Those who are happy to be bitten by the theatre bug know that few festivals are quite as lively, entertaining and enlightening as Niagara on the Lake’s renowned Shaw Festival, which has the added bonus of being organised by a charitable organization. Started in 1962 by Niagara lawyer and playwright, Brian Doherty, the event is a salute to the Irish playwright who begged his audience to question societal and political norms. Those visiting The Shaw Festival for the first time may be curious as to why many plays features are not actually written by George Bernard Shaw; the Festival’s aim is to pay homage to the literary master by also presenting plays by ‘contemporary Shavians’ – those who, like him, refuse to turn a blind eye to pressing social issues. Every season of The Shaw Festival features between 10 and 12 plays; some 800 performances are offered to a total audience of approximately 300,000.
Shaw the Rebel
From the days of his childhood, George Bernard Shaw (born in Dublin, Ireland in 1856) always questioned norms he saw as arbitrary and unnatural. He quit formal schooling at the age of 15, convinced that the entire schooling system was of no use, sharpening his intellect by reading voraciously and studying art and history at the National Gallery of Dublin. At the age of 20, he commenced his literary career in London, writing literary critiques and making a name for himself as a novel, play, and essay writer. In 1884, he joined the famed Fabian society, which sought to convert Britain into a socialist democracy. Shaw’s fascination with Henrik Ibsen lent an air of social realism to his work, so much so that many critics often claimed his works lacked a storyline. Shaw disagreed, claiming that literature was an ideal forum in which to expose the injustices of society.
Where and When
The Shaw Festival takes place from April to October, in four different theatres: Festival Theatre (The Shaw’s flagship theatre, which seats 856), Royal George Theatre (Edwardian in look and feel), Court House Theatre (home to the first Shaw festival) and Studio Theatre (the most intimate of all theatres, seating only 175).
The 2014 Season Playbill includes:
At Festival Theatre:
Cabaret – April 10 to October 26:
Book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood
This passion-filled story is set in the Kit Kat Club in Berlin. A young American, Cliff Bradshaw, is smitten by a nightclub singer, but with Hitler gaining strength in Weimar, Germany, his life is about to be turned upside down. Cabaret premiered in 1966 on Broadway, winning a plethora of Tony awards, including the award for Best Musical.
The Philadelphia Story – May 15 to October 25:
By Philip Barry
This classic romantic comedy, written for Katharine Hepburn in the late 1930s, is the story of a young socialist who is forced to choose between her attractive yet rebellious ex-husband and her reliable yet dull fiancée.
The Philanderer – June 26 to October 12:
By George Bernard Shaw
Leonard Charteris is a philanderer who is in love with the one woman he can’t have. For the first time, The Shaw Festival presents Act III, which was discarded by Shaw owing to its risqué content.
At Royal George Theatre:
Arms and The Man – April 4 to October 18:
By George Bernard Shaw
Two soldiers fight for the love of the same woman during the Serbo-Bulgarian War.
When We Are Married – May 7 to October 26:
By J.B. Priestley
Three couples who decide to celebrate their respective silver wedding anniversaries together discover a shocking secret – none of them is actually married!
Juno and the Paycock – June 28 to October 12:
By Sean O’Casey
A strong matriarch struggles to keep her family together when news of an inheritance from a distant relative threatens to shake their stability.
At Court House Theatre
The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists – April 25 to October 11:
By St John Hankin
Lady Denison and her daughter invite the most boring, rudest people they can find to their house for the weekend, to test the limits of their charitable spirit.
The Sea – June 3 to October 12:
By Edward Bond
When a man is lost at sea, his entire village goes a little mad – the local draper, for instance, decides that the tragedy is a sign that a group of malevolent aliens are about to make an invasion…
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur – June 28 to October 11:
By Tennessee Williams
Dorothea waits patiently as her roommate fries chicken for a picnic they are about to have at Creve Coeur Park. Dorothy eagerly awaits a special proposal from the man she loves…
At Studio Theatre
The Mountaintop – July 16 to September 7:
By Katori Hall
Dr. Martin Luther King is resting in his hotel room, having just delivered his famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech when he meets a young hotel maid, with whom he has a beautiful conversation about the burden imposed by his destiny.
After the Theatre – What Next?
If you’ve been assiduously attending the theatre and you’d like to do a few outdoorsy things before you leave Niagara on the Lake, one of the best ways to discover the most beautiful natural routes and areas of interest is on a bicycle. Dedicated companies will offer you custom tours of Niagara – take your pick from winery tours, beer and wine tours, or a Nature-filled tour from the Falls to Niagara on the Lake. Cycle past the verdant horticultural gardens and the majestic Whirlpool and discover secrets nooks and crannies known only to the locals. If you prefer to explore the area by yourself, you’ll be pleased to know that Niagara has an incredibly wide range of routes and trails. If you have taken your own bike and wish to rough it on your own or alongside a group of friends, make sure to insure your belongings against possible damage. Niagara offers a blend of excellent beginners’ routes and exciting downhill rides, so damage control is always on the agenda for more adventurous bikers. One fabulous bike route is the Upper Canada Heritage Trail – this converted rail line offers a scenic ride past farms, wineries and orchards. The route begins at the Escarpment and ends at Niagara on the Lake.