English-speaking Canadian actors playing English-speaking Canadians such as William Lyon Mackenzie and Joe Clark on a stage in Niagara-on-the-Lake?
The Shaw Festival's new artistic director Tim Carroll announced his first season on Thursday – and probably the biggest surprise, the type of surprise that could really only be a surprise at a major, well-funded theatre in this country, is that there are two plays set in English Canada on the bill.
1837: The Farmer's Revolt, a 1973 play about the Upper Canada Rebellion led by Mackenzie and written by Rick Salutin for/with Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille, will be staged at the Royal George by director Philip Akin.
Meanwhile, 1979, Michael Healey's yet-to-be staged comedy about Joe Clark's brief reign, will play in the Studio Theatre – a co-production with Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company.
"1837 is the kind of play that has always appealed to me: it's irreverent, frankly theatrical, with lots of opportunities for music and movement, and full of passion, both political and personal," Carroll said in an e-mail interview. "[It] tells an incredible story that has deepened my understanding of the history of this region and of Canada."
If you sighed or shrugged at the hiring of Carroll, an English director, to head the Shaw Festival – assuming that meant that the country's least post-colonial theatrical institution was still stuck in its ways, perhaps his first-season announcement will change your mind. Perhaps it was designed as such.
Sure, there's nothing as startling in it as Carroll's predecessor Jackie Maxwell's programming of Michel Marc Bouchard's The Coronation Voyage on the Festival Theatre in her first season, back in 2003.
But, lest we overstate Maxwell's nationalist credentials, let us not forget that during her time in command, she only once found an English-language Canadian play set in Canada worthy of producing at the Festival.
This was pretty much the general state of affairs at English Canadian theatres until the 1970s – when shows like 1837 came along at theatres like Theatre Passe Muraille, reacting to the dominance of places like Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival.
In his production diary, Salutin recalls how the opening-night audience in Toronto tittered at a reference to a local intersection. "We are so imbued with self-denial, so colonized, that the very thought of something historic happening here, at Bay and Adelaide, draws laughs," he wrote.
It will be interesting to see how it plays in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2017. In a larger sense, however, Carroll's first season is intriguing, but not a radical shift – a prudent balance of continuity and change.
The change portion involves more contemporary North American theatre. In addition to 1979, the Shaw will produce the much-anticipated Canadian premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's race-bending off-Broadway hit An Octoroon (directed by Peter Hinton); and Middletown, American playwright Will Eno's 2010 surreal response to Our Town (director TBD).
In the Festival Theatre, the 856-seater that has proved hard to fill in recent seasons, Carroll's programming emulates the current season: a musical, an adaptation of well-known literary work and a mandate classic.
Me and My Girl, a 1937 Pygamalion-esque musical with music by Noel Gay and book revised by Stephen Fry in the 1980s, will be directed by Ashlie Corcoran, artistic director of the Thousand Islands Playhouse.
Bram Stoker's Dracula, in an adaptation by Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead, will be helmed by longtime Shaw director Eda Holmes.
And Saint Joan, arguably Bernard Shaw's masterpiece, will be directed by self-proclaimed "Shaw virgin" Carroll himself. He will direct a lesser-known second play, Androcles and the Lion, by the namesake playwright in the 313-seat Royal George, too.
"I never expected to be doing two Shaw plays this year, and I had never thought of doing Androcles and the Lion, but when I read it I had such a strong reaction that I realized I had to follow my instinct," wrote Carroll.
Once upon the time the Shaw Festival was all about the plays of Bernard Shaw – and, later, other plays written during his lifetime – from 1856 to 1950.
Carroll's inclusion of plays called 1837 and 1979, here, shows the obliteration of that original mandate. But so does his programming of The Madness of George III (English playwright Alan Bennett's 1991 play; to be directed by Kevin Bennett) and Dancing at Lughnasa (Irish playwright Brian Friel's 1990 hit; to be directed by Krista Jackson) – both at the Royal George next season.
"The Shaw certainly seems to have a tradition whereby each new Artistic Director reinterprets or expands the mandate," wrote Carroll – adding that he's accepted Bernard Shaw as "a guiding spirit."
Rounding out Carroll's 2017 season: Wilde Tales – a lunchtime one-act by Kate Hennig that adapts Oscar Wilde's Stories for Children for the stage. It will be directed by Christine Brubaker – who along with Bennett, Corcoran, Jackson and 1979's Eric Coates are all directing at the Shaw Festival for the first time.
"I have been racking up the miles and seeing a lot of terrific work, from these directors and from others with whom I am talking about future seasons," wrote Carroll. "These are all directors where I was not only impressed by what I saw, but by the sincerity of their desire to do work that comes from the heart."