The Shaw Festival – Major Canadian Theatre Festival

Each year, Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake region comes alive between the months of April through October, as the major Canadian theatre event Shaw Festival opens its doors to welcome the public. If you’re yearning to catch one of the famous plays, check the busy Shaw Festival calendar throughout the months of April to October and plan a special trip to this beautiful and historic town. Take in the theatre, as well as all the other excitement this region has to offer. It’s an experience you won’t regret and won’t find on any of the other festivals around the world!

The Shaw Festival is a major Canadian theatre festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a region famous for its fine wine, fine weather and fine arts. Its attractions include a multitude of historic sites, forts, parks, vineyards, wineries, as well as the famous Shaw Festival with its four distinctive theatres:

  • the Festival Theatre – the Shaw Festival’s flagship theatre,
  • the Studio Theatre – the home of the Shaw Festival’s contemporary “Shavians,” a 175 seat space
  • the Court House Theatre – the historic theatre where the Shaw Festival first began its annual performances

    The Court House Theatre

    The Court House Theatre

  • the Royal George Theatre – a theatre modeled after an Edwardian opera house


Shaw Festival is a yearly event that intrigues the mind and the soul, and provides the viewer with a theatre experience so magnetic that their ever-broadening scope of supporters and audience are drawn to the festival year after year.

Shaw is the second largest repertory theatre company in North America – a repertory theatre company being one which presents works from a specified repertoire, usually in alternation or rotation. In this case, the works of George Bernard Shaw. Founded in 1962, Shaw Festival made clear that its original mandate was to stimulate interest in George Bernard Shaw and the period he lived and worked in, and to advance the development of the Canadian theatre.

Shaw Festival namesake George Bernard Shaw was born on July 26th, 1856 in Dublin Ireland. He was brought up in a household that wasn’t wealthy, but was rich in the love of music, art and literature. Determined to make a living writing, Shaw routinely situated himself at the British Museum, reading books and writing five novels of his own over the next ten years:

  • Immaturity (1879)
  • The Irrational Knot (1880)
  • Love Among The Artists (1881)
  • Cashel Byron’s Profession (1882)
  • An Unsocialist Socialist (1883)

All novels were unceremoniously rejected by every single publisher who read them. Unable to sustain himself, Shaw reluctantly spent his 20s living on a pound a week from his mother, her lover-turned-new-husband Vandeleur Lee after abandoning Shaw with his father, and his sister Lucy. Even Shaw’s articles were never published during this desperate time, something any visitor to Shaw Festival today would have a hard time imagining!

Shaw eventually began to earn his family’s financial assistance by ghostwriting his stepfather Vandeleur Lee’s music column. He went on to earn a living as an influential London music and theater critic, as his greatest gift was for the modern drama. He wrote more than 60 plays, among them Saint Joan, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Major Barbara, and Pygmalion. – the plays that garnered Shaw the title of the leading comedy dramatist of his time, one of the most influential playwrights in the English language since the 17th century,  and the impetus for the world renowned Shaw Festival.

The Shaw Festival namesake is the only person to have ever been awarded both a Nobel Prize (Literature, 1925) as well as an Academy Award (Best Adapted Screenplay, 1938), the Nobel Prize  for his contributions to literature, and the Academy Award for his film adaptation of his most popular play, Pygmalion. His story of a fussy British linguist who transforms a Cockney flower girl into a proper lady was immortalized after Shaw’s death in the Broadway musical My Fair Lady in 1953. Shaw refused all other awards and honours bestowed upon him during his career, including the offer of a knighthood.

The Shaw Festival itself first put its roots down in 1962 when Ontario lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty organized a summertime “Salute to Shaw” in the Niagara-on-the-Lake courthouse, a venue later known as the Court House Theatre. Over the duration of eight weekends, Doherty and company set to work producing Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell and Candida. The “Salute to Shaw” held a mandate to promote the works of Shaw, Shaw’s contemporaries and their period, and was an immediate success.

With actor and director Barry Morse joining the team as Artistic Director in 1966, the event, still not known yet as Shaw Festival, began drumming up enormous international publicity. The festival’s productions garnered sold-out performances, and Morse also joined the company as actor during this season. With the addition of Christopher Newton, Derek Goldby, Denise Coffey, and Neil Munro (who became Resident Director in the early 1990s) the acting crew was meticulously developed until it became widely recognized as being one of the best in the world.

Artistic Directors

  • Andrew Allan (1963–1965)
  • Barry Morse (1966)
  • Paxton Whitehead (1967–1977)
  • Leslie Yeo (1979)
  • Christopher Newton (1980–2002)
  • Jackie Maxwell (2003–present)


2015 season

  • Sweet Charity – book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields

    Pygmalion – by George Bernard Shaw

    Pygmalion – by George Bernard Shaw

  • Pygmalion – by George Bernard Shaw
  • Light Up the Sky – by Moss Hart
  • The Lady from the Sea – by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Erin Shields
  • Top Girls – by Caryl Churchill
  • The Twelve-Pound Look – By J. M. Barrie
  • Peter and the Starcatcher – by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, adapted by Rick Elice
  • You Never Can Tell – by George Bernard Shaw
  • The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt – by Michel Marc Bouchard, translated by Linda Gaboriau


The 2016 playbill has been announced, and it’s an exciting one, for it will be marking the 55th season of the Shaw Festival as well as a celebration of Maxwell’s 14-year tenure, which will be coming to a close. The festival’s 2016 lineup of 10 productions includes diverse works straight from the heart of the festival’s mandate, contemporary Shavian works, as well as two commissioned pieces – both of which will be their world premieres.


An example of what to expect


The 2016 Shaw Festival season will feature :

Alice in Wonderland  – World Premiere –  Directed by Peter Hinton – Commissioned by the Shaw Festival

Adapted for the stage by Peter Hinton
Music by Allen Cole

Based on the book by Lewis Carroll
An extraordinary new take on an old family favourite – Lewis Carroll’s classic story of a young girl’s exceptional journey. The curious young Alice disappears down the rabbit hole to a land of nonsense and wonder; where everything seems to be upside down and backwards. Written for the Shaw Festival, Peter Hinton’s Alice in Wonderland is set in the Victorian age of Oxford and uses a combination of modern technology and whimsical old fashioned magic.

2016’s Playbill:

Alice in Wonderland

Adapted for the stage by Peter Hinton

Music by Allen Cole

Based on the book by Lewis Carroll


A Woman of No Importance

By Oscar Wilde


Sweeney Todd

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A Musical Thriller

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler

From an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Originally directed by Harold Prince

Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick

Originally produced on Broadway by Richard Barr,

Charles Woodward, Robert Fryer, Mary Lea Johnson, Martin Richards

In association with Dean and Judy Manos




Uncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Annie Baker


“Master Harold” …and the Boys

By Athol Fugard

The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God (Lunchtime One-Act)

Adapted for the stage by Lisa Codrington

From the short story by Bernard Shaw




Our Town

Our Town Play

Our Town Play

By Thornton Wilder


Mrs Warren’s Profession

By Bernard Shaw



By W.S. Gilbert




Dance of Death

By August Strindberg


Theatre Packages

Attainable through hotels and bed & breakfasts, visitors to the Shaw Festival can experience a Niagara-on-the-Lake vacation complete with hotel and Shaw Festival tickets, by acquiring vacation packages. Packages can even offer attractions, dinner at local restaurants, and visits to wineries. Bed & breakfasts and hotels will arranged the details for your trip to historic and beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada.

What to Do While You’re Here

As soon as you’ve secured your accommodation and tickets to Shaw Festival Theatre, you’re definitely going to want to discover all of the amazing things that Niagara-on-the-Lake has to offer while you aren’t taking in the spectacular theatre performances.

A short 25 minute drive from world famous Niagara Falls, Ontario, Niagara-on-the-Lake is nestled in one of the most naturally idyllic and picturesque vacation destinations in all of North America. Come and explore the unique Niagara-on-the-Lake attractions that compliment Shaw Festival, the breathtaking natural beauty, and the warm and friendly culture. There is a pleasantly surprising variety ways to appreciate this Canadian region.

There are a number of wineries to satisfy the connoisseur, such as award winning Peller Estates Winery – producers of VQA Canadian vintages. Trius Winery at Hillebrand also tops the list, proudly displaying the VQA seal of approval and serving up delicious food and wine pairings. Go for a wine tasting in the vineyards, or explore the wine cellars beneath the grounds of these established Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries, and make the most of your Shaw Festival vacation.


Touring one of Niagara’s art galleries is a splendid way to compliment your Shaw Festival experience, and one of the many ways to get a real taste of the heritage and culture of the Niagara-on-the-Lake region. Canadian art takes centre stage, from Inuit artists to local oil painters, Niagara art galleries are an indulgent art experience for young and old alike. Visit Riverbrink Art museum, a wheelchair accessible and family friendly destination, and Trisha Romance – the Romance Collection Gallery.


There are of course many other entertaining ways to spend you Shaw Festival trip while you aren’t at the theatre:

  1. At The Shaw Festival

Pre-performance socializing, Oxford coffee concerts, and more.

  1. Fireworks

Fireworks displays light up the night in Queen Victoria Park, Niagara Falls. Dates to enjoy the spectacular show are Fridays, Sundays and holidays from May to late August.

  1. Falls Illumination

An event not to miss while you’re in the area – every evening at dusk, the darkness becomes illuminated as the impressive Falls are lit in the colours of the rainbow.

  1. Botanical Gardens

Visit the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and enjoy the variety of beautiful gardens they have to offer, including a world-renowned rose garden with over two thousand four hundred roses.

  1. Niagara Parkway

Up for a scenic drive that can’t be beat? Sir Winston Churchill himself described the Niagara Parkway as being “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.”

Starting from Niagara-on-the-Lake, this scenic drive winds through Queenston allowing you to enjoy the picturesque view of the Niagara River at Brock’s Monument and bringing you all the way to Niagara Falls and Fort Erie.

  1. Nature Trails

Take an afternoon to explore some of the trails that wind their way through the region’s woodland and conservation areas, deep in the verdant Niagara Glen or along the Niagara River

  1. Heritage Trail

While you’re here to experience Shaw Festival’s Canadian culture, you can also experience Canadian history. Over one hundred monuments and plaques are situated throughout Niagara Parks, honouring persons, places and events that were pivotal to its past.


No matter how you choose to spend your Shaw Festival vacation in scenic Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s sure to be an artistic and theatrical experience you will never forget!

Visit information about festivals section to explore a full list of festivals happening around the world yearly!