistic Director, Christopher continued to act at The Shaw. His acting credits include A Flea in her Ear, The Philanderer, The Suicide, Cyrano de Bergerac, Private Lives and The Marrying of Ann Leete. In 1997, he appeared in the North American premiere of The Secret Life. He stepped into the role of Sir John Faringford for the final weeks of the 2002 remount of The Return of the Prodigal. He also has extensive television, radio and film credits, and directs opera. He has written several stage plays, including Slow Train to St. Ives, Trip, The Sound of Distant Thunder and You Two Stay Here, The Rest Come With Me. These plays have been produced by the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Theatre Calgary, the National Arts Centre and the Vancouver Playhouse.
In November 2000, Christopher received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement. In May 2002, he received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Toronto. In 1996, he was named a member of the Order of Canada and was awarded the prestigious M. Joan Chalmers Award for Artistic Direction. He has also received honorary degrees from Brock University, Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Guelph, Buffalo State University, Ryerson University and the Royal Conservatory of Music in recognition of his contribution to Canadian theatre. Other honours include the prestigious Molson Prize for his work over the years at the three theatres of which he has been Artistic Director, the Toronto Arts Lifetime Achievement Award for his “monumental” impact on Canadian theatre and the United States Institute for Theatre Technology’s Thomas DeGaetani Award for his lifetime contribution to the performing arts.
In recognition of having shaped the Shaw Festival into the world-class theatre company it is today, the Shaw Festival Board of Governors honoured Christopher with the lifetime title of Artistic Director Emeritus.