>> Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Shaw Festival was started in 1962 by Niagara-area lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty. During the summer, Mr Doherty organized eight weekend performances of Don Juan in Hell and Candida by Bernard Shaw under the title “Salute to Shaw”. For this event, the Assembly Room in the historic Court House on Queen Street was converted into a small theatre.
The following year, the Shaw Festival Theatre Foundation was established as a non-profit organization, with an elected volunteer Board of Governors whose mandate was to produce the dramatic works of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.
In its first decade, the Shaw Festival enjoyed explosive audience growth, and the company toured extensively in the United States and Canada. Then on June 20, 1973, the Festival Theatre was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This beautiful new building enabled the Shaw Festival to mount large-scale productions which drew national and international acclaim.
A new era began in 1980, with Christopher Newton as The Shaw’s new Artistic Director. Under his leadership, the company grew steadily and gained an enviable reputation for its provocative and subtle ensemble acting and for its innovative theatrical designs. The company also became known for reviving plays which other companies are unwilling or unable to produce: seminal works such as Cavalcade and Lulu, once-popular genres such as operettas and stage mysteries, and neglected gems such as Waste and The Return of the Prodigal.
Another new era began with Christopher’s retirement in 2002. After over a year as Artistic Director Designate, Jackie Maxwell announced her 2003 season. Highlights included a newly commissioned translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Festival Theatre, and (for the first time ever) two Canadian classics on the playbill. The season was also marked by enormous growth in Jackie’s new Play Development programme, and by the launching of the company’s largest construction project since the Festival Theatre opened thirty years earlier.
The company works in three theatres. The largest is the Festival Theatre, which at 856 seats is still intimate by most standards. Here is where our grand season opening takes place each May. The Court House Theatre, located where the Shaw Festival began in 1962, has 327 seats in a “thrust” configuration. Each year The Shaw leases the Assembly Room in the historic Court House from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and installs a theatre in the space.
The Royal George Theatre, which seats 328, was built in 1915 as a little vaudeville house and acquired by the Shaw Festival in 1980. Through the generosity of philanthropist Walter Carsen, its once-shabby auditorium was transformed into a glittering little opera house.
The Shaw's productions are designed to be enhanced by the theatre in which they are presented. Choices for each theatre are made carefully, taking into consideration what the theatre setting will bring to the work. The Shaw Festival is an art theatre rather than a commercial theatre – hence its status as a non-profit and charitable organization. Still, it is run in a very businesslike and efficient manner. Over 70% of our annual revenue comes from Box Office sales and other earned revenue. We produce 10 to 12 plays each season, with over 800 performances in our three theatres, to audiences totalling about 300,000 people.


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