Christopher Newton spent most of his career in a creative role; that didn’t end after retirement.
Born in Deal, England on June 11, 1936, Newton has since found a home here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
After studying at the University of Leeds, Purdue University and the University of Illinois, he taught briefly before modifying his goals.
“I decided I didn’t like doing that, I wanted to be an actor. I thought that might be a more interesting job.”
He moved to Canada in 1961 to audition for the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.
“I thought that was the type of company I’d like to be a part of.”
Although he was turned down, his resolve never wavered.
“I decided that I was an actor, so I had to tell people I was. I had to find a job.”
Moving to Toronto and securing a room at the YMCA, he proceeded to apply anywhere that was hiring actors. He landed a position with the Canadian Players where he toured the country performing classical productions.
“We were playing at the strangest places. Often, the people had never seen a theatrical production of any kind before. You had to make it real, you had to make it true. That was six months of learning for me.”
With a desire to grow and take control, he says he resolved that he wanted to be a director.
“I wanted the control. You know, as an actor, you don’t have a great deal of control. It seemed to me that the best place to be, if you wanted control, was as a director.”
He says he didn’t think it all through, though, and was concerned no one would hire him.
“It just happened, as it does in life. Nobody was going to hire me as a director anyway because I had no experience – so I had to found a company. It was starting Theatre Calgary in 1968; that’s how I became a director. I had to direct.”
In 1973 he went on to become artistic director for the Vancouver Playhouse. In his time there, Corrine Koslo, long-time friend and professional actress on CBC and Netflix series Anne, says she attributes him with launching many careers, including her own.
“No one had an acting ensemble in Canada in the mid 70s in the regionals; Christopher Newton did. The Vancouver Playhouse had a company of professional actors. A school, which I attended 1979 to 1981, that fed into that company. It was a kind of golden age of theatre in Vancouver in the mid 70s and early 80s; very exciting times. Newton was responsible for that. He was a great architect, a builder of company.”
Koslo says he was always interested in collaboration and regarding what artists can bring to the table.
“He truly loves actors. He is an actor himself. I think that is why he was so successful in creating ensembles that thrived. We were alive with ideas, imagination and a real desire to grow into great actors under his guidance. He set a very high bar, not just for the actors, for the entire company.”
That desire to propel an entire company forward is one reason he was sought after by other theatre companies. The Shaw Festival approached Newton to come work for them on several occasions, he rejected them every time until finally accepting the position.
“They must really want me, I thought. I ultimately said yes.”
He was reluctant to take the position because he says, at the time, the festival was a bit of a mess.
“It had lost its sense of direction, it didn’t quite know who it was. We were very successful in Vancouver. I knew this was going to be a very difficult job. I didn’t think that I wanted it.”
Looking back, he says he is very happy to have taken the position.
He had a hand in making Shaw was what it is today. Nicholas MacMartin, married partner, says the festival isn’t as big now as it was while Newton was artistic director.
“The company was never larger. It’s never been bigger than it was in his time. He hired more actors than they can afford to now.”
MacMartin says Newton was skilled at putting all the money for the festival on the stage.
He used resources on hand instead of sourcing out.
“He is so knowledgeable about music. He used that knowledge in his productions all the time. He didn’t hire that many composers in those days in order to save money. His knowledge of classical music was such that he could just pick the most amazing stuff for his shows that no one knew. Things that were out of copyright, so it didn’t cost anything.”
Working as artistic director of Shaw has taught Newton a few things over the years.
“I think it has taught me not to be selfish. It has also revealed Niagara-on-the-Lake to me, which is an interesting thing in itself.”
Newton was in the town one summer in the early 1960s, at the beginning of the festival.
“Quite frankly, I never thought it would last. It didn’t seem very serious. The directors and the whole atmosphere, it didn’t seem like a serious company, so I didn’t treat the town serious.”
Returning in the 1970s, he says he was inspired by the area. While he didn’t see NOTL supporting it at the time, they were aiming to create an international company.
“We were not only creating a company of actors but defining what the place did. It had a very special mandate.”
Newton’s mandate for the festival was to put on productions only created within George Bernard Shaw’s lifetime. Having lived for over 90 years, from 1856 to 1950, there was a lot of material to work with. Newton enjoyed putting on plays about the modern world.
“About 80 per cent of the plays nobody had ever seen. It was a discovery, but they were discoveries from the past. People liked that in the 80s and 90s.”
Newton is at home in NOTL and says he is happy to stay, although he didn’t think this is where he would end up.
“I always thought that I’d go back to Vancouver, but Vancouver in the 70s was very different than what it is now. I adored Vancouver in the 70s. It still had the smell of a pacific port town – it still had a roughness that was so specific and so interesting. That’s completely gone – so I’ll certainly not go back to Vancouver. I like Toronto very much, but it didn’t seem quite the place I wanted to be. And I’m lazy, I didn’t want to move.”
His home garden and the area had a hand in keeping him here. Paralleling his experience working as theatre director and designing and maintaining gardens, he spoke of his ability to take something untamed and give it form.
“This garden fascinated me for the past 20 years, designing and taking care of it. What I like about the garden, and how it kind of reflects on what I’ve done, is that you must allow for change constantly. Plants grow bigger or die – you must take that into account.
“So, you create structures for them to be happy in and for them to look good for us. That’s exactly what I was doing in the theatre – creating structures which allowed individuals to show off and to grow; it was very similar.”
In 1996, Newton was appointed a member of the Order of Canada; in 2018 he was named an Officer.
“It means you have a national significance, if you’re an officer. As a member you’ve done something really good for your local area. They made me a member toward the end of my time at the Shaw because we’ve done quite important things here. I think I was bumped up a bit because of the 50th anniversary of Theatre Calgary. There aren’t too many people who have founded an institution and then go on to appear at the 50th anniversary. I think that’s why I received the promotion to officer – as a compliment to Theatre Calgary.”
Koslo says she is happy to see Newton being recognized as an innovator and as one of the great theatre creators of all time.
“Christopher Newton is a visionary.”