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Globe and Mail Theatre critic Kelly Nestruck walks his bike down Queen Street in Niagara On The Lake. Photo By Sheryl Nadler (Sheryl Nadler For The Globe and Mail/Sheryl Nadler For The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail Theatre critic Kelly Nestruck walks his bike down Queen Street in Niagara On The Lake. Photo By Sheryl Nadler (Sheryl Nadler For The Globe and Mail/Sheryl Nadler For The Globe and Mail)

A trip to the Shaw that Shaw would approve Add to ...

The thunderstorm didn't faze me, the sunburn didn't faze me and the mysterious pain in my right leg didn't faze me. But when hail suddenly started bouncing off my bicycle helmet, I finally lost my cool on a long, empty stretch of service road between Grimsby and Hamilton.

"Shaw, why have you forsaken me?" I shouted to the sky that was pelting me with pebbles of ice, as I moved my feet furiously and prayed for a truck stop around the next bend.

I was cycling the 130 kilometres back to Toronto from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., after a weekend trip to review John Bull's Other Island and The Doctor's Dilemma at the Shaw Festival, because of a question that nagged at me every time I got stuck in crawling, fume-belching traffic while driving to the Southern Ontario theatre festival: What would Bernard Shaw do?

The Irish playwright was a crusader for many progressive causes and was an evangelical vegetarian opposed to animal cruelty. I have no doubt that, if he were alive today, he would be putting his polemical skills to use writing plays about climate change and the world's poisonous addiction to fossil fuels.

And so, it always seemed to me more than a little ironic that the lone festival in the world dedicated to Shaw's oeuvre is located in a town only easily accessible by car.

Indeed, Canada's two largest repertory theatre companies - the Shaw Festival and its big sister, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont. - are both found in places surprisingly difficult to access by public transportation.

More than 80 per cent of the patrons of both Shaw and Stratford come from more than 80 kilometres away - and the majority of them do so in private vehicles. (Though a significant minority do come by chartered bus - a very environmentally friendly way to travel.)

While the data doesn't exist to calculate the carbon footprint of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to these festivals each year with any accuracy, it must be fairly Sasquatch-sized.

But I could calculate mine. With the help of an online carbon footprint calculator, I estimated that I personally pump about 0.65 tonnes of CO² into the atmosphere during the eight round trips I typically make from Toronto in any given summer. That's a significant setback to my One-Tonne Challenge - and no doubt a real disappointment to Rick Mercer.

Both the Shaw and Stratford festivals have been quietly tackling their environmental impact in recent years by, for example, recycling programs, upgrading to energy-efficient lighting equipment and stopping the use of pesticides and harsh industrial chemicals. When the Shaw Festival replaced the roof of the Royal George Theatre, an accredited LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) architect was used, while in Stratford there are dreams of laying geothermal pipe that would use the Avon River to cool the Festival Theatre.

"In the early part of the decade, [environmental considerations]were coming up more and more and we began to realize that it aligns perfectly with what we do," says Antoni Cimolino, general manager at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. "We present these plays and work with students to make the world a little better place."

But Shaw and Stratford's entrenchment in an increasingly outmoded car culture is a tougher issue to deal with. "There's no reasonable public transport in the Niagara region," says Colleen Blake, executive director of the Shaw Festival. "We sit on a transportation committee for Niagara-on-the-Lake.... It's a real challenge, not just for people outside the region, but people in the region."

And the ramifications for the festivals go beyond greenhouse gases. Fluctuating fuel prices have at times acted as a substantial deterrent to attendance, while the impact of increased traffic congestion is less easily determined.

The difficulty of reaching the festivals by public transport also complicates their battle to attract younger patrons - studies show that Gen-Xers and Millennials are less likely to own a car and drive fewer kilometres than previous generations. Often it isn't the cost of tickets that poses a barrier to members of these generations, but the expense and hassle of getting there.

"My daughter's 27 and she lives in Toronto and doesn't have a car," says Blake. "It's really hard to make a decision to come to Niagara if you don't have wheels."

Both festivals draw patrons from a large geographical region, but the largest share of the audience comes from the Greater Toronto Area. Twenty per cent of Shaw's patrons and 27 per cent of Stratford's come from the GTA, while many other patrons pass through the city on their way to the festivals.

So it is pretty surprising that the transportation options from Toronto are so poor. There are no trains to Niagara-on-the-Lake, while the three Via trains that stop in Stratford along the Toronto-London corridor are badly timed for theatregoers who want to see an evening performance.

"We would love to work with Via Rail to continue to add trains ... or to have a couple that are more appropriately placed," says Cimolino. "It's such a natural complement to coming to Stratford - you can read the plays while you're on your way. We really do hear from our patrons that they want that."

There is no direct commercial bus route from Toronto to Stratford or Niagara-on-the-Lake, either. Stratford does operate a special coach service from Toronto and Kitchener, Ont., on selected Saturdays during the summer. The Shaw Festival tried out a similar shuttle in recent years, but eventually had to cancel the service. (It has recently started sponsoring a shuttle from the St. Catharines, Ont., GO Train and GO Bus terminals, however.)

"We couldn't make it financially sustainable," says Blake. "We're doing everything we can to make the Shaw Festival more accessible, but there are a few things out of our hands."

The weather, for instance, which makes cycling an option for those who don't mind a sudden, surprise hailstorm. My apologies to Rick Mercer, Bernard Shaw and Al Gore, but,  for now, it'll be back to the car for me during Ontario theatre-festival season.

Follow on Twitter: @nestruck

 

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