It's a swan-song summer for actor-director Christopher Newton, one of Canada's most respected theatre artists.
Newton, the departing longtime director of Ontario's Shaw Festival on Niagara-on-the-Lake, steps into a revival of St. John Hankin's The Return of the Prodigal, one of the rare Shaw-era plays on which the company has built its reputation.
Silver-haired Newton hasn't acted at his three-venue fest since 1997, when he appeared in the North American premiere of Harley Granville Barker's The Secret Life. He first joined the Shaw as an ensemble actor in 1964, when he played Heartbreak House and Village Wooing.
Since his return to the Shaw Festival in 1980, when he became artistic director, he has appeared in more than a dozen plays including Peter Pan (as Capt. Hook/Mr. Darling), Present Laughter (as Gary Essendine) and Charley's Aunt (as Brasset).
Newton is joining The Return of the Prodigal, which he also directed, to replace Christopher Blake, who performed the role in 2001 and in the return this summer; Blake is leaving for an arts administration position in Ottawa. The play has proved to be one of those undiscovered gems that Shaw audiences treasure. The staging's run has extended this year to Oct. 5 at the Court House Theatre, Shaw's intimate three-quarter thrust. Jackie Maxwell takes over as artistic director of the Shaw Festival Nov. 1, 2002.
Also this season, Newton directed Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Noel Coward's Hay Fever.
Newton was born in England and educated at Sir Roger Manwood's School in Kent, the University of Leeds, and Purdue University in Indiana. He earned a Master of Arts from the University of Illinois.
He moved to Canada in 1961 and established his acting career with the Canadian Players, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Vacouver Playhouse and Shaw and Stratford Festivals. In 1968 he founded Theatre Calgary and served as artistic director until 1971. He then took over as artistic director of Vancouver Playhouse, where he established The Playhouse Acting Shool with his friend and mentor, the late Powys Thomas.
In 1979 Newton was appointed artistic director of the Shaw Festival, one of the largest repertory theatre companies in North America. In 1985 he created the Shaw Academy "as a forum for skills exchange among members of the Shaw Festival Acting Ensemble."
The festival recently changed its mandate from plays written during the lifetime of Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) to plays also about that period, or linked to that period — for example, Merrily We Roll Along, the musical, is based on a play written within Shaw's lifetime, and the world premiere solo piece, Chaplin, is about a figure from the Shaw era. The meat and potatoes of the festival, a half-hour downstream from Niagara Falls, on the lip of Lake Ontario.
For more information, visit www.shawfest.com.
— By Kenneth Jones