This summer I decided to attend as much theatre as possible. I wanted to reflect on how audiences responded to diverse titles, how directors used the space, how designers created a visual feast, and how the actors conveyed story in a way that connected with me. What impressed me in this quest was the vitality of theatre, the energy of the performers, the enthusiasm of the audience, and the magic created by the production crews. Theatre in Ontario is dynamic and alive.
The Spirit Garden, Cold Springs
My adventure started in June with The Spirit Garden, composed by R. Murray Schafer and presented by SONG. I’ve always loved outdoor theatre. This show was outstanding. Imagine walking through a path in a farmer’s field in the rolling hills of Northumberland as story and music envelops you from many directions. The show was set at Fifth Wind Farm in Cold Springs and the panoramic views provided the most beautiful backdrop. Schafer’s composition performed by a range of choirs and musicians was so moving to hear outdoors, the sounds echoing those I’ve heard in nature. I had goosebumps for nearly the whole show. This was certainly a special theatre experience and although it was the first show I attended this summer, it is the show that affected me as an audience member most deeply.
The Capitol Theatre, Port Hope
Next I went to see Crazy for You at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope in early July. I first saw this production in the mid-1990s in Toronto (Mirvish). My parents took me for my birthday. In high school I had deconstructed musicals for a major research project, looking at how the story is told through song in both of the acts, and tracing the trends in story structure in musicals from Gilbert and Sullivan to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
I remember watching Crazy for You years ago and thinking about the writing–but only after watching it this summer when I ended up thinking about the writing again. This time I wasn’t thinking just about story structure, but about humour too. I loved how the audiences laughed out loud at the cheesiest puns. It was as though we were looking for a moment to laugh, probably to release the joy inside us from watching the dancing. So as the high energy show rolled on, I had a wonderful time reflecting on comedic timing (in the writing, directing, and acting). I’ll return there at the end of the month to see Mamma Mia.
Driftwood Theatre Group
In the summer of 1999 I worked with Driftwood Theatre Group touring Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night around southern Ontario. It was an incredible experience. So I always try to find time to attend a Driftwood show each summer. There is something almost sacred about outdoor theatre. The breeze, the setting sun, and the open sky all heighten my senses, bringing my whole body into the theatre-space, rather than just my mind. My friend Shelly and I loved this summer’s Taming of the Shrew.
From the talented cast to the fun use of music to the exploration of theme (1980s Pride Week), the show was among my favourite Driftwood plays. The use of the stage fascinated me too: multiple entry points, shaped-boxes as furniture, audience sitting on three-sides. I loved the intimacy this created between the cast and the audience.
The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake
My big theatre adventure this summer was to attend The Shaw Festival. I had only been once before as a chaperone on a school trip in 2006 to see Saint Joan. I remember being captivated by the town and Shaw. In university I took an Irish Drama course and studied a number of Shaw’s plays. I love how Shaw can go for the jugular in his writing. He tells a story that is entertaining while provoking the audience to see or think or feel differently.
So I booked a small trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake and brought my 15-year-old nephew with me. Four plays in two days at The Shaw Festival. As he said, “That’s going to be exhausting.” And it was! But we both found it exhilarating too! And the town was also a highlight. Great dining, beautiful flowers, and according to my nephew it was a hotbed of Pokemon Go stops.
First we saw Our Town by Thornton Wilder. We had never seen it before and I felt it was important for our theatre education. I loved the simplistic set, the storytelling to the audience, and the way the play sneaks up on you for an ending that leaves your spine tingling. You know, that whoa moment. Thornton Wilder is a playwriting genius. I get that now. I can see why this play deserves a spot in the theatre canon. At first I was resistant to enter this world of Grover’s Corners. I wasn’t prepared for the simplicity, the pace, the details. By the end of Act One I was hooked. Then by the end of the show I was disappointed to leave this town and these people. The story provides the audience with big spaces for reflecting. Shaw staged a compelling production that continues to haunt me nearly a month later.
Next we went to see The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. It was adapted for the stage by Lisa Codrington from Bernard Shaw’s short story. This play was a highlight of the festival for both my nephew and I–and our favourite of the four plays, which was a surprise to us both. It was a lunchtime one-act with the running time of about an hour. I had selected it because I’m curious about adaptations and I wanted to see something that was done by a current playwright. From beginning to end this show was outstanding. Natasha Mumba was AMAZING! Truly.
After lunch we attended a matinee performance of Alice in Wonderland. Kudos to the Shaw Festival and Peter Hinton for blowing our minds with the visual splendour of this show. Our jaws dropped many times from the gorgeous sets to the amazing effects. The beginning of the show is highly engaging, however most of the wow moments happen within the first hour so as the story progressed our interest waned a bit. I think it’s the classic story structure idea of building–when a show starts at such a high point of engagement (and for such a lengthy time–nearly an hour of visual surprises) our mind comes to expect it. So when the story is told through ways we expect in theatre (after an hour of surprise) it feels flat. We were glad to see the show and I still recommend it.
Finally, we watched an evening preview performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street–the play that led us to the Shaw Festival in the first place. I’ve been taking my nephew to plays since he was three. Literally. We’ve seen many productions together over the years. Each year I ask him, “So of all the plays we’ve seen, which is your favourite?”
And he always answers, “The one with the blood.” Macbeth. It was a Driftwood Theatre Group production we attended on the grounds at Trafalgar Castle in Whitby years ago, The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Abridged. Sabastian was probably six or seven…very young. He LOVED the Macbeth scene. He NEEDED to see Sweeney Todd.
First we loved that Benedict Campbell played the Stage Manager in Our Town and Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. (In fact, we loved seeing many actors in multiple productions over the two days.) Sabastian also commented on the dramatic transformation of the stage from Alice in Wonderland. It was a fascinating sharing of worlds that you can only get from festival productions.
We were both very tired when the show began (from already seeing three shows…haha!) but within minutes of the show Sabastian turned to me and whispered, “Whoa. I won’t be falling asleep in this one.”
Sweeney Todd was new to him and he loved it (we sang all the way back to the hotel).
My favourite performance was by Marcus Nance who played Judge Turpin. His presence, voice, intensity–all were of Broadway calibre. Sabastian loved Kyle Blair who played an energetic Adolfo Pirelli.
It was an excellent production and our favourite of the big shows we saw at Shaw Festival.
So what is the big take-away from a summer of adventures at the theatre?
Ontario has no shortage of talented theatre-makers, choice of shows, and theatre audiences. Each performance was well-attended. In an age of Netflix and ubiquitous entertainment, I am thrilled to see so many people going out to watch live theatre. Theatre is alive and well in Ontario. I barely scratched the surface on what’s out there. Which shows did you enjoy this summer?