It may not seem like it, when the snow is up over our boot tops, but we who live in Western New York are envied by lovers of excellent theater all over the globe. We live within easy driving distance to both the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Both of those Canadian festivals offer month upon month of outstanding performances - the kind of performances which can seem to grasp their audiences by the lapels and drag them into the magnificent worlds of Shakespeare, Shaw, and many of the other great minds who have written for the stage.
For lovers of the professional arts, it's hard to beat our own Chautauqua Institution. But, once per year, we try to give you a taste of what the two outstanding Canadian festivals are doing, along with some basic facts and information to help you to visit them. Later in the summer, if all goes as planned, we'll try to visit each of them and share with you a first-hand look at the enormous wealth of their programs.
Soon we'll look at Chautauqua and offer some critic's picks. This week, let's take an advance peek at Shaw and Stratford.
The Shaw Festival is located at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, which is about two hours' drive from Jamestown and closer to Dunkirk.
The festival now operates four theaters, beginning in mid-spring and lasting through the first week of November. The new Studio Theatre is located in the same complex as the larger Festival Theatre. If ticket sales make it worthwhile, they sometimes extend their seasons longer than that.
At the peak of their season, which amounts to the months of July and August, they have a production on each of their three original stages, each afternoon and again each evening, every day but Monday. Some days either the Royal George Theatre or the Courthouse Theatre does a third, shorter production which begins at noon. That means that six days per week, as many as seven top-notch productions are available, to tempt the theater lover, the way candy tempts the person with the sweet tooth. From July 31 to Sept. 20, the small Studio Theatre will add to that mix a production of John Osborne's embittered view of England in the 1950s, through the eyes of a fading music hall performer. Its title is ''The Entertainer.''
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a beautifully situated village, located at the spot where the mighty Niagara River releases its turgid waters into the relative calm of Lake Ontario. It's a beautiful little village, if slightly more Disney than Canada in feeling. You can take a horse-drawn carriage ride through its charming streets, or get aboard a powerful cigar boat and go roaring up the river to get wet near the famous falls.
There are hiking and bicycling trails, winery tours, a historic fort, and a wide variety of activities if you like to do more than see plays, or if you have ''one of those people'' in your group, who isn't capable of appreciating the wonders of the stage.
To get to the festival, take I-90, east from Dunkirk/Fredonia, to exit 50. Take I-290 west from that exit, to the intersection of I-190. Take that highway north, across the two giant Grand Island Bridges and just keep going until you find yourself crossing the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge to Canada. Please note: after centuries of easy international transport, you will now need an official passport or a special identity card or enhanced driver's license to return to your own country. Canada will still let you in, but your country won't let you come back.
The directions have changed from past years, once you've been admitted to Canada, and paid the toll on the bridge. A mile or so after paying the toll, there is an exit for Niagara-on-the-Lake. Follow the many direction signs, and you'll soon drive past all three of the Shaw Festival's theaters, one after the other.
You can leave in the mid-morning, drive up, see as many as three plays, and be home shortly after midnight, or you can stay over one or more nights at one of the hotels, motels, boarding houses or bed and breakfast homes in the village, and make a full vacation out of the experience.
If you want help in planning overnight accommodations, the festival itself does not involve itself, but the Chamber of Commerce will advise you and make dependable reservations for you, according to your interests, for a small fee. Contact them by phoning (905) 468-1950, or visit them on line at www.niagaraonthelake.com. Do remember, all prices including overnight charges and ticket prices are in Canadian funds.
The festival publishes each year a richly-illustrated visitor's guide which includes this information and the names and contact information for a number of other accommodations services, plus a complete calendar of play performances, a restaurant guide, and a wealth of other information. The guide is free of charge. Request one by phoning (800) 511-SHAW or by computer at www.shawfest.com. You can use that same contact information to reserve tickets.
Also in your guide will be dates and prices of backstage tours, talk-back sessions with actors, lectures by experts, garden tours of the community, and such a wealth of possibilities, I can't begin to describe them all here.
The productions are often sold out, so I personally recommend making advance reservations, before leaving home. If you're willing to risk doing it all and then not getting into a production, you're welcome to walk up to the box office and see if anything is available.
I have had a number of very unpleasant experiences, trying to return from Canada. I would recommend that you allow a bit more time than it will take you to go up, and that you ask at the Festival for the best route for returning, on the particular day that you go. Once you're across the border, it's usually fairly easy travelling.
All of the plays described in this column are now playing, unless the entry says different. Now, let's take a look at the delectable bill of fare:
The largest of the Shaw Festival's theaters, and the one with the most elaborate technical possibilities, is helpfully called The Festival Theatre. There are three productions scheduled to be performed on its boards this year:
Court House Theatre
The smallest of the Festival's venues in located where its name suggests, in the community's Court House. Sit close to the actors and really experience the productions:
Royal George Theatre
The Royal George is the traditional, proscenium theater at the festival. Originally a vaudeville house, it is often used for musical productions:
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is a bit farther away, approximately four hours drive from Jamestown, and closer to Dunkirk. It's possible to leave at 8 a.m., any day but Monday, see an afternoon play in Stratford, and be home before 10 p.m., although that has the qualities of a death march.
Unlike Shaw, the Stratford Festival will find you a place to stay, from a relatively inexpensive boarding house to a fairly luxurious hotel. You can make a firm reservation and pay with your credit card, before you even leave home.
Stratford has four theaters, and in high season - once again the months of July and August - they each tend to run as often as twice per day. The Shaw Festival produces only plays which were written between 1850 and 1950, or plays which deal with or relate to that period. Stratford may do anything from an ancient Greek tragedy to a play which was still being written last month. Their focus is Shakespeare, but they don't overdo it.
The community of Stratford, Ontario, is not set as beautifully as Niagara-on-the-Lake, but it is more of a real city and less like a stage setting. The centerpiece of the city is the river Avon, which has been dammed. That turns it into a very long, serpentine lake which is decked with swans and geese and surrounded by huge willow trees, weeping their branches down to kiss the waters.
There are a number of municipal gardens and lovely parks which make for a truly beautiful setting for the intellectual and emotional stage works being done there. It's one of my favorite places in the world.
To get to Stratford, take I-90 east from Dunkirk/Fredonia to the exit for I-190, toward downtown Buffalo. Watch for signs to Peace Bridge, and cross the international boundary there. Remember, as with the Shaw Festival, you'll need official documents to return to the U.S.
On the Canadian side of Peace Bridge, you'll find yourself on Queen Elizabeth Way - commonly called ''the QEW.'' Drive toward Toronto for about an hour, until you reach the large city of Hamilton. For reference, you will cross two very large, high bridges. Shortly past the second bridge, take exit 100 for Highway 403 West. Please note, at the same exit, you can take 403 East or Highway 405, and you don't want to take either of those.
After only a short drive on 403, take Highway 6 North, toward Guelph. In 16 miles, you'll come to Highway 401, a major artery, which you want to follow to the west. After a few minutes' drive, exit on Highway 8 West. It will take you into the fairly large city of Kitchener, although it is four-lane, divided highway. Watch for signs for Highway 8 until it joins with Highway 7, and take the conjoined route west, directly into Stratford. We typically leave at 8 a.m. and get to Stratford in time for a quick lunch and the 2 p.m. matinee.
Each year, Stratford prints an extensively illustrated visitor's guide to help you plan your visit there. They will mail you one for free if you phone them at (800) 567-1600, or go to their website at www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com. You can order tickets and make housing reservations, in the same choice of ways. Again, remember prices are all in Canadian funds.
Let's look at the bill of fare on the four Stratford stages:
The largest and most technically enhanced of the venues is the giant Festival Theatre. There you can see four possible productions, this year: