The repertory system is alive and very well at the Shaw Festival this season. In my recent visit, six plays and a reading of a seventh made it abundantly clear that the company is as skilled and as wide-ranging as ever. And accepting that with so many productions running there are some that work better than others, the overall impact is impressive. There is nowhere else in the country, and perhaps no where else on the continent, where one can see such disciplined and assured ensemble playing.
Over the course of this summer, there appears to have been some media effort to draw lines between the Shaw and the Stratford Festivals. That latter highly regarded company is in its first year with new artistic leadership and has had some immediate growing pains. It escapes me why anyone would try to compare the two.
Each festival has its own mandate and each is doing what it can to expand that mandate in order to avoid becoming predictable and repetitive. To this end, Stratford seems to have had more leeway. For its part, the Shaw is evolving more cautiously but it is evolving nonetheless. Both of these companies offer us a great deal and each deserves the place it has earned in our national profile.
The Shaw’s greater strength is its ensemble approach to the work. Unlike at Stratford, there is nothing approaching a star system. In a play such as The President, which runs at the Royal George Theatre during the one-hour lunchtime slot, festival heavyweights Michael Ball, Guy Bannerman and William Vickers play cameo roles while relative newcomer Chilina Kennedy runs wonderfully amok in a leading part. That is how the Shaw works, and has always worked, and that is at the heart of its continuing success.
The three venues, which house the season’s eleven productions, present some challenges at the same time as they offer benefits. The Royal George Theatre, the smallest of the three, works splendidly for both The President and After the Dance, but it works against The Little Foxes, which might have played better in the Court House Theatre. The Court House, a three-sided and very intimate venue, is the right home for The Stepmother but reveals its inadequacies by denying A Little Night Music the space that it needs to breathe. The Festival Theatre, the largest of the three and occasionally too large for the musicals that play there (the non-musicals tend to work better), was the ideal venue for Follies, a concert staging of the Sondheim-Goldman musical. An orchestra of twenty-five and a cast of twenty filled the space and the audience responded with enthusiasm and spontaneity as if to advise the programmers that more of the same would be very welcome in the future.
Jackie Maxwell has also inaugurated a play reading series, which is held in the new rehearsal studio, and the response has been both immediate and overwhelming. Festival diehards arrive for these morning readings early and wait patiently in line to sit and listen to plays by Sebastian Barry, Caryl Churchill, Athol Fugard and Jason Sherman. Company members, both senior and junior, read from scripts and the audience marvels at the power of language, stripped of any stage setting or effects or costuming or lighting. In the same space where the season’s fully produced plays began their lives, these plays provoke thought and inspire the possibility of the live theatre experience.
Attendance at the plays I selected to see was inconsistent. The musicals and the comedy were full, but the dramas, a couple of them little known and rarely produced, were not. The age range of audiences continues to challenge all performing arts groups, regardless of their festival status. And even though the Shaw reports an increase this season, there is a sharp reminder that, while the streets of the town are filled with day-trippers buying fudge and other local favourites, the festival itself exists slightly apart from the bustle. It’s an active reminder that there is no basic equation linking tourist traffic to ticket sales.
Marketing challenges never stop, even during seasons that boast increases. Tourism is down everywhere in Ontario, the energy crises aggravate an already difficult economy and performing arts companies compete for what some label ‘disposable income’, a term that puts into sad context how too many view the place of the arts in our daily lives. But that is a reality and, for this season at the very least, the Shaw Festival has come through in splendid form.