Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Sunday Read: Interview - Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director, Shaw Festival

(photo credit: David Cooper)

Re-Oxygenating the Shavian Flame
Celebrating her 10th season as Artistic Director for the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell talks Ragtime, voices in theatre, and defining the next 50 years of the iconic Shaw. 
by Christian Baines
CHARPO: With another month or so to go for this year’s Shaw, how has the season treated you so far?
MAXWELL: This season has been pretty good, actually. We have all the attendance difficulties that everybody has in terms of the general shifting of the world in the context of economics and all of that. But Ragtime, our big musical – which is kind of leading us not only this season but into our next years if you like, because this is our 51st season – really has done extraordinarily well. It’s always great to have a big signature piece kicking like that. Our Shaws, I’m glad to say did very well, as did Hedda Gabler and His Girl Friday. So there are always ups and downs within a season, but we’ve had a really strong showing. Artistically, I feel very good about the season. I think the company’s in good, strong shape. It’s always hard. Every week you’re always counting the box office,  funds raised and things like that, but everybody’s doing that. 
When I came on board at the Shaw, the mandate had changed as well.  Of course, Shaw would still be the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries,  but also include contemporary plays about the era.

CHARPO: What inspired the inclusion of Ragtime in this year’s festival?
MAXWELL: We had our big 50th birthday last year, and we had a lot of celebration, as well we should. I really wanted this year not to be a hangover year, but a year where we really looked forward. This is the beginning of our next 50 years,  ‘Why should we still be here? Are we still relevant? Are we still a theatre leader?’ To my mind, for us to do Ragtime, was a whole series of new conversations that we can have here, that we haven’t before. It’s a  complex and interesting look at the beginning of modern America, and at stories that I really wanted us to tell. So that’s why I believed it would be the show to kick us off.
CHARPO: The Shaw has grown to embrace a far greater variety of theatre than its original idea. As you observed, it’s about to kick off the next 50 years. How has it changed in your 10 years as Artistic Director?
MAXWELL: I think it’s changed quite a bit. When I came on board at the Shaw, the mandate had changed as well. Of course, Shaw would still be the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries, but also include contemporary plays about the era. That was very important to me, because I think it’s really important to be able to have a play of the era nestling up beside a contemporary play looking at that era anew. In that way, we get a great diversity of material. It allowed us to do more Canadian plays, because of course, they’re younger. I also put in women’s voices, which again, theatre’s all about voices, and it’s kind of getting voices that have not necessarily been heard before. So I think those voices have been brought into the programming and been embraced.  In the last few years, I have also promoted the notion of contemporary writers who are writing with Shaw’s mantle of being subversive, questioning, and challenging. That’s why we’ve been able to do plays like Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks or Serious Money by Caryl Churchill which represents another part of the programming that I’ve been developing. (cont'd)
(photo credit: David Cooper)
CHARPO: Do you see those shifts defining, maybe not the next 50 years, but certainly the immediate future beyond this watershed year?
MAXWELL: Yeah, I do. Because we can do 10 or 11 plays, we’re a summer festival, we’re in this beautiful wine region, there’s a sense that in the centre of what we do, we’re a theatre of contemporary ideas that though they may come from classic plays, they still have a great deal to say about today. And we look at these pieces through contemporary eyes.  We also want to say that in different ways. We can give people comedies or musicals that embrace some of these ideas but obviously in a softer way. So I feel that we’re able to carry on, while also giving a kind of summer theatre experience.
CHARPO: As one of the biggest repertory theatre companies in North America, you do have a certain amount of instant recognition. But what are some of the challenges you face in bringing audiences to such a big theatre event outside the major cities and how do you meet those?
MAXWELL: The big challenge of course, is accessibility, especially with younger people. Getting to the Shaw, if you don’t have a car, isn't easy. Things are improving now because from Toronto we have the GO Train in the Summer, with a link up to the bus into Niagara on the Lake on the weekends. We’re really hoping that’s going to continue and improve. But essentially, one has to get a car with friends or one has to look at the transport carefully. Our prices, for younger people especially, are very accessible. As I say, it’s just getting here that's the issue.  Because Americans are about 40% of our audience, we have to deal with the notion of the dollar and where it sits,  as well as passports, bridges, gas... all of these things, which, if you’re running an urban theatre, aren’t necessarily issues for you. But these are all issues for us.
I’m thrilled that we’re programming pieces such as the Somerset Maugham play, Our Betters. It’s very, very rarely done, and we’ve kind of rediscovered these pieces.
CHARPO: And how do you approach those from a marketing perspective?
MAXWELL: You just have to keep on top of it. Some of the items are out of our control, there’s nothing one can do about the dollar or gas, but what you can do is make sure you’re letting people know different ways of getting here, and how the pricing works. Because people are coming here for more than a couple of days, we connect with local wineries or local hotels to make deals with them. We’re very much the motor for the high end cultural tourism around this area. So it behooves all of us to connect and be able to create experiences and deals for people if they come to the area.
CHARPO: Any more hints on what we can expect for 2013?
MAXWELL: Yeah! I’m excited about 2013. Always, at this point in the year, anything is possible. It’s a good time. Designers are designing and we’re having chats between directors and designers and I’m just about to get into the casting process, which will start to be announced very shortly. In terms of the plays, what I’m happy about as well is that, to me, when you’re doing classic pieces like we do, the important thing is the match up. Looking at the festival, for example, where we’re doing Guys and Dolls and Lady Windemere’s Fan, what’s interesting and why it will be specifically a Shaw experience, is that Tadeusz Bradecki, the brilliant Polish director is coming in to do Guys and Dolls. So his really interesting take or point of view on the piece is what really will lead it and make it something to see anew. Similarly, with Lady Windermere's Fan, Peter Hinton, a brilliant Canadian director is going to be taking that on. So the notion is re-oxygenating and re-exploring classic pieces. 
On the other hand,  I’m also thrilled that we’re programming pieces such as the Somerset Maugham play, Our Betters. It’s very, very rarely done, and we’ve kind of re-discovered these pieces. You look at them and go ‘this is a fantastic play. It’s very funny, it’s very stylish, it’s very smart.’ It’s great to be able to put that on. Again, with our Shaws, we’re putting on Major Barbara, which is one of Shaw’s best plays. We’ve always done it in the festival, and this year I thought ‘no, I’m directing it, and I’d like to put it in a smaller theatre and really look at it more intimately.’ So we’re going to be doing that at the George. Whereas at the Courthouse, with the Shaw, we’re doing a brand new idea, which is taking his slightly stranger, later plays, which have all sorts of wonderful ideas in them, and giving them to contemporary writers to do a new version of. We did it with Michael Healy two years ago with On The Rocks. And this year we’re doing it with Shaw’s play Geneva, which John Murrell is giving a completely new version, called Peace In Our Time. So again, new and interesting ways of approaching our namesake. 

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