Shaw Festival artistic director Tim Carroll responded to questions from theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck about his programming for his first season over e-mail.
Leaving aside the adaptations, there are only three scripts in your season that fall under the festival's original mandate of plays by Bernard Shaw and plays that premiered during his lifetime: the two Shaw plays and Me and My Girl . Is it fair to say that the Shaw Festival's old mandate is history, and that former artistic director Jackie Maxwell's final expansion of that original mandate – the addition of "Shavian" plays – is now the one and only mandate? That is, that you will now program provocative and entertaining plays of any period?
The Shaw certainly seems to have a tradition whereby each new artistic director reinterprets or expands the mandate. I do think that the choice of George Bernard Shaw as a guiding spirit for a festival was an inspired one; I'm really happy to accept the task of celebrating his genius. How we do that is probably something that will only become clear, to me as much as to anyone else, over the next few years.
The Shaw Festival does not have a history of showing English-Canadian characters onstage. I might be missing something, but, looking back at Ms. Maxwell's entire tenure, I'm hard pressed to find more than a single play that gave us a story about Canadians who were not French-Canadian or Québécois.
As such, your selection of 1837 and 1979 for your first season stands out. First of all, did you find it strange to realize how little this ensemble of English-speaking Canadians has had the opportunity to play English-speaking Canadians? And how did you arrive at the selection of these two plays in particular?
One of the great joys of coming into this job has been getting to know a lot of Canadian plays of all shapes and sizes. 1837 is the kind of play that has always appealed to me: It's irreverent, frankly theatrical, with lots of opportunities for music and movement, and full of passion, both political and personal. It's always exciting to find a play that, though well known to theatre people, has somehow lain in the shadows for a while and is in danger of falling out of the canon altogether. It's always a mystery to me why that happens to some plays and not to others. I think the quality of the writing in 1837 is marvellous, and it tells an incredible story that has deepened my understanding of the history of this region and of Canada. I'm already grateful to it for that.
As for 1979, that was a gift to me from Jackie Maxwell. The Shaw had been involved in commissioning the play and it was waiting for me when I got here. Of course, there was no obligation on me to do it, but I immediately loved the wit and edge of the play. I love the way [playwright] Michael Healey gives every character the best possible arguments for their point of view. He never just reassures someone like me that my liberal assumptions are correct. Reminds me of Shaw.
Just as the Shaw Festival has rarely put Canadian characters onstage, it has only recently begun putting characters of colour on stage. At the same time, colour-blind or colour-conscious casting has only been employed rather haphazardly, and this season we saw six of 10 plays with all-white casts.
Which brings me to An Octoroon. … Obviously, there's a lot of race-bending in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's play with the male characters putting on blackface, whiteface and redface. In the context of the Shaw, a brave – and risky – bit of programming.
There are certainly black actors, directors and playwrights who have worked at Shaw, but, as far as I know, I've never seen an indigenous actor, playwright or director at the festival … The characters in this play and the "Indian" characters in 1837 will be the first time I, personally, have seen any indigenous characters on a Shaw stage.
Did the history (or lack thereof) of representation of indigenous people at the Shaw Festival influence your programming of An Octoroon (or 1837)? Have you given much thought to how the use of redface will be framed here? I'm assuming the cast will include at least one indigenous actor? Will there be others in the ensemble? Will the diversity in this show spill over into the larger ensemble (or, if casting is still in process, influence the larger casting)?
Yes, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has jumped on a hornets' nest with both feet in An Octoroon, hasn't he? I love the fearless good humour with which he does it, which is, of course, allied to a deeply serious purpose. I would defend to the death Branden's right to be offensive, which I think is very important to the health of a society; our job is to try to make sure, in putting on such a bold piece of work, that we are not just doing it for the sake of creating a sensation. You always have to check your motives. [Director] Peter Hinton and I have talked about the play a great deal, and we both feel that it is one of the most important pieces of theatre of the last decade. We are still in the process of casting, which is a fantastically absorbing Rubik's cube, so we should talk in more detail later, but it's exciting to see inclusiveness and representation at the centre of the conversation.
I seem to recall you saying you'd never directed a play by Bernard Shaw before. Now here in your first year, you are directing both plays in the season by the festival's namesake playwright. How did you arrive at that decision and the plays you decided on? Can you give us some insight on how you're approaching his work and if you plan to take different approaches to the two plays? (We've seen many different approaches at the festival…)
You're right, I'm a Shaw virgin. Which is funny because my mother, who is an Irish Protestant like Shaw, brought me up reading his plays. There are two Shaw plays I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember. One is Saint Joan, and the other I am keeping under my hat for now.
I never expected to be doing two Shaw plays this year, and I had never thought of doing Androcles and the Lion, but when I read it, I had such a strong reaction that I realized I had to follow my instinct. As you say, there have been many different takes on the famous Shaw plays here. I always remind myself that my target audience is not made up of people watching their seventh Joan, but people watching their first. That doesn't mean one does a safe or "traditional" production – the real tradition is usually just a jumble of "modern" clichés, anyway – but it is good to resist the temptation to aim for novelty. I believe that one must dig deep to find a personal response to a play, and then one should work from that place without turning the production into an essay. That approach has made my work a bit hard to pin down at times, because I have embraced so many different styles, even within one author's work, like Shakespeare; but I believe it makes the work live and grow over the length of a long run. My approach to Joan will be to make a show that grows and blossoms throughout the summer.
With Androcles, I had an immediate sense that it presented an opportunity to engage with our audience in a new way. I want theatre that talks with its audience and not at them. Shaw wanted that too, so I hope he would have approved of the way that we are going to shatter the fourth wall in this show and hear from the audience. It will be done in a playful way, with no one put on the spot – I hate that as much as anyone – but I have been really struck by how intelligent and responsive our audiences are, and I want to bring that to the fore.
On your selection of directors, there are many newcomers to the festival – Eric Coates, Ashlie Corcoran, Christine Brubaker, Krista Jackson and Kevin Bennett. I believe Bennett assisted you at Stratford. How did you come to meet/select the other directors and include them in your season and match them with these plays?
I have had a great time this last year getting to know the work of several directors. I have been racking up the miles and seeing a lot of terrific work, from these directors and from others with whom I am talking about future seasons. There's a great new wave of talent coming through, it seems to me. These are all directors where I was not only impressed by what I saw, but by the sincerity of their desire to do work that comes from the heart. All the directors in this season are really serious artists and genuine people, and any of them could have directed any of the plays. But yes, somehow one has to make pairing decisions, and that is a really mysterious and beautiful part of the process. I always believe in listening to the voice that is deeper than one's brain, so whenever I was tempted to think, "Oh yes, so-and-so did a similar kind of play, that formula should work again," I tried to remember the number of times I have been hired to do "that thing you do." It never works out as well as when someone says, "I don't know if this is your sort of thing at all, but …"
I'm probably jumping the gun here – or, at least, I imagine you're waiting to announce this late – but I've heard long-time Stratford Festival ensemble member Sara Topham is coming to Shaw to star in Saint Joan. Can you confirm? And how much turnover do you expect in the ensemble next year?
Yes, if you were in the 100 metres, that would definitely have been a false start. All will be revealed.
This interview has been condensed and edited.