07 February 2011
It was my first time. Apparently over the past 20 years they’ve only had the administrative and educational side of Stratford go, so it was really neat to be around that many Shakespeare geeks who really make it a point to attend this thing. It goes all the way from, we probably have the biggest budget, down to Mom and Pop out of the back of a truck, driving around Montana. So it was really cool. I got a lot out of it. Then you’ve got the backdrop of the Rockies. Next year it’s in Orlando, Florida. It’s a really cool thing.
There were like 36 theatre companies who did Two Gentlemen of Verona last year and you go “wow, how often does that happen?” and they actually have the stats on that. There’s also this thing these 2 guys started called the Shakespeare Standard website, have you seen that? They’re really cool, they’re young and they’re geeks and they’re attempting to have a calendar of all the Shakespeare that’s going on around the world on any given day.
It makes sense. Des [McAnuff, Stratford’s artistic director] has given the directors’ office the directive to see as much theatre in Ontario as we can. So we’ve had a huge huge presence on Toronto, basically one of us is seeing almost every show. It’s been incredible I think for Des to be re-educated as to what’s going on, he’s been gone for a long time, so for us to kind of map things out and then send him to stuff has been really quite incredible. But there is so much going on.
Even as far as Shakespeare goes, of course, when I was in my mid-career there were so many Shakespeares going on every summer in and around Toronto and now Shakespeare in the Rough is gone and Shakespeare Works is gone, the Festival of Classics is gone, so we’ve got to do something.
That’s why we founded the Michael Langham workshop for directors, young directors couldn’t find any place to work and develop those skills. So it’s really been an investment in the future. We had 80 applications from across the country, coast to coast to coast, and most of these directors had never worked with companies larger than 5 or 6 people. So how do you deal with the scope of a battle scene? We’ve got to start replacing these things.
Pretty much all of the above.
I founded a theatre company. I went to the Ryerson theatre school and founded a company before I even left school, called the Acme Theatre Company, I just knew it was what I wanted to do, be with an ensemble creating theatre. It was based pretty much on the structure ideals and principles of the royal court and the Howard Barker’s theatre company The Wrestling School. And we were very fortunate, we were pretty successful pretty much immediately. From that point in time I’ve had 20 years of independent theatre in Toronto on and off. Stratford literally came out of left field with a phone call from Antoni [Cimolino, general director] in 2000. So I’ve been kind of part of the scene, as it were, for about 20 years on and off, as much as I’ve tried not to be a part of the scene. A born and raised Toronto boy, I love my city, but after all my travels I understand why people call this city a cold city and why they talk about the theatre community as being extremely competitive, far too competitive as some say. So for me, going to see Video Cabaret and the History of the Small Huts, that would be definitely more of a landscape thing, “I wonder where they’re at now, I saw this show the first time they did it, with all those other actors who’ve now moved on, how has it changed?”
But also we’ve started this workshop so we want to follow these directors, that’s 11 directors who were part of our program last year. So we’re sort of taking responsibility, we’re going to see their work in the community. So that’s 11 young directors where we’re checking in and saying “Where are they at?”, “what kind of projects interest them”. Des firmly believes, instead of being an assignment artistic director, he wants directors to really do what they want to do. So there’s all that kind of stuff, all of the above.
Our casting director goes for her reasons obviously, and our dramaturg goes to take a look at young writers (we’ve been having a writers boutique now every year). When I came out of school, Stratford was this ivory tower, you know, so unapproachable. And you know I loved Richard [Monette, the former artistic director], I worked very closely with Richard, but one man was trying to do so many things that he lost touch with a lot of the community around him, not out of choice but again, he was directing 3 shows, acting in a show, he couldn’t really get out. But Des really really wants to fill it with life, and believes that the opening of doors and windows, the circulation of creativity is really what’s gonna help bring life back into the company. So it’s interesting. And he’s got me, I’m the black sheep indie guy who throws Shakespeare up against the wall and does silly things with it sometimes, only if its called for.
It was a challenge. A few years ago in Toronto there was a company called Shakespeare in the Rough, and their mandate was to do the undone Shakespeares. So I wanted to make an impression. I’d been working at Stratford for a few years on and off, it was sort of where I took my theatre vacations. Antoni called me absolutely out of the blue and asked me if I’d like to assist him on Twelfth Night in 2001. I didn’t think I’d even get that gig, and did. I directed a a show in the studio in 2002 and assisted Richard on All’s Well that Ends Well, then for the next few years I would go for a season and leave for a season, leave for two seasons and go back for a season, up until Antoni called me in to sit down with Des in 2008 to talk about Romeo and Juliet.
So I used the facilities of Stratford, like the archives, I’d walk in and say to the archivist “what’s the most undone Shakespeare?” and she gave me a top 3. I looked at all 3 and thought there was something to make work in there so I pitched Two Gentlemen of Verona. Then I literally came across an image of Shakespeare and Shaw together doing a vaudeville act, this always stuck in my head. Then I started to dissect the play and go through the themes and all that kind of stuff. And I really thought “I can kind of make this work, I think”. There’s a really difficult gear change in the end, no one’s gonna deny that and nobody’s gonna deny that it’s an early play and “what light is light if Sylvia be not” is not “What light through yonder window breaks, it is the east and Juliet…”, it’s not that lyrical, it’s kind of jagged, it’s got edges to it.
Then, you know, the muses visit and, I’d been reading the play over and over again and this road two movie came on TV. Because I’d had a hard time thinking that these two friends would do this, that one of them would do this to the other. But that’s every road two ever done. Not meaning that I’m reducing Shakespeare to a road two movie, actually it’s the other way around. Shakespeare formed our understanding of comic timing, I mean, the 1-2-3-exit that we see in Looney Tunes, happens in Love’s Labour’s Lost, it happens in Two Gentlemen of Verona, it happens in As You Like It, probably it’s perfected in As You Like It. That 1-2-3 thing that goes right through the Marx brothers and Looney Tunes, all of those elements seemed to really fit.
So I felt that I could make the play speak, or bring life to it. Because people had always said to me “I saw Two Gentlemen of Verona and I really didn’t get it, that ending it just makes no sense to me whatsoever”. But one of the great moments, I kid you not, (I’m 45 years old, I’ve had a lot of really fortunate adventures) but I had a lady staying across the hall from me at my apartment in Stratford and she actually came and knocked on my door and said “I just want you to know, I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl, I was in the tent on opening night, and I’ve seen every single Two Gentlemen of Verona, and that’s the first one I’ve ever understood”. That’s the most satisfying thing, when you can actually make something clear that someone thought was a little foggy or dodgy. And we had a lot of fun with it.
It was being able to know that I could get under the play. I was fortunate enough to do a 2-day workshop with Peter Brook and he said “we can never ever ever believe that we are smarter than Shakespeare. If we do, at that point we’ve already failed. What we need to think about is what kind of platform, very much like the stage at the Globe, we can sit that play on for a modern audience to understand it. You have to come up to it from underneath” he said “whatever frame you choose, it’s gonna be hazardous, it doesn’t matter what it is, but understand that it was like that for Shakespeare as well”. We have an etching of Julius Caesar where one of the guards is in a beefeater outfit, so he wasn’t worried about updating his plays with the dress of the time, he knew that the audience would understand what that image was. So some people thought I went too far, perhaps, but I thought the frame worked. And as I said, it was a challenge to begin with.
So all those things really brought me to Two Gents. Then Des kind of said “well, alright”. He had known that it had been a dream of Richard’s to do a Shakespeare in the studio because it had never been done before. And he wanted to give me a challenge. And there are 17 people in Two Gents but you don’t know it until the end, it’s all duologues and monologues, not a lot of crowd scenes. So all of those things led to Two Gents being in the studio.
I think that, honestly, it breaks down to archetypes. It breaks does to that power of myth. The audience understands the archetype of the dresser. When you look at Luchetta, what is this woman? She is the gentlewoman to Julia, that’s what she’s been written as. If that’s the case, she does everything and in modern society how can we define that? And that usually is one of the relationships that in period productions of the play is very very foggy, you don’t know what’s going on in that relationship because it’s hard for a modern audience to understand. Well, I watched All About Eve, I don’t know when was the last time you saw that, but one of the great things about the period I chose is that you get to watch all the old theatre movies. And you see Birdie, in All About Eve; in the first scene, Birdie is in Eve’s dressing room, and she’s obviously Eve’s wardrobe mistress. In the second scene she’s at a dinner party and she’s in a maid’s outfit taking coats and serving drinks. The third time we see her, she’s giving a very drunk Bette Davis a cup of coffee at the piano. And you realize this woman is this woman’s life, she’s everything. She can sew clothes, she can give advice, so on and so forth. So it really became, “alright, the perfect archetype of the most-trusted dresser”. So really it became about archetypal images.
And then, also, as happens when you do anything, it’s like you click into a grid or something. So when approaching Shakespeare, for me, again using the Brook thing, you can’t be reductive. So, the Duke has to be able to banish people. Well, in our modern society, how powerful do you have to be to actually banish people. Well, I started to do research on the whole Vaudeville era and I came across this guy, who, along with Albee’s father, Edward Albee’s father, basically owned every vaudeville house in North America, all the top houses. His nickname happened to be the Duke. He was a crazy crazy business man and if you messed with this guy, not only were you banned from his theatres, but he would call the other houses and say “you know what, you don’t want this person”. So you would basically have to go to Europe to get a job if you pissed this guy off. So I thought, wow, the duke really just has to be a governor right, he can banish people from the state, but THIS guy, he can banish people from the entire North American continent. So I wasn’t being reductive, which was very important to me.
How do you explain a character like Sylvia? In period productions she just comes off as a real spoiled rich kid, but if you can make her Sara Bernhardt and give her the capacity to be a theatrical star it gives her a little bit of licence and the modern audience goes “I know that archetype”. And Thurio is always played as a kind of closeted homosexual fop. So I thought in that case it would be kind of interesting to make him completely the opposite. He was a sort of ooozing testosterone guy who just took himself too seriously. So it really became about the archetypes.
But usually if your frame, in my experience, doesn’t fit for a Shakespeare play, there’s somewhere along the line that it falls apart, then it’s not gonna work. And even when you come up to the outlaws, I mean, keystone cops- maybe a bit too much- but still, they’re the dumbest outlaws in all of Shakespeare- I didn’t write them! All that kind of “you sir, we will kill you, OR you can be our king!” it’s just absolute absurdism. So again, it just seemed to fit. And I have gone into a Shakespeare play with a conceit or frame and worked through each character and had it just fall apart, so it goes out the window, I would never do it that way. But this just seemed to float. And people seemed to understand it, even longtime company members. That’s kind of the process I go with with any of the Bard’s plays that I’m approaching.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but what the archive is, if you’re doing a Shakespeare play, you can go there and get a comparative cut, which means that every single production of that play that’s been done at Stratford, all the cuts are there, in different colours for each director. You have this access to history and seeing what has worked, what hasn’t. It puts you ahead of the game that you can look at what Robin Phillips did with Two Gents. What was really funny was the Proteus and Julia saying goodbye scene, underneath that we put this kind of silent movie piano- that’s totally stolen from Robin Phillips. He did that. He didn’t take the concept any further but for whatever reason in that scene he had silent movie piano. And I thought “oh my god, that’s perfect” and also fit into my concept.
Casting is always in rep[pertory] (and especially at Stratford) a negotiation. But in this case, to be frank and honest, I was in negotiation with my boss. Whenever you’re working at Stratford, there are always 2 directors negotiating for casting, because of the tracking. Because of the 2 shows that the actors have to do. But it becomes infinitely simpler when you’re working with your boss. When your boss is working on The Tempest with Christopher Plummer, they’re picking the best players in the company. And we have an extremely extremely rich company at the moment. So I knew that I was going to be handed gold. In this case their was no negotiation other than that I did ask Chris to play Sir Eglamour but he just couldn’t find the time.
So it basically broke down really easily, I could see it with that company. Again, they’re all so rich. And I knew it was a kind of role that Gareth [Potter, Proteus] had never played before and I knew that Dion [Johnstone], to play Caliban [in The Tempest] and Valentine- they’re basically archetypal opposites, I mean, Valentine is all love and Caliban is half animal, half divine creature- so I knew that would be very interesting for him. Bruce Dow is Speed. I literally said to the man “just say the words and everything will be fine”. And I was blessed with Robert Persichini [(Launce)], I mean it’s very very rare that you’re gonna be handed 2 of the best clowns in the company to work with, so it was really a no brainer. And Timothy Stickney [(Thurio)] is a classically trained soap opera star, you don’t often get that, so I knew it would be an interesting role for him.
Yes, you know what I mean! And honestly, that was the first casting that happened. I sat down with him at the pub and said “Tim, I gotta tell you, I’m being straight-up with you, you’re my first casting. You’re the first actor I’ve sat down with”. He just looked at me and said “man I just don’t see it, what do you see here? Why are you doing this to me?”. But ultimately I really do think he hit it out of the park. I said “I just want you to be a bit bigger, a little bit larger than life”. So that was it, honestly, it was a no brainer and a real blessing. I know I sound like Sammy Davis Jr. but it really was, it was just kind of crazy. I felt like “you handed me this, I really can’t mess it up”.
There’s a difference between Richard and Des that the entire team is adapting to, which is that Richard came from inside the company and he would plan a season like a dinner- there’d be the appetizer, main course, desert. And it was all done from a “okay, what is Lucy [Peacock]‘s role, what is Seana [McKenna]‘s role?”. Des comes at it, after his 35 years of experience, and it’s all about the plays and the matching of energies. So he says “I want to do The Tempest, and we’ll do As You Like It and then, okay, we’ll do Winter’s Tale and Two Gents“.
Then he hands that over to our producer Jason to come up with how you can schedule that. What shows need to cross in order that every one of them gets their correct rehearsal time. So Jason says “Two Gents and Tempest, we need to take them right out of the rest of the tracking”. So they had their own track. In other words, whenever The Tempest wasn’t rehearsing or on stage, Two Gents can be rehearsing. So it’s a very very tricky thing. If you just imagine in your mind 3 sets of gears- all the little cogs have to fit into all the little nooks. It’s an insane process, which has gotten more and more complex with the more shows you add to those gears.
So that’s where the negotiation happens. You have your primary rehearsal, your secondary rehearsal and your tertiary rehearsal, which basically means that if it’s my primary, I get my choice, it’s my day. Secondary means somebody else has the day but they try to work with me so I can get certain things, certain scenes done. Tertiary, I’ve basically got the day off but I might be able to grab one hour to work with one actor on a monologue. Honestly that’s where directors visiting the festival, that’s where it’s totally foreign, it’s it’s own beast. Because you can go “wow, I’ve got three months to rehearse this play” but you don’t. You might have 2 days one week, 1 day the next week; it basically breaks down to 3 and a half weeks of rehearsal for every single show. It’s spread out, so you have a bit more time to think and ferment and so on, but in some cases you’re on stage after your first seven full rehearsal days, and those rehearsal days could be spread out over 2 weeks or a month.
We were very fortunate in that our audience are some of the best educated on the planet, and they are true geeks. So when an undone Shakespeare is done, it sells out- Two Gentlemen of Verona was almost sold out before it opened. 250 seats- every one of them filled with some kind of somebody who said “oh my god, this is never done, I want to see it”. It’s only been done 5 times in the history of Stratford. So there is a certain responsibility as well at that point. But yeah, it was sold out pretty much before it started so the reception of the audiences was really quite incredible. We were very fortunate.
Thank you. I actually read that. Someone passed on your original review and I was blown away.
There were some folks who thought that I had gone too far, but again I think that’s part of Des’ bravery, there were other folks that ate it up.
And our dear Michael Langham, who passed away recently… I read a paper that he wrote and all the reviews of that Timon[of Athens] that everybody talks about. Everybody talks about Michael Langham’s Timon. You want to do yourself a favour as a director? Read the original reviews of that, because he was nailed; was absolutely vilified. Then, 20 years later, it goes to Broadway and gets nominated for all these Tonys, it’s so absurd, he was before his time. But they wrote these horrible reviews and all these horrible things about him. Then a couple decades later, it moves on and everybody’s going “he’s changed the face of Shakespeare again”.
So, you know, it’s quite special, you know this, when you feel like you’ve communicated with somebody. That’s really what it’s about, if you can make this stuff alive. I think one of the big questions at the Shakespeare conference was “can we keep this stuff alive?”. And when John Barton visited Stratford many moons ago, he said he thinks its inevitable that the language is going to die, all languages die. But there are people who have devoted their lives to trying to stop Venice from sinking. If you think of the futility of that, it’s the tectonic plates of the earth that are making Venice sink! But I don’t consider what they’ve done less worthwhile. So we’re involved in a battle to keep this stuff alive and just being alive means being able to communicate it to people. So ultimately that becomes the challenge. Even Kill Shakespeare‘s still trying to do it. Do you know those guys?
Oh my god. Two Toronto boys started a comic book, that Julie Taymor even mentioned on The Colbert Report, called Kill Shakespeare. It’s all the good guys in Shakespeare against all the bad guys in Shakespeare to find and either save or kill the wizard Shakespeare. But check this out, it’s a great idea: they were watching Kill Bill one night and thought “wouldn’t it be great if it was Kill Will?!” and they did the pitch at the Toronto film festival and won $10,000. Now, I just got issue number 8 (they did 6 issues then a little graphic novel now they’ve done 2 more issues for the next one), and on the last page, Romeo’s army shows up and on the front of their armour is the Stratford Shakespeare Festival eye. So I was like “these guys are from Toronto, this is cool, this is vital”. We’ve been talking to them for about a year now. But they’re going to be multi-gazillionaires. They’ve got a video game, an animated feature, an animated series, a live-action feature and a play all in the works. You’ve gotta check them out, Kill Shakespeare, they’re totally totally cool. So maybe that’s the future, I don’t know.
I’ve just renewed my contract, so I’m around until the end of 2012 at this point. And Des has been really specific about what his plan for my development here has been. So my first year, 2009, was all about my learning how Des runs the company, how he captains the ship kind of thing. Again, it’s a very particular way and a very respectful way, with a lot of humour. Then 2010 was all about directing. I literally was in rehearsal (that sort of focused energy state) from February until August. I went straight from As You Like It straight into Tempest then from Tempest right into Do Not Go Gentle then from Do Not Go Gentle right into Two Gents, fed those into each other. And by the end of it the well was empty and I was a bit of a zombie.
So 2011, with Antoni directing, it’s pretty much impossible for Des and Antoni and I to direct all in one season (although we’re probably gonna try it in 2012), so I’m to run the ship. But also I’m learning how to do a musical. I’ve never done a musical. I’ve literally been a part of every tiny bit of the process for Jesus Christ Superstar and I will basically just shadow Des on that. He’s got an assistant director so that really just allows me to just dive in and see how he runs his rooms and all that kind of stuff. But this is a skill that I’m developing. Des is like “to be the most useful to me you have to know how to do everything” and so it’s been absolutely fascinating and a real education. He knows so much about it. And actually, other than, obviously, the music and the dancing and having to rehearse the orchestra and so on, he doesn’t do it all that differently than he does when he’s rehearsing Shakespeare. So that in and of itself was an education. It’s been fascinating for me.
I’ll be an associate for him on Twelfth Night and just sort of shadowing him on Jesus Christ Superstar and making sure the ship is running straight for this season. Then next year I’ll be directing again in 2012 here and probably outside of Stratford as well because Des thinks its very important to work at the festival but also outside of the festival. So it’s going to be an exciting couple of years. But that’s my gig until the end of 2012 and after that I really don’t know.
Oh yeah. It’s our 60th so it’s a big deal. I was really really fortunate to be around for the 2002 season. It was the opening of the studio and Richard had been kind enough to give me a place to direct there and I met Leon Pownall, who became a dear friend of mine. And every week there was something crazy going on, something surreal where the little kid in you just goes “neato, neato”. I remember having champagne with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, and that was just like “what the hell is going on here?”. Or sitting in Raymond O’Neill’s living room on the night of the opening of the 50th after being in this big tent where there’s this big band and everybody’s in tuxedos and having Brent Carver and Lucy Peacock do show tunes for 3 hours, it was just like a private concert. For a variety of reasons, it was just one of the best years of my life. So I talked to Des about how Richard had planned that for at least 2 years beforehand. He was kind of like a wicked little cherub planning his 2002. It’s also just Des’ nature, he has plays he’d like to do in 2013. He works pretty far in advance.
Oh my god, I mean, honestly, it would be impossible to pick a Shakespeare, just absolutely A Shakespeare. I mean, to have a shot at the festival stage with a Shakespeare, any Shakespeare, my god, I would be chomping at the bit. I have a re-invention of Comedy of Errors, again, where I think I could actually make it work. I have a Timon of Athens that I would love to approach. For some reason I do gravitate towards those plays… Honestly, what I’m dying to do is any kind of classical piece, I’m a confessed geek. Just give me a stage and I’ll be there.
Well, I know how, again, archetypally, to make it work. You’ve got to go back to the original, you’ve got to go back to Plautus and find out why that particular story has lasted that long, why it resonates with us. If you ever get a chance, when I saw it it was the most expensive theatre ticket in North America, but if you ever get to Las Vegas, Ka with Cirque du Soleil, it is an epic piece of theatre. But if you actually go “what the hell is going on here?”, it’s Twelfth Night. He’s just taken Twelfth Night and made it into a Cirque du Soleil show with acrobats and all this kind of stuff. Show begins, a massive ship, massive shipwreck, brother and sister are separated, takes them 3 acts to find their way back to each other through all these trials and tribulations. That’s all he did. And I think if you break Comedy of Errors down like that and do a little bit of foretelling, add a little big of foreknowledge before hand, you can make it work. But I can’t tell you my frame for it, because that is a secret. But I’d like the challenge anyway; I don’t know if Des would give it to me in the studio. And Timon as well, I’ve got an idea.
It was. So famous, so memorable that it literally is one of those things that you go, as a director “well, we can’t touch that one for a few years”.
No. Not in the current frame. But it’s interesting. That’s where it can fall apart. It’s about finding the proper fit. But I don’t know. That’s another one of Brook’s things: if you don’t know, say you don’t know. That’s where a lot of directors lose their way. Wise words.