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Shakespeare and Shaw

Multiplay theater festivals in two charming, small Ontario towns near Toronto honor two of the greatest English-speaking playwrights — William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw — and offer theater-loving groups a great variety of options.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake each presents rotating plays in four theaters located throughout its respective town. Although both festivals started more than 45 years ago with a focus on just their namesakes, they now present a wide range of plays from late spring to early fall.

The completely refurbished 1901 Avon Theatre is one of four venues for the Stratford festival.
Courtesy Stratford Festival

In addition to three Shakespeare plays — this season’s are Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth — the Stratford festival’s offerings run the gamut from Greek tragedy to this season’s West Side Story. The Shaw Festival features plays by Shaw and his contemporaries.

West Side Story will be really exciting,” said Ann Swerdfager, media manager for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. “It is an opportunity to see it in a very intimate venue.”

The play, which runs through October 31, is being staged in the festival’s largest theater, the 1,800-seat Festival Stage, but, Swerdfager pointed out, no seat is more than 60 feet from the stage.

“It is one of the most intimate auditoriums in the world,” she said. “It was our original stage.”

Plays are also presented in the 1,093-seat Avon Theatre, built in 1901 as a vaudeville house and completely refurbished in 2002; the 487-seat Tom Patterson Theatre, where the audience sits on three sides of the “runway thrust” stage; and the 260-seat Studio Theatre.

“Groups can tour the backstage of the Festival Stage to see the inner workings of this major festival,” said Swerdfager. “It is a huge industry backstage. It is like a number of factories churning out all these amazing costumes, props and scenery.”

Groups can also tour the festival’s 88,000-square-foot costume warehouse, which houses more than 50,000 costumes and more than 1,000 pairs of boots and shoes. “People can try on the costumes,” said Swerdfager.

A charming tradition at the Stratford festival since its inception in 1953 is the playing of the “Festival Fanfare” prior to each show and intermission by four trumpeters and a drummer to let patrons know the show is about to begin.

The Shaw Festival is presenting 11 productions this year, including two plays by its namesake: The Devil’s Disciple and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days.

However, the main attention will be on Shaw contemporary Noël Coward: For the first time, all 10 of Coward’s short plays in Tonight at 8:30 will be presented together in repertory.

The plays are performed in sets of three, one set apiece on three of the festival’s four stages, with the 10th, the rarely produced Star Chamber, being the lunchtime production in the Royal George.

On three separate occasions, the Shaw Festival will present all 10 short plays in one day, an event it dubs “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”

The Festival Theatre, where the season’s grand opening is held each May, is the festival’s largest theater at 856 seats. The 328-seat Royal George Theatre was built in 1915 as a vaudeville house, and the 175-seat Studio Theatre doubles as a rehearsal hall.

The festival, which began in 1962, maintains a nostalgic touch with its past at the Court House Theatre, which seats 327 in a thrust configuration. Festival founder Brian Doherty converted the Assembly Room in the town’s historic 1847 Court House into a small theater for the debut. The festival continues to rent the same room and installs a theater for its season.
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