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

Highlights of The Shaw’s 50 seasons history.

The very first season of The Shaw Festival was an all-Shaw affair, consisting of just eight performances: four each of Don Juan in Hell (from Man and Superman) and Candida. The performances were spread over four weekends in June, July, and August 1962, all in the 475-seat un-air conditioned Court House Theatre (critics complained of the “oppressive heat”). Maynard Burgess directed both shows, and they were designed by Alice Crawley.

Shaw Festival founder Brian Doherty claimed in an article in the Niagara Advance on 11 July 1962 that “it is already abundantly clear that there is an eager public for Bernard Shaw’s brilliant and ageless plays and, equally important, that there is a wealth of theatre talent in the Niagara area that just needs an opportunity to prove itself.”

And that first season was all done on a budget of $2,238.04, which covered production, promotion, and administration expenses. And since revenue (box office, donations, and advertising) garnered a grand total of $2,382.00 the season ended with a profit of $143.96!

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Opening Night, Don Juan in Hell

June 29, 1962

The opening night of the Salute to Shaw was a modest affair. Four amateur actors (Americans David Loveless, Mavis Corser, and Maynard Burgess, and Canadian Eric Davis) perched on stools on a bare stage, scripts on lecterns, read the Don Juan in Hell scene from Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, with an audience of fewer than 200 people – all sitting on uncomfortable chairs on an un-raked floor. What’s more, it was a stiflingly hot night, and there was no air-conditioning in the Court House. This prompted Brian Doherty to run up and down Queen Street with Calvin Rand and Dorothy Middleditch to commandeer as many electric fans as they could, spreading them around the theatre in a vain attempt to cool people down. “There seemed,” Doherty recalled, “no end of torments.” He wondered how the Festival managed to survive that first night. It wasn’t until the third season, 1964, that an air-conditioning system was installed, but it was so noisy that it had to be switched off during performance.

According to Doherty, the audience enjoyed themselves on that first night anyway. “Laughter and applause echoed through the Court House,” and, what’s more, “they all expressed interest in our next play.”

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Major Barbara at Expo ’67

“I did want to get the word out about the Festival,” Paxton Whitehead [Artistic Director] said, and the ideal opportunity occurred in his very first season, the year of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, or Expo ’67 as it was popularly known. Invited by Edward Gilbert, artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) in Winnipeg (where Whitehead had made his Canadian acting début), to take an MTC-Shaw Festival co-production to Expo, Whitehead “leapt at the opportunity,” seeing it, as he put it, as an excellent way “to propagate the faith of the Shaw Festival.”

The play chosen was Major Barbara. Directed by Gilbert, with Whitehead playing Adolphus Cusins, the production ran for thirty-one performances at the Festival in August and September before moving to Montreal where it ran at Expo (in the Théâtre Port-Royal, Place des Arts) for eight performances, opening on 16 September. It then headed back west to Winnipeg, where it opened at MTC on 3 October and ran for twenty-two performances.

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Major Barbara, 1967 

Irena Mayeska as Barbara Undershaft and Roy Cooper as Bill Walker in MAJOR BARBARA, 1967 (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale).



The evolving mandate

For the first three seasons of the Shaw Festival it was Shaw and nothing but Shaw: Candida and Don Juan in Hell (from Man and Superman) in 1962; You Never Can Tell, How He Lied to Her Husband, The Man of Destiny, and Androcles and the Lion in 1963; and Heartbreak House, Village Wooing, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and John Bull’s Other Island in 1964.

But the 1965 season heralded a major mandate change, with the inclusion of the first non-Shaw play in the Festival repertoire. The honour went to Shaw’s fellow Irishman Sean O’Casey, whose 1923 play about “the troubles,” The Shadow of a Gunman, opened at the Court House Theatre on 13 July. Directed by Sean Mulcahy (who also played one of the leads), and designed by Lawrence Schafer, Shadow ran for fourteen performances, as did the two other plays that season, Shaw’s Pygmalion and The Millionairess.

Globe and Mail critic Herbert Whittaker was confident that the “the sage of Ayot St Lawrence” was not about to be abandoned, but he wondered whither the Festival was now headed. Given the Irish background of Festival founder Brian Doherty, Whittaker felt certain that the Festival would “stick with the shamrock strain.” Did this mean, he asked, that “such other talented sons of Eire as Wycherley, Sheridan, O’Neill, Wilde, and Behan” would be staged–or maybe “the whole cycle of O’Casey’s works”?

Well, yes and no. The Festival’s mandate has never stretched back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or encompassed the 1950s plays of Brendan Behan. And it will be a while (if ever) before the “whole cycle” of O’Casey is completed–The Plough and the Stars (2003, directed by Neil Munro) is the only other O’Casey play so far produced by the Festival. And Eugene O’Neill had to wait until 2004 for his first appearance, when Joe Ziegler directed Ah, Wilderness! But Festival audiences will be treated to a second O’Neill when Joe Ziegler directs A Moon for the Misbegotten in 2009.

Wilde, though, is another matter. It took over twenty-five years for him to break into the repertoire with Salomé in 1987 (directed by Sky Gilbert), but since then he has flourished: An Ideal Husband (1995, directed by Duncan McIntosh, and held over for 1996), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1998, Christopher Newton), A Woman of No Importance (2000, Susan Ferley), and The Importance of Being Earnest (2004, Christopher Newton).

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Outreach activities sometimes served a parallel and important function as fundraisers. Natalee Roseberg Benstock, the first special projects coordinator at the Festival (as well as the first audience development officer and first public relations director), set one precedent in the 1970s with the Shaw Festival Show Train. This consisted of two sleeping compartments, a lounge, a dining car, and a caboose. The caboose was turned into a cabaret space, in which actor Tom Kneebone and singer Dinah Christie performed at stops as the train travelled from Toronto to Vancouver. Some forty Festival supporters paid to travel with the cabaret, and publicized the Festival at the various stages of the journey, while cabaret ticket revenue added to the bottom line. A more adventurous train ride was planned for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan in 1979, but was vetoed by the Canadian and American governments who said that they could not guarantee the safety of the travellers.

Newton didn’t come up with anything quite as exotic as a Festival train trek through the Middle East, but his idea for a “Gentleman’s Boxing Evening,” which he first suggested to the board in November 1984, struck some people as almost as bizarre. How, they wondered, could a boxing event at which meat and alcohol and tobacco would be consumed in profuse quantities honour a pacifist non-smoking vegetarian teetotaller? The meat, alcohol, and tobacco component was, Newton had to concede, decidedly un-Shavian, but the boxing was another matter. As a young man Shaw took boxing lessons, and in 1883 he both completed a novel (Cashel Byron’s Profession) about boxing and entered a boxing competition (though never actually made it into the ring). And in later life Shaw developed a close friendship with undefeated heavyweight boxing champion of the world Gene Tunney, whose skills (and intelligence) he much admired.

So the boxing evening went ahead. The first was held (at a Toronto hotel) in 1986, and (in 2011) it is still going strong. Newton’s 1984 brainchild, widely recognized as one of the most innovative fundraising initiatives in Canadian theatrical history, has raised the profile of the Shaw Festival among Toronto’s financial élite and – more importantly – has generated over $7m for the Shaw Festival.

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Shaw Boxing 

Gentleman’s Boxing Evening. Photo credit: Gary Beechey.



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.