Every year, with—apparently—the greatest of ease, the Shaw Festival announces its coming line-up in a full-colour brochure and the public begins making plans to visit one of the world’s finest repertory companies. But how, exactly, is the menu chosen? Ever inquisitive, JWR sat down with artistic director Jackie Maxwell (just a few days prior to the tech rehearsals for Saint Joan) and posed the question.
JM: It’s complex for sure. I start with the Shaws. I’ve a chart of past productions. It’s not like Shakespeare where doing Hamlet every third year should fill the house. I’ve divided his work into three categories: Fantastic (e.g., Man and Superman); Funky (last year’s Too True to Be Good) and the “unstageable” (e.g., Buoyant Billions completed at the ripe old age of 91). Then it’s a matter of trying to balance the optimum use of our spaces, resident and guest directors, and the company. This year, Saint Joan takes pride of place in the Festival Theatre, but for the very first time ever, the other Shaw (The Philanderer, directed by Alisa Palmer) will play in the Royal George.
JWR: The Shaw has developed a reputation for staging high-quality musicals. How do they fit into the mix?
JM: Early on I talk with Paul (Paul Sportelli, the Shaw’s long-serving music director, cross-reference below). This season I decided to push the envelope and do two musicals. It had been our tradition to always do music in the George. “Why?” I wondered. Why not use the main stage? Could we fill the main stage? Both Gypsy and High Society proved we could and that’s where Michael Stewart/Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel (directed by Molly Smith) will go. So too with Tristan, (Paul Sportelli’s/Jay Turvey’s built-from-scratch world première), being a much more intimate piece, the Court House Theatre seemed ideal. In the Court House, I can do anything!
JWR: The broad mandate is Shaw and his contemporaries, but lately there’s been a lot of more recent work. Have you run out of plays or is there something else in play?
JM: For me, it’s interesting to develop a juxtaposition of contemporary work “then” with contemporary work of today. Last season’s The Magic Fire (cross-reference below), which came to me by mail and had eight parts for women over 25, is a perfect example. Brian Friel’s adaptation of Turgenev’s novel (A Month in the Country, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki) marvelously spans both eras and speaks again to our commitment to Canadian playwrights. Still, you won’t expect any murder mysteries on my watch—they simply don’t interest me. But back to the George, that space has matured so much it seems perfect for our first-ever Tennessee Williams (Summer and Smoke, directed by Neil Munro).
JWR: Beyond spaces and directors, how do you balance the needs and strengths of your colleagues in the company?
JM: For me, matching a director and a play is like a marriage. I get lots of suggestions. For 2006, Morris Panych wanted to do Design for Living (cross-reference below). That seemed ideal, just as Joe Zeigler’s special understanding of all things American made him the obvious choice for The Heiress. There are even a few plays I’d like to see done but am holding off until the directors I know would be perfect can fit them into their schedules. To flesh out any season, I read a lot. Sometimes I can see members of our company in a role. With others, I think that they’re now ready for this, like Nicole Underhay in Summer and Smoke.
JWR: But then …
JM (laughing): I take my broad-stroke plan, and it’s a long list to the production and management team. They go away to check the rights and come back with more information. We’re always conscious of the women/men [actors] ratio and aware for the need to be lean and mean. Throughout the early weeks, I often hear “But what about this.” By June, I should be able to [internally] present the season. The costing begins and compromises factor in (availability of key personnel being a prime season “reshaper.”) By August, after near-constant recalibration there’s suddenly a little click within me that says “that list of plays feels right.” It’s a lengthy, frequently frustrating but ultimately enjoyable process.
JWR: So with so many variables, it must be hard to infuse a season with an over-arching tone or BIG plan.
JM: The season’s theme emerges at the end, even though it’s probably always been somewhere at the back of my mind. This year, it seems we’re about the sexual politics of life. But beyond that, I seek diversity. I’m hoping for those many visitors who come for an extended weekend of four to six plays, they see that each one is different in time, look and effect. And for those who’ve never been and imagine that The Shaw is ‘where they do old plays,’ I invite them, for example, to come and experience the life of a seventeen-year-old girl who rises like a meteorite only to be crushed by the Church (Saint Joan). We’re accessible and familiar.”
JWR: And have the playbill to prove it. JWR