Saturday, January 15, 2011

The best of times and the worst of times for the Shaw Festival

There has been lots of attention paid towards the upcoming season for the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, especially since this will be Shaw's 50th season and plans are in place to truly celebrate the achievement.

Ticket sales are reported to be strong for the 2011 season, and the box office is now open to process orders from the general public as of today. Members and sponser cardholders ticket sales began in November and December, respectively, and Shaw reports the results so far are encouraging, with Member ticket sales ahead of last year's pace by 5%, and group sales reaching the $ 1 million mark, 15% ahead of the same time last year. There is also a remarkable 143% increase in family package sales so far this season, due largely to the anticipation surrounding two key productions this coming season: the musical My Fair Lady and J.M. Barrie's comedy The Admirable Crichton, both appearing on the Festival stage.

Also on the playbill this year are Shaw's most celebrated play, Heartbreak House, as well as Candida, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, On the Rocks, Drama at Inish - A Comedy, and the world premiere of the newly-developed musical Maria Severa at the Court House Theatre. The popular Lunchtime show this year is a remount of The President, which was done a couple of seasons back to rave reviews. On the smaller Studio Theatre stage, we'll see the Canadian premieres of Topdog/Underdog and When the Rain Stops Falling.

But all the news is not good at Shaw early in this landmark year: we have had two significant players at Shaw pass away in the last month alone. On December 30th, we lost director Gina Wilkinson, who was scheduled to direct Shaw's Candida, to cervical cancer. Stepping in to take over directorial duties will be Tadeusz Bradecki, who last directed the spectacular 2009 production of Shaw's The Devil's Disciple.

Just this past week, news spread of the passing of veteran actor Al Kozlik, who suffered a stroke and died at the GNGH on Tuesday. Oddly, Al had just retired from the Company at the end of last season, having played the role of "Firs" in The Cherry Orchard, a part he had always wanted to play. Al came to the Shaw Festival in 1980, the same year Artistic Director Emeritus Christopher Newton arrived at Shaw. They had both been at the Vancouver Playhouse before Newton accepted the position to head up the Shaw Festival, and the two had worked together on countless productions over a period of 45 years. Christopher said in a statement from the Shaw Festival this week: "He was a great trooper, he was a great company member and he was one of those people who simply loved to be on the stage. Whether playing a small or large part, they were always alive, vibrant and fully realized - Al Kozlik was a consummate company member."

Indeed he was; I remember his performances in such productions as The Cassilis Engagement, Detective Story, Getting Married and countless others. Al was one of those important cogs in the theatrical wheel you would notice when he wasn't there; when he was, he added another dimension to the production.

Last year, of course, the Shaw Festival lost beloved actress Goldie Semple to cancer, and in 2009 director Neil Munro, whom I had known casually for many years, passed away suddenly while preparing the production of Born Yesterday, one of the runaway hits of the 2009 season. Oddly enough, Gina Wilkinson came in to replace Munro on that production in 2009, and now she is gone too.

It is funny in a way, but we tend to take some of these great talents for granted as we expect them to be there year after year, entertaining us again and again. They are human, after all, and are susceptible to the same problems we all face in life. But we often seem surprised to find one of our personal favourites is no longer there to entertain us. Such is life as an actor; we let them into our lives year after year, and yet we don't know about their own lives until it is too late.

The Shaw Festival will recover from these two recent losses and I have no doubt the 50th anniversary season will be spectacular. Fortunately for Shaw, the talent pool they can draw from is huge, and every time a new face appears we haven't seen before, they often become "one of the family" too, which is as it should be. We'll mourn the passing of Gina and Al, as we mourned the passing of Neil and Goldie, but as they say in the theatre, "the show must go on!", so on with the shows for the 50th anniversary season at Shaw, and thanks to those who have helped to bring the company this far.

January 15th, 2011.

No comments: