Festival strives to balance past, future

TORONTO — Like many who reach the mid-century mark, Canada’s Shaw Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this season, is going through a bit of a midlife crisis.

Recent years have seen the fest’s financial health see-saw, with the 2010 season closing C$1.3 million ($1.4 million) in the red. The current season’s audience pleaser is a Molly Smith-directed version of “My Fair Lady,” and there’s some solid work in the revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — but the plays by Shaw himself largely failed to make the best impression, which may be the biggest problem of all for an event called the Shaw Festival.

“There are a lot of challenges,” admits general manager Colleen Blake, “but ultimately, I think we’re stable financially. We own our own buildings and we have a solid base.”

The fest’s ongoing fiscal volatility can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the erratic nature of the tourism market and the rising Canadian dollar, especially since 34.5% of the festival’s audience comes from outside Canada.

But in the end, the very nature of what the festival produces may prove to be the major part of its problem.

Initially restricted to mount only the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, the mandate has, over the last half-century, expanded to the considerably looser permission to stage “the work of George Bernard Shaw and playwrights writing anywhere in the world during, or about, the era of Shaw’s lifetime.”

How elastic is that clause? Well, “Topdog/Underdog” by contempo Suzan-Lori Parks has found its way onto the 2011 playbill.

“We’re always a work in progress,” affirms Blake. “We don’t want to be static. No artistic organization does.”

Still, it’s hard to tell sometimes just where the festival is heading, with this year’s Parks entry and a rewrite of Shaw’s “On the Rocks” by Canadian playwright Michael Healey balanced against 2010, for example, when the biggest hit was “Harvey,” joined in repertory by chestnuts “The Women” and “One Touch of Venus.”

With 70% of this season’s $27 million budget expected to come via the box office, the appeal of the programming becomes a major factor. (Twenty percent of the fest’s remaining coin comes from fundraising, with 7.7% from government grants and 2.3% from the Foundation’s endowment.)

The 50th anniversary season has no big-name stars nor special gala productions, although Blake points out that at 75 actors, the company is larger than it’s ever been, and that “My Fair Lady” is, in her words, “definitely not an inexpensive piece to produce.”

There are also seminars and symposiums, with the “Speed of Ideas” forum, which unites playwrights Parks and Tony Kushner with British critic Michael Billington, expected to attract an audience of 300.

Things were simpler when the fest began. Founded in 1962 by local lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty, the festival was all Shaw, all the time, with a bit of O’Casey, Maugham and Coward slipping in under the radar.

Radio producer Andrew Allen and actor Barry Morse guided it calmly along those lines at first, but when Broadway and West End actor Paxton Whitehead took over as artistic director in 1967, the sleepy, summer-stock feel of the event changed radically, with the new leader bringing in starry associates including Ian Richardson, Carole Shelley, Zoe Caldwell, Kate Reid and Jessica Tandy.

Christopher Newton, former artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, took over from 1980-2002, changing the face of the fest completely. Newton believed firmly in the idea of a repertory company of actors, and many of the thesps who came to Shaw with him in 1980 are still performing in the 2011 season. The policy led to an ensemble richness much-praised by critics, but with no attention-getting stars and few surprising performances, box office became a problem as the years wore on.

Jackie Maxwell, known mainly for her work with new Canadian plays and alternative theater venues, took over the festival in 2003. She clung to Newton’s notion of a company but changed much of the programming, promoting Canadian work, commissioning new plays and rediscovering the work of forgotten female contemporaries of Shaw.

The audiences didn’t respond well at first, and the theater ran up a deficit of $5.88 million in Maxwell’s first two seasons. A major bequest from arts philanthropist Mona Campbell to retire the fest’s deficit helped boost finances in 2009, but 2010 has seen a return to red.

“We’re working very hard to retire our deficit and build our income,” says Blake, “but in the current climate, you just can’t predict how a season will do at the box office until it’s almost over. And by then, of course, it’s too late to do anything.”

Shakespeare can still pack the houses every year at the fest’s older, larger compatriot, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which has been grabbing attention this year in New York and London, as well as Canada, with Des McAnuff’s staging of “Jesus Christ Superstar” churning up rumors of an eventual Broadway transfer.

But at Shaw, there hasn’t been a genuine hit from the fest’s namesake since 2004’s “Man and Superman.” Blake admits that is a major problem.

“It’s a real challenge producing Shaw,” she concedes. “The younger people don’t study him, he’s not as well known, but we still believe he provides a great base for a theater of intellectual exploration.”

But if that exploration offers “Harvey” one year and “Topdog/Underdog” the next, no wonder the audiences are confused.

A nice, distinct brand would help. Perhaps Maxwell and Blake could start by asking “To Shaw, or not to Shaw? That is the question.”

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