North America’s two largest seasonal professional theater festivals are both within an easy drive of Toronto: the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake (about an hour and a half away) and the Stratford Festival in the town of Stratford (about an hour and 45 minutes away). Both festivals run through October, so it’s not too late to book a theater getaway. Here’s what you need to know about these Ontario theater events:
Launched in 1962 to produce works by noted Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, the Shaw Festival now mounts plays by Shaw, his contemporaries, and more modern-day authors during its annual April-to-October season.
Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, just a short drive from Niagara Falls, the Shaw Festival produces plays in repertory on four stages. This season’s main stage shows, at the 856-seat Festival Theatre, include the musical Guys and Dolls, Oscar Wilde’s satirical comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan, and Enchanted April, in which two London housewives escape to Italy for a month.
Shaw fans will want to see his classic Major Barbara, which is running at the historic Royal George Theatre along with Our Betters, by William Somerset Maugham, and Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. At the Court House Theatre, this season’s shows include Peace in Our Time: A Comedy, written by John Murrell and adapted from Shaw’s Geneva; the musical The Light in the Piazza by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss); and Trifles (Lunchtime One-Acts) by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is onstage at the intimate Studio Theatre.
For an insider’s view of the Shaw Festival, take the hour-long backstage tour at the Festival Theatre. You’ll learn about the festival’s history, visit the dressing rooms and wardrobe shop, and tour the rehearsal hall, where the staff estimates that actors rehearse one hour for each minute they spend onstage.
A Loaf Of Bread, A Glass Of Wine
Shaw once wrote that “there’s no love sincerer than the love of food,” and a good choice for cuisine to appreciate before the show is the Stone Road Grille, where the contemporary creations range from Ontario beef tartar to Lake Erie pickerel paired with foraged ramps.
Several of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s more than two-dozen wineries offer wine-focused dining rooms. Try the casual-chic restaurant amid the vines at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery for French bistro fare with Niagara ingredients (such as the Ravine-raised pork terrine) or linger over a leisurely Mediterranean lunch of salads, pizzas, and pastas at Southbrook Vineyards’ Bistro.
Like the Shaw Festival, the Stratford Festival, which produced its first shows in 1953, started with the works of one playwright — William Shakespeare. These days, Stratford’s stages showcase works by the Bard and by other classical and contemporary playwrights.
The Stratford Festival is wooing Shakespeare lovers this season with Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Measure for Measure. Other plays on the 2013 calendar include Fiddler on the Roof, The Three Musketeers, Tommy, Blithe Spirit, Mary Stuart, Waiting for Godot, Taking Shakespeare, and the world premiere of Judith Thompson’s The Thrill.
Beyond the plays, the festival offers a variety of theater tours, lectures and special events. A fascinating behind-the-scenes activity is the one-hour tour of Stratford’s massive costume and props warehouse. With more than 55,000 gowns, capes, pantaloons and other garments, it’s one of the largest in North America. You’ll learn tricks like how costume designers make a thin actor look properly portly or how to create props from ordinary household objects.
Where To Eat When The Play’s The Thing
After meeting as students at the highly regarded Stratford Chefs School, the husband-and-wife owners of Bijou built their casually sophisticated modern French bistro into one of Stratford’s most creative restaurants, featuring a seasonally changing array of Ontario ingredients with dishes ranging from local asparagus and pickled mushroom to an elk tenderloin with bacon.
Other top dining choices include The Prune, one of Stratford’s original fine dining restaurants with exquisite choices — think braised veal cheek or duck breast with black currant. There’s also Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria, with a stylish Italian bistro on the main floor, with choices from lobster cannelloni to T-bone steak, and a first-rate pizza joint on the lower level. In addition, find the more formal Rundles Restaurant, where you might sup on herb-roasted rack of lamb, pan-fried halibut, or grilled veal cutlet served with Jerusalem artichokes and creamed spinach.
Where To Stay For The Play
Book a room at the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Trump International Hotel & Tower Toronto for a perfect downtown stay not too far away from the festival action. Take a break from the shows in the heated infinity-edged lap pool, luxurious rooms and enormous suites that play the role of your own personal condo.
Photos Courtesy of The Stratford Festival, Richard Bain, The Shaw Festival and David Cooper