Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Another Summer Entertainment Season is Underway

With events of the last few weeks taking up so much of my time, I found I still hadn't gotten around to talking about summer theatre and related events yet, and it is the third week of July already! So, let's get the ball rolling with some thoughts on Elora, Stratford and Shaw in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

This past weekend, rainy weather notwithstanding, we ventured to one of our favourite places to visit on a summer weekend: beautiful Elora, Ontario. Even though we drove through torrential downpours on the way up and as we arrived, the weather failed to dampen our spirits as Sophie and I arrived at The Vickerage B&B in Elora to visit with Susan, who runs one of the nicer and more eclectic B&Bs you'll find anywhere. We were in town for the Hot Fusion concert that evening at the Gambrel Barn, a town works repository for salt and road equipment in the winter and an acoustically perfect music venue in the summer. Hot Fusion was made up of Toronto-based singer Amanda Martinez, Toronto-based violinist Vasyl Popadiuk, and Newmarket-based singer-songwriter Justin Hines. I had only heard the music of Vasyl Popadiuk before, having hosted an artist chat with him when he played Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catharines a couple of seasons back. I knew what to expect from him, and he delivered: hot gypsy violin of astounding dexterity. I had not heard Amanda nor Justin before, but they were engaging in their own ways and easily won over the enthusiastic crowd. Both performed music from their own cds, as did Vasyl, and as a finale they all performed together with respective sidemen. We were expecting a much hotter, more frenetic musical pace, but overall it was very laid back and as refreshing as the rain outside on a hot summer's day. This was a great concert by three gifted musicians who each work in different musical genres and yet came together to show that music is indeed a universal language. The Elora Festival continues until August 3rd and you can find out more by visiting their website at www.elorafestival.com.

Earlier this month I spent a few days in Stratford attending some of their meatier offerings this season, details of which I will recount in the coming weeks. I have also attended about three-quarters of the shows at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake thus far; again, details of which will come in future reports. Both festivals are having stellar seasons artistically, but attendance appears to be down somewhat from previous years. I am used to that in early June, before families begin to travel when the kids are out of school, but this year the crowds have not been there - quite yet. The latest report from the Shaw Festival's Colleen Blake is that Shaw numbers are up this year so far, in spite of a significant drop in American tourists. More locals staying close to home discovering or rediscovering the festival this year, perhaps? Let's hope so, for Shaw has some absolutely fabulous offerings this season.

Over in Stratford, the performances I attended the first week of July were worrisome as far as audience numbers were concerned: there appeared to be far too many empty seats for big-budget productions - even on a Friday night. A recent report by Michael Posner and James Bradshaw in the Globe and Mail suggests a 10-per cent drop in ticket sales so far this season could cause trouble next season for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as it is now called. What's the cause? High gas prices, likely, will be to blame, as well as border delays. But why has that not, apparently, been the case at Shaw so far this season? At Stratford, the first post- Richard Monette season has produced some excellent theatre; however, there appear to be too few people to attend all those performances at four theatres plus a tent presentation this year. This could - and likely will - result in cutbacks next season with a shorter playbill. It won't be the first time Stratford has had to tighten their collective belt, and it likely won't be the last, either. But as troubling as this season is, next season might be even more so. My B&B proprietor in Stratford tells me while the bookings are not that bad this year, next year will be the one to watch, as many had already committed to their Stratford visits this season before high gas prices became a hot news item again.

So, while both festivals are playing to somewhat less-than-full houses for at least some performances so far this season, it could be the start of a disappointing trend in the future: staying away from arts and culture because gas, food and other utilities take away too much of the family budget. Only time will tell if this proves to be true or not, and there is plenty of time to make up ground before the season ends in the fall, but for now, a close eye on the purse strings at both festivals appears to be in order. If you are considering a visit to either Stratford or Shaw this season, I don't think you will be the least bit disappointed; but if you are only thinking about it, let the coming reports in this space detailing the productions at both festivals hopefully convince you to get out and support the arts this summer. You won't be disappointed!

July 22nd, 2008.

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