Road Trip Rituals: The Shaw Festival

Basement Lobby of the Royal George Theatre – photo provided by author

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about touchstone places. You know, the locations that you will go out of your way to make time and space to visit, because they do something to your brain, to your essence. They recharge you. They center you. They fulfill you.

So much of my travel is finding new worlds to explore, new people, new experiences — but there are a handful of places that pull on me with unmistakable gravity. It’s weird, I’m not one to spend a lot of time envisioning what tomorrow will bring — I pride myself on my ability to live in the present — but when I do think about the future, these places are inevitably part of that vision. I can’t imagine my life without them.

I’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of this phenomenon than the Shaw Festival.

“The Shaw” is a theatre festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL), Ontario, that showcases the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries (although random genres often get added to the slate, for some bizarre reason that I have yet to figure out). Their company produces the season’s plays in repertory fashion, so each actor will be in at least two, if not three or four, separate productions throughout the season, meaning they’re in multiple shows running at the same time. It’s similar in concept to the Stratford Festival (which focuses on Shakespeare), with the benefit of being nested in a charming little town just down the road from the Horseshoe Falls (Canadian side of Niagara Falls, for the U.S. folks out there).

From a theatre nerd perspective, it’s breathtaking. But it’s more than a place for phenomenal plays (and food, wine, shopping, and frozen yogurt). It’s a place of connection, love, and deeper understanding. At least that’s what it is for me, and I would hazard a guess that’s what it is for my dad.

And there’s no question in my mind that’s what it is for the two of us, together.

One of my earliest memories of the Shaw is jumping in the car with Dad in the afternoon, driving five hours from metro Detroit to NOTL, catching an 8PM curtain of Saint Joan starring the late and great Mary Haney, then driving five hours back home immediately after the show. (For what it’s worth: totally worth it.)

That was a rarity for us — just seeing one production, that is. Every few summers, we’d plan a trip that entailed booking several plays a day. A one-act at noon, a full-length matinee, and an evening performance of another two to three act show. A light lunch or maybe just a frozen treat between the noontime and the matinee. A substantial dinner between the matinee and the 8PM. Stop for a glass of wine or a slice of cake after the curtain fell for the last time that day. Then back to the bed and breakfast or the hotel, and wake up the next day to do it all over again, with new plays. (The Shaw Festival would have 7-8 shows running at that time of year.)

From my perspective, the tradition was — at the risk of overusing an already overused word — awesome.

I have another disjointed, but strong memory. I can’t remember which trip it was, but I know it was just before one of my adventures in Japan.

Dad and I were walking away from what was the Court House Theatre (it has since been closed, replaced by a Studio Theatre down the street), approaching the area where cast and crew park their bikes. We almost literally ran into one of the Shaw’s veteran actors, who we suspect had just finished performing and was either headed back home for a break or to grab a bite to eat before his evening show.

He remembered us well from years and years of patronage (and my father had even volunteered for the Shaw many years before, as a chauffeur when they brought one of their productions to Ann Arbor, Michigan – and side note, can I just say how much the Shaw cast fell in love with Ann Arbor? I choose to believe this is largely due to my dad’s amazing hospitality, but I also know that Ann Arbor is that cool). We engaged in some small talk, shared our continued love for his work, and he thanked us for “showing up”.

Of course, the conversation turned to how we were doing (another side note: we’ve learned over the years that many Shaw company members prefer hearing about our lives than talking about their “talent”). Dad proudly announced that I was headed overseas, and the actor perked up immediately. He spoke at length about the “lovely Tokyo International Players”, a non-profit English-speaking theatre company that he had clearly experienced in his previous travels. He was quite passionate in encouraging me to find my future theatre community there, my lack of professional theatre experience notwithstanding. (Spoiler: he was right, but that’s a story for another day.)

We released him from the conversation — he undoubtedly had somewhere to be — and spent the rest of the day with ridiculous grins on our faces. If we didn’t already love the Shaw and everything in it, that sealed the deal.

I returned to NOTL when I was newly married, first baby on the way. Again, as a young mom, with three kids all under the age of 8. Fast forward to a visit post-divorce, on a week when the kids were staying with my ex-husband, to enjoy an adults-only trip. And many other visits in between, lost in time and faded into the shapes and colors of my patchwork memory.

My most recent experience was only a few months before COVID-19 changed my travel habits. Dad surprised me with a birthday present: a three-day adventure at the Shaw. We stayed at a gorgeous bed and breakfast, just him and me, and saw as many plays as we could squeeze in. Our days were filled with magnificent art and meaningful conversation about life, love, death, philosophy, family, passion, and all the other Very Important Things ™.

And just like that, we were recharged. Centered. Fulfilled.

Again and again, the album of my wandering skips back to the Shaw. Like an iPod shuffle with an attitude, I will explore the songs of other places for a short while, but inevitably I have to go back and replay my favorite jam.

In many ways, I’m still riding on the high of that last touchstone visit. In other ways, I am in profound need of another touch. Overall, something in me believes — the way I believe that if I bite into cheesecake, it will taste good — another visit is on the horizon.

I can hardly wait.

5 thoughts on “Road Trip Rituals: The Shaw Festival

  1. Thank you for your wonderful writing, capturing so many good memories of that trip and all of our times together. I left my heart in Niagara-on-the-Lake long ago and nothing makes me happier than to know I’ve passed the torch on to you.

    Love, Dad

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a lovely piece – very evocative. Makes me wish I’d managed to get to the Shaw Festival before I moved away from Ontario. Perhaps one day on a road trip back home I’ll get there.

    Liked by 1 person

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