Shaw Stories

Share your stories with us! Were you in the audience for one of our first performances? Do you remember the Queen’s visit in 1973? Did you attend the special performance of George Orwell’s story in 1984, or the production of The Devil’s Disciple that we performed at Fort George in 1996? We want to hear about the magical moments you have experienced at The Shaw. If you come from a family of honourary Shavians, attending generation after generation, tell us your history. If you have celebrated a special occasion of your own at The Shaw, we would love to know! We have a remarkable tale to tell of a long journey peppered with many exciting moments along the way, but we can only share our own experiences. Help us tell the rest of the story by sharing your fondest memories with us. Here, Shaw patrons reminisce about their visits to The Shaw.

50th Season Stories Photo by Cosmo Condina Photography


Dr Christopher Wixson

My first memories of Niagara-on-the-Lake come from early childhood, when my grandparents often took me across the river from their home in Niagara Falls, NY for picnics. Egg salad with crisp celery pieces. Playing on the modest red swingset and seesaws across from the Prince of Wales. Skipping rocks at Queen’s Royal Park. During my university years, I worked for three summers re-enacting at Fort Niagara, spending days off in Niagara-on-the-Lake with friends and lovers walking the streets, sitting in the pubs, and watching world-class theater. My wife and I spent many weeks over many years here before we got married. I have been beamingly proud over the past five summers to bring both of my children to this beautiful, magical town that I adore so much. When I was twelve years old, my mother (surely driven by the Life Force) brought me to the Festival Theater to see Christopher Newton and Fiona Reid in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. After arriving at the theater early, my mother got me a 7-Up. When I spied a notice proclaiming free refills on drinks purchased during the interval, I scampered about and finally was able to conceal my cup behind a potted plant in the lobby, insuring unlimited, free of charge soda for the duration of the evening. Assuming this victory to be the evening’s high point, I settled back into my chair in the theater, hoping the show would run briskly so that I could return to my carbonated orgy. It was act two that did it. The curtain descending upon a sea of thrown-about couch cushions. Newton and Reid’s chemistry, their presence, dexterity, and skill. Simply but profoundly electrifying. Producing infinitely more satisfying fizz than unlimited soda refills. Awakening me. Twenty eight dazzling seasons later, I still feel like that boy when the new production choices are announced and at that moment before each performance when the lights go down. The giddy, slightly terrifying feeling of being at the top of the roller coaster, easing over the hill. Taking the deepest of breaths. After that performance in 1983, I had a voracious appetite for theater — I couldn’t see or do enough of it — that happily enough will never be satiated. Eleven years ago, I completed my Ph.D in dramatic literature and became a university professor, continuing to balance academic work about plays and playwrights with practical work in the theater. The Shaw Festival taught me and continues to teach me more about plays and more about theater than any part of my training at university. There is a level of engagement, of ambition, the Shaw Festival achieves that is unique; the growth that occurs, the nourishment that happens in your theaters, is addictive and invigorating. There is no way to thank every single artist and staff member who has been a part of the Festival for their generosity, dedication, and brilliance. The best way for me is to affirm a commitment to my students — helping them to cultivate a lifelong conversation with great plays and playwrights on the page and (most importantly) on the stage. Happy Birthday, Shaw Festival.

John Panabaker

Being introduced to The Shaw was one of the most wonderful things that happened during my residency in Buffalo, NY USA, 1980-82. I have come back to see Shaw productions many times since and absolutely regularly for a good number of years now. The Bernard Shaw plays are always a revelation, but it is absolutely delightful, and equally revelatory, to encounter the admirable variety of other works The Shaw presents. The musicals have been fantastic, particularly Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel in an amazingly fine production. Of other plays, Noel Coward’s series of one-acts Tonight at 8:30 were unforgettable. Congratulations and thanks to all as we look forward to the 50th Season of The Shaw.Back to Top

Sylvia and John Hamilton

One thing we well remember is that, in the beginning, the Court House was the only theatre. The chairs were plywood stacking ones and were among the most uncomfortable ones we ever experienced; also, the air conditioning tried hard, but may have succeeded in lowering the inside temperature one degree (C or F) below that outside. One outstanding performer was Stanley Holloway – he was of the “old school” and could hold the audience in the palm of his hand just by appearing on stage. We come down much less than we used to do (we are now both over 80). We used to arrange accommodation for a weekend at a time (had to reserve nearly a year in advance to get into the Moffat) and then took whatever plays were on that weekend – the season was usually not announced in time to pick the plays once we had the accommodation. We love Niagara-on-the-Lake, but (due to the success of the Shaw) it is getting far too crowded. Even coming down for lunch and a weekday matinee is not the fun it used to be. Also, our hearing isn’t quite what it should be and, in common with many other theatres, the sound system (even with the personal aids) isn’t all that great. The Shaw has been a great success and has helped greatly in the revitalization of NOTL – we do miss, however (there is always an “however”) the charm of the little town it was. Good luck and we hope all goes well. Back to Top

John Panabaker

(I have kept a diary for many years, and these notes are derived from diary entries.) Our first visit to the Shaw was in 1975, when we took two of our children to see Pygmalion with Powys Thomas as Higgins. However, our first truly memorable visit to the Shaw was in 1977 when we saw Ian Richardson as Jack and Carole Shelley as Ann in that wonderful production of the entire text of Man and Superman. The production took five hours and fifty minutes and had three intermissions – during one of which tea and cakes were available to famished patrons. Beginning in 1981, we made a point of visiting the Shaw each year with two couples who were long-time friends. We looked forward to the experience from year to year – and made our reservations for accommodations a year in advance. In those years, it was essential! We have seen some memorable productions: Heath Lambert and Mardi Maraden in Cyrano and a very young, absolutely delightful Goldie Semple in Candida. (It was with a real sense of loss that we read of Goldie Semple’s death. We had so enjoyed her performances both at Shaw and at Stratford.) Other names we remember from the 80’s are Michael Ball in Cavalcade, On the Rocks, Fanny’s First Play and Man and Superman; Douglas Rain, Frances Hyland and Martha Burns in Major Barbara. My note after seeing that production was that I often thought of Shaw as “someone who looked at the world with a broken heart and hid the pain behind cynical laughter”. We saw Sharry Flett and Douglas Rain in Getting Married – of which I which I wrote, “Just talk – but what talk!” Once in a Lifetime looked at the wild world of Hollywood in the early days of “talkies”. One of our friends had come to Canada after the Hungarian Revolution, and Alex had worked in the film industry in that country in the thirties as an accountant. He reported that it was just as crazy as Hollywood had been. I could go on endlessly, but I’ll mention only a few plays from the early nineties when our group was still together: Present Laughter which I called “polished, hilarious and beautifully staged”, A Connecticut Yankee – “wacky, dated but great fun and great dancing on the Royal George’s tiny stage”, and Mary Haney whose performance in St. Joan was “wonderful”. I noted that the trial scene in that production with the clergy facing the audience and Joan’s face visible only on the TV screen was “especially effective”. However, all my comments were not favorable. On the Town had “lots of noise, lots of action – but I found myself nodding off”. The Shaw experience was not complete in itself. Niagara-on-the-Lake was also a leading player in making those visits so memorable – even in the year (1987) when it was transformed into “Indian Springs, Nebraska” and returned to the 1950s for the filming of a John Travolta movie. We enjoyed the town, the restaurants and hotels, and the walks along the shady streets admiring the beautifully preserved 19th century homes. All our friends from those years are gone now, except one – and she is in a nursing home. But the memories are very precious to both my wife, Janet, and myself, and each year when we return to Shaw (as we will later this summer with a son and his partner) they come back to us with a special poignancy. Back to Top

Tim Devlin

In 1962 after playing endless roles in musicals and plays I was set to leave St. Catharines for Toronto and a background bit part in a movie. I was thrilled … then some people started putting together something called THE SHAW FESTIVAL at the courthouse in Niagara-on-the- Lake. As I belonged to all the local theatre companies I was asked to help put together a full stage production of Candida. The only other thing they had done was a reading of Don Juan in Hell and the cottage crowd in the then unimpressive little cottage town didn’t really understand it so a full scale production was a sink or swim decision to save The Shaw. They needed the help of all the local theatre companies for actors, sets, costumes, etc. I was not to be in the production but as I was there I kept reading the role of Marchbanks with women auditioning and then when it was totally cast the director insisted I stay and play Marchbanks. I must admit, at the time I was not a Shaw fan and it took some convincing but in 1962 I played Eugene Marchbanks in the first full stage production at the Shaw Festival (I still have the original program). The reviews were actually very good but I guess NOT good enough as in the following 50 years I have never been invited to play again. I did go on to have a career in Canada and England and it is a thrill for me to see our struggling, tiny effort all those years ago … has become the world famous Shaw Festival. P.S. I’m still alive! The Arts defeat the Military at Niagara-on-the-Lake! In 1962 Niagara-on-the-Lake was a dilapidated, run down cottage town. The old stately homes were for the most part falling down with neglect. There was no real shopping and the only flowers were a half dead potted geranium on the window sill of the local greasy spoon. There was also a large military base at Fort George. This was not exactly the ideal place to present theatre and certainly not Shaw which 9 out of 10 had never heard of. None the less we did (as per my first contact) and we opened at the Court House. I remember a matinee performance … we were full and my voice teacher … Madame Julia Dennis was in the audience. During the curtain call Barbara Ransom (Candida) was presented with long stem red roses and she extracted one and presented it to me. Madame Dennis was waiting by the side of the stage and I arrived to greet her, rose in hand. She insisted we go for tea between shows and next to the Court House where there is now a Christmas Shop there was a greasy spoon café. Off we went and throwing open the door to the shop we stepped inside to be confronted with a café full of soldiers. At that moment I realized I was dressed in a period velvet suit with lace … my hair was long and wavy, I was wearing make-up and carrying a long stem red rose. “Would anyone notice?” It was like Lady Godiva had arrived nude on a horse. Silence and stares of “What is that?” Madame Julia realizing the reaction quickly said “Ignore them” and taking me by the arm pulling me a long like a child to a booth. These booths lined the walls and there were six in the middle and an isle that went all round. Julia was very much like a posh Margaret Rutherford and she took charge while I pretended I wasn’t there at all. While we had tea one soldier circumvented the café over and over so he could pass our booth and stare at me. Finally it came time to leave and I asked Madame Dennis to carry the rose … she said “NO … it’s yours you earned it so carry it”. At the entrance as the bill was paid, soldiers lifted themselves up so they could have one last took at me.”Oh … what the hell” I thought. I pulled open the door, waved Madame through and then turning back to the room I waved the rose in the air … taking the gesture into a full ballet bow … snapped up … did a smart military style turn and left waving the rose over my head like a drum major, leaving the door standing open. I then said to Madame I think we better hurry before I get my ass kicked. I don’t think it was long after that the Military left Niagara-on-the-Lake and the arts took over. I often wonder just how much I frightened the poor dears! 1962 is full of fun memories. At the 40th anniversary Barbara Ransom and I were guests of honor at a black tie dinner in a tent on the lawn. When we were introduced there was much applause, I turned to Barbara and said, “They’re not applauding because they remember us … they’re applauding because we’re still alive”. Last time I check … I still am! Back to Top

Beth Jeffery

I think the first play (or least the one I remember the title of) I saw at Shaw was Leaven of Malice which doesn’t seem to have been done anywhere since. I remember being very impressed with it. Also The Spoon River Anthology (or was it Our Town) which was done in St Mark’s cemetery in the 1970s by the Shaw Company was a magical evening. Noël Coward’s Cavalcade was an event to remember both times. And Goldie Semple in The Cassilis Engagement gave a charming and clever portrayal of a mother who knows what’s best. She was a lovely lady and a great actress. Back to Top

Mrs. John E. Fox (Patricia W.)

Although I just attended the Shaw Festival for my 42nd consecutive year, the group that my late husband and I joined in 1968 had already been attending the Shaw for a few years. Dr Stanley Cook and his wife Margaret, and Dr Pat Wilson and his wife Dorothy were really the founders of the group that has become the “Close Shavians.” Just as our group has grown – 8 stalwarts in the first years to as many as 33 in a season some years ago – the Festival has too – from bleacher seats in the third floor of the non-air conditioned Court House to the four current sites – so has the number of performances each season from 8 in 1962 to hundreds. What didn’t change: the quality of the Festival and our love of it. Some personal random highlights: … the collective audience gasp at the topless Cleopatra, the gasp changing to thunderous applause when the final curtain went down; … that beautiful, fabulous curtain which some time later self-destructed from its own weight; … the inimitable farcical buffoonery of Heath Lamberts who shifted into drive for his unforgettable Cyrano; … the 1986 blockbuster presentation of Cavalcade directed by Christopher Newton; … the incredible technology of the Festival stage and the wondrous sets that emerged from creative set designers; … Paxton Whitehead’s never-to-be-topped interpretation of Shaw’s The Philanderer (sorry, Christopher); … every succeeding year our eagerness to find out what Tom Kneebone, Tony van Bridge, Jennifer Phipps, Goldie Semple, or any of the “regulars” of their eras would do with that year’s roles – never one that could be identified as a “bit” part because their art made their snips of scenes soar; … once the Court House became a theater in the round, the audience remaining glued to their seats between acts to watch the techies and players change the set, choreographed to keep the mood of the play; … or, speaking of choreographed, applauding the dancers on the teeny Royal George stage who make it look easy, not just fun; … the excellent addition of the noon theater for splendid one acts; no one will forget the adaptation of the radio drama “Sorry, Wrong Number;” … one special occasion for us: years ago (in the 70s) having founder Brian Doherty join us in the apartment at the old Oban for our group’s post-theater discussion; … the Close Shavians still meet each night after the theater for lively discussions of that day’s performances; … and we can hardly wait for the anniversary year. Back to Top

CA Hutton

The Old Lady Shows her Medals I remember after watching this exquisite production of J.M. Barrie’s one-act play done at lunch time, the capacity audience leaving the Royal George and walking into a blinding noonday summer sun, and every single person was either in tears or had wet eyes. Every single last one of us, and we all had to pull ourselves together a little (or a lot) before we were ready to let this beautiful production go. This kind of collective theatre experience is so rare and so wonderful and in this case, so quietly thrilling. Back to Top

Nancy Butler (Shaw Librarian)

We first came sometime in 1963 or 1964. We actually were more dedicated to Stratford, starting in 1956 there. Then our friends moved to St. Catharines in 1962 and we would spend the weekend with them and got to know The Shaw. Afterwards, our neighbors and friends, John and Marguerite Gwynn invited us for the weekend and a show. The shows, I remember were The Guardsman and Charley’s Aunt and one with Stanley Holloway, which one I can’t remember. I do remember the stacking chairs. I have 5 examples that I bought from the Pumphouse and am painting them for the cottage. They had ‘Property of NOTL’ stenciled on the backs. Those were used at first in the theatre. The folding chairs were an improvement. We used to exit out the metal fire escapes. And it was hot. I don’t remember any air conditioning. (Norman Macdonald was very proud of inserting the AC vents in the molding in 1982 so it was unobtrusive.) I remember sitting in the balcony – really hot up there. In 1985 the Historical Society had a big dinner in the Courthouse. I was president and had to give a speech from the stage. I asked Herb Foster for advice which was over enunciate, speak slowly and don’t shout. Good advice. I think our current company of young actors should be reminded of that. I had trouble hearing the words in The Ideal Husband. So did the people around me. Back to Top

Lois Gauch

Letter 1: Time goes by, doesn’t it and you helped me realize my first experience at the Shaw was in 1969!! And, I think I attended the Seminars regularly from 1990-2006. I’ll be happy to review my memory “bank” to send you early impressions. Meanwhile, I need to take the trip down that lane. My best wishes as you continue your planning for this celebration. Letter 2: At one time we had a group of 8 to 10 who planned to go every year at the same time because we enjoyed being together. We came from Michigan, Rochester, Illinois, Missouri and Canada. There have been deaths and physical reasons some no longer come but this is the “gang” as Dorothy named us!! Letter 3: A friend and I drove to Niagara-on-Lake on a one day, middle of the week vacation day back in 1969. We had read about the Shaw Festival but had not called for tickets or even to check out what might be on stage. What a surprise to find the play in the Court House! And, we were able to get tickets although the play was not by Shaw but rather The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnár. The seats were folding chairs rather tightly placed together and there was no air conditioning. But, when the acting began so did the magic. And that, magic has never left the Shaw Festival. Although I was not there when the Queen visited I did attend Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell. It was such fun as I remember breaking for tea at the by then Festival Theatre. Then continuing Act III followed by dinner probably after 8pm at the Oban Inn. During the 70s and 80s I did attend several of the seminars sponsored by the various universities. They were always enlightening and fun although the attendance was small. Beginning in 1989 the Shaw Festival took over the Seminars and I have attended each year through 2006. In the early years meals were included with a member of the Company seated at each table lending conversation to many aspects of theatre and especially the workings of the Festival. We felt an intimacy with them and that we as attendees were part of the Shaw “Family.” I purposely haven’t mentioned actors and actresses who impressed me since this is not what The Shaw is about – a company working together rather than “stars.” But, of course, one does remember Tony van Bridge riding his bicycle! Back to Top

Steven Westcott

In the Summer of 2001, I had dinner with a great gentleman of the New York theatre, Roger Sturtevant, and he mentioned that he’d just returned from his annual visit to the Shaw Festival, where he’d seen the “splendid and delightful” Neil Barclay in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I had always loved the recording of DROOD, but had never seen it live, and was vaguely aware of the Shaw Festival, but didn’t really know how it worked. I told Roger I’d look into going to see the show and experiencing the Festival for the first time, then promptly moved the whole idea to the back burner. A few days later, I received an email with the subject line “A visitation upon lovely village”. It was copied to Neil Barclay and contained an effusive introduction and exhortation that I should proceed to plan my trip “with all due alacrity”. I did as instructed and made plans to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake the weekend of September 15, 2001. Needless to say, my plans changed. I finally made it to NOTL in October of that year for a weekend get-away from my city which had been forever changed a month before, armed with tickets to Drood, Peter Pan, and The Millionairess. I knew I’d enjoy Drood and meeting Neil, as Roger had already described him in the most glowing terms. What I didn’t know is that I’d be stunned by The Millionairess, thrilled by Peter Pan, and would leave NOTL determined to return annually, which I have for ten years now. Not only would I not dream of missing my annual trip (or two) to “lovely village” and fitting in as many Shaw productions as possible on each visit, I’ve also had the privilege of experiencing the vast array of talent in Canadian theatre in general that I never would have discovered if not for the Shaw. In recent years, I’ve visited CanStage, Soulpepper, Stratford, Tarragon, and the Stirling Festival (to see Shaw veteran Jillian Cook in Driving Miss Daisy), but my first love is obviously The Shaw. Back to Top

Beatrice Magder

One story that might be of interest. I think if was years 1972 to 1975 that I was on staff at Malven Collegiate in Toronto and organized an annual visit of the teachers to Shaw Festival. We all arrived by car, saw a production and had dinner afterwards at one of the restaurants – I think it was the Oban Inn. A really good time was had by all and it was a very nice outing for end of school year for the staff. I am not sure I attended first year of Shaw, but I have certainly been coming every year for, probably, over 40 years. By now, I think I have seen every Shaw play performed and many, many others. And I still continue to come every year with various friends and have, over the years, often taken my two grandchildren to see various plays there. I was never an English teacher and so did not bring any classes but others on staff have done so. I wish you continued success and I know I will continue to come each year as long as I am physically able to do so. Back to Top

Norah L. Harris

Brian Doherty was a wonderful friend of our family. A charming Irish gentleman, he was a frequent guest who shared our love of the theatre. Brian brought great enthusiasm and knowledge to conversations about theatre. He travelled to New York and London often and knew many of the great theatre figures in those cities. I can remember one occasion when he became so carried away describing his latest encounter in London that he declared “as I was saying to Pashy Eggcroft …” We all broke out laughing, including Brian, as his enthusiasm for Peggy Ashcroft had led to a high-speed mixup. Although very sociable and great company, Brian had a deep and serious commitment to theatre as a playwright and producer. When he was just 31, his play Father Malachy’s Miracle was produced on Broadway and the West End (with a cast of 35). At the time, 1937, that was a remarkable achievement for a young Ontario lawyer and speaks well of his seriousness and talent. He is, of course, remembered best for his role as founder of the Shaw Festival, arguably one of the jewels in the cultural life of Canada. What an imagination, what courage to have started a classical theatre in a small town courthouse in 1962. It is a great pleasure to remember his accomplishments and infectious enthusiasm for theatre. Back to Top