Wednesday, June 13, 2012


More than five years ago, Andrew, writing about our plans for a 2007 summer trip, revealed that his parents, for years and years and years, had requested brochures from Canada’s two summer theater festivals, The Stratford Shakespeare Festival and The Shaw Festival, without once attending a single performance at either festival.

To this day, Andrew’s parents still have not gone near Stratford or Niagara-On-The-Lake (although, in an internet age, they no longer find it necessary to order brochures through the mail in order to learn about the summer productions at each venue).

That situation will change within the next two months.

Three years ago, over Labor Day Weekend 2009, Andrew and I decided to attend The Shaw Festival.

Andrew and I were living in Boston at the time, and there was nothing in Boston we had wanted to do over Labor Day Weekend—and, looking for a short out-of-town trip for the holiday weekend, we had settled upon The Shaw Festival, there being frequent and convenient flights between Boston and Buffalo. It had been a snap for us to fly to Buffalo, cross the Canadian border, and be in Niagara-On-The-Lake in no time flat.

We enjoyed that long weekend, even though summer 2009 had not, from a repertory perspective, been a good year for The Shaw Festival. 2009 was the year The Shaw presented all ten of Noel Coward’s one-act plays, and such a concentration of little-known Coward was not a hit with critics or the public.

We saw five plays that weekend: two Shaw plays, neither from his top drawer (“The Devil’s Disciple” and “In Good King Charles’s Golden Days”); an O’Neill play not among O’Neill’s finest (“A Moon For The Misbegotten”); a cynical, post-war commercial comedy (“Born Yesterday”); and a Sondheim musical, lamely staged and lamely presented (“Sunday In The Park With George”). We had managed to avoid all the Coward plays, but we had been forced to see other plays we would never have gone out of our way to see.

That weekend, Andrew and I had found the quality of performance at The Shaw somewhat lower than we had expected. In 2009, we thought The Shaw had been two notches below London’s National Theatre and one notch below The Guthrie—which would not have mattered much had the repertory on offer been more pleasing to us.

This summer, The Shaw has a splendid lineup of plays, much better than 2009—and we are going to return to Niagara-On-The-Lake the week after Labor Day and see all ten mainstage productions.

Andrew’s parents will join us—in fact, it was they who suggested the trip once they saw how appealing was this year’s Shaw repertory—and Alex will be participating in the trip, too. The Shaw will be everyone’s 2012 summer vacation.

It should be a low-key and stress-free few days: a daily matinee and a daily evening performance, interspersed with lots of good food. Andrew’s father proclaimed that we will be required to be in STRICT relaxation mode, sleeping in each morning, enjoying a nice breakfast, moseying around town for an hour or two, enjoying a nice lunch, attending the matinee, enjoying a post-matinee afternoon tea (if we feel like it), enjoying a nice dinner, and attending the evening performance (followed by a light late-night supper if we feel like it).

Andrew’s mother should love it—and so should everyone else.

We shall fly into Toronto (much easier to get to from Minneapolis than Buffalo), rent a car, and drive down to Niagara-On-The-Lake. Our hotel will be the same hotel at which Andrew and I stayed three years ago. Andrew and I liked that hotel very much, and we are confident that Andrew’s parents will like it, too. It is perfectly situated for walking to all three venues used by The Shaw.

There are many parallels between The Shaw and The Guthrie.

The Shaw has roughly the same annual budget as The Guthrie. Both The Shaw and The Guthrie use three theaters. Both institutions offer roughly the same number of productions each year. Both employ literally hundreds of persons full-time. Both tend to offer traditional stagings. Both are, I believe, inherently conservative institutions, in the business of preservation, not innovation. The Shaw’s Jackie Maxwell and The Guthrie’s Joe Dowling are at the very top of their profession, among the most respected theater professionals in the English-speaking world.

Both institutions have weathered the economic downturn with ease, neither reducing the number of annual presentations and neither suffering a loss of quality.

The same apparently cannot be said of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which has seen its audience contract for years on end. (The Shaw Festival’s audience grew by five per cent in 2011; The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s audience contracted by thirteen per cent in 2011, its tenth consecutive annual decline.)

There must be something wrong with The Stratford Shakespeare Festival. If its audience is dwindling, either it is offering the wrong repertory mix or its productions are displeasing.

According to Andrew’s father, The Stratford Shakespeare Festival was a major theatrical destination in the 1970s—in fact, it was THE unmissable summer festival for a period lasting more than ten years, beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the early 1980s.

Apparently EVERYONE interested in theater—whether Canadian, American, British or Australian—attended the festival in its glory years. Productions featured the finest actors and directors from London, New York and elsewhere. Festival presentations attracted worldwide, in-depth press coverage. Productions often became the basis for major theatrical hits on both sides of The Atlantic.

Something happened in the 1980s. The festival lost its status as the world’s most vital summer festival—and with that loss came a permanent loss of cachet. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is today just one more in an endless series of summer festivals throughout North America and Europe. No one pays much attention to it any more.

Someday I would like to attend The Stratford Shakespeare Festival—but not this year. Its announced presentations for 2012 are of far less interest to me than the presentations at The Shaw.

Someday I would also like to attend The Spoleto Festival in Charleston, and the summer opera festivals in Glimmerglass and Santa Fe. In Europe, I would like to attend, at least once, the summer festivals at Edinburgh, Glyndebourne, Aix-En-Provence, Salzburg and Bayreuth—even though I am told, by persons in positions to know, that standards at all such festivals have declined grievously in recent decades.

In 2009, Andrew and I (and my family) were in Salzburg for two days coincident with The Salzburg Music Festival. The cheapest ticket to a festival event was $450.00—for a Martha Argerich recital—and, needless to say, we were unwilling to shell out $450.00 per seat to hear Argerich (unless she had promised to blow up the concert hall for a final encore). It is no wonder that Andrew’s father refers to The Salzburg Music Festival as The Salzburg Money Festival.

Festival prices are getting out of hand. Five days at The Shaw Festival will cost us more than ten days in Paris—an alternative destination we considered but rejected—because we are laying out thousands of dollars for theater tickets (it is too late for us to acquire money-saving season passes). Festivals may now be within reach only of the well-heeled—and, for me, that detracts significantly from their appeal.

In the Upper Midwest, the most important summer festival, oddly, is in the State Of Minnesota. It is The Minnesota Beethoven Festival, a three-week-long event held each July in Winona and devoted primarily—but not exclusively—to chamber music.

The Minnesota Beethoven Festival, not yet ten years old, is largely unknown outside Minnesota—yet it has attracted leading musicians from all over the world since its inception. Its performances invariably sell out before the festival even commences.

Next month, for the first time, we shall attend a performance at The Minnesota Beethoven Festival. We shall attend one of two performances by the Leipzig String Quartet.

It will be our only concert or recital of the summer.

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