08 December 2015

The 2006 Shaw Festival (Part 1)

[On 3 December, I published an article by frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward, “Eric Bentley On Bernard Shaw,” about the great Irish playwright as assessed by Eric Bentley, the prolific American theater writer and translator.  I thought that a fitting companion piece would be my report on the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada.  I wrote this report on 21-26 August 2006; it originally included mini-reports on each of the plays I attended, but I’ve already excerpted the discussion of Noel Coward’s Design for Living (29 March 2012) and Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress (24 November 2012), so I decided to omit all but the two Shaw plays I saw at Niagara-on-the-Lake—both of which got a mention in Kirk’s article.  I have, however, left all the coverage of the festival surroundings and what we did to pass the time between the shows—and my general comments on the festival as a whole.]

In the summer of 2006, I spent a week with my mother in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, for the Shaw Festival.  The Round House Theatre of Bethesda/Silver Spring, Maryland, to which my mother subscribed, sponsored the trip bi-annually (in alternate years, they went to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival), and they made all the arrangements from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to NOTL and back (we were on our own to get to BWI and then back on the return leg), except lunches and dinners for most of the week.  (There was one lunch, on the road from Buffalo airport to Niagara-on-the-Lake; one dinner; and one cocktail party on the Round House—it was really our money, of course—and breakfasts were included in the accommodations of the Pillar and Post Inn, our NOTL hotel.)  The Round House reserved six shows, but several afternoons and most mornings were free if anyone wanted to add performances; we selected two additional shows to make a total of eight performances out of the season’s offering of ten plays.  (Mother decided that she didn’t want to go to two shows every day—though I probably would have done so on my own—and she eliminated one she didn’t want to see.  She left the rest of the selection to me.)

The trip ran from Monday, 7 August, to Monday, 14 August, but the plane from BWI was at 9:20 a.m. and Baltimore is a 45-minute drive from D.C., so when Mother saw an ad for an airport Ramada that offered a low rate for the night, plus free parking while we were away and a ride to and from the airport, we decided to drive over Sunday evening to avoid getting up at oh-dark-thirty (to arrive an hour before take-off), parking in an airport lot, and taking a shuttle between the parking lot and the terminal, or getting a limo early in the morning and then one back—which would have cost as much as or more than the motel.  (It paid off, too, because, as we found out Monday morning when we gathered at the gate with the rest of the group, there had been an accident on the road between D.C. and BWI and traffic had been backed up for about an hour.)  Anyway, because of this and the schedule of the bus I used from New York, I had to ride down on Friday, 4 August, so I had Saturday in D.C. with my mom and we took in a couple of art shows that Mother had saved till I came down.

So, on to Canada and Shaw. 

The Round House trip, as I said, left from BWI and flew to Buffalo.  A bus met us at Buffalo Niagara International Airport and we rode about an hour to NOTL.  (Because the hotel wasn’t going to be ready for us until after noon or so, we made a prearranged lunch stop at a restaurant in Amherst, New York, outside of Buffalo.  It was attached to a motel, but the meal, a buffet, was surprisingly good.)  The drive went through Niagara Falls, New York, and we had a view of the falls as we passed through (we could see the Canadian falls as we passed by, too).  The drive through town, along the Niagara River to the Lewiston-Queenstown crossing—where we crossed the border (and the river) rather than over the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara because the wait is shorter and the customs procedures are usually less arduous—revealed how tacky the town had become recently, especially with the addition of a huge casino built by the Seneca Indians in 2002 (the attached hotel opened in January ’06).  I spent a day in Niagara when I was teaching at the State University of New York at Oneonta in 1989 and it was pretty honky-tonk then, but it had ballooned in the intervening 17 years. 

NOTL, on the other hand, was pretty nice—more Cape Coddy.  There are obviously ordinances that keep certain development outside of the town’s tourist and historic center.  (In fact, we never saw a gas station, grocery market, fast-food restaurant, or drug store anywhere near the center of town.  The locals obviously get their staples—there wasn’t a Staples, either—somewhere outside of town—some mall somewhere, I suppose.)  The main drag, Queen Street, was lined with boutiques, restaurants, and about four different ice cream parlors (a very popular commodity in NOTL, it seems—everybody walked around eating ice cream).  Two of the festival’s theaters were also here (the other was a little ways in the other direction).  There were also a dozen or more art galleries in and around town—but Canadian artists may be the least interesting I’ve ever encountered.  We noticed this in both Vancouver and Quebec as well.  (I’d be surprised if anyone can name one world-renowned Canadian artist.)  The commercial part of town is only along Queen, so the blocks on either side are residential and many of the houses are 19th-century.  Many of them, both old and new, have been converted into bed and breakfasts—most of which had no vacancies when we walked around that week, suggesting they do a good business, at least at this time of year.  The town center is obviously devoted to the tourist trade, but it wasn’t cheesy like a Jersey shore boardwalk.  The weather while we were there was glorious and the town was full of people from all over the world—we could tell from the languages and accents—shopping, strolling, sitting on the benches that line both sides of Queen Street, eating at the many restaurants.  (The food in NOTL—perhaps a Canadian tendency, or an Ontario one—while not unpalatable, tended to be bland and flavorless.  Our one tasty dinner was a pasta meal we had at a restaurant with a few Italian-oriented dishes on its menu.  Maybe there’s an ordinance against spices, too.)

Niagara-on-the-Lake is located on a point of land formed where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario.  The town has water on two sides, and I gather that this is part of what contributes to its climate that makes the land good for growing wine grapes and peaches.  (The place is alive with flowers everywhere, too!)  Those are the two major industries of NOTL, and it must be profitable because there are some really big houses in and around the town.  (It’s also a vacation spot, aside from the Shaw Festival.  I also wonder if it isn’t a retirement town or second-home community for wealthy Ontarians, too.)  There are dozens of vineyards and orchards in the area—we ate at one of the winery restaurants for the Round House “farewell dinner” our last evening there.  We had some of the wine, of course, and it’s pleasant enough for the most part—good vin ordinaire.  And as it happened, the weekend we were there, on Saturday and Sunday, was the Peach Festival.  (We had some cold peach soup before the matinee on Saturday afternoon.  Very nice.) 

The town was settled in the 1780s by loyalists fleeing the American Revolution and became the first capital of Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1792.  It was a haven and remained a British outpost into the 19th century, with a British Army division stationed at Fort George (completed in 1802).  NOTL was also the site of the Battle of Fort George during the War of 1812.  (After a fierce fight in May 1813, Americans occupied Niagara-on-the-Lake for seven months and then burned it when they left—which is why there are so few 18th-century structures in the town.)  Mother and I walked around the town in two stages—one afternoon we covered the town itself, then another we strolled along the lake shore—and there were plenty of houses all over that date from the whole span of the 19th century.  From the look of both the old and new properties, it’s clear that NOTL must mandate a strict level of up-keep of both the buildings and the grounds—not one property we saw, neither private homes nor city parks, was run-down, unkempt, neglected, or overgrown.  Part of this is certainly just because it’s Canada, which has a reputation for being well-behaved.  There was no litter anywhere in NOTL, and even when we jay-walked, the cars stopped to let us cross the streets.  (We noticed this in Vancouver also—though I don’t recall if it was common in Quebec, too.)  The town didn’t have a single stop light, either—just stop signs.  (The main intersection had the only traffic signal I noticed—a single flashing red beacon, the same as a stop sign.)  It’s nice for vacation, but living there must seem like living in Stepford!

The festival was started in 1962 by Brian Doherty, a local lawyer and theater enthusiast, as a “Salute to Shaw.”  Its first productions, performed by local amateurs, were in a disused courthouse built in the 1840s (now the black box Court House Theatre, one of the festival’s three performance venues).  It quickly attracted both critical and financial attention and became a companion to the Stratford Festival, 2½ hours west, which was launched (with more professional intentions) in 1953.  (There is, in fact, a third theater festival in Canada, the Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island, devoted to “new Canadian musicals.”  I didn’t know there were Canadian musicals, much less new ones!  More on this—the Canadian musical, I mean; not the Charlottetown Festival—later.)  The Shaw is considered one of the two largest repertory companies in North America—the other being, obviously, the Stratford Festival.

The Shaw runs from April through October and November—some shows opening later and others closing earlier.  (I understood from the locals we chatted with that the weather in NOTL is awful in the late fall and winter—cold, rainy, windy, and gray.  Except for Christmas, when there’s another influx of tourists, it’s pretty bleak in the off-season.)  Like most traditional theaters, the festival is dark on Mondays (which was clearly why the Round House trip arrived and left on that day), but during the performance week there are at least two shows a day at all three theaters, and often—I’m not sure it’s not also every performance day—an 11:30 a.m. “lunchtime” performance.  That comes to 36-54 performances a week (I did the math); you can figure out how many shows a season that makes.  (There are also script readings, poetry and song presentations, discussions, chats, workshops, lectures, and demonstrations going on many days as well.  These folks keep busy.)  The festival is a true seasonal rep: no play is performed twice in a row, which means some theaters change productions three times a day.  Most actors are in two plays (a few are in only one; no one I could spot was in more than two), and there’s no apparent attempt to consider which theater houses which show when it comes to casting.  The theaters are strung out along Queen Street in NOTL: the little Court House and the Royal George are only a couple of blocks apart in “downtown”; the Festival Theatre is a few blocks east on Queen’s Parade, an extension of the main drag.  (Nothing in Niagara-on-the-Lake is all that far away from anything else.  On afternoons when we didn’t see a matinee, Mother and I walked around most of the town and its immediate environs.  We had terrific weather for it, too.) 

The company comprises some 60 actors (directors and designers, as well as other artists such as composers, are hired individually for each show), but all don’t appear every season; about 30 or so work each year, and they are on contract for the season.  Many actors live in NOTL now and consider the Shaw their permanent artistic base, doing other work like films and TV (all those U.S. TV programs that are taped in Toronto and Vancouver are in many of the company’s credits) as well as other stage work from time to time, but returning to the Shaw regularly.  Some of the actors in 2006 were in their fourth or fifth season in NOTL, but others were into double digits.  (The other artists also come back year after year, but they aren’t part of the permanent company.)  Loyalty from both sides—the artistic director at the time, Jackie Maxwell (currently in her 14th season), still worked with artists who started at the Shaw before her arrival—is clearly an attribute of this community.  The actors who live in NOTL have bought homes and are raising families there.

The Shaw Festival mandate, as they call it, is to showcase the plays of GBS and his contemporaries.  (I don’t know if the idea when the festival was originally conceived was to restrict itself to Shaw’s plays only, but the inclusion of plays “written in Shaw’s lifetime” has been part of the concept for decades, in any case.)  Considering that GBS lived almost a century (1856-1950; the festival celebrated his sesquicentennial earlier in 2006), the definition of “contemporary” leaves a lot of leeway—and covers a lot of territory stylistically!  In 2000, the festival expanded its mandate to include plays written about the period of GBS’s lifetime, so now they do modern plays set in that almost-century.  The ’06 season included two Shaws (Arms and The Man and Too True To Be Good)which I gather is the practice—plus an Ibsen (Rosmersholm) and a pair of Chekhov one-acts (The Bear and The Proposal, under the umbrella title Love Among the Russians).  Coming, I suppose, in the category of plays by Shaw contemporaries (though at the end of his century) are Design for Living (1932) by Noël Coward (1899-1973) and The Crucible (1953) by Arthur Miller (1915-2005).  (I’m guessing that Crucible was “in” because of Miller’s life dates since it isn’t “about” Shaw’s lifetime: it’s set in 1692 and was written three years after Shaw died; even McCarthyism, its subtext, really started after GBS’s death.  It’s kind of a stretch, I guess—a policy evidently known as “Jackie’s elastic mandate.”)  Two adaptations from novels could go either way—the source material is contemporary to GBS and the setting is, consequently, of that period, too, though the adaptations are much later.  Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress was adapted from Henry James’s 1881 Washington Square in 1947 (which would barely qualify as “Shaw’s lifetime”), and the story is set in 1850.  The première of the festival-commissioned stage adaptation of H. G. Wells’s 1897 The Invisible Man qualifies because the 2006 play is set within Shaw’s life.  Another new play, Lillian Groag’s 1997 The Magic Fire, is set in the immediate post-World War II years in Argentina, barely fitting into GBS’s life span.  The final entry of the 2006 bill, Cole Porter’s High Society, is the 1997 stage adaptation of the 1956 film musicalization of Philip Barry’s 1939 Philadelphia Story.  Once more, the source material fits into the Shaw life span, but the qualification is again the setting: 1930’s Long Island (the musical having been transferred from Philadelphia’s Main Line for reasons comprehensible only in Hollywood).

The Round House booked High Society, The Crucible, The Heiress, Arms and The Man, The Invisible Man, and Too True To Be Good, leaving the other four available as options.  Mother, as I said, didn’t want to go twice every day (two of the scheduled shows were already matinees because we had evening activities those nights), and she also decided that she’d seen the Chekhov one-acts enough (including, I daresay, one that I had directed with seventh- and eighth-graders), so we decided to select two additional shows.  I wanted to see the Ibsen and Design for Living, so I left off Groag’s Magic Fire, about which I didn’t know anything and which just didn’t sound interesting to me.  The festival described the play as “set against a backdrop of the turbulent post World War II years of Buenos Aires.”  A memory play (the narrator is the grown-up 7-year-old daughter of one of the families), it is the “story of two immigrant families, the Bergs and Guarneris [who] had left their European homelands to find a better life, leaving behind Hitler, Mussolini, poverty, and persecution.  But now, with the rise to power of General Juan Perón, they face the potential of Argentina’s descent into fascist terror, in the dying days of Eva Perón, the infamous Evita.” 

So I booked the Coward and the Ibsen, and I have no regrets over my decision.  I did a private reading (a bunch of actors sitting around in someone’s living room) of Design many years ago, and I’ve seen the considerably bowdlerized 1933 flick (Cary Grant, Frederic March, Miriam Hopkins), but I’d never seen the play—and I figured a Coward would be fun, assuming the cast can pull off his comedy-of-manners style—which they did, wonderfully.  As for the Ibsen—well, I’d always rather see an Ibsen than some unknown, less-than-intriguing quantity, snobbish as that may seem.  Some years ago, one of the theaters off Union Square did a multi-year series of all of Ibsen’s plays in chronological order in good-quality showcase-level productions, and I tried to catch any that I’d never seen before.  But I saw Rosmersholm over five years ago, so I figured this would be a good chance to see another staging with better production values—and it was. 

Let me make a few general remarks—some, perhaps, only semi-justified generalizations based on minimal evidence.  (I’ll brave it—so sue me.)  First, the quality of the productions was excellent.  The acting and directing was top-notch, and the festival appears to promote ensemble playing over star-turns—and it accomplished this remarkably.  Maxwell, who addressed us at our cocktail party (which a trio of company members also attended), said that she wouldn’t do a play like Lear (wrong festival, of course, but what the hey . . .) if she didn’t have a Lear available, but I didn’t have the impression from this season that they focus on star roles.  Of course, they weren’t doing Candida or Major Barbara, and maybe that would’ve left a different impression.  She said the same thing, sort of, about directors: if a director she wanted to match with a play wasn’t available, she’d postpone that show until the director was free.  It’s possible, of course, that actors who want to be stars don’t make the Shaw a home the way most of the company seems to.  It wouldn’t be their kind of work environment, I wouldn’t imagine.  (But I also got the impression, both from ordinary life observation and from some recent reading about Canadian theater, that this is part of the Canadian cultural character.)

It also seems characteristic, at least of the Shaw, that directors don’t put themselves and their artistic personalities forward and stamp the productions.  Several of the productions we saw were “adaptations” (not wholesale reworkings, but changes of setting and period)—Rosmersholm was moved to “somewhere in Europe between the wars” (it looked about 1930 to me); Arms and The Man was reset in the “turn of the century”; and the Chekhovs were designated “adaptations” in the program, though I didn’t see them so I don’t know what changes were made (the pictures all looked 19th-century to me).  But those were essentially design decisions (and some language in Rosmersholm); in all other respects, the directing was straightforward, though I don’t know if that’s a provision of the Shaw, or if it’s a general characteristic of Canadian directors.  I don’t say this is a fault—the work was solid all around—but there was nary a hint of idiosyncratic directorial interpretation on any festival stage as far as I could see.

As good as the acting and directing were—and there were no names in either category that really stood out, though a few were generally familiar (Bernard Behrens, for instance, who did a wonderfully fractious Giles Corey in The Crucible)—the design and tech was truly superb.  One of my conceivably unwarranted generalizations was that Canadian theater’s major accomplishment is not acting or directing, which is good but not astonishing (secondary generalization: potentially star Canadian actors end up in England or the U.S.), or even writing (name two internationally recognized Canadian playwrights—John Herbert, author of 1967’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes, is one; who’s another?), but in production work.  (Designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, who helped Tyrone Guthrie design the thrust theater for the Stratford Festival, was British, but worked extensively in Canada just at the time that Canadian theater was starting to become “not British.”)  Even the work in the tiny Court House (which is set up as a thrust, so there’s only one wall—and it’s the architectural back wall of the room) had some interesting design aspects in the shows.  Four other shows each had some startling, clever, or surprising design elements.  I don’t want to give the impression that the sets overwhelmed the acting—that wasn’t so—but the design and tech was outstanding in ways the acting and directing wasn’t.  (I remember going to a show at a nearby school when I was in college—a production of Cocteau’s The Wedding Party at the Eiffel Tower—and a friend and I left afterwards saying to each other, “What a wonderful set.  Too bad the actors kept getting in front of it.”  That wasn’t the case in Niagara-on-the-Lake.)

One characteristic of the acting, which I think must be a unique attribute of Canadian actors, was that they can shift back and forth pretty successfully and easily—or, at least, convincingly (for the most part)—between American characters and Brits.  They did well with both the Barry-Porter-Kopit upper-class Long Islanders of High Society, the Massachusetts settlers of Salem in Crucible, and the 19th-century New Yorkers of The Heiress.  Then they also nailed Coward’s toffs in Design as well as the denizens of small-town England in The Invisible Man.  And remember, these were often the same actors crossing over from one show to another.  (They also obviously handled the shifts from Cowardy and Shavian comedy to the heavy drama of Crucible and Rosmersholm, not to mention the melodrama of Heiress.  This isn’t something American can’t do, of course, but we don’t tend to do it very much in our theater since this kind of rep isn’t common here—outside of college theaters, I guess.  It’s still worth pointing out, though.)

You may notice that I don’t make the same compliment regarding going from straight plays to musical comedy.  As I suggested earlier, “Canadian” and “musical” is not a pairing I’d have come up with.  In another potentially unwarranted generalization, I’ll suggest that musical theater isn’t a Canadian metier.  As far as performances are concerned, High Society, which was the first of our shows on Tuesday evening, was the most lackluster show of the trip.  Now, I have to acknowledge that part of the problem with High Society was certainly the material, so maybe the Canuck actors could’ve done better with better material—say, My Fair Lady (since we’re talking Shaw).  The movical was presented at the 850-seat Festival Theatre, opened in 1973.

[This ends Part 1 of “The 2006 Shaw Festival”; please come back to ROT on 11 December when I’ll post Part 2, which begins with the production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible on Wednesday afternoon, 9 August, and finishes up the week of our visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The performance reports for Arms and The  Man and Too True To Be Good also appear in Part 2, along with some pithy observations.  I hope ROTters will return.

[The question regarding Canadian playwrights is kind of a cheat, by the way.  John Herbert (1926-2001) isn’t so well known as his play, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, which became an international success in 1967.  It’s probably a mark of something about Canadian culture that the play is not only unrecognized by most people as a Canadian creation, but that its world première was in New York City because no theater in Canada would produce it until 1969.]

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