by Joel Greenberg


The Shaw Festival is entering its 50th season in 2011 and the very good news is that its age is an intoxicant rather than a matter of anxiety.  The Shaw Festival is, after all these years, solidly rooted in itself .


I spoke with three of the company’s long-time members and asked them to reflect on their past years as well as to try looking ahead. Neil Barclay and Anthony Bekenn are both actors with 21 and 18 seasons at Shaw, respectively. Paul Sportelli, Music Director, is entering his 18th season.


All three speak warmly and almost lovingly of the opportunities they’ve had. Neil Barclay, the youngest of the three, is particularly grateful to Christopher Newton, the Artistic Director who first brought him into the company. To be part of an ensemble like the one Newton shaped and developed has allowed Neil to grow in a caring and nurturing environment. In Canada, where The Shaw, as it is fondly called, is one of only two repertory companies, and one of only two companies that offer such long-term contracts to its performers, is a relationship that is rare.


Anthony Bekenn has been with the festival since 1993, though he has lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake from 1988. That was the year that his future wife, Sharry Flett, began her even longer relationship with The Shaw. Yet, Bekenn’s name didn’t get added to the company list until 1993, the year that the couple would have moved to Vancouver had Newton not offered them both a season. So, with Michaela, their 7-month old daughter, they set up house in the town where they have lived ever since.


Sporetlli’s arrival seems to have been more focused, or at least more premeditated. He wrote to Newton after hearing that Christopher Donison (the Festival’s musical director) was leaving. Newton was intrigued enough with Paul’s extensive educational and professional resume to arrange an interview and in very short order he, too, was setting up a life in the town renowned for its fudge, jams and, most of all, extensive acres of wineries.


Not everyone who is contracted is offered the opportunity of establishing roots in both personal and professional lives.  But for those who do, many options seem to lie ahead.


The rep system seems to be ideal, enabling artists to develop skills and extend artistic range without having to criss-cross the country to do so. I asked Sportelli if the festival afforded him the opportunities he had hoped it might? Sportelli says, without hesitation, that at Shaw he “gets to flex so many different musical muscles. I get to musical direct, conduct, play piano, orchestrate, compose for plays – plus get two musicals I have co-written produced.” (The second of the two, Maria Severa, is on this season’s playbill.) Barclay accepts the cyclical nature of any theatre career, even one spent in the same company for so many continuing seasons.  Performing in After the Dance, by Terrence Rattigan, is among his most cherished memories. It was a role that, Barclay says, came closest to being who he is himself. He added that although he is not a dedicated musical theatre performer, he was cast in musicals once his skills had been noticed. This season he will be playing Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, perhaps the finest vehicle in which to combine both dramatic and musical skills. Bekenn points to the ‘98 production of John Bull’s Other Island, the ’99 Getting Married, the ’05 Journey’s End and the ’10 Serious Money as the roles he favours from among the 33 productions in which he has been seen.


The typical Shaw season runs from February, when rehearsals begin for the early openers, until late October or early November. As a result, those with full contracts (some artists are hired with shorter contracts that bring them in later or send them home earlier) tend to define their careers by the work they do in the course of a season. Still, there are opportunities that arise between contracts that each of these three company members has been able to accept. This past year, Sportelli was given a leave of absence to work at D.C.’s Arena Stage on its production of The Light in the Piazza, which he followed with productions in Toronto of Parade and The Fantasticks. Barclay has been able to split his off-Shaw time between extensive international travels and work at theatres across Canada and in the United States. This past year he performed in the Toronto production of Parade. Last year, Bekenn joined the Studio 180 production of Stuff Happens when it played at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, in Toronto.


The Shaw is likely unique in that it has had very few artistic directors in the course of its fifty years. Paxton Whitehead guided the formative years and instilled the value of an ensemble rather than a star-based approach. Christopher Newton led the company and the administration through its period of major growth for half of the festival’s lifetime and his successor, Jackie Maxwell, spent a year with him as a transitional strategy that, according to all the men interviewed here, helped to foster as seamless a changeover as a change in leadership can be.


There is no doubt that Maxwell has her own preferences in programming and artist selection, as was also the case with Newton. Under her direction, the festival is striving to extend its mandate and to include plays that more aggressively reflect a contemporary landscape and a contemporary cultural climate. Pressures to include a greater diversity in the acting company have also prompted Maxwell to expand the reach of The Shaw’s mandate. The effort to extend and expand may be occasionally strained and artistically unsatisfying, but the effort is sincere and the results, it is hoped, will become more consistent in the years ahead.


I travel to the Shaw Festival every season. There is a genuine atmosphere of collective ownership in the air that I have felt in only a few settings: Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow, both located in northwest Massachusetts (the area known as the Berkshires), do for music and dance, respectively, what The Shaw does for theatre. There is nothing else that I have found in Canada to match. The Stratford Festival is a larger enterprise, of course, and it employs many more people in a much larger town where there is probably no room for a sense that the cultural heart and the civic soul are one and the same. But deeper than numbers or scale is the fact that while Stratford’s mandate is to produce plays and musicals that make money (and if this is not their stated mandate, it is the public mandate that their programming seems to reinforce), the Shaw Festival is tied to a theatre legacy of ideas, language and audience engagement.


Asked to speculate on the second 50 years at the Shaw Festival, Bekenn said that he would like to see “growth of the company – plays that will entertain and inform and keep people coming to the theatre in the digital age.”


I share his vision for the future of both The Shaw and for theatres everywhere. Digital technologies, audiences removed from the theatre-going culture of older generations and a mandate that is a reflection of the past rather than a vision of the future will continue to challenge the Festival. And as challenges emerge, it is hoped that the foundation of all things Shaw will support and reinforce decisions that will, in good time, lead to a centennial celebration.

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