Onstage / Shaw’s new artistic director introduces his first season—and it’s exciting!
Tim (“T. C.”) Carroll brings his progressive vision to Niagara-on-the-Lake
Shaw’s new artistic director, Tim Carroll
Photo by David Cooper
“Shaw wrote these very intelligent and verbal plays, but his fundamental mission was to bring everybody into theater, and not under false pretenses, but to give them something exciting they were glad they’d come to. I would never want anybody to come and think there wasn’t something for them.”
Since 1962, the Shaw Festival mission has expanded several times to allow for greater programming diversity that would, in turn, attract more diverse audiences to Niagara-on-the-Lake. This 2017 season—which boasts two world premieres, two contemporary American works, two fresh adaptations of classics, a Canadian classic, a children’s show, a musical, and, of course, for good measure and integrity, two Shaw plays—is a stellar example that reflects the progressive vision of new artistic director Tim (“T. C.”) Carroll, whose internationally recognized career spans the West End (Richard III) to Broadway (Twelfth Night).
Prior to making a permanent home in Canada, Carroll had visited Shaw just a couple times, most recently in 2014 when Kate Hennig—whom he’d directed in Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival in 2013—invited him to see her in When We Are Married. After the show, “she invited several actors out for a meal,” says Carroll, “and I was struck by how passionate and devoted the company is, and how devoted they are to each other. I had a feeling it was an exciting place to work, and thought ‘[maybe] they’ll ask me to direct a show.’”
Mere months later, Carroll gets a call from an executive search company. It’s flattering, of course, but Carroll’s first reaction is that he is pleased with his life, including his more nomadic career. “I didn’t see why I would take on all the stress,” he says, “but then people like Kate said, ‘No, you should think about it. It would be a great fit.’ And then my friends in England started to say, ‘Everywhere you work, they want you to stay and develop an acting company, and you never do. Until you stay and work with a company over many years, you’re not going to make the difference your work could make.’”
In his first interview, Carroll sought assurance that the facts that he’d never directed a Shaw play and was not Canadian wouldn’t be deal-breakers; if so, he didn’t want to waste his time. They were not, and, after several more interviews—he answered the classic “What have you had to work on?” question with “my temper,” and says he now laughs when people admire his calm and patience—and a trip to Toronto, Carroll was formally announced in August 2015.
“I think they were glad to hear I believe in developing the skills and training of an ensemble,” Carroll offers as partial explanation of how he landed the prestigious gig; he also believes his willingness to reach out to surrounding areas was appealing. “We can’t just sit inside our theaters and wait for people to come to us. They could see from my track record that I tend to do two-way theater, shows that really invite the audience in—all my work at the Globe, for instance, and on Broadway, where we had the audience on stage, and allowed them to influence the show.” Carroll also cites his work at The Factory Theatre Company in London, where he directed the roaming, site-specific, and improvisational hit production of Hamlet: “I’m not a conventional theater maker.”
A transitional year working with outgoing artistic director Jackie Maxwell presented a steep learning curve that included the “fiendish” algebra of cross-casting a company of sixty-four actors into eleven shows. “You spend a lot of time scratching your head, and throwing down your pen—no pencil—in despair,” Carroll shares. “I learned a lot about the rhythm of the season and the way the actors and the audience go through cycles of enthusiasm and tiredness and familiarity and excitement. I learned a lot about the mood and spirit within the company, and how to prove to people, who in many cases have been here a great many years, that I am the person to come from the outside and lead—which was a big question for some. There was a lot to learn and it was very important to show the right degree of humility in learning, which I hope I have.”
And then, on December 1, Carroll was charged with taking all he’d learned and applying it to his first solo season, one that underscores how he interprets both the Shaw opportunity model and its mission. “Shaw wrote these very intelligent and verbal plays, but his fundamental mission was to bring everybody into theater, and not under false pretenses, but to give them something exciting they were glad they’d come to,” he contends. “I would never want anybody to come and think there wasn’t something for them, [but] we can never do anything that is deliberately aiming low, which is rubbish or patronizing, because people would sniff that out very quickly and quite rightly punish us for it.”
To get a better sense of Carroll’s aesthetic, he offered a few words about each show in the upcoming season, in which he felt he should “be front up and take on Shaw, and make sure by the end of my first season, I will have done two Shaw plays.”
• Me and My Girl, music by Noel Gay, lyrics and original book by L. Arthur Rose: “That was an easy one. As soon as it was suggested to me by Sara Topham [who played Juliet in the aforementioned Stratford production, and will also play the titular role in Saint Joan this season], I knew it would be a delightful way to kick off. I love the book—it’s so witty, and it’s been rewritten by Stephen Fry, who I was lucky enough to work with on Twelfth Night [Fry played Malvolio], and it was a huge phenomenon in the eighties. We were able to get Michael Therriault to play the lead; he’s one of Canada’s best, and to have him come is a huge vote of confidence.”
• Saint Joan, by Bernard Shaw: “This was an easy choice; I’ve always loved the play, and I’m blown away by the poetry and how beautiful it is. It was always one of the three Shaw plays I wanted to do; another was Pygmalion, which they just did, and I won’t say the other because it will come up soon. To have actors of this caliber coming to do the play the first season is an incredible boost to my feeling that people think it’s an exciting new time.”
• Dracula, by Bram Stoker, adapted by Liz Lochhead: “I had this adaptation on my shelf for literally fifteen years; every director has these for whenever a theater says, ‘What would you like to do?’ but then they can’t because they just did an adaptation. Some plays you have in your back pocket, and when you reread them, you think, ‘I must have been a different person when I read this because I don’t get it at all anymore,’ but this one I found more clever and witty and sly and sexy. It’s a marvelous translation, such a clever way of really making the book not feel like a book, but a play.”
• 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille: “As soon as I got the job, I [started reading] collections of modern Canadian plays, but few struck me as ones that we should do because the ones I really liked tended to be ones that get done a lot, and the ones that don’t get done I didn’t love so much. But with 1837, I said, ‘This is my favorite, and no one ever does it; that’s crazy.’”
“It’s a significant part of Canadian theater history, and the opportunity we have is that we can take a piece that requires big forces or a lot of rehearsal and give it the time and resources it needs. It’s not always necessary to do a world premiere when you can give a play a second or third production that it might not ordinarily get.”
• Androcles and the Lion, by Bernard Shaw: “I’m really excited about this one, because we’re really bringing the audience into the experience. We’re going to give them a chance to stop and talk to us and we’re going let them influence how the show goes. It’s for our core audience—and our next core audience—people who love Shaw, love the wit, provocativeness of his conversations and arguments, and are up for something a bit different.”
• Wilde Tales, adapted by Kate Hennig from Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde: “Kate has adapted a poetic and delightful piece of writing with lots of charm for older as well as younger kids. Before every show, we’ll have a forty-five-minute workshop where kids will work with the actors to make some things we will use in the show, and learn a song that’s in the show. They will participate in making the show happen.”
• The Madness of George III, by Alan Bennett: “There was another show I had lined up where the director suddenly wasn’t available, and I didn’t want to do it with a different director, and I sort of went to bed in despair, and the next day, someone mentioned the Royal George being named for George III, and I thought, ‘That’s a better solution, and the other piece can wait for another year.’”
• Dancing at Lughnasa, by Brian Friel: “Friel is a master, and it’s his greatest play, one of the best of the twentieth century, and typically Irish in that Ireland is the land where no tears are without laughter and no laughter without tears. It’s very moving, very funny, and kind of an amazing showcase for Shaw’s incredible group of actresses that Jackie Maxwell has built up with a determination to not let women be just fifteen percent of the people on stage. I’ve always wanted to do this, and Brian Friel dying made me feel like it would be nice to pay tribute.”
• An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins: “This is going to be a big challenge for our audience. When I saw this in New York, it knocked me off my feet; it’s the best show I’ve seen in the past five or ten years. It’s hilariously funny, really sort of fantastically offensive in lots of different ways, and yet you can’t at any point doubt that it’s written with complete sincerity and with a desire to wake us up.”
• Middletown, by Will Eno: “If Octraoon is the best I’ve seen for a long time, Middletown is the best I’ve read in a long time. I’m amazed nobody in Britain has done it, but we’ve got to because I’m absolutely sure that in twenty, fifty years’ time, people will be doing this play regularly because it’s going to be an acknowledged masterpiece. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing, but a hard play to talk about because it doesn’t have a theme or famous historical characters; even the plot is hard to describe. [It will be] difficult to sell, but is exactly the sort of thing our company will do brilliantly. You never know what the next line out of anybody’s mouth will be; I read it with my jaw on floor in amazement or just pissing myself laughing. I’d be very happy if I’d written a play like that. [Editor’s Note: Carroll has written four plays “back in the day, but none were any good, so I gave it up.”]
• 1979, by Michael Healey: “It will be interesting to see if we can get any Americans to come see this play. It’s really funny, a brilliant, ninety-minute analysis of political reality. In our current situation, even more of the current moment, it’s interesting to have a play about what are you willing to do to get power and keep it? It was a play that had already been commissioned—there were a whole bunch of those, and Jackie was clear I didn’t have to do any of them—but I read them all and 1979 leapt out as an easy choice.”
“It seems you have a lot of slots to fill, but when you start to think about all the different things you’d like to do, you don’t,” says Carroll of achieving season balance. “You want a good mix of comedy and serious, want to make sure there aren’t just writers from England, but some American plays, a Canadian writer in at least one place. With all these considerations, we still have a season without a play from mainland Europe, which surprised me because I love European theater, or I haven’t managed to tick that box I wanted to tick. Over three years, I will balance that out better, and be sure to not go too long with any glaring omissions. That’s a good pressure to feel because it makes you look in places you might not have looked otherwise.”
Increasing diversity within the company was also part of Jackie Maxwell’s personal mission, and one Carroll intends to continue. “It doesn’t happen overnight in an ensemble company,” he acknowledges, “because you build up relationships and you don’t want to throw those out. I’m keen to continue; it’s such a central part of the world conversation that there’s no way you can say it doesn’t apply to us. But the company requires new blood every year, requires a certain turnover as people go off to have a rest, and then others come in and bring new energies.”
Carroll himself is no exception.
Playwright Donna Hoke writes about theater for Spree and Forever Young.