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Allison Edwards-Crewe in Little Women.David Hou/Stratford Festival

Stratford Festival picksShaw Festival picks

In much of North America, professional summer theatre means either silly theatre – lighthearted farces to catch near the cottage or cabin – or Shakespeare in/on/by [insert park or other outdoor location here].

Southern Ontario, however, has had its own thing going for a very long time now. Its two major destination repertory theatres, both of which are marking milestones this year, usually lure audiences from across the continent with a mix of classics, musicals, contemporary and new plays in high-quality productions.

The Stratford Festival, which held its first season in Stratford in 1953, is celebrating its 70th season in 2022, while the Shaw Festival, which launched in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1962, is celebrating its 60th season.

No, that math doesn’t add up – with one festival counting the cancelled 2020 in-person season toward its total, and the other not.

In any case, the Stratford and Shaw anniversary cycles have now synchronized as they both hope they are on the road to recovery. The goal is simply to start building back toward pre-pandemic numbers, when Stratford might have sold 500,000 tickets a season and Shaw about 250,000 tickets.

In 2021, the Shaw Festival actually surpassed the Stratford Festival for the first time in terms of theatregoers – but that was boasting attendance of just 48,750 (at 445 performances), compared to Stratford’s 34,095 (at 274 performances). This first-place finish was an anomaly due to unusual and shortened seasons – and is unlikely to be repeated soon. (Shaw’s theatres are smaller than Stratford’s.)

The Stratford Festival, which managed a significant surplus in 2021 but must still dig itself out of a whopping 2020 deficit, has a slimmer than usual 10-show season planned for 2022. Artistic director Antoni Cimolino recently had his contract extended by two years to 2026, so he can fully get the festival righted before handing over the reins.

The Shaw Festival, meanwhile, is going bigger than ever in 2022 under artistic director Tim Carroll: Its programming, unusually, began in February and will run all the way to the end of December. (This is helped by the wine-country theatre company having had an easier ride of it the last two years due to a fortuitous purchase of pandemic insurance.)

Here are the shows I’m most looking forward to seeing on each of the stages at the festivals this summer.

Masks and proof of vaccination are required at both festivals – but that may change, so be sure to check the theatres’ websites for updated information on all fronts this summer.

STRATFORD FESTIVAL PICKS

Chicago at the Festival Theatre.
Currently in previews. Runs to October 30. Opens June 3.

Two years ago, when Stratford first planned to produce this Kander and Ebb jazz era-set classic, I probably wouldn’t have placed it ahead of Hamlet or Molière’s The Miser on a list of anticipated productions. But my desire for a little razzle-dazzle has been steadily building during the pandemic. Plus, who knows when we might see director and choreographer Donna Feore show off her stuff on the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage again – as she’s got two Broadway tryouts on the go in the United States.

Little Women at the Avon Theatre.
In previews from June 11. Runs July 7 to October 29.

Playwright Jordi Mand’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women (and its sequel Good Wives) will definitely be the best play in the Avon this season, because it’s the only play in the 1083-seat proscenium theatre this season. I loved what director Esther Jun did with the family show in the open-air at the festival last summer, however, and am excited to see what she does theatrically with the story of Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth following Greta Gerwig’s well-received movie adaptation.

Death and the King’s Horseman at the Tom Patterson Theatre.
In previews from August 11. Runs Aug. 27 to October 29.

The Stratford Festival can get a bit misty about its own history sometimes. It famously launched in 1953 with productions of Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well – and has since trotted out that pairing of Shakespeare plays for several anniversaries and is doing so again this season to properly open its $70-million Tom Patterson Theatre. I’m more excited, frankly, to see the festival do something new in its sparkling new space – and am eager to finally see a production of this much-studied, little-produced post-colonial classic by Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka.

Every Little Nookie at the Studio Theatre.
In previews from June 18. Runs July 9 to October 1.

That new Canadian plays have become more like dessert than eating your vegetables at Stratford over the past decade is the legacy of Bob White, who recently stepped down as the head of new play development. While I’m intrigued by the new Shakespeare-inspired shows in the Studio this season (Hamlet-911 by Ann-Marie MacDonald, and 1939 by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan), I am really in need of a laugh – and so am most looking forward to Every Little Nookie, a new generation-gap comedy by Sunny Drake that’s described as a “high-spirited sex romp.”

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Marion Adler in Every Little Nookie at the Studio Theatre.David Hou/Stratford Festival

SHAW FESTIVAL PICKS

Damn Yankees at the Festival Theatre.
In previews from April 30. Runs May 19 to October 9.

The Shaw Festival started early this year with a short presentation of This is How We Got Here and a remount of Cyrano de Bergerac – but it gets to what, in baseball terms you might call, the heart of the order on April 30 with the first preview performance of Damn Yankees.

Brian Hill is directing this 1955 Broadway musical that crosses the Faust legend with baseball – and features songs by the cut-short-in-their-prime composer/lyricist team Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (whose other hit, before Ross died at age 29, was The Pajama Game).

Just to Get Married at the Royal George Theatre.
In previews from July 27. Runs Aug. 18 to October 16.

Shaw is, and this is not a given any more, producing two Bernard Shaw comedies this year: The Doctor Dilemma, one of the playwright’s best, and Too True to Be Good, one of his weirdest. It’s often the case that plays by Shaw’s lesser-known contemporaries steal his thunder in Niagara-on-the-Lake, however – and this 1911 comedy by suffragette and journalist Cicely Hamilton might just do so this season. A feminist examination of the marriage market a century ago, it’s helmed by Severn Thompson – a fine director who once got raves as an actor in Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s at the Shaw back in 2003.

Gem of the Ocean at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre.
In previews from August 5. Runs Aug. 19 to October 9.

While other canonized American playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee have made regular appearances on their stages, Ontario’s repertory theatre companies have long neglected August Wilson. Director Philip Akin starts to change that this summer by mounting a play from Wilson’s 10-play cycle that chronicled the African-American experience in the 20th century. The 2003 drama was the second-to-last written, but comes first in the cycle chronologically, taking place in 1900s Pittsburgh and introducing the great dramatic creation of Aunt Ester, a “soul-cleanser” who claims to be 285-years-old.

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