By David Cooper, courtesy the Shaw Festival
Published June 09, 2016
For thousands of years, people have enjoyed packing a picnic and going to an outdoor amphitheater to enjoy a show. The ancient Greeks and Romans embraced this ritual to keep their citizens happy and entertained. Today, the spirit of outdoor theater is still alive all over the world with modern theater festivals.
Contemporary theatergoers enjoy many different types of theater, including classical Greek plays with a modern twist, Shakespearian theater, and improvised or solo performances. Likewise, today’s theater festivals cater to a wide range of styles and audiences. Here are four theater festivals from across North America for your group to enjoy.
The Shaw festival located in the heart of Ontario’s wine country, started more than 50 years ago as a small summer festival to honor playwright George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. Today, the festival has grown into a multimillion-dollar event with well over 200,000 attendees.
The festival normally puts on one big production each year, usually a musical, but 2016 attendees will be treated to two such shows: “Sweeney Todd” and “Alice in Wonderland.” The latter is expected to be the favorite at this year’s festival and will feature 19 original songs and more than 100 costumes, one of which is a larger-than-life griffin costume that is sure to impress audience members with its intricate design.
Many theatergoers attend the festival and see multiple shows over the course of a few days. The Shaw makes this easy to do with performances scheduled at different times throughout the day.
In addition to the main shows, the Shaw Festival also offers many “behind the stage” experiences for groups that allow participants a wide range of options, including lunch with cast members and a tour behind the curtain to see what goes into the performances they’re about to see.
The Shaw Festival continues through October 23 this year.
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival
The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is the oldest free Shakespeare Festival in the United States, held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, since 1949. In 2014, the festival expanded its schedule to 10 weeks for a total of 54 performances in Louisville’s Old Central Park. There are additional performances at local parks and schools around the state.
Groups attending the festival are encouraged to attend the “Bard-a-thon” event, which Matt Wallace, the company’s producing artistic director, described as “perfect for binge-watching Shakespeare,” since the company does all three of its plays in one day. Another popular event is “Late Night Shakes,” a Shakespearian improv show every Saturday night in June.
The organization has partnered with the Louisville Food Truck Association, and a rotation of food trucks will be at the park an hour before every show. Each performance day, attendees can visit the festival’s homepage to see the day’s show schedule and which food trucks will be serving dinner that evening. After the performance, festivalgoers are welcome to stick around for even more shows.
The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival runs June 1 through August 14.
Contemporary American Theater Festival
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) is a small-town surprise located in quiet Shepherdstown, West Virginia, about 90 minutes from Baltimore and Washington. CATF was recently named one of the top 10 theater festivals by WorldGuide, one of only three in the United States.
CATF is a “total immersion into new American contemporary plays,” according to Ed Herendeen, founder and producing director for the festival. More than 100 new plays have been produced since 1991, among them 40 world premieres and nine commissioned works. Included in the festival’s 26 year production history are award-winning “Gidion’s Knot,” which premiered at CATF in 2012, and the 1999 CATF commission “Complete Female Stage Beauty,” which became the film “Stage Beauty” starring Claire Danes.
The festival also offers a wide array of other activities. The idea is that “theater creates a forum for a discussion to take place,” Herendeen said. “People come to think theater and to talk theater.”
On the Saturday afternoon of opening weekend, organizers hold a forum where visitors can meet the playwrights for all five plays being performed. Special film-screening and breakfast events each week create an environment for theater lovers to be fully immersed in theater and to come together to think and talk theater.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival is held annually in July, with the 2016 season running July 8-31.
United Solo Theatre Festival
The United Solo Theatre Festival is the world’s largest festival dedicated to solo theater and is now in its seventh year on New York City’s Theater Row.
The festival is for “everyone who is keen to experience something new,” according to general manager Marcin Lipinski. This statement rings true with the wide variety of performances across many genres, including comedy, puppetry, improv, magic, poetry and documentary.
The 2015 festival featured 150 solo shows from six continents over the course of a 10-week season. Two popular performances were a biographical piece about a holocaust survivor and a solo opera performed by a single soprano. “You name it, we probably have it or will have it,” Marcin said.
The 2016 festival will run from September 15 through November 20 and will feature performers from 18 countries. United Solo has also branched out to include United Solo Europe, which runs concurrently with the festival in New York each year.