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The Shaw Festival continues to march to the beat of its own drummer during the pandemic – announcing, on Wednesday, a longer-than-usual 2022 season that will stretch from February to December.
This is a bit of a surprise: Many Ontario theatre companies haven’t felt confident enough to even reveal what they have planned for later this fall or early next year.
Damn Yankees, The Importance of Being Earnest and Cyrano de Bergerac are some of the better-known musicals and plays planned for next year’s playbill at the Niagara-on-the-Lake repertory theatre company.
Artistic director Tim Carroll fully admits that dates of shows could shift around and change as the shows originally announced for 2020 and 2021 seasons did depending on circumstances.
“We’re doing what we did last year: Chuck the rope out into the lake and hope we can catch up with it,” says Carroll.
“Psychologically, for us, having a plan and working to achieve it is perhaps just easier than having secret plans and changing them all the time.”
Indeed, the Shaw Festival is the rare theatre company in the country that didn’t completely cancel its 2020 season when the pandemic broke out. Instead, it essentially kept pushing back openings until it finally could produce some of the planned productions for audiences, which it did starting in July, 2021 – first outdoors, and then indoors.
Next year’s slate of productions, by contrast, is all previously unannounced fare.
Damn Yankees, the 1955 Broadway hit that crossed the Faust legend with baseball, will be the mainstage musical – a decision that was made, believe it or not, before Blue Jays fans screamed the title en masse as their playoff chances were ruined on Sunday by a walk-off hit by Bronx Bomber Aaron Judge.
Brian Hill, the New York-based Canadian musical writer, is set to direct.
The other two shows planned for the 856-seat Festival Theatre are Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Carroll; and Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, directed by the actor-director Diana Donnelly.
The latter is an intriguing choice of show given it is probably the comedy in which Shaw most showcased his skepticism about modern medical science – though it is also happens to be one of his best.
“It doesn’t promote Shaw’s so-called anti-vaxxer agenda,” says Carroll. “It does present a bunch of ludicrous doctors and invites us to wonder what we are putting our trust in when we put our trust in medicine.”
In the more intimate Royal George Theatre, director Chris Abraham’s acclaimed production of Cyrano de Bergerac, in a version by Kate Hennig, is first on the stage in 2022, getting an early-season victory lap from March 20 to May 8.
Then, Gaslight will open in a new adaptation by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson that, according to Carroll, reworks the deus ex machina ending of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Victorian-style thriller (which is in the public domain in Canada, but not yet in the United States). Kelli Fox will direct.
Chitra – a century-old one-act play by Rabindranath Tagore based on a tale from the Mahabharata – will be the lunchtime show at the Royal George, directed by Kimberley Rampersad. (The new epic Why Not theatre adaptation Mahabharata – announced several years ago now by that Toronto-based company and the Shaw Festival – is, unfortunately delayed once again owing to it involving international collaborators.)
Just To Get Married, a little-known 1911 play by the suffragette Cicely Hamilton, rounds out the programming at the Royal George. Severn Thompson, who acted in a much-lauded production of Hamilton’s play Diana of Dobson’s all the way back in 2003, returns to the Shaw Festival to direct.
The Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre is being used in a couple of unusual ways in 2022.
First, it will play host to Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of the beautiful Keith Barker play This is How We Got Here in February – not usually a time of year when the Shaw Festival is up and running.
Then, later in the year, it will be home to a production of Too True to Be Good, by festival namesake Bernard Shaw, who’s usually too good for the company’s smallest stage. It will be directed by Sanjay Talwar.
Everybody, a riff on the medieval morality play Everyman by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon), will get its Canadian premiere in a production from the Hungarian director Laszlo Berczes starting in June in the Studio, before Gem of the Ocean, the first of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle on the African-American experience, joins it there, fittingly, in August, directed by Philip Akin.
In November and December, 2022, the Shaw Festival is again planning a holiday season with A Christmas Carol and the musical White Christmas.
On top of all that, the theatre company has decided to continue with outdoor performances in 2022, pandemic or no pandemic: A Short History of Niagara, a puppet play by Alexandra Montagnese and Mike Petersen, will be revived on the BMO Stage and also be presented at nearby Fort George, while a promenade production called Fairground will return on the festival grounds.
If this seems like ambitious programming given all the uncertainty, Carroll says the company has been buoyed by audiences demand for its continuing 2021 programming. “There’s good pressure on our box office to be able to increase our capacities,” he says. (Ontario theatres are only allowed 50-per-cent capacity audiences.)
Financially, Carroll says it’s a little complicated to say whether the Shaw’s 2021 season will end in the red or the black, but, overall, the company is fine. “We’re going to be okay, we’re going to be still here, and we’re going to be coming out swinging next year,” he says.
Tickets for the 2022 season go on sale Nov. 6 to “Friends of The Shaw” and on Dec. 4 to the general public.