THEATRE

Dramatic delights

Christopher Newton keeps a festival fresh

John Bemrose June 5 1989
THEATRE

Dramatic delights

Christopher Newton keeps a festival fresh

John Bemrose June 5 1989

Dramatic delights

THEATRE

Christopher Newton keeps a festival fresh

In the theatrical world, artistic directors often come and go with unsettling frequency. Against that pattern, Christopher Newton’s triumphant stewardship at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is remarkable. Newton, now beginning his 10th season at the Shaw, is a survivor who has weathered deficits, hostile reviews and, soon after he took over as artistic director, friction with the festival’s board of governors. He has also transformed a marginal, financially beleaguered event into an internationally celebrated affair. In the process, he has imbued the Shaw with a sprightly, instantly recognizable style. Theatre fans, international critics and many of the tourists who regularly flock to the historic colonial town know exactly what they are in for: sumptuous production values, crisply intelligent acting and some of the most blithely spirited and dependably entertaining live drama in North America.

Newton, 53, a native of England with more than 25 years of theatrical experience across Canada, looks back on his seasons at Shaw with evident pride. “What gives me the most satisfaction,” he told Maclean’s, “is that we haven’t petrified. We are still looking for new ways to do things.” At the same time, it is obvious that part of the festival’s success stems from its adherence to a tried-and-true formula.

Every year it offers no more than one or two major, serious plays—usually by George Bernard Shaw himself— and fills in the rest of its playbill with lighter works by Shaw’s contemporaries.

tains such old chestnuts as Varsity Drag and You ’re the Cream in my Coffee.

Those shows represent not so much Newton's personal taste as his recognition that the Shaw’s audience is drawn largely from the estimated 2.5 million tourists who annually visit the festival town of 12,500—attracted to

Upper Canada’s first capital by its historic sites, its parks and gardens, its shops and restaurants, and its 20-km proximity up the river road to Niagara Falls. “We depend mostly on box office receipts to survive,” Newton said. “We have to make a broad appeal.” With federal and provincial grants totalling about $1 million, the festival relies heavily on ticket sales to provide most of this year’s $9.5-million operating budget. Administrators aim to make up any shortfall—last year’s box office receipts totalled $6.3 million—from corporate and private donations and fund-raising events.

Newton argues enthusiastically for the in-

trinsic merits of the lighter period pieces favored by the festival. “These works help recreate the context of an entire era,” he said. “To fully understand Shaw, for example, you must also understand the popular theatre of his time. After all, he drew on the techniques of popular theatre, even as he transcended them.” Newton also says that the festival has a role to play in restoring unjustly forgotten artists. “Look at Noël Coward,” he said, recalling that the festival’s 1985-1986 production of Coward’s Cavalcade helped revive interest in the playwright in Canada. “When he was in his 60s he was regarded as washed up, a has-been. But now he is seen as one of the major figures of the 20th century.”

Newton’s fastidiousness in his choice of plays is matched by the care he has lavished on cultivating an outstanding company of actors, which over the years has included such talents as Heath Lamberts—who starred in the Shaw’s big 1982-1983 hit, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac—Douglas Rains, Frances Hyland, Michael Ball and Kate Trotter. They are renowned for bringing an energetic clarity to their specialty, the works of Shaw, and an infectious sense of fun to the lighter plays. They also display a communal spirit that reflects an almost family-like cohesiveness.

Newton, a fine actor himself, deserves much of the credit for that. He speaks of the company as a kind of home base for actors—there are 80 this year, as well as more than 500 technical staff—and has encouraged a sense of belonging by keeping places open for artists who want to work for a season or two with other theatres. Katherine Holmes, a former communications director for the festival, says that Newton’s caring attitude stems from his personal life. “Christopher has no family of his own,” she pointed out, “and I think the company fills that need for him.” Holmes also said that, backstage, Newton sets an example that discourages the growth of a class system among cast and crew. “When Christopher is playing a role, he won’t even take a dressing room for him| self,” she noted. “He sets up his table £ in the large dressing room, where 15 or 16 actors are getting ready at the same time.”

The festival’s 27th season, which opened on May 24 with Shaw’s Man and Superman and runs to Oct. 15, is typical. Of the 10 scheduled productions, only Man and Superman, directed by Newton himself, and Henrik Ibsen’s early classic, Peer Gynt, could be described as heavyweights. The rest are easier to digest, although not so well known. Indeed, some of them have been rescued by the festival from the dustbin of theatre history. Last week’s openings included four such works: J. B. Priestley’s psychological thriller, An Inspector Calls; the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman comedy Once in a Lifetime-, John L. Balderston’s Berkeley Square, based on an unfinished novel by Henry James; and the 1927 musical Good News, which con-

Born in the English Channel town of Deal, Newton dreamed as a child of becoming a musician. But he spent many boyhood hours pumping gas in one of the stations owned by his father, who was also a schoolteacher. His mother was Welsh and, Newton says, “poetically inclined.” When he left England at the age of 20 to do graduate work in the United States, he had his eye on a career as a university teacher. Then, while pursuing his studies at various midwestem American universities— he eventually earned a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Illinois—he fell in love with acting. He considered going to New York City, he said, but “it was all

too daunting.” Instead, he travelled to Canada, where he toured the country with the Canadian Players company in the early 1960s and, later, took on major roles at the Stratford Festival.

In 1968, undaunted by the fact that he had never directed a professional play, he became the founding artistic director of Theatre Calga-

ry. Five years later, he began a six-year term as head of the Vancouver Playhouse. Then, in 1980, he accepted the top job at the Shaw Festival, whose organization and finances were

in disarray. Newton encountered early resistance from some festival governors to some of his ideas—including frontal nudity in his 1981 production of Shaw’s Saint Joan. But he survived those storms, reorganized the administration and declared war on a $635,000 accumulated debt, virtually erasing it in five years.

During his tenure, the number of annual stage productions has almost doubled, their scale and quality have grown, and total attendance—just over 300,000 last year—has been main-

tained at more than 80 per cent of capacity.

At the same time, Newton’s own productions of Shaw’s plays have grown steadily in richness and originality. His success directing Shaw is surprising, because when he arrived at the festival, Newton did not care much for the Anglo-Irish playwright. “At first,” he says, “Shaw seemed too mathematical, too abstract to me. That aspect exists in Shaw, of course. But then I began to see that his plays were really about love and about sex. The passionate opinionatedness of his characters—it is part of their tremendous sexual drive, of their need for love.”

Now, Newton sees plenty at the Shaw Festival to keep him busy, including an uncertain financial picture. Last year, for the first time since he waged his war against major debt, the festival incurred a serious deficit on annual operations— $184,000—because of increased costs. The shortage of cash means that Newton must put on indefinite hold his plans to establish a winter base for his company in Toronto that would enable it to perform year-round and to present more contemporary works. It also makes it unlikely that the festival will build a new theatre—which Newton has lobbied for in the past—to replace its three facilities, the 863-seat Festival Theatre, the 351-capacity Royal George and the 344-seat Court House theatres.

Newton says that he now plans to focus on making more effective use of the existing . resources while refining production values. - That is a process, he says, that cannot be hurried. “You must take care of a garden—or a I theatre—for a considerable length of time to u achieve anything worthwhile,” he said. With that approach, Christopher Newton seems certain to continue cultivating new ideas in order to keep Niagara-on-the-Lake’s garden of dramatic delights perennially fresh.

JOHN BEMROSE