Those who are passionate about quality theater here in the U.S. should consider a trip north across the Canadian border into Ontario where they can spend some serious time exploring North America’s two largest theater festivals – The Shaw Festival and The Stratford Festival. The American dollar appears to have stabilized against the Canadian dollar, so the entertainment value when compared to the costs of theater tickets for Broadway ($150+ average) or in London is excellent. And if you search the web, there are some excellent airfare deals for the upcoming summer into Toronto Pearson International Airport for about $500 to $700 from most major U.S. airports. Rental cars are readily available at the Toronto airport. (Try Hotwire.com for the best airport rental rates) Driving time from the airport to either of the two festivals is less than two hours on four lane highways. Remember – Passports are now required for any border crossing!
Located in historic Niagara on the Lake (30 miles North of Buffalo 120 Miles South of Toronto) along the beautiful Lake Ontario shoreline The Shaw Festival is the only theater in the world that specializes exclusively in plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. During the last three decades, under the artful and highly creative leadership of Christopher Newton and Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw not only earned a reputation for innovative programming, stunning visuals, but also become home to one of the finest acting ensembles in North America.
Maxwell, who just announced her retirement effective at the end of the 2016 season, continues to produce excellent work as she explores the Festival’s expanded artistic mandate, which now includes newer Broadway musicals and more modern classics in addition to the work of Shaw and his contemporaries. While many large theaters have struggled in the post 2008 sluggish economy, Maxwell, now in her 12th year as Artistic Director, continues to balance the books, fill four theaters with 800 performances each season and entertain an audience that totaled 300,000 people each year.
As the Shaw Festival celebrates its 54th season this year, audiences will be in for some real treats including: a large production of the popular Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret featuring Shaw favorite Debra Hay (who returns from a stint at the Stratford Festival), Moya O’Connell in Phillip Barry’s romantic masterpiece The Philadelphia Story, an all-world production of the Sean O’Casey masterwork Juno and the Paycock featuring Jim Mezon, Corrine Koslo and Peter Krantz, two Shaw comedies The Philanderer and Arms and The Man, and The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists which will complete St. John Hankin’s cycle Three Plays with Happy Endings. The Shaw produced Hankin’s The Return of the Prodigal in 2001 and 2002 and The Cassilis Engagement in 2007.
Another exciting development over the past few years has been addition of an intimate fourth performance venue – The Studio Theatre (which seats 176 patrons). The new facility has hosted such diverse productions as John Osborne’s The Entertainer starring Benedict Campbell, Caryl Churchill’s provocative contemporary play Serious Money, When the Rains Stops Falling, Topdog/Underdog, Helen’s Necklace and last years SRO megahit production of Tom Stoppard’s theatrical gem Arcadia. This year’s production will be the Katori Hall’s critically acclaimed The Mountaintop.
SHAW SEASON AT A GLANCE
Royal George Theatre
Court House Theatre
David’s recommendations for the 2014 season
Debra Hay and Juan Chioran in Cabaret (Directed by Peter Hinton)
J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married (Directed by (Joseph Ziegler)
Tennessee Williams’ One-act A Lovey Sunday for Creve Coeur
Jim Mezon, Corrine Koslo and Mary Haney in Juno and the Paycock (Directed by Jackie Maxwell)
Arms and the Man (Directed by Morris Panych)
The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists (Directed by Christopher Newton)
ALSO OF INTEREST AT OR NEAR THE SHAW FESTIVAL
Contemporary Play Reading Series
Educational Seminars, Workshops and Symposiums
Old Fort Erie/ Old Fort Niagara
Wine country excursions
Range from $24.00 can (student matinees) to $113.00 can (weekends and openings)
Rush seats are available day of show
$30 rate for patrons under 30 years of age at any theatre
There are also excellent student discounts ($29) senior rates ($40) and group rates available
1-800-511-7429 (SHAW) and online
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE CHAMBER of COMMERCE RESERVATION SERVICE (CCA) 905-468-1950. In the Court House on Queen Street, Box 1043, Niagara-on-the-Lake L0S 1J0. www.niagaraonthelake.com Reservation service for 1700 plus rooms, representing every hotel and a collection of approved inns, cottages and bed-and-breakfast homes. For a quality experience, let our trained specialists help you select CCA (Chamber of Commerce Approved) accommodation. All price ranges represented.
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE BED and BREAKFAST ASSOCIATION (BBA) 905-468-0123 or 1-866-855-0123. Box 1228, Niagara-on-the-Lake L0S 1J0. www.bba.notl.on.ca Members are identified by BBA in the listings. Call or visit our website for a free availability search or to book online. We maintain high standards and adhere to a code of ethics. Book with a member.
ABOUT HISTORIC BED and BREAKFASTS IN OLD TOWN CENTRE www.historicbb.com These private homes, built before 1850, are within 4 short blocks of a theatre, dining and shops. Visit our website or contact the following homes in the Bed and Breakfast section: Adam Lockhart’s Storrington House, Annette Twining House, Apple Tree Bed and Breakfast, Barrett Cottage, B&B’s “Pacific”, Blaney House, Burns House, Davy House, Regent House, The Rogers-Harrison House, Royal Manor, Saltbox 1820 Cottage, Schoolmaster’s House. Open year-round. Central air. Full breakfasts. Private parking. Smoke-free. All rooms have private ensuite bathrooms. $100-$195.
ACCOMMODATION ALTERNATIVES NIAGARA www.accommodationalternativesniagara.com A fine selection of licensed cottages, apartments and homes in Niagara, suitable to those who prefer privacy and self-catering accommodations. Nightly from $120, weekly from $750.
Located in the bucolic hills of Southern Ontario in the working class town of Stratford, The Stratford Festival has grown from its humble beginnings in 1953 (two Shakespearean plays produced in a tent) to one of the largest and most respected theater festivals in the world. Now under the capable leadership of Antoni Cimolino, who rocked critics and audiences alike with his Mary Stuart last season, the Festival seems poised for a period of artistic innovation not seen since the heyday of Robin Phillips.
Having completed of a 50 million dollar capital and endowment drive, longtime patrons now enjoy improvements at all four of the Festival’s theater venues, upgraded electronic services, and enhanced production quality on stage. Exciting indeed has been the addition of a fourth stage known as the Studio Theatre located above the Avon Theatre. This small flexible space, which opened four years ago, is now home to new work by Canadian playwrights, workshops, productions, and for the first time in its short history, William Shakespeare. However, the Studio Theatre only seats 260 patrons, so if you want to see a popular production in the Studio Theatre, you need to purchase your tickets well in advance.
Variety has always been a hallmark of the Stratford Festival, where works by Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Molière and Henrik Ibsen share the stage with Broadway musicals and the comedies of Noel Coward. Thanks to Director Cimolino Shakespeare will again dominate the large Festival Stage along with a large American musical and a period classic. The remainder of the 62nd season will feature another American musical (Man of La Mancha) on the Avon Stage while classics like King John, Antony and Cleopatra and Mother Courage and Her Children take up residence at the Tom Patterson. In other good news the Festival’s highly popular Forum series will return again this summer.
There are many things to be excited about for the 62nd anniversary season including the return of Colm Feore to star in King Lear, another all star cast for The Beaux’ Stratagem under the direction of Cimolino, the return of Chilina Kennedy in Crazy for You and Man of La Mancha, Lucy Peacock as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever, Geraint Wyn Davies leading King John and a Martha Henry production of Mother Courage and Her Children at the Tom Patterson starring Seana McKenna.
While the US dollar has fluctuated in recent years against the Canadian dollar, this trip remains an outstanding value. And the US dollar has shown some renewed this past year. With Broadway prices soaring to $150-$300+ a ticket, it is hard to imagine that you could get more “bang for your entertainment buck” anywhere in the world than in Ontario, Canada.
STRATFORD SEASON AT A GLANCE
Tom Patterson Theatre
Stratford Masonic Concert Hall
David’s recommendations for the 2014 season
King Lear and The Beaux’ Stratagem (directed by Antoni Cimolino)
King John and Antony and Cleopatra (starring Geraint Wyn Davies)
Mother Courage and Her Children (starring Seana McKenna) (directed by Martha Henry)
Hay Fever (starring Lucy Peacock)
ALSO OF INTEREST AT STRATFORD
Family Series Events
Celebrated Writers Series
Night Music – Special concerts each Monday evening June to August in the Festival Theatre
A wide assortment of classes, workshops, special events.
Range from $20.00 to $135.00 (Canadian $)
Rush seats are available day of show
There are also excellent student discounts and group rates available
1-800-567-1600 and online
I recommend the Swan Motel (Downie Street South)
(Editor’s Note: A version of this article was previously published on David Grapes’ blog.)
*Logos and photos courtesy the Shaw Festival and Stratford Festival; picture of David Grapes at the 2013 Stratford Festival courtesy the author.