The Shaw Festival and the entire Canadian theatre world was devastated by the news of the passing of former artistic director Christopher Newton Monday. He was 85 years old.
Shaw executive director and CEO Tim Jennings announced Newton’s passing to the staff and the board of directors Monday, before posting a statement on Facebook. Messages began pouring in immediately.
“So many people have written in to talk about his impact,” Jennings told The Local. “Their memories of him, what he meant to them, it’s just constant. He was a tremendous artist across the board, and an incredible businessman, too. He was one of the great Canadian impresarios.”
At the helm of the Shaw Festival from 1979 to 2002, his was the longest term of any Shaw artistic director. He directed many of the festival’s most well-known works during that time and also walked the boards as a cast member. The period encompassed some of the most important years for the theatre group, as well as some of its most successful.
“He’s very much the reason I’m in professional theatre,” said Jennings. “I started coming to the Shaw with my parents in his first season, specifically Cyrano. The 1982 production was brilliant. It had gorgeous fighting and poetry and sequences that made you think ‘how do they do that’. It got me interested in all the different aspects of theatre. It was formative for my love of the art form.”
Current artistic director Tim Carroll said the Shaw community, knowing that Newton had been unwell for a number of years, had been bracing themselves.
One of Carroll’s first orders of business before he began his role in 2017 was to visit Newton at the Old Town home he shared with his husband Nicholas, whom he leaves behind.
“It was immediate and clear to me that his presence was still very strongly felt at the festival,” explained Carroll. “I had a bit of trepidation in going to meet him. But Christopher was nothing but generous and kind. We had a lovely afternoon drinking tea and talking about art and classical music. His advice to me was ‘do what you want, get on with it, and I’ll be cheering you on’.”
Newton was born in Deal, England in 1936. He earned a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Leeds, and went on to study at Purdue and the University of Illinois, where he earned a Master’s degree. He came to Canada in 1961 to audition for the Stratford Festival, then signed on with the Canadian Players for a cross-country tour of Julius Caesar and Saint Joan. He followed that up with acting roles at the Vancouver Playhouse before spending three seasons in Stratford.
In 1968, he became artistic director for Theatre Calgary, and then in 1973 he returned to the Vancouver Playhouse in the same role. As a playwright, his own works include Slow Train to St. Ives and The Sound of Distant Thunder. As an actor, he also had many television, film and radio credits to his name.
“He started Theatre Calgary, and he founded the very famous theatre school at the Vancouver Playhouse,” Carroll said. “It was the alma mater of Martha Burns and lots and lots of other wonderful actors. There is a whole generation of the best actors in Canada who not only owe their careers to him, but also owe their standard of excellence to him.”
Newton invited his successor, Jackie Maxwell, to join him for his final season as artistic director in 2002 in an effort to ensure a smooth transition. After Shaw, he was a freelance director and actor for the Canadian Opera Company, the Vancouver Playhouse, Theatre Calgary, and the Stratford Festival, among others. During Maxwell’s tenure, he returned to the Shaw Festival in 2004 to direct Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and again the following season to direct R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End.
Carroll had hoped to bring Newton back for a production as recently as two years ago.
“I asked him if he would be up for directing or to act in something, because I thought it would be a wonderful thing,” Carroll said. “With his usual grace and care, he said ‘I don’t think that would be fair to the Shaw, because I might not be well enough, and I don’t want to commit to it’. That was unselfish, and so unfortunate, because I know that he would have liked to.”
The list of honours for Newton’s work in theatre is extensive. In 1991, he received the Toronto Drama Bench Award for Distinguished Contribution to Canadian Theatre. Five years later he was awarded the prestigious M. Joan Chalmers Award for Artistic Direction. And in 2000 he received the Governor General’s Award for lifetime artistic achievement.
He held honorary degrees from the University of Toronto, Brock University, Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Guelph, Buffalo State University, the former Ryerson University, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in recognition of his contribution to Canadian theatre. He also earned the prestigious Molson Prize in 2002, and the Thomas DeGaetani Award from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.
As well, Newton was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995 and subsequently appointed as an Officer in 2018.
St. Catharines native Franklin Brasz, Stratford Festival’s music director, says, like Jennings, his interest in theatre came about largely due to seeing Shaw productions during Newton’s reign.
“He is a towering figure in Canadian theatre,” Brasz said in a message to The Local Tuesday. “My early interest and developing passion for theatre was strongly influenced by Christopher’s memorably rich and poignant productions. Canadian theatre is indebted to Christopher’s legacy.”
Well-known actor Tom McCamus, who appeared in this year’s Desire Under the Elms and The Devil’s Disciple at Shaw, said Newton had a profound influence on him, especially in his early years as an actor.
“He taught me what it meant to be a member of a company, how to rehearse,“ McCamus said. “He taught me so much about the theatre. He was a very generous man. You felt like you were a part of his company. There was no hierarchy. Everybody was in the ensemble. You would always come out of meetings thinking you would do anything for the guy.”
McCamus was directed by Newton on numerous occasions, but also enjoyed the opportunity to act beside him, including when Newton played Captain Hook to McCamus’ Peter Pan in 1987.
“He would even play small parts in some productions,” McCamus said. “To speak to him, you always felt you were working with a peer. He never made you feel like he was the artistic director and you had to watch what you said or did. He and I would try to figure out stuff together. That quality he created, I try to find that everywhere else I go.”
Guy Bannerman, a veteran of 29 seasons at Shaw, visited with Newton not long ago, the two talking a bit about end-of-life things.
“It’s hard to overstate his contribution,” Bannerman, who first met Newton in 1968 when both were at Stratford, said. “He came from Britain and put down roots here and stayed. He devoted his career to furthering our Canadian vision. Theatre Calgary, still surviving and still strong today, is a big success story.”
Bannerman lauded Newton for a humanistic approach, hiring actors of colour long before there was a drive for inclusivity.
“And he was incredibly loyal,” Bannerman adds. “He made it possible for actors like me to have a life. You could talk to Christopher and ask what the next season was looking like, and he would tell you. You would know how to make some life decisions. The idea that you could make a home in the same place you were working and not have to spend time on the road as your children were growing up, was an amazing gift.”
Another veteran Shaw actor, Neil Barkley, said Newton basically created his career, providing him with challenges and routinely confounding his expectations of what he could do.
“He opened my eyes to a world of music and literature and culture that I never would have discovered on my own,” Barkley explained. “And his goal of an ensemble where each person in every department was made to feel like they had an equal share in the success of the work resulted in it being a very invigorating and hugely fun company to be a part of.”
Barkley recognized Newton for his curatorial genius in choosing both plays and people. Like Bannerman, he relished the opportunities he had to share the stage with the artistic director as an equal member of the ensemble.
“Seeing him be as uncertain and vulnerable as an actor just out of theatre school made my natural fears and self-doubt much more manageable,” remembers Barkley. “And his insistence on being in the ‘chorus’ dressing room with the most junior and inexperienced actors drove home the egalitarian nature of the Shaw company.”
Newton’s enormous influence has been felt across Canada, as has his passing Monday. Besides the extensive credits he amassed over 23 years with the Shaw Festival, he also mentored many actors, playwrights and directors over the years and lent his support to numerous arts organizations.
In 2002, the Shaw Board of Governors conferred on him the lifetime title of Artistic Director Emeritus for his tireless work in cultivating and developing the organization. His contributions to both Shaw and Canadian theatre in general were further recognized with the establishment of the Christopher Newton Interns Program launched in 2018.
“He was formative to so many organizations,” said Jennings, “but Shaw was lucky that for the majority of his peak career, he was here. The largest number of attendees were coming here during his time.”
And Jennings is quick to point out that his importance stretches outside of the walls of the local theatre company.
“Beyond that, he was formative for the Shaw Festival and for this community. What he did for the Shaw Festival changed the nature of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Niagara in general. Had there not been a Christopher Newton, I’m not sure there would still be a Shaw Festival.”
Jennings says the Shaw Festival will work with Newton’s husband, Nicholas MacMartin, on a celebration of his life at an appropriate time. They will also ask for MacMartin’s advice on the proper way to recognize Newton’s legacy during the 2022 season.