Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

The 2024 Season – Part Two

To the extent that Americans are aware of the theatrical riches of Ontario’s summer “festival” season at all, they are probably familiar with The Stratford Festival and The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I discussed the 2024 season at these august institutions, along with my personal picks for the shows that struck me as most interesting, in an earlier blog post.

In this post I will turn my attention to Ontario’s less well known offerings. Well, less well known to my fellow Americans. All of them have extremely loyal followings in Canada. So while Canadians are more than welcome to read along, I hope my American readers will sit up and pay attention and, it is to be hoped, plan to visit one or more of these companies in the summer of 2024.

They are The Blyth Festival in Blyth, Ontario; Here For Now Theatre in Stratford; The Foster Festival in St. Catherines, Ontario; and Drayton Entertainment, which operates a string of theatres across the southwest of the province.

The Blyth Festival

gil garratt
Gill Garratt, artistic director Blyth Festival

The Blyth Festival, located in tiny Blyth in Huron County (pop. 1,000), has as its mandate to present new Canadian plays on rural themes. When I first heard about this I responded as you might expect an arrogant New York “sophisticate” to react. “Yeah, right,” I said to myself, “that’ll last about a month.”

2024 will mark The Blyth Festival’s fiftieth season. Clearly I had my head up my Playbill and clearly these Huron County hicks were onto something.

Blyth’s “secret sauce” is that their entire operation is focused intently on their mandate and the community they serve. Many people who work and perform there grew up in the surrounding areas. And no wonder. Their Youth Company, a free educational outreach program has been introducing local kids to theatre and theatre-making for 40 years! It’s proved to be a most successful formula. They developed The Drawer Boy, now considered one of the greatest Canadian plays, and have produced over 150 world premieres.

Recently, the two major theatre festivals have made impressive, some might say performative, efforts to be “more inclusive.” Blyth has done much the same in its own quiet way, all the while remaining absolutely true to its mandate.

Recent seasons have included plays about the friction between Indigenous peoples and “settlers,” the prejudice against new immigrants, gay life in rural Canada, and Black Canadian history, and “true crime” sagas. They even mounted a piece, created improvisationally by the company, about the colorful history of the bar across the street from the theatre! Theatre doesn’t get any more local than that.

While some of the plays that address our current culture wars at Shaw and Stratford have a bracing streak of j’accuse! in them, Blyth is more likely to use gentle humour, which doesn’t make the points made any less telling.

Blyth’s all-too-brief 2024 season, which runs from June 12th to September 7th, will consist of six plays, two at the outdoor Harvest Stage and four at the original, indoor theatre in Blyth’s Memorial Hall. Five of them will be premieres.

First up at the Harvest Stage is The Farm Show: Then and Now (June 12 – Aug 4). This play, by Toronto’s Passe Muraille Theatre, originally premiered in a barn near Blyth in 1972 and inspired the founding of the Blyth Festival in 1975. This new version will include additions by the 2024 company.

Next up is Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: The Farmerettes by Alison Lawrence (August 14 – September 7). The Farmerettes were young women from across Canada who traveled to rural farms to replace the men who were off fighting in World War II.

The Harvest Stage, by the way, is a venue built during the pandemic to allow the Blyth Festival to continue to produce plays during the lockdown in a socially distanced setting. It was a brilliant stroke and now, the seating area fully fleshed out with surprisingly comfortable seats, is a perfectly magical place to watch a play as the sun sets.

Four more premieres will be presented indoors at Memorial Hall on Queen Street, Blyth’s main drag. They all sound intriguing.

I am most looking forward to Mark Crawford’s latest, The Golden Anniversaries (July 4 – August 4), which follows the eponymous Goldens as they celebrate (if that’s the right word) their fiftieth anniversary at the same lakeside cottage where they have marked every previous anniversary.

Crawford, also an actor, is fast emerging as one of Canada’s best comic playwrights. I have enjoyed many of his plays, a good number of which premiered at Blyth.

Also looking promising is Beverley Cooper’s The Trials of Maggie Pollack (July 31 – August 29), based on the true story of the last woman in Canada to be convicted of witchcraft – and it all happened a stone’s throw from Blyth. This is yet another Blyth play based on local history, an ongoing theme of the Festival.

The other premieres are Saving Graceland (June 19 – August 3), by Blyth artistic director Gil Garratt, a family dramedy set around the now-defunct Collingwood Elvis Festival, and Resort To Murder by Brigitte Salem (July 24 – August 31), billed as a “laugh-a-minute murder mystery.”

The plays that run at Memorial Hall are all matinees while shows at the Harvest Stage begin in the evening. This arrangement lets the Festival shift plays on the Harvest Stage indoors in case of inclement weather. I’ve seen this happen and the Festival handles it with aplomb. Indeed, while the Harvest stage has more seats than Memorial Hall’s 372, they never sell them all – just in case.

Unlike Shaw and Stratford, Blyth does not finalize casting this far out. Casting will begin to be announced in March 2024.

If you need more encouragement to make the trip to Blyth, about a 50-minute drive from Stratford, let me mention Cowbell Brewery, a large and striking brewery/restaurant that has become a tourist attraction in its own right. My sentimental favorite, however, remains the restaurant in the Blyth Inn across the street from Memorial Hall, known affectionately for reasons everyone seems to have forgotten as “The Boot.”

Tickets go on sale to the general public on April 2, 2024, but if you become a member you can book starting on January 15, 2024. For more information, visit the Blyth Festival website.

Here For Now Theatre

fiona mongillo
Fiona Mongillo, artistic director Here For Now Theatre

Once described as the”little theatre that could,” Stratford-based Here For Now Theatre (HFN) has been around since 2012, when they started mounting one-off shows in various locations around town. In 2020 they mounted their first actual “season,” outdoors with audiences limited to 25 in a rigorously socially distanced setting as a global pandemic raged. It was a gutsy move that paid off, garnering attention from Toronto reviewers and establishing HFN as a theatrical entity to be reckoned with.

During the summer months, HFN, which does not style itself as a “festival,” presents one-act plays, seldom longer than 90 minutes, most of them originals, most of them by women, reflecting the lived experience of women. They run the gamut from riotous comedy to crushing dramas that can be difficult to sit through. Their audiences are still intimate, about 50 or so, the productions minimalist.

Where HFN excels is in the quality of the writing and especially in the acting, which is perhaps not too surprising since founder and artistic director Fiona Mongillo is a superb actress in her own right. (Her performance in Girls & Boys still haunts me.) HFN regularly attracts performers with impressive credits from major theatres and directors who know how to bring out their best. Even when I have been less than enthralled by a particular show, I have never been less that gobsmacked by the calibre of the performances.

The season announced for 2024 promises to continue the high standards set in recent years.

12 Dinners is the third play by Steve Ross mounted by HFN. Ross is a brilliant actor and a mainstay at the Stratford Festival. He is also emerging as an important new Canadian playwright. Given his background, it’s probably not too surprising that he creates characters that attract talented actors. I’m especially looking forward to this one. 12 Dinners runs from July 10 to July 27.

I am also curious to check out Paul and Linda Plan A Threesome by Jane Cooper Ford (June 19 – July 6), and not simply because of its suggestive title. (Well, maybe just a little.) Ford has a well-regarded Canadian sitcom to her credit so the auguries are propitious. If it’s half as funny as last season’s Myth of the Ostrich it will be a hoot.

Other plays include The Saviour by Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan (July 31 – August 17), who’s Moment made a splash in Toronto in 2014; Dinner With The Duchess by Nick Green (September 11 – 28), whose Casey And Diana sold out at the Stratford Festival last season and transferred to Toronto; and With Love And A Major Organ by Julia Lederer (August 21 – September 7).

In addition to the plays, HFN offers a smattering of “limited engagements,”typically musical offerings, that run for a night or two.

Casting will be announced later.

Here For Now has always been something of an itinerant theatre and the venue for the 2024 season has yet to be finalized. In 2023, it held forth in a charming white tent in the woods behind the Stratford-Perth Museum. I understand that talks are underway to stay on the museum grounds but in a more convenient (read “less muddy”) location.

Ticket prices are $32.50 with open seating. Season tickets are available for $150. For more information and to book, visit the Here For Now Theatre website.

The Foster Festival

emily oriold
Emily Oriold, artistic director Foster Festival

The Foster Festival is yet another recent addition to southwestern Ontario’s festival circuit. Dedicated to the works of Norm Foster, Canada’s most prolific and most produced playwright, the Foster festival was founded in 2016 and, like Here For Now Theatre, has performed in a variety of venues in and around its home base of St. Catherines, Ontario, not too far from the Shaw Festival.

Those venues have included village town halls, historic Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, an historic barn, and on a number of golf courses on which they presented The Ladies Foursome during the pandemic, with the audience sitting in golf carts. The 2024 season will stay put in Ridley College’s Mandeville Theatre in St. Catherines.

Norm Foster’s stock in trade is sophisticated light comedy – he has been called Canada’s Neil Simon – which is not to say that the occasional piece will not strike darker chords. His plays tend to focus on ordinary, middle-class Canadians, their lives, their loves, their foibles. All of the Foster plays I have seen feature small casts and unit sets, a canny strategy that contributes to the many productions his work has enjoyed over the years.

And Foster’s imagination is nothing if not fertile. Now in his mid-seventies, he is a regular Anthony Trollope, turning out two or more plays a year. Indeed, of the three plays in the Foster Festival’s 2024 season, two will be world premieres.

The plays are Those Movies (July 4 – 14), Whit’s End (July 25 – August 4), and the 40th anniversary revival of The Melville Boys (August 15 – 25), “the play that launched Foster’s career!”

I’ve become a fan of Foster’s work but because of the distance of the Foster Festival from my summer base of Stratford, not to mention the pandemic, my attendance at his plays has been spotty. I hope to remedy that lapse in 2024.

By the way, the Foster Festival is throwing a fund raiser birthday celebration for Norm’s 75th birthday on February 11, 2024. Tickets are $85 before January 14 and $115 thereafter. Norm himself will be in attendance. I’m tempted.

For more information and to purchase tickets for the 2024 season, visit the Foster Festival website.

Drayton Entertainment

alex mustakas
Alex Mustakas, artistic director Drayton Entertainment

Drayton Entertainment is not a “festival” like Shaw and Stratford. Rather, it is a chain of six professional theatres, one with two stages, scattered across Ontario. They are all comfortable and spacious, in some cases remarkably so, and wonderful places in which to take in some very good theatre. I liken Drayton’s theatres to upscale summer stock houses in the United States, and I like to think of their fare as a theatrical palette cleanser after the more “serious’ work offered by other theatres.

For the benefit of my American readers, let me point out that if you are spending your theatre-viewing vacation in Stratford, most of the Drayton theatres are within easy reach. The exception is the King’s Wharf Theatre in Pentanguishene, a three-hour schlep to the north-northeast. I hear the area is well worth the drive, I’ve never been.

Drayton occupies an important position in the ecosystem of Canadian theatre. They produce what might be dismissively called middlebrow entertainment – farces, pantos, and popular musicals many of them of the jukebox variety, with the occasional serious drama thrown in. But as Seinfeld was wont to say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

While Drayton does not enjoy the big budgets of Shaw and Stratford, they work minor miracles with what they have. Their casts consist primarily of up and coming talent along with a smattering of older pros whom Shaw and Stratford have stupidly (in my opinion) cut loose.

Drayton produces more plays and musicals than any of the other companies covered in this series – 19 by my count for the 2024 season. Its season runs from March through December, topping Shaw’s. However, none of Drayton’s offerings run throughout the entire season. Most of them will play in only one theatre for a run of about four weeks. Some will play in more than one theater; the perennially popular Jersey Boys will play in three. Then, too, shows with a holiday theme will play only late in the season.

For the 2024 season, Dayton has scheduled five jukebox musicals, including Rock of Ages, Sh-Boom, and the Marvelous Wonderettes; five classic musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof, Kiss Me Kate, and White Christmas; and one new-ish musical, a three-hander called Naked Radio, which sounds promising (and not as lubricious as the title might lead one to believe). For the holiday season, a new show called Merry and Bright might fall into the musical category but we’ll have to wait and see.

There will be three comedies – Steel Magnolias and two by Norm Foster, Halfway There and Doris and Ivy In The Home. Only two “straight”plays are on the roster, that old chestnut An Inspector Calls and Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. For those (like me) who enjoy the genre, there will be two pantos, a reprise of the 2023 season’s Peter Pan and Christmas Carol.

The thought of breaking all this down to include dates, venues, and brief descriptions makes me want to open a vein and slide into a warm tub, so I will refer you to the Drayton website where you can browse to your heart’s content and figure out what will fit into your schedule.

However, I will encourage you to make an effort to see at least one and preferably more of what Drayton has on offer in the 2024 season. Casting for the various shows will be announced as openings draw closer. Tickets are already on sale and they can be booked on the Drayton Entertainment website.

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