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Professor takes the stage with new book on Shaw Festival

You could call it a labour of love – and he does.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | AUG 17 2011

Shaw scholar Leonard Conolly has written a book, The Shaw Festival: The First Fifty Years, to mark this year’s 50th anniversary of the famed festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Published by Oxford University Press and launched in late May, the book is a narrative account of the festival’s colourful history both on and off the stage.

Dr. Conolly, who is a professor of English at Trent University, president of the International Shaw Society and literary adviser to the Shaw Estate, says he wrote the book to appeal to a wide audience but still with scholarly rigour. “I wanted it to be more than a coffee-table book,” he says, though it is richly illustrated with hundreds of archival photos.

Dr. Conolly’s interest in George Bernard Shaw was sparked by a high-school reading of Saint Joan that turned into a lifelong passion. Shaw’s plays, he says, are “full of stimulating and exciting ideas” combined with “an intense human element that creates a terrific blend of challenging theatre. An audience is never entirely sure at the end of the play where Shaw wants us to go.”

The book took four years to research and write but in some ways Dr. Conolly has been preparing for it for much of his career. He has written often for the Shaw Festival, including essays used for the house programs, and given many lectures and seminars on the festival and the playwright.

As well, while Dr. Conolly was at the University of Guelph in the 1980s, where he was chair of the drama department, the university had an opportunity to acquire the Shaw Festival archives. In exchange for properly storing and cataloguing the archive, now called the L.W. Conolly Theatre Archives in the scholar’s honour, U of Guelph receives from the festival all the archival material after each new season. This archive and the Shaw Festival’s own library were the two primary sources for the book.

A former president and vice-chancellor of Trent (from 1994 to 1997), Dr. Conolly celebrates several other accomplishments this year: he was appointed a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College and an honorary fellow at Robinson College at Cambridge University and named editor of the Journal of Canadian Studies.

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