The Speed of Ideas: Shaw Festival Takes Bold Steps to Catch up with its Namesake
By Marcia Johnson
I have just returned from an exhilarating weekend at the Shaw Festival. Those words would lead you to believe that I was referring to seeing great theatre. Well, that is true. I did see Heartbreak House and On the Rocks (both by Shaw) and I also saw Pulitzer prize winner Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Obsidian’s own Philip Akin. It was a two-hander cast with dream team Kevin Hanchard and Nigel Shawn Williams.
OK, I have to back up. The main reason for my visit was to take in The Speed of Ideas: A Theatrical Forum. The weekend event was held in celebration of Shaw Festival’s fiftieth anniversary season. The idea behind it was to celebrate the forward thinking of the festival’s namesake. George Bernard Shaw caused many a controversy in his day with plays touching on subjects that were not deemed suitable for polite society. Heartbreak House, which I had also seen in 1985 (both productions directed by Christopher Newton) is, among other things, a harsh view of England’s participation in the First World War. The comedy On the Rocks, in a new adaptation by Michael Healey is a scathing comic criticism of the British Prime Minister and his seeming ignorance and apathy toward the unemployed. Both plays were debuted uncomfortably close to the very events that inspired them.
Shaw was not afraid of ruffling feathers or pushing boundaries. But, can the same be said of the Festival that bears his name? Many would say no but there have been promising changes over the years. For many years, only plays written by Shaw or within his lifetime (1856 – 1950) were produced at the Festival. In 2000, the mandate was expanded to include plays written about that period of time, opening the door for original Canadian plays like Coronation Voyage by Michel Marc Bouchard. Most recently, the festival has invited plays that possess the spirit of “out of the box” thinking and social provocation that Shaw’s plays do. Enter Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks in the new Studio Theatre. The play, set in a rooming house, follows the complex relationship of two brothers living on the margins. We’ve come a long way since “Salute to Shaw” at the Court House Theatre in 1962.
But, I’m supposed to be talking about The Speed of Ideas. It began and ended with two Pulitzer-prize winning playwrights, Tony Kushner (Angels in America; Caroline, or Change) and Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog; Hottentot Venus). Between these two interviews were the panels: Inspired by Shaw, adapting Shaw for modern audiences; Reviving the Female Voice, the growing presence of plays by and about women at Shaw; Supermen/Superwomen, Festival ensemble members talk about acting in Shaw’s plays; a keynote address from The Guardian theatre critic, Michael Billington and Directing Shaw (which is exactly what it sounds like).
The big draw for me was the two playwrights. Angels in America is one of my favourite plays and I have been in awe of Suzan-Lori Parks ever since I found out about her writing a play a day over the course of a year (365 Days/365 Plays).
In the spirit of celebrating Shaw’s boundary-pushing ways and the inspiration that I received from hearing and meeting those two fabulous playwrights, I will now write a stream of consciousness essay to encapsulate my visit. I hope it makes sense.
July 21, catch the GO train to Burlington, switch to a GO bus and get off at St. Catharines. It is 38 degrees Celsius in Toronto. Is it supposed to be cooler here? It doesn’t feel like it. I push through the hot sticky air hop into a cab to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The luck continues because the driver, like me listens to CBC Radio and I happen to catch ALL of Paul Kennedy’s documentary on Marshall McLuhan. My favourite moment? McLuhan’s joke, Zeus says to Narcissus: “Watch yourself.”
This is my first time at the Studio Theatre which is nestled in behind the Festival Theatre. My date is Shaw Literary Manager, Joanna Falck. We are both blown away by the performance. At only the third preview, it is in excellent shape.
Philip Akin is my host for the weekend. That evening, Kevin Hanchard comes over with a box of chocolates and the two of us are treated to a wonderful home cooked meal. We catch up, laugh and gossi- ahem, talk about our work. What a great start.
Friday, July 22. Philip loans me a bicycle so that I can get around. It’s the first time I’ve been on a bike in seven years but it comes back to me eventually and Niagara-on-the-Lake is a perfect place for cycling. I see the matinee of Heartbreak House and happen to sit next to my former colleague Susan Feldman, producer of CBC Radio’s Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel. She had also seen the 1985 production and we both compared notes on what we remembered and liked from it. We were both impressed by this current production especially once Act Two began and the woman who had coughed all the way through Act One hadn’t returned.
Afterwards, I bought fudge and jam (it’s the law) and rode back “home”. I had the place to myself for the rest of the trip as Philip went back to Toronto and would come back in time for his interview on Sunday with Ms Parks.