Spring is nearly over, and it's time for arts lovers to shift into the summer mode of operation.
One of my favorite columns to write, each year, is an alert on the large arts festivals in nearby Canada. The Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival begin in April of each year, and run through early November, while Luminato, the Festival of Creativity in Toronto, takes place in early June.
All three draw many thousands of arts lovers, and all are trendsetters, doing historic arts spectacularly while introducing new ideas and methodology to an often-stunning degree.
Live performances, from expensive seats in fabulous theaters, to open air romps with no admission charge are to be found in Toronto, during the Luminato Festival, each June.
I personally know literally hundreds of our readers who go to Stratford and Shaw each year, and not everyone who goes chooses to tell me that they're going. Fewer tell me they go to Luminato, partially because the festival lasts only 10 days, compared to six to seven months for the theater festivals, but if you can go, between June 19 and 24, it is certainly a rich feast of visual art, dance, both popular and classical music, theater, opera and more.
Obviously, we have Chautauqua Institution and its wide-spread smorgasbord of arts possibilities, right here in our own county, and they have so many choices, they'll get their own column of critic's picks, as opening day comes closer. Let me tell you as much as I can about the three Canadian opportunities, including some facts and driving directions, in case you choose to attend. I remind you that all three festivals are located in Canada, and expenditures must be in Canadian funds. If you use a credit card, most of them will make the currency exchange for you, automatically, but you will need to change currency to pay in cash. At this time, the two currencies are almost equal in value.
The Luminato Festival has the advantage of all the housing and restaurants and the performance venues of the city of Toronto. This year, the festival will open June 14 and run through June 23.
You can purchase tickets through the Luminato website at www.luminatofestival.com, then plan your own trip. From Jamestown, it's about four hours' drive, completely on major highways, once you reach the Dunkirk/Fredonia interchange of I-90. Obviously, anyone making the drive should plan extra time, in case there are highway repairs, which are common in good weather months, and in case there is a tie-up at the U.S.-Canadian border. You will need some government documentations, such as a passport or an enhanced driver's license to cross the border, going both directions.
To get there from here, drive eastbound onto I-90 at Dunkirk/Fredonia. Drive to the Buffalo Suburbs, where you will have the opportunity to change to I-190, north. Follow that road to signs for Peace Bridge, and follow them across to Canada. When you emerge from the International Immigration inspection, on the Canadian side, you will already be on Queen Elizabeth Way, or QEW. Stay on it until you are inside the City of Toronto. There, the road continues on, but the name changes to the Gardner Expressway. Most in-city hotels can be accessed by exiting on one of these exits: Spadina Avenue, York Street, Bay Street, Yonge Street or Jarvis Street.
Every so often, someone gets the idea that it would be profitable to run a car ferry between Rochester and Toronto. If there is such a beast, and if it is reasonably priced, it would be much better than to risk the raging traffic on the QEW. The computer says there is a ferry right now, but clicking on "time schedule" or "fares" directs you to a page to find ferry schedules all around the world. If a reader knows definitely about such a boat, please let us know.
Highlight of the festival for me will be a pair of concerts by Joni Mitchell, in honor of her 70th birthday. They will be in Massey Hall, June 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m.
The theatrical highlight will be "The Life and Death of Marina Obramovic," a performance art work, which features Ms. Obramovic herself, portraying both herself and her mother. Film star Willem Dafoe is also in the cast. You can buy tickets to it, for June 14-17. It takes place at the Bluma Appel Theater.
The Toronto Symphony, the Canadian Ballet Company, and other of the regular Toronto cultural attractions will be performing. There is an Asian cultural dance company, any number of jazz, rock and popular music performances, and lectures on presenting the arts by people of all elements of the arts, highlighted by film and opera director Atom Egoyan.
There are magic acts, gallery shows, a late night public dance party, building illuminations, and what seems like an infinity of other opportunities to either look at or to participate in.
For complete information, go to their website, at the address above, or phone 416-368-3100.
The Shaw Festival is by far the nearest of the three big festivals. It is located at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, at the point where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. You can get there from Jamestown in two hours of actual driving, although of course you should allow extra time for border crossing and possible delays.
To get there, you should follow the directions for Luminato, except you should get off the QEW.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a beautiful little village, whose main streets are lined with exotic shopping opportunities and with flowers and plantings which will astound your eyes. The festival has four different theaters, which are comfortable and attractive. They specialize in plays and shows which were written during the life of the festival's patron, George Bernard Shaw, which lasted approximately from 1850 to 1950, or which were written later, but were set during that period.
The largest and best-equipped venue is the Festival Theatre. This year it will be home to three productions: "Guys and Dolls," by Frank Loesser, which is currently running, "Lady Windermere's Fan," by Oscar Wilde, which is now running, and "Enchanted April," by Matthew Barber, which will open June 25. The latter was very successful on Broadway, a few years ago, and deals with two English housewives who answer a newspaper ad, offering rental of a castle in Italy, for the month of April.
The festival's second venue is the Royal George Theatre. That is a beautifully decorated, fairly small, proscenium theater. This year, it is offering performances of "Our Betters," by Somerset Maugham, which is now running, "Major Barbara" by Shaw, which is also now running, and "Faith Healer," by Brian Friel, which will open June 13.
The Court House Theatre, which is the most intimate of the venues, will produce "Peace in Our Time," an adaptation of the play "Geneva," by Shaw, and which suggests that in it, The Three Stooges meet Hitler, plus the recently created musical "The Light in the Piazza," with music by Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, which opens July 24, and "Trifles," a pair of one-act plays, designed to be produced as a lunchtime special, which opens today.
The Studio Theatre, which is the smallest of the Shaw theaters, and designed to present experimental and challenging productions, will be showing "Arcadia," by Tom Stoppard, beginning July 14.
To purchase tickets and for help in arranging a visit to the festival, go to their website at www.shawfest.com, or phone 800-511-SHAW.
Niagara-on-the-Lake tends to be rather pricey, but offers excellent value, in most situations, for the money. There are winery tours, bike paths, hiking trails, several beautiful parks for eating a sandwich, if the many restaurants are too crowded or too expensive, and the festival offers lectures, back stage tours and other events of interest. The village is full of bed and breakfast homes which range from a clean, comfortable, but ordinary bedroom to accommodations which rival the hotels of Paris for elegance and comfort.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce offers an accommodations service which, for a charge, will help you select the bed-and-breakfast which is best for you, and there are a number of other such services, all of which can be contacted by clicking on "accommodations" on the Shaw website. If you're on a budget, one hint is that you can stay outside the community, and drive into and out of town for performances and meals.
The theater is among the best in the world. I encourage you to give it a try.
The Stratford Festival of Canada, which I believe is the current name of the festival, is the largest classical repertory company in North America. Although it is dedicated to the works of William Shakespeare, and they do some of the finest Shakespearean productions in the world, their four theaters do everything from ancient theater to plays which have been written within the past year.
The festival is located in Stratford, Ontario, which is a pretty little town located roughly halfway between Toronto and Detroit. You can drive there in about four hours, plus border crossing and rest stops, from Jamestown, and less time, from Dunkirk. There is a ferry which crosses Lake Erie, from Sandusky, Ohio, to the Canadian shore. It won't save you any time, and will cost more, but it will free you from the traffic problems of the Buffalo area and the QEW, and provide you with a beautiful boat trip, as well.
To drive there, from Chautauqua County, follow the directions from Luminato, above, but stay on the QEW longer than you would, to go to the Shaw Festival. Instead, get off the large road at the intersection of Route 403 West, which is located near Hamilton, Ontario. Please note, the same exit offers access to both Route 403 and Route 405, so be sure you're headed for 403. Drive west on Route 403 until the exit for Route 6, north, toward Guelph.
Over the past several decades, longer and longer stretches of Route 6 have been widened and the paving improved, but it can still be challenging. Exit Route 6 onto Route 401, West, which is a major, highly traveled superhighway, although you only need to stay on it for a few exits. Get off at Route 8, in Kitchener, Ontario, and follow 8 west, right onto the main street of Stratford, which is Ontario Street.
Stratford is less of a Disney-type experience than Niagara-on-the-Lake, and while there is the opportunity to buy high end fashions and other consumer goods, there are also several excellent book stores which specialize in theater-related and history-related writings, and other places where more reasonably priced goods can be bought. Similarly, there are deluxe hotels and bed and breakfast homes, but there are some budget sites, as well. The best-known area tourist attraction is the beautiful Avon River, which has been dammed to form a meandering lake on which numerous swans, ducks and other water fowl often swim, and along whose banks, huge old weeping willows drop their branches to the water's surface.
The presence of a culinary school in Stratford has resulted in the founding of a number of high-end restaurants, and fine dining is available, but there are fast food places, diners and mid-priced chain restaurants, as well.
I don't recommend going and returning to Stratford in the same day, unless you enjoy marathon driving and don't get sleepy on the road, although I have done it a few times. The performances are good enough to make it worth that effort.
Stratford's largest and best-equipped performing venue is also called the Festival Theatre. This year you can see these possibilities: "Romeo and Juliet," which is already open. "Fiddler on the Roof," which is already running. "The Three Musketeers," which is already open, and "The Merchant of Venice," which opens July 30, and which features a star performance by film and stage star Brian Bedford.
The second venue, which is a beautifully remodeled, proscenium theater is the Avon. In 2013, you can see "Tommy," based on the rock album by the group known as "The Who," and directed by the festival's former Artistic Director Des McAnuff, who originally adapted the show for the stage. The show features a plot about a young boy who witnesses a violent action and who becomes deaf, dumb and blind, as a result, yet still becomes a champion player on pinball machines.
Also, you can attend "Blithe Spirit," by Noel Coward, which is now open, or "Othello," which opens Aug. 4.