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Shaw survives season of suffering
Toronto Star- 5/ 1/ 2004
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE—The theatre gods had a rough welcome waiting in the wings for Jackie Maxwell last summer in what was her first season as artistic director of the Shaw Festival.Plagues of biblical proportions rained down on Niagara-on-the-Lake during 2003 — the SARS outbreaks, the war with Iraq, the blackout.Tourists stayed away in droves and the end result was a deficit of $3 million, of which $2.5 million was attributable to falling attendances."I have to shore up the ditches here," admits Maxwell, sitting in her new office in the festival's nearly completed rehearsal hall complex beside the Festival Theatre."But I have to do it without backtracking artistically on what I want to do." The 2004 season at Niagara-on-the-Lake opens on Thursday with Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, directed by Maxwell and starring Tara Rosling as Eliza Doolittle and Jim Mezon as Henry Higgins. At first blush, the playbill may suggest a more populist bent. Of the 12 productions, seven are comedies, and two more — Rodgers and Hart's masterpiece Pal Joey and Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins — are musicals.But true to her word, there is no backtracking on Maxwell's commitment to Canadian theatre. Two of the productions highlight Canadian drama — George F. Walker's Nothing Sacred, written in 1988, and John Murrell's Waiting For The Parade which dates back to1977.Both have pedigree and a history of successful productions.Nevertheless, Walker, a prolific and highly respected Toronto playwright who has been writing since 1972, has never had a play produced by either of Canada's two major summer festivals. Maxwell has now corrected this surprising oversight. And what's more, Nothing Sacred will be staged at the mainstage Festival Theatre.That continues the message spelled out last season, when a tough, newish Canadian play, Michel Marc Bouchard's The Coronation Voyage, shared the Festival Theatre for much of the summer with Toronto actor/playwright Susan Coyne's adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters. It was a bold move that unravelled in light of events.Maxwell realizes now that two high-risk works on the Festival stage was probably one too many. "The Festival Theatre is very vulnerable," she admits.Coronation Voyage was a gritty, unsettling play but Maxwell insists that, judging by anecdotal evidence, the reaction from the festival's core audience was "overtly positive.""I was quite prepared to armour myself and receive a lot of brickbats but that wasn't the case at all. People said they wanted to hear their (Canadian) voice on that stage. So I can take heart here. The people who come to our shows are reacting well." She believes the challenge is a different one: to spread the word — to Toronto in particular. "Do the people that we want to know about these shows actually know they are happening?"Actor Goldie Semple, starting her 12th season with the festival, says some casts were disappointed about last season, with all its mishaps. "Jackie wants Canadian plays and we are all for it, so you have to be prepared to bite the bullet on that one until it settles itself in."Everyone is positive about the calibre of productions at the festival, Semple says, and opening night of The Coronation Voyage was genuinely exciting. "There was a sense of Canadians applauding the fact that we had this lovely production of an interesting play on the main stage. It was a very brave and gorgeous gesture."For her part, Maxwell is determined to maintain a contemporary presence at the Festival Theatre, which is why George Walker has finally made it to the Shaw. Meanwhile, comedy reigns supreme at that theatre. Beyond Pygmalion, there's the George Abbott/John Cecil Holm farce Three Men On A Horse and Shaw's philosophical comedy Man And Superman."Both the Shaws are plays I want to see performed and we haven't done for ages. And both sell," says Maxwell.Laughing all the way to the bank? Well, maybe. "There is no doubt that I feel pressure for it to work," she says wryly.The program at the Royal George Theatre is audience-friendly too, with the classic Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey, Oscar Wilde's enduring comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest and Waiting For The Parade there for the summer, joined for a month or so by the lunchtime one-act Harlequinade.The Court House Theatre has one comedy — Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! — but the other offerings there are made of sterner stuff. Rutherford And Son by Githa Sowerby is about a tyrannical father and continues the Shaw tradition of theatrical archeology. Floyd Collins is an unusual and thoughtful musical written in 1994 by Adam Guettel, with book by Tina Landau, and John Millington Synge's one-act play The Tinker's Wedding reflects Maxwell's interest in Irish drama.Maxwell has also taken the unusual step of dividing the traditional opening week into two. Pygmalion, Earnest and Three Men On A Horse debut next week, while Pal Joey and Ah, Wilderness! open at the end of the month.She cites a couple of reasons for this. Rehearsals and previews are happening earlier and one show had 23 previews last year before finally opening. "I find the full week brutal and it is hard on the last couple of shows. Why not open them when they are ready?"And there is lost revenue to consider. Long previews mean shows are being sold cheap, at preview prices.Maxwell admits she was upset by the criticism over last year's deficit: "I was hurt by some of the analysis because I felt some of it was unjust." When she put out 60 offers to various actors for the 2004 season, 58 were accepted within 10 days, an indication that the acting company is excited."I am used to it as a director, with good reviews and bad reviews .... But (as artistic director), it happened over and over again. I have got to develop a thicker skin."
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