Playwrights Beyond Shaw
At its inception, the Shaw Festival specialized exclusively in plays by Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries and is renowned internationally for both single-handedly revitalizing and re-energizing the works of Bernard Shaw (as he preferred to be addressed) and for tackling the vast array of theatre pieces in the mandate period—presenting them anew to appreciative theatre audiences. In 2000, Artistic Director Christopher Newton expanded the Shaw’s mandate to include contemporary plays set during Bernard Shaw’s long lifetime, 1856-1950. The mandate was expanded once again by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell in 2009 to include the work of contemporary Shavians—writers whose work, like Shaw’s, continue to question the status quo and rail at the powers-that-be in new and different ways.
One of the many pleasures of the Shaw’s mandate period is digging up buried theatrical treasures, or plays which were considered major works when they were written but which have since been unjustly neglected. Remarkable playwrights such as Lennonx Robinson, St. John Hankin and Harley Granville Barker have been rediscovered by the Shaw Festival. With the focus shifting to lost plays by women writers, Cecily Hamilton, Lady Gregory and Githa Sowerby can now be added to the list. The Stepmother, written by Sowerby, received its North American premiere at the Shaw in 2008. Continuing the Shaw Festival’s tradition of “archaeological” programming, Sowerby’s rarely performed A Man and Some Women made its North American premiere in 2012.
A full range of American classics—comedies as well as dramas—are embraced at the Shaw Festival. Recent seasons have produced critically acclaimed productions of The Autumn Garden, Bus Stop, You Can’t Take It With You, All My Sons, Picnic, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Detective Story, Ah Wilderness and The Crucible. The richly diverse choices continued in 2007 with the Shaw’s first production of a Tennessee Williams play, Summer and Smoke, and in 2008 with a production of Lillian Hellman’s timeless drama The Little Foxes. In 2009, Garson Kanin’s classic comedy Born Yesterday played to standing ovations throughout the season and was joined by fellow American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, A Moon for the Misbegotten. The following year, Mary Chase’s delightful Harvey was a critical and box office success and, due to demand and to the delight of audiences, had its run extended. The 2010 season also featured fellow American playwright Clare Boothe Luce’s comedy The Women. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the second Tennessee Williams production to be seen at the Shaw, was presented in 2011 as part of the Festival’s 50th season. In 2012, Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell directed Come Back, Little Sheba, the play that launched William Inge’s career in New York. Also making its Shaw Festival premiere was the screwball comedy His Girl Friday by John Guare, a brilliant blending of the 1940 film His Girl Friday and the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
The Shaw takes a unique approach to musicals; just as the reach of musical theatre is vast and manifold, so is the approach to being able to present Brecht and Weill, Rodgers and Hart, and everything in between—and being able to choose the right theatre for each production. Rarely-performed musical gems from the period of the mandate, such as Happy End, are rediscovered and returned to the stage. The 2004 production of Floyd Collins demonstrated an additional vision for musicals—it’s a contemporary musical based on a true story from the mandate period. The range of musicals revived over the years includes Gypsy (the first musical on the Festival stage), High Society, She Loves Me, Merrily We Roll Along, On the Twentieth Century, Pal Joey and Mack and Mabel. In 2007, Tristan, by Music Director Paul Sportelli and Ensemble member Jay Turvey was the first new musical developed and produced at the Shaw. In 2008, two Stephen Sondheim favorites, A Little Night Music and a concert production of Follies, were featured along with Wonderful Town. In 2009, the Sondheim exploration continued with Sunday in the Park with George and the later work of Kurt Weill in America and his collaboration with Ogden Nash and S.J. Perlman in One Touch of Venus was seen the following season. For its 50th Season, the Shaw presented a fresh and innovative production of the long awaited musical My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, as well as the world premiere of Maria Severa, the second Shaw developed and produced musical by Music Director Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey. In 2012, the Shaw Festival re-explored the fascinating and celebrated Ragtime, the 20th century musical epic about the beginnings of contemporary America. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s distinguished novel, the music and lyrics are written by the award-winning composer/lyricist team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and the book is by playwright Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Masterclass).
Early Victorian dramas such as The Silver King and vast pieces like Cavalcade require large casts, complex designs and specialized historical knowledge. They are rarely attempted by other professional companies, but at the Shaw the opportunity to explore these works with a modern audience is savored. In 2009, the Shaw made repertory theatrical history when it presented Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30, a cycle of ten one-act plays. A world premiere, this marked the first time all ten plays have been presented together in one season. In celebration of this unique event, the Shaw Festival presented all ten Cowards during three, full-day marathons aptly titled Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The Shaw’s association with Noël Coward continued with the 2012 presentation of Present Laughter, Coward’s commentary on the celebrity lifestyle.
European classics such as The House of Bernarda Alba from Spain, S.S.Tenacity from France, The Plough and the Stars from Ireland, along with Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard from Russia have also been presented at the Shaw. In 2010, alongside J.M. Barrie’s playlet Half an Hour and Oscar Wilde’s witty An Ideal Husband, the Shaw Festival presented a Russian classic with an Irish twist when Jason Byrne directed the Tom Murphy version of The Cherry Orchard. In 2012, the Shaw brought back Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.
Contemporary Explorations of the Mandate
Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell’s approach to the mandate period is “to look at the mandate from the outside as well as the inside—to provide creative friction by juxtaposing the old and the new—and with Canadian work, to let us hear and promote our own stories and our own points of view. I want the Shaw Festival to be the place where classic Canadian and contemporary plays can be given a uniquely detailed, thoughtful and vivid new life.” This was the case with the acclaimed productions of Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Coronation Voyage (2003) and Lillian Groag’s The Magic Fire (2006). In 2009, the juxtaposition was taken even further by presenting John Osborne’s The Entertainer in a new space, the Studio Theatre, and Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times in the Court House Theatre. In 2010, the Shaw Festival's look at contemporary Shavians continued with the presentations of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money and Linda Griffiths’ Age of Arousal. The contemporary exploration of the mandate continued into the Shaw’s 50th season with the Canadian premieres of two plays by a new generation of provocative playwrights: the award-winning Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks and When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell. In 2013, Brian Friel’s Faith Healer and Arcadia, a work by the ultimate contemporary Shavian Tom Stoppard, make their Shaw Festival premiere.
Jackie Maxwell has served as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival for more than a decade. "Even though we have moved out at times of the original mandate, I think we have always stayed true to Shaw himself," she says. "He was the ultimate provocateur. He was the mosquito on the flesh of the establishment, he endlessly challenged all types of assumptions and conventional ideas, which is really essentially as far as I’m concerned what all theatres should be doing. And when the plays are really working and when that connection is made, it’s a very vital experience for the audience and it’s not like the kind of experience that you get at other theatres."