Christopher Newton | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Christopher Newton

After a period of freelance acting, directing and writing, in 1973 he was appointed artistic director of the VANCOUVER PLAYHOUSE THEATRE.

Christopher Newton

 Christopher Newton, stage director, actor (b at Deal, Kent, Eng 11 June 1936). After receiving a BA at the University of Leeds, he came to the United States for graduate studies (MA, University of Illinois, 1960). While still a graduate student, Newton showed his inclination toward large-scale theatre with summer jobs at the Vancouver Festival in 1959 and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the next 2 years. In 1961, after a brief career as a university teacher, he began his professional acting career as Cassius in a tour of Julius Caesar with the Canadian Players. Thereafter he appeared in productions in Vancouver, Winnipeg, New York, and for 3 seasons at the STRATFORD FESTIVAL. In 1968 he was invited to become the founding artistic director of THEATRE CALGARY, forming a small acting company there and heading that company for 3 years.

After a period of freelance acting, directing and writing, in 1973 he was appointed artistic director of the VANCOUVER PLAYHOUSE THEATRE. There he revitalized the mainstage series, re-established a second stage (later called Spratt's Ark), and founded the Playhouse Acting School with his friend and mentor Powys Thomas, one of the founders of the National Theatre School. Newton's outstanding productions at the Playhouse included Camille, Julius Caesar and Hamlet; he also appeared onstage as Higgins in Pygmalion, Dysart in Equus and Henry Carr in Travesties. Meanwhile, the Playhouse Acting School proved a vital contributor to the growth of Canadian professional theatre, providing early training not only for many professional actors but also for directors such as Pierre Tétrault, Glynis Leyshon and Jim Mezon.

In 1978 Newton was named artistic director of the SHAW FESTIVAL in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, effective 1 January 1980. The new decade meant a new era for both Newton and the Shaw. After a period of experimentation and controversy, Newton's Shaw Festival scored its first popular success with Derek Goldby's production of Cyrano de Bergerac (1982-83), followed by such noteworthy productions as Private Lives (1983-84) and Cavalcade (1985-86 and 1995). As a director, Newton's own landmark productions included such Shaw plays as Saint Joan (1981), Caesar and Cleopatra (1983), Heartbreak House (1985), Man and Superman (1989), Misalliance (1990), Pygmalion (1992) and Candida (1993). He also continued to act with the company from time to time, in particular in plays by Noel Coward (Private Lives; Present Laughter, 1990) and Harley Granville Barker (The Marrying of Ann Leete, 1993; The Secret Life, 1997). His freelance work has included Shaw's Misalliance with the Melbourne Theatre Company in Australia, other plays in Calgary, London and Vancouver, and operas in Victoria, Vancouver, Hamilton and Toronto.

As in Calgary and Vancouver, Newton established at the Shaw a semi-permanent acting ensemble that is considered one of the finest in the English-speaking world. His interest in training found expression in the Academy of the Shaw Festival, which was established in 1985 as a skills exchange among company members, and which continues to provide extensive apprenticeship and in-service training for professional actors. A special program for intern professional directors has provided growth experiences for such notable Canadian directors as Paul Lampert, Colin Taylor, Sally Han, Dennis Garnhum and Ian Prinsloo.

In 1999 Newton announced that he would retire from the Shaw Festival following the 2002 season, his 23rd in that position. After some 30 years as an artistic director, he is widely considered the foremost artistic director that Canada has ever produced. In 1998, his career was the subject of a retrospective tribute at the Du Maurier World Stage Festival in Toronto.

Newton has received honorary degrees from Brock University (1986), the University of Guelph (1989) and Wilfrid Laurier University (1997). He was made an Honorary Fellow at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto (1993) and of Ryerson Polytechnic University (1995). In 1996 he was made an Honorary Life Member of the Association for Canadian Theatre Research. He received the M. Joan Chalmers Award for Artistic Direction in 1996, was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995, and won a Governor General's Performing Arts Award in 2000.

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