With the first frantic week of openings just behind us, it’s safe to say that the Shaw Festival’s 47th season will be a vintage year. Like the master vintners at the wineries which surround Niagara-on-the Lake, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has lovingly acquired the ingredients (scripts, directors, actors, designers and musicians) in the off season, mixed them carefully during rehearsals, let them ferment and mature during the oh-so-necessary previews before bottling the relationship-rich productions into the trio of venues that are as diverse as the plays within.
With the details below, those who admire the thrust-and-parry of cross examination will enjoy J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls. George Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married has as much if not more to say today than at its première at the Haymarket Theatre, London a century ago—not even a case of viral laryngitis could dampen the first night enthusiasm.
The North American première of Githa Sowerby’s recently discovered The Stepmother had Maxwell’s instincts and intuition firing on all cylinders. In the must-see category comes Lillian Hellman’s masterful pillory of greed, chauvinism and racism in the South; The Little Foxes. Sharry Flett’s performance is a gem.
Musicals are also well represented with Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town and Stephen Sondheim’s close-harmony wonder, A Little Night Music.
Rounding out the richly-varied playbill is Shaw’s “scandalous” (at the time) Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a reprise of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Belle Moral, Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance and this year’s lunchtime quickie, Molnar’s zany comedy, The President.
With so many of the plots delving into the challenges of family life, and the Shaw’s company being a defacto family of its own from March to November, Pulse tracked down actor Maggie Blake to reflect from London (via Germany and e-mail) on her time with the troupe.
We started off by looking back.
“Some of my fondest memories of working at the Shaw come from my first season there, in 1995. I was 12 years old and cast in Christopher Newton’s production of Cavalcade. The cast, I think, had 40 plus actors in it, 5 of which included kids … a large majority of them were given a makeshift dressing room in rehearsal hall 1—so that the women, men, and children were separated by partitions. I loved being in this big, bustling, energized room. As kids, we’d always try to overhear conversations that the adults were having. It felt like being a part of a huge artistic family, and over the years I came to realize that that’s what the Shaw is sort of all about,” wrote Blake.
Comparing audiences was also instructive.
“The English culture obviously has much more of a history with classical theatre and that, in turn, also involves the manners and practice of viewing a play. I’m obviously speaking very generally and in stereotypes here, but I sometimes worry that this holds back the progression and true appreciation of theatre by its audience. I have, however, seen amazing productions in London (particularly Ann Marie Duff’s Saint Joan at the National Theatre) where people were so moved by the performances and production that the standing ovation lasted much longer than even the cast seemed prepared for. I think it also depends on what type of theatre you see—I’m finding that the fringe culture (which is soooo huge in London!) is far more supported by the audience.”
These days, it seems a miracle that an entire performance can escape an intrusion from electronic reminders and ring tones. How does an actor deal with that?
“Unfortunately, audience disruption is something that performers always have to deal with. I can get irritated and frustrated, but try not to let it affect what is happening with me, my scene partner, the play, etc. As an actor, it’s something that I know is an inevitability and understand it’s a part of the job to not let any interruption upset my performance.”
With so many choices for art and entertainment, why take in a play?
“Ah, what a huge question! Because it allows us, forces us, REMINDS us, to see ourselves, to actually see—the world around us, the grand ideas, the miniscule moments—what we often forget about in this insanely fast-paced world. I’m not going to lie: I often find Shaw to be too thick, too dense, too preachy, but every time I see one of his plays, it makes me excited to be in the theatre—excited to think and react and laugh and be challenged.”
Let the excitement begin! JWR