Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 2, 2014

Interview: Odette Yazbeck, Canada’s Shaw Festival

by Shera Cohen

The impetus for our theatre trip to Canada was Stratford Festival. While googling, map questing, and researching by other means of electronic know-how, one constant popped up -- Shaw Festival. Never heard of it. Of course, I was familiar with George Bernard Shaw, but the titles of his plays didn’t come tripling off the tongue as those of Shakespeare.

Planning continued, this time focusing on transportation. My desire to go direct -- point A to B -- didn’t work from Springfield, MA to Canada. Just like the song’s lyrics go, planes and boats and trains plus buses, trollies, and cabs were necessary for the journey to Stratford. In many ways, getting to London and back was easier. But, little gets in the way of my pursuit of all things Shakespeare. Here again, while checking routes, rails, and rentals, was more information on Shaw.

I finally became curious. What was this Shaw thing all about? He wasn’t even from Canada. Well, neither was Shakespeare. More research ensued, until l quickly noticed that nearly all of the results of my "Googling" overlapped the two theatre festivals -- Stratford and Shaw. Better yet, the venues were within 3 hours of each other, which is quite a close distance considering the length and breadth of Canada. With Toronto placed at the mid-way spot, there was no doubt that Shaw beckoned.

In the past, I have written about both Stratford and Shaw -- their plays, theatres, environs, etc. As Shaw’s 2014 Season revs up in May (it started with some previews in April) and hits its peak in July and August, this is my opportunity to talk about our private backstage tour and interview with Public Relations Director Odette Yasbeck. 

Odette sped through the Festival Stage (the large main stage -- one of four), yet pointed out everything important, as we walked the first floor maze, then bowels, then upstairs again, then somehow directly on a play’s set. There are rooms for each department. In particular, the costume design area was divided by eras, male and female, hats and shoes, props. If I had to retrace my steps, I would still be in Canada today. I tried to hide the fact that I was in dire pain throughout this entire sojourn due to foot surgery three weeks prior. The scenery, both literally and figuratively, was well worth the agony. The last stop was the cafeteria.

Odette is one of the stalwarts of Shaw, having worked there her entire adult life. The following is a paraphrased interview.

Why Shaw?  Why here?
Odette: A local attorney, Brian Doherty, deserves credit for starting the Festival in the 1960’s, with Shaw plays presented only on weekends in the summer months. Never intending to become a massive, six-month long event, things were casual and informal in the beginning years. As an astute businessman who saw the decline in industry, Doherty believed that theatre, Shaw in particular, could boost tourism in this area called Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

How is the Festival planned?
Odette: Initially, all of the Festival’s plays were those written by Shaw. Later on, works by Shaw contemporaries were added to the bill. Ultimately, and as the present Festival is designed, modern plays carrying the themes and/or styles of Shaw completed the repertoire.

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell selects the plays, with the “Shaw categories” just referred to as the first criteria. The second criteria is popularity. It is a puzzle to piece together based on the availability of actors, directors, and rights to plays.

Who are your actors? Your audiences?
Odette: A good number of the actors are returnees, because a lot are asked back. Some have participated over 35 years. However, auditions take place annually, and a good number are new to the Festival. And the actors love it here. When actors are hired, they are offered the opportunity to take a series of workshops we call the Mandate Intensive, which is a two-week emersion in Shaw.

Just as many actors return, so does approximately 75% of the audiences. The Shaw philosophy is relatively simple --  stick with a successful product, and when someone goes to a play, they will likely go to more. Theatre begets theatre. Being in a theatre house with others sitting beside you is an important experience.

The full time staff numbers 120, primarily in administration and management. In the summer, the artistic population increases to 500.

The Festival adheres to another mandate -- there is the expectation that everything that the audience sees and hears is authentic, from language to props. Our dialogue coaches, designers, and crew are top notch.

What is repertory performance?
Odette: Repertory is what we do at Shaw, and it is quite difficult. Many skilled actors are not able to perform in as many as three different plays in two days, some of which can be dramas or musicals, written for different centuries, etc. Those who are the most successful are cerebral actors. They are intelligent. They are always listening. Acting is not a solitary business, each actor gives back to each other; these are the best ensembles. They learn their lines, create their characters, and work as a team as athletes do. Respect is important.

Niagara-on-the Lake? I’ve never heard of it.
Odette: There’s a beauty of history and nature here. Just 20 minutes from Niagara Falls, hikers and cyclists and golfers, in addition to theatre-lovers are out and about. There are lovely parks adjacent to the Festival Theatre, and rows of cozy restaurants and boutiques near the Royal George Theatre about a half-mile away. Shaw works hand-in-hand with the town, its restaurants, and wineries.

How do you like your job here?
Odette: After 27 years, working at Shaw is still a feel good job.

This year’s selection of plays includes “The Philadelphia Story,” “Arms and the Man,” “Juno and the Peacock,” and “The Philanderer,” and “Cabaret.” For information on Shaw Festival 2014 check