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

Heartbreak House, 1968

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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HEARTBREAK HOUSE by Bernard Shaw. Tony van Bridge as Captain Shotover with Diana Leblanc as Ellie Dunn in HEARTBREAK HOUSE, 1968 (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale).

Cyrano de Bergerac, 1982

Cyrano opened on 14 August 1982 (after four previews) to huge acclaim. Derek Goldby’s directing was praised as both sensitive and dashing – at the end of the first act he had the whole cast charge out through the auditorium to the sounds of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival overture – while Cameron Porteous’s costume designs flamboyantly and colourfully depicted the fops, courtesans, pickpockets, and soldiers of seventeenth-century Paris on five different sets (superbly lit by Robert Thomson). Heath Lamberts was feted both by audiences and critics. It was a virtuoso performance, in which Lamberts – an actor of unheroic physical stature – made a hero of Cyrano by stoic acceptance of his misfortunes. And he made Rostand’s poetry sing. “He can take the words,” said Audrey Ashley in the Ottawa Citizen, “toss them in the air, give them life and colour and beauty, and so dazzle us with them that we forget his unromantic bearing.” “The finest farceur in Canada, no, on the continent,” wrote Gina Mallet in the Toronto Star, “Lamberts has always been unparalleled at suggesting that even beneath the silliest ass, a great soul may be lurking.” In Lamberts’ Cyrano Mallet saw that soul, a soul that “captures greatness irretrievably, bringing absurdity and heroism together with panache, an imperishable swagger of the spirit.” This was, concluded Mallet, the best production at the Shaw Festival since Tony van Bridge’s 1977 Man and Superman.

Cyrano went on to further success and more accolades in the Festival’s 1983 season (“You may never again have as grand a collection of acting, directing, and design talent in as great a play of romance and comedy on this stage,” declared the Canadian Press), and, in the winter of 1984-85 at Toronto’s Royal Alexander Theatre. Regrettably, a planned television production in 1983 never materialized. But of more immediate importance to Christopher Newton in the fall of 1982 was that the success of Cyrano (with a 99% box office) had capped a season that had, to a large extent, satisfied both the expectations of the board and Newton’s own sense of objectives and priorities for the Festival.

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CYRANO DE BERGERAC by Edmond Rostand, adapted by Anthony Burgess. Heath Lamberts in the title role, centre, in CYRANO DE BERGERAC, 1982-3 (photo by David Cooper).

Cavalcade, 1985

The audience reaction on opening night of Cavalcade – and every subsequent night – was jubilant. Robert Crew in the Toronto Star reported spontaneous cheering and applauding; the audience was “still standing and clapping long after the house lights went up,” wrote Barbara Crook in the Ottawa Citizen; McKenzie Porter (Toronto Sun) was amazed to hear “shouts and whistles of praise from one of the most sophisticated audiences in North America”; the sustained standing ovation “was one of the most enthusiastic I have heard in a theatre,” declared Bob Pennington, also in the Toronto Sun; no-one at the Festival, according to Alide LePage in the St Catharines Standard, could “recall seeing an audience there rise for an ovation before the final curtain had started to come down”; and Jamie Portman noted for Southam News that even opening night guest and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “a man not normally given to public expressions of this nature,” was “standing and applauding” (though in the circumstances it would have been difficult for him to have done otherwise).

Critical judgment was equally fervent: “a rare, unforgettable evening of theatrical magic” (Crew); “the most memorable production in the history of Canadian theatre” (Porter); “a five star award for an Everest of excellence” (Pennington-only the second time he had given five stars for a Festival show; the other was for Cyrano).

Pennington was not alone in worrying before he saw Cavalcade that Coward’s unabashed patriotism would come across as outrageous British snobbery and jingoism. What he actually experienced, however, was a rich blend of compassion, courage, tears, and laughter. Like everyone else who saw Cavalcade, Pennington had his most memorable scenes – the silent vigil for a dying Queen Victoria; the bantering of honeymooners on the doomed Titanic; Nora McLellan singing Roses are Blooming in Picardy against a backdrop of a First World War bloodbath; and Goldie Semple, Jennifer Phipps, and others in numerous “marvellous cameos by a company of distinguished actors.”

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CAVALCADE by Noël Coward. A scene from CAVALCADE, 1985-6 (photo by David Cooper).

Saint Joan, 1993

Munro’s approach to Saint Joan was to “get rid of the pageantry,” to “take away the comfort of distance,” to “let the play fly right in your face.” In rehearsal Munro showed the cast gruesome film footage of the Bosnian war, then at its height, and he began the play with a tableau depicting the kind of massacre everyone was reading about in their newspapers. Cameron Porteous’s set was replete with airplanes (a crashed jet), jeeps, computers, modern battle dress, helicopter search lights, body bags, and, in Joan’s trial, television monitors.

For many people, the trial scene represented the Shaw Festival at its very best, a near-perfect blend of directing, design, and acting excellence. Joan (Mary Haney), downstage with her back to the audience, faced her interrogators, upstage, seated at a table with microphones. As she responded to their questions and accusations, a television camera captured close-ups of her face, which were transmitted to the audience through a bank of television monitors on either side of the stage. Haney’s performance – anguish, fear, stubbornness, pride, courage, naivety – “reaches the sublime,” said John Bemrose in Maclean’s. “Rarely,” he wrote, “has the struggle between individual conscience and the collective will been so powerfully presented.” Notwithstanding Robert Cushman’s complaint that “the last thing I want to do in a theatre is look at a TV screen,” many found the scene among the most compelling they had ever seen at the Shaw Festival. For John Coulbourn it was “absolutely riveting,” and for Jamie Portman the scene on the large Festival Theatre stage somehow achieved “a degree of intimacy and intensity unrivalled in this reviewer’s memory.”

Munro’s Saint Joan, concluded Village Voice critic Michael Morrison, was “as exciting a Shavian production as one could hope to see.” It included Shaw’s Epilogue, though Munro, like Newton, would have preferred to leave it out. He made sure, though, that it didn’t become tedious by making numerous cuts and having some speeches spoken simultaneously. Even so, for Robert Cushman (having recovered from the television monitors) the Epilogue “made the play’s final point, that the world will always reject its saints, more powerfully than any other I have seen.”

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SAINT JOAN by Bernard Shaw. Mary Haney in the title role in SAINT JOAN, 1993 (photo by David Cooper).

Blood Relations, 2003

In terms of Maxwell’s evolving agenda for the Shaw Festival, and the challenge of finding the audience for it, the other Royal George show that carried a lot of weight in 2003 was Blood Relations. Unlike Diana of Dobson’s, Blood Relations had a strong North American pedigree, and its subject matter – a murder in Massachusetts – had American appeal. The choice also evolved, it could be argued, from Newton’s popular murder-mystery series at the Royal George. The play wasn’t so much a “whodunnit” as a “did she do it” (or as Maxwell put it more cannily, a “why-dunnit”), but it certainly had a murder-mystery feel to it. Still, there was no history of success for Canadian plays at the Festival, and no play by a Canadian woman had ever been performed at the Festival. Maxwell didn’t let these danger signs deter her. Blood Relations opened early in the season and ran for 120 performances. Only On the Twentieth Century had a longer run (129 performances), and although the box office return of 65.7% was modest compared to some of the other Royal George and Court House plays, Maxwell’s confidence in the play – and in director Eda Holmes – was rewarded. Blood Relations sold nearly 26,000 tickets, outselling all the other small theatre plays that season except On the Twentieth Century, including plays by Shaw, O’Casey, and Brecht. And for the first time at the Shaw Festival the story was being told not just by a woman in a play, but in a play by a woman, directed by a woman.

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BLOOD RELATIONS by Sharon Pollock. Jane Perry as Miss Lizzie, Laurie Paton as The Actress, in BLOOD RELATIONS, 2003 (photo by David Cooper).

Tonight at 8:30, 2009

Jackie Maxwell’s innovative approach to Noël Coward’s cycle of ten one-act plays known collectively as Tonight at 8:30 and written in 1935-36 as star vehicles for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, was to bring all ten plays together, for the first time, in repertory. She grouped together three sets of three thematically-related plays (giving them the composite titles Brief Encounters, Play, Orchestra, Play, and Ways of the Heart), and kept one – Star Chamber – by itself for a lunchtime production. They were spread among three theatres (Brief Encounters in the Festival, Play, Orchestra, Play in the Court House, and Ways of the Heart and Star Chamber in the Royal George), and the openings were staggered throughout the season. Once Ways of the Heart was in preview from 21 July, it was possible to see all ten plays over the space of a few days. In addition, on three occasions during the season, audiences had the opportunity to see the full cycle in one day (marketed as Mad Dogs and Englishmen – A Coward Marathon). Reminiscent of previous one-day marathons at the Festival (Back to Methuselah in 1986 and Man and Superman in 1977, 1989, and 2004), the Mad Dogs day began earlier than any of the previous ones, with a 9:30 start in the morning with Star Chamber, followed by Ways of the Heart (11am), Play, Orchestra, Play (3pm), and Brief Encounters (8pm). Maxwell directed Brief Encounters; the other directors were Blair Williams (Ways of the Heart), Christopher Newton (Play, Orchestra, Play), and Kate Lynch (Star Chamber).

Apart from the fascination of witnessing the astonishing breadth of dramatic situations and moods that Coward created in Tonight at 8:30 – from, say, the moving intimacy of Still Life in the very public space of a railway station waiting room, to a Victorian family in mourning (or supposedly so) for their late patriarch in Family Album, to the unexpected outcome of the working-class domestic strife of Fumed Oak–there was the attraction of seeing members of the ensemble move among wildly contrasting roles in the space an evening’s (or matinee’s) performance. It was, Maxwell said, a wonderful opportunity to “show off” the acting ensemble. Examples of ensemble versatility abounded in Tonight at 8:30, but Goldie Semple’s trio of roles in Brief Encounters was typical of many bravura performances: from interfering busy-body in Still Life, to outraged mother-in-law in We Were Dancing, to sozzled socialite in Hands Across the Sea.

Tickets for the Mad Dogs days were as hard to find as vermouth in a Noel Coward martini, and the regular performances collectively sold close to 80,000 tickets.

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BRIEF ENCOUNTERS. Krista Colosimo and Gray Powell in BRIEF ENCOUNTERS, 2009 (photo by Emily Cooper).

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.