story and photos by Ann Wallace
Every year we remind readers of the excellent offerings at Ontario’s major theatre festivals – the Shaw and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – and give contact details. But as the theatre seasons are now approaching, I thought a few more words on each might be of interest, especially to our out-of-Ontario members.
The Stratford and Shaw Festivals are staged in the pretty towns of Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake respectively. Quite apart from excellent theatre, both destinations make fine getaway destinations. Although distinct, both festivals share many facets: each offers a variety of plays, readings and programmes on multiple stages from Spring to Fall and the productions invariably earn excellent reviews both in Canada and the United States. Each festival invites visitors on behind-the-scene tours; both towns offers a wide choice of accommodation and both have excellent restaurants, bars and some interesting shops. And in both cases the surrounding area holds much of interest too. Each festival produces guide booklets that include details not only of the plays but also give comprehensive details of where to stay and eat and what else their regions offer.
The mandate of the Shaw Festival is to offer plays by Shaw and his contemporaries, or plays set in Shaw’s time, the only company in the world that specializes in such a defined historical period. Stratford presents “Shakespeare for the 21st century” (usually four or more Shakespearean plays) and then the repertoire is varied. Last year their extended programme ranged from Greek tragedy to Cabaret.
Approximate driving time from Toronto to both towns is two hours, but the journey can take much longer during rush hour and we advise planning your arrival well in advance of curtain time. There are various bus and shuttle services and day tours available, all detailed in each festival’s guidebook.
To tempt you here’s a brief look at some festival highlights in the coming season. Theatrical history will be made at the Shaw Festival this year with ten brilliant short plays by Noël Coward presented together for the very first time. Audiences can choose to see all the plays – collectively called Tonight at 8:30 – in one day, over one week-end or through the season. Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director, explains, “Each play is a brilliant jewel … the ten plays vary hugely. There are out-and-out comedies, heart-wrenching dramas, fantasy musicals and historical tales. Coward is a brilliant miniaturist, a master storyteller, and any group of these plays, seen together, is a truly satisfying evening at the theatre. The experience of seeing them in one fell swoop, for those who are game, will be thrilling indeed.” Also on Shaw’s playbill this season are works by John Osborne, Eugene O’Neill, Michael Tremblay, Stephen Sond-heim/James Lapine, more of Noël Coward and, of course, two plays by Shaw: The Devil’s Disciple and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days.
Niagara-on-the-Lake has a wide variety of accommodation, from the luxurious Vintage Hotel group (the Prince of Wales, Queen’s Landing and The Pillar and Post Hotels) and the ‘cool and trendy’ Oban Inn to dozens of B&Bs. There are many fine restaurants too, as well as pretty lakeside places for picnics and wineries offering tours, tastings and gift shops. And if you’re new to the region, Niagara Falls is about half-an-hour’s drive away along the beautiful Niagara Parkway.
The Shakespearean offerings at Stratford this year are Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar. The season’s big musical is West Side Story and the playbill also inludes Cyrano de Bergerac, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Three Sister, Phaèdre and others.
Stratford is not on a lake but is on a river – the Avon, just like its namesake in England – which again provides delightful places for picnics. Stratford has a long-held reputation for fine food and there are many outstanding restaurants here. Again the region offers a wide variety of unique B&Bs, suites and inns, and there are also lots of motels and ‘cookie-cutter’ properties on the outskirts to accommodate summer’s many visitors. As mentioned, each of the Festival guides gives all the information you need to plan a great theatrical getaway and take advantage of the many packages offered.Main website for Shaw: www.shawfest.com or tel: 1 800 511 SHAW and request a guidebook. Some other useful sites: www.infoniagara.com, www.niagaraonthelake.com, www.niagarawinefestival.com and www.conservation-niagara.on.ca Stratford’s site is www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com, tel: 1 800 567 1600. They will make free accommodation reservations for you. And for more regional information visit: www.ontariotravel.net and click on ‘Shakespeare Country’.
Of course Stratford and Shaw aren’t the only theatres offering summer festivals. For more theatre in Ontario visit: www.summertheatre.org