Obscure theatrical Canadian histories with Shaw Festival Theatre

Promotional artwork for 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt / shawfest.com

The Shaw Festival is a defining feature of Canadian theatre and is putting on two productions this Summer to celebrate the sometimes weird and wonderful history of Canada. For Canada 150 the festival will host 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt and 1979.

In 1962, a Canadian playwright and lawyer, Brian Doherty, wanted to share his love of Irish playwright Bernard Shaw with the Niagara-On-the-Lake community. He put together a Summer festival showcasing several of Shaw’s works in the Court House auditorium.

The festival was aptly named the “Shaw Festival”, and it became an annual tradition, eventually resulting in the construction of the not-for-profit Shaw Festival Theatre company. The organization, which hosts the festival in and around Shaw Festival Theatre, a spectacular and massive auditorium, has hosted many wonderful productions to captivated audiences since its inaugural year in 1973.

Since then, the festival has become a cultural icon of Niagara, a staple of professional Canadian theatre. Actors, directors and crew come from far and wide to work in the festival and train for most of the year to make sure they can give the highest quality experience possible to attendees. It should be clarified, however, that the term “festival” is used a little loosely here, with performances happening over the entire Summer at many different times and tickets must be bought well in advance as they are incredibly popular.

2017 is the first year for a new era in the Shaw Festival Theatre under new artistic direction by Tim Carroll, who has big expectations for Shaw’s Canada 150 productions.

For C150, Shaw has prepared two Canadian plays that explore specific historical moments in Canada’s history, like Heritage Minutes, but instead, full-blown live theatre productions that are much longer than a minute. 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt is directed by Philip Akin; and 1979, is directed by Eric Coates.

1837 is written Canadian playwright Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille and was first shown in 1973. The story follows a group of Upper Canada farmers who want to turn the area into farmable land, but are faced with a hard situation when their land is allocated to government officials.

The group is led by journalist and first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie, who yes, was the grandfather of the 10th Prime Minister of Canada William Lyon Mackenzie King. Mackenzie and his men march on Young Street in Toronto to demand that they be given rights to their land and eventually this lively band goes on to enter the government of Upper Canada.

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt will run from May 7 to October 8 in the Shaw Court House Theatre.

1979 is a brand new play written by the famous contemporary Canadian playwright Michael Healey and depicts another largely ignored part of Canadian history, the short reign of the 16th Prime Minister of Canada, Charles Joseph “Joe” Clark. Clark was a journalist and an author and ended up being the leader of the conservative party for a short 11 month term in 1979, during which he was the youngest prime minister to be sworn in — one day before his 40th birthday.

Clark is an exceptionally stubborn politician who loves and wants to do his country well, but has some trouble bending the rules to do so. His rise to the top of the party is unexpected and prior to his ascent, he was generally unknown making his prime ministership even stranger.  The Liberals had been in power for 11 years and his lead seemed to be an end to it, but the break didn’t last terribly long.

The Playwrights Guild of Canada says that “[the play is a] sparkling and rowdy political comedy is a hugely relevant debate about leadership and power.”

1979 will debut in Calgary on April 4 and will come, unplugged, to the Shaw Court House and Royal George Theatres beginning on May 20.

Both plays are celebrations of Canadian history and theatre. They are a little goofy, a little strange and practically magic as is the strange country they represent. They are sure to make Canadians feel proud of our 150 years of confederation, where we have been, and where we have come, and will provoke thinking about what it means to be Canadian.

The worst thing about the Shaw Festival series is that there is inevitably too many amazing productions to attend every single one, so it inflicts the feeling of missing something great every year. If you, like me, can’t possible afford to see every production that catches your eye, why not join the nation celebrating 150 years of confederation with 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt and 1979?
More information can be found on the Shaw Festival Theatre’s website: shawfest.com.

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