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 George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and playwrights writing anywhere in the world during, or about, the era of Shaw’s lifetime.
After just two seasons in the rented Court House Theatre, Festival founder Brian Doherty realized that if the Festival wanted to fulfill its aspirations to be a leading theatre company it would have to build and operate its own theatre. In a 23 June 1964 letter to Festival supporters, Doherty solicited donations to the Theatre Building Fund, created so that the Festival, as he put it, could “erect our own intimate low-cost theatre overlooking the Niagara River.”
Almost exactly nine years later, on 12 June 1973, the curtain rose for a production of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell in a $3 million, 822-seat theatre–“the loveliest in North America,” said New York Times critic Clive Barnes–at the corner of Picton and Wellington streets, several blocks from the Niagara River.
The story of the journey from Doherty’s 1964 vision to the 1973 reality of the Festival Theatre, as recounted in the press and in the minutes of board meetings, is full of intense and often contentious discussions and negotiations among Festival officials and local, provincial, and federal politicians–including at one point Jean Chrétien, future Prime Minister. Several sites were proposed, considered, argued about, supported, rejected, protested against, advocated, and challenged before the current location was finally settled upon.
Among other hotly debated sites were Fort Mississauga, a choice that would have necessitated relocation of the historic Niagara-on-the-Lake golf club (Doherty says he was once threatened by a local golfer with “an upraised putter”), and directly behind the Court House. The Court House site was approved by both the Town Council and the Festival board in 1970, but protests from the Niagara Historical Society and local residents about damage to the integrity of the historical core of the town scuppered that plan.
One of the least publicized but most startling ideas was to move some of the Expo ’67 buildings from Montreal to Niagara-on-the-Lake once the world’s fair had closed. In particular, a board member reported after a visit to Expo in the spring of 1967, the Dupont Building–which contained a 372-seat auditorium – “would be very suitable for use as a Festival theatre,” especially if sections of the Province of Ontario pavilion could be added to it.
But if Expo never came to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara-on-the-Lake went to Expo when the Festival’s first touring production – Major Barbara, directed by Edward Gilbert – appeared there (for eight performances) in September 1967, before going on to Winnipeg for a further twenty-two performances.
Court House Theatre
Unlike the star-studded pomp and circumstance opening of the Stratford Festival in 1952, with Alec Guinness heading the cast of Richard III, directed by Tyrone Guthrie on a stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, in front of an audience of over 1,000 people, the opening night of the “Salute to Shaw” on 29 June 1962 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 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.” Even with the fans, it remained, in Rand’s view, “unbearably hot” in the Court House. “To sit in there listening to Shaw for three hours was awful; I’ll never forget it.” At the end of the performance the audience, Rand said, “burst through the exit doors, many of them gasping and choking.” 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.” Well, perhaps, but the critic for the St Catharines Standard didn’t have much fun, troubled as he was by the “steamy heat,” which created “a lethargy… that was a real drawback to full enjoyment of the Irish playwright’s masterpiece.” Still, on balance, the critic concluded that it was “a good beginning for this newest theatrical venture in the district.”
Royal George Theatre
The Festival had only a matter of weeks to get ready for its first show in the Royal George, a selection of music and lyrics by Irving Berlin under the title of Puttin’ on the Ritz, which, after one preview, opened on 25 June 1980. There was no time (or money) for major renovations, so seating was limited to the main floor, where about 240 patrons were squeezed in. In the absence of an orchestra pit, music was provided by a single piano, increased to two, one on each side of the stage, for The Desert Song in 1982 and subsequent musicals.
Renovations had to wait, but they occurred at regular intervals during the 1980s, as funds were raised. New seats were installed in 1982, using some of the 650 that had been purchased for the Pavilion project (the rest were used in the Court House). The first fundraising effort began in the summer of 1983, when an innovative “Let George Do It!” campaign was launched on Shaw’s birthday (26 July). The campaign called on “all Georges” to buy a seat in the theatre. Anyone whose name was George (or a derivative, such as Georgina) “will qualify to contribute money.” But those unfortunate enough not to be named George could still contribute by endowing a seat in the name of a “favourite or famous George.” That George Bernard Shaw himself intensely disliked the name George –and never used it socially or professionally – was an irony not drawn to the attention of potential donors. The campaign (for $150,000) funded renovations for improved seating and for the reinstatement of the theatre balcony and structural repairs, all ready for the 1984 season.
Renovations in 1985 updated sound and lighting systems, and in 1988 a small orchestra pit and permanent proscenium arch (above which was mounted the Festival’s newly acquired Coat of Arms) were installed. Following additional renovations to the interior of the theatre, designed by Cameron Porteous, the transition of the Royal George Theatre into a miniature Edwardian opera house was celebrated on 26 May 1990 at the opening performance of J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married, with special recognition to Walter Carsen, a prime supporter of the restoration and friend of Festival founder Brian Doherty.
Although a performance space in the Production Centre that opened in 2004 was not in the original plans for the Centre, when Jackie Maxwell viewed it with Colleen Blake while it was still under construction she saw the potential for using the largest of three rehearsal rooms for performances. Without having a firm idea in mind about how and when the space might be used, Maxwell arranged for a lighting rig and a stage manager’s booth to be added. It wasn’t until three or four years later that an idea for performances there began to take shape.
The idea developed around the continuum between Shaw and contemporary playwrights, playwrights that Maxwell began referring to as “Contemporary Shavians”–that is, playwrights committed to the “provocative, spirited, cranky exploration of the status quo that is Bernard Shaw and the spirit that pervades this place.” She saw such playwrights, at least initially, as appealing to a relatively small proportion of Festival audiences, and, therefore, better suited to a new, smaller, and more flexible space than any of the three existing Festival theatres. Over time, Maxwell hoped, Festival audiences would come to welcome contemporary work written in the spirit of Shaw, and, moreover, that contemporary work would bring in new audiences to the Festival. She was consciously opening up what she described as a “rich vein of programming,” for the Festival, “one that will add immeasurably to our future seasons.”
The new performance space in the Production Centre was to be the venue for the contemporary Shavians. It was called the Studio Theatre, where plays would open late in the season–when all the other Festival plays were on stage–for a short run. Seating would be on bleachers, which could be arranged in a variety of configurations. Seating capacity, depending on the configuration, was around 200, about two-thirds the size of the Court House and Royal George Theatres.
The first play to be performed in the Studio Theatre was The Entertainer, by British playwright John Osborne (1929-94). Directed by Maxwell, it began previews on 31 July, and had a limited run of twenty-five performances. Maxwell said that “the idea was to pack the houses and really create a buzz around this new idea.” With an 82% box office and keen interest in the new venture from the company, audiences, and the press, The Entertainer came close to meeting these aspirations.
Excerpts courtesy of Leonard Conolly, from SHAW FESTIVAL – THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS, written by L.W. Conolly and designed by Scott McKowen.