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Act I Scene I

An Interview with Jackie Maxwell

Jackie Maxwell Recontextualizes

Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell's office

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Autumn 2013

 

Kathleen: Let’s start with your role as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival.

 

Jackie: This is my eleventh season – and when I came here, my predecessor, Christopher Newton (very illustrious; he’d been for here 23 seasons and had really, I think, just lifted the whole playing field in terms of the kind of work here and it was a case of, “Oh, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”), had it in very good shape. It was very respected, but I think the time was coming for a shift. And part of that was because of Shaw. So if we are the Shaw Festival, we were founded because of the passion that two men had for Shaw fifty odd years ago… grown exponentially of course, since then. But the notion of Shaw and who Shaw is—he’s a very different figure than he was fifty years ago when this theatre was founded. He’s not taught in high school anymore. He’s not really known as a personality in the way that he was, of course, when he was alive or shortly thereafter. And so he is essentially much less-known. So a lot of people, a couple of generations at the very least, don’t know who the hell our named playwright is. And probably don’t know very many, if any, of his plays. So what does that mean?

Well, pragmatically it means that not as many people automatically come to see Shaw plays. So for me I have to deal with that programming-wise. I certainly feel very secure in his work because of the provocative nature of who he was, because of the fact that he was a man who was the mosquito in the flesh of the establishment. He was a man who challenged establishment, challenged assumptions. Because of this, many of his plays really live very well. Major Barbara is still, frankly, a very scary play to do, in the best way. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Saint Joan… these were plays that live. So it’s not that he, as a writer, is irrelevant. It’s just that he’s not in the current zeitgeist, really.

So for me, when I came here, when I was asked to apply for the job-- and I had run a theatre before, Factory Theatre which is a very different kettle of fish; very urban, totally dedicated to Canadian work and the development and production of that-- I was very taken. I loved Shaw. I knew Shaw’s work. I’d read it at university. I did a very academic drama degree. I knew that whole period. But what interested me was that Christopher said that the original mandate of the festival is the plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. The guy lived 94 years so he had a hell of a lot of contemporaries. One isn’t lacking for product, so to speak. The period he lived, 1856-1950, is the beginning of the modern world. So you’ve got a turn of the century from Victorian to Edwardian. You’ve got World War One. Everything. But what Christopher I think quite smartly did before he left, is open the mandate to include contemporary plays about the era, as well as the era itself. And to be honest that’s what really interested me in running the place. Not because I didn’t love those of the period. I mean who doesn’t want to do Chekhov and Ibsen and Coward and all those wonderful writers? But I want to  see the creative friction that happens when you take a contemporary play about an era and put it alongside a play of its time. Have we gained anything in hindsight? How do we look at it differently? Even form-wise, we write plays so differently now than we did then. What does that do? So that really interested me. I thought that there were empty spaces, it seemed to me, in the programming and voices that weren’t being heard. So the first set of voices, it seemed to me, were Canadian voices. I wanted to put Canadian plays into the programming. I wanted to bring playwrights into the company. I wanted to develop new work. I didn’t want to take it over, I wanted it to be a strand of the programming. I feel any contemporary theatre needs contemporary writers attached to it. So that was one point of view. The other voice that I felt was very lacking was a female voice. And I thought to myself, I have to believe that there must have been female playwrights in Edwardian and Victorian times and thereafter. They happened. And sure enough, you go back into time and it didn’t take very long to start finding fantastic plays that had happened and in some cases been very celebrated and then simply just left. So that was something I felt very strongly about.

 

Kathleen: Who did that research? Did you do it yourself?

 

Jackie: Yeah, pretty much. It was so interesting to do! And it’s not that there aren’t other people who are doing it. I mean there’s a kind of wonderful, nerdy network of people who are going down these roads. And then I eventually brought on a wonderful associate, Edith Holmes and then a Literary Manager, Joanna Falk. We all do this together. The other thing I wanted to do was to bring in more female directors. People always ask, “Are you a role model?” There hadn’t been a woman running one of these big institutions before and I felt it was up to me then to try to—

 

Kathleen: Make the spaces.

 

Jackie: —because there was, or maybe still is, a huge imbalance. So in terms of artistic direction, my job was to start trying to fold in these kind of programming ideas. The Royal George Theatre had a formula which was that they did murder mysteries and sort of light operas. I was not interested in that. I think they’d really come to the end of their time. I didn’t want to read or program them, frankly. And I felt that we could turn the Royal George into – albeit still a very populist space – but I thought that there was more that could be done in that space. And so I slowly started to turn it around. I started putting Shaws there. And then one other thing I thought of was in terms of musical theatre, that of course we could always do a big, populist musical, but also that it’s such an interesting and wide-ranging genre that we could also start to look at more contemporary ones or develop our own. I soon discovered that you have to move slowly. You have to be tenacious, but you can’t just slam stuff up. The audiences will just freak out. So being Artistic Director, as I say, there are the pragmatic things that I do. But I have to keep, also, looking ahead because I think we have to be a leader in the theatrical conversation in this country and the whole continent. And to do that, you have to keep going: Okay, how do we stay there? How do we maintain our relevance? How do we open up to more people?


Kathleen: Yeah. Even the question of gender is interesting because – as you say – when you inherit something or come into something that is so successful, so beloved, it’s hard to hear the missing voices.


Jackie: Well, you have to prepare for the fact that you’re always going to upset someone. But I wanted to be careful. I didn’t want to blow the place up. I also wanted to maintain the intellectual rigor of the place that is matched with an emotional connection, the production values, the notion that design is important, the notion of an ensemble of actors that are tuned like an orchestra.

 

Kathleen: Well let’s peruse that gender question, because obviously it figures largely in your selection of plays. To work with the plays of that era for a contemporary audience, what kinds of issues surface for you?

 

Jackie: All sorts of issues! One of the fascinating things, for example, in finding female writers from the time is— Well, for example, I discovered a wonderful British writer, a woman called Githa Sowerby. And she wrote a play called Rutherford and Son in 1908/9.  It’s about a kind of a man who— Rutherford is a dinosaur. He runs a glass empire. Industrialization is taking over. Though it’s clear that he’s a man shortly to be completely out of his time, he’s not going down gracefully. He’s a tyrant to his children, and his rather weak son has married this young woman who essentially in the end kind of takes him down. It’s a fascinating and beautiful play. Emma Goldman saw the play when it was done in London and said it was one of the most extraordinary pieces of art that she had ever seen. So it was very celebrated and then it just fucking disappeared, right? The National Theatre had actually found it and I read it and went, oh my god…

 But what was fascinating about it (and subsequent plays of hers that we then found) was that these stories were not necessarily new, per se. It’s the kind of work that Galsworthy was doing, or Barker, or Shaw himself. But suddenly the whole point of view is flipped and it’s really fascinating. Once we did that, it was very successful and people were really quite kind of bowled-over by it. And so I kept thinking well where the hell are Sowerby’s other plays because she apparently wrote five others. We eventually dug our way down and met someone who’d found some of her manuscripts languishing in the basement of Samuel French. It was a great kind of detective story. So the next play we did was a play that she wrote called The Stepmother. This was written later, it was in the early 20s. And it was done once. It was read once in 1923 and then it was never touched again, never published. This play is fantastic. So in it, we meet  a young woman who’s a dress maker and designer. She’s independent. She’s doing relatively well, financially. And she essentially gets to come live with this man who’s a widow. He’s a bad guy, a wastrel, a gambler. But he has two daughters, two young-ish teenage daughters. They get married. So the whole notion of “stepmother” you go: “uh oh.” No, the daughters adore her. And in the end, he basically bilks her of all her money because of the way that finances works. The money became his. And there are these shocking scenes where she finds out that he has taken her money. I mean, the audiences here, people were like, “Oh! No! Oooh. Ah!” I mean, literally. And of course, the ending, which was so interesting. Normally, the ending would be (well, because she had falled in love with another man) you would think well, either she has to die or she has to be pushed out or she has... BUT NO! The husband – the ne’er-do-well – is pushed off to America. She gives him some money and she ends up in a new life with these daughters. And the last line is so… literally, the oldest daughter she brings out some tea and she goes, “Tea?” And the mother goes, “Tea.” So that’s been just delicious. To be able to show historically, here’s a point of view about a time in the world and we are not used to having that history from a female point of view.

 

And when you do a Shaw play they’re gifts because his ideas about women were—

 

Kathleen: --were feminist!

 

Jackie: Absolutely! And often the women are so smart; usually far smarter than the guys. And yet interestingly, as a contemporary woman going in to do Shaw plays which I adore, there is still a certain amount of shape-shifting that you have to do, or a point of view that you have to bring in. The sexual politics of a lot of the drama of this time is fascinating. But interestingly, I find it very heartening that you go to a writer like Noel Coward and find in a play such as Design for Living that he’s actually espousing that three people can live together. I took my then-sixteen year old daughter to the opening of that and she kept saying to me, “when was this play written?” Somerset Maugham, you know, is a very politically— Many of these writers were breaking ground. Even the so-called “comic” writers. So I think that as long as we try to approach them from a contemporary point of view, I don’t mean “updating” them, I mean just going in and really looking at their politics.


Kathleen:  So what about the kick-up with the Somerset Maugham this season? When I read the exchange in the paper between critic J Kelly Nestruck and director Morris Panych, I was sitting with the question of the distance, that gulf between then and now. And also realizing that when I see a play, even if the play doesn’t resolve hiccups for me, observing the space between where I’m sitting and what I’m seeing is an incredibly important, and engaging, and provocative experience. And I don’t actually need the play to bridge anything for me, because it’s sometimes the discomfort of the space that I’m looking for. That’s what I want.

 

Jackie:  Yes! That’s exactly it. I don’t think we need to spoon-feed people and go, “Oh, look, it isn’t like this anymore.” You’re here. You’re sitting here. You’re watching it. I think it’s up to us to really clearly contextualize the play. And I mean Somerset Maugham was pretty anti-American, pretty anti-British, he’s pretty anti— I mean, he was a viperish satirist, you know? Nobody gets away scot-free as far as I can see. He says things in his plays that are still really shocking. That’s what I need: writers who aren’t afraid of ideas because that’s what this place thrives on. And how active ideas are. And how compelling. So you have a contemporary writer like Anne Marie MacDonald. I wanted Anne-Marie who can take an idea, a hundred ideas and spin them in the air and so that’s how we ended up with Belle Moral. And Belle Moral is exactly that. There’s this wonderful woman in the middle of it who is essentially dealing with all of the ideas that were taking us from the 19th into the 20th century.

 

Kathleen: What do you think will be the political legacy of what you’re doing?

 

Jackie: If the festival’s called the Shaw Festival, the very nature of almost all of the work has a political edge to it. Larger, bigger “P” to it. The work that we do, it requires engagement from the audience, you know? If you’re going to sit and watch Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, you have to fucking engage, you know? And you may not understand absolutely everything about chaos theory or algorithms but you will understand the notion of what a story from the past can do when it’s retranslated into the present. I hope that certainly we will have allowed the piece to be accessed in a way that, at the very least, will put those issues out there. And to my mind, I would like to think that I have been able to extend the notion of what that engagement is about. I want to send a billion signals. I believe in the spirit of this place. And in the spirit of the use of theatre. What is theatre for? It is here to make you rethink. It can completely turn your head around. It can give succor.

 

 Kathleen: I had that experience in Lady Windermere’s Fan last night. You could run away with so many of those timeless quotations. But when she said “There isn’t good and bad. We’re in the same world,” and I was suddenly thrown into the last ten years of “us against them” and the “evil forces” and terrorism. And I thought, that’s the idea! That’s at the centre of it. It’s been so dressed up and it’s been so confused by so many other things, not the least of which is fear. Then in that sort of escape of three hours and the poignancy of that line, all of the messiness, the complexity suddenly became clear for a fleeting moment for me. And then I thought, well I mean that’s socially-engaged theatre. Because I had to reconsider everything that I’d been swimming in and couldn’t see because we’d been swimming for so long. And it just took one turn of phrase in a context that just distanced me enough that I could see something I was swimming in. It’s totally a fabulous and a very active—activated position to be in.

 

Jackie: Yeah! I mean who wants to go to the theatre and just kind of slump in your seat? I mean, even with the musicals. We did Ragtime. I mean Ragtime was a very moving and hard piece to work on, in a great kind of way. And if you’re truly Shavian about it, you can get to engagement without hitting people over the head.

 

Kathleen: Right..I would to talk about education, but writ large. Not strategies, not initiatives for doing this, that, or the other thing, but what is theatre’s teaching or pedagogical function that you think you’ve given some attention to while here?

 

Jackie: I think that the biggest thing we can do is either change someone’s point of view or if not change it, actually stop them for a moment and make them rethink or re-examine why they’re sitting in a certain place. I think that is what theatre can do brilliantly. There’s a point where that person goes, “Oh, I recognize that. I recognize what’s being questioned, or what’s being assumed or that behavior.” Then that’s where the door opens, that’s where the questioning happens. I don’t mean to change people. You might say, “Well, does theatre change people?” Well, theatre opens the potential for people to re-examine something that might make them actually ultimately change themselves.

 

Kathleen:  Right. Right. So here’s something I’m interested in. There’s often a dichotomy in theatre between this sort of intellectual, idea-based, distanced, cool kind of theatre that you talked about—which is a little bit Shavian—and a kind of affective theatre, where emotion and affect are significant drivers in its creation. And normally these things are seen as somewhat dichotomized, a little bit of a gulf between them. I’ve seen even over the last five years where I would say that gulf is narrowing considerably and I don’t know how much of that is theatre and how much of that is me, but I feel like some of the most politically-engaged theatre I’ve seen is also very affectively-attuned and I don’t think that’s always been the case.

 

Jackie: I think that’s an astute observation. You could go back to Brecht’s alienation effect and then you go and see The Caucasian Chalk Circle and watch two women pull a child apart and of course you’re completely wrecked—


Kathleen: –Not feeling so distant!

 

Jackie: —not feeling very alienated right now. I think these two ideas have always, they’re always regarding each other in one way or another. I certainly notice the actors here now – the notion of viscerally connecting to what you’re intellectually saying is vital. Even though Shaw is cool, there is a huge passion—

 

Kathleen: Heat.

 

Jackie: And frankly, sex is under everything in Shaw. I’m completely and utterly convinced that’s ultimately what drives a huge amount of it. It’s kind of the potency of emotion versus argument. And so it’s somehow trying to always not let one overcome the other, it seems to me. Because I think they can and should coexist but sometimes you think, are you manipulating people? I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder. I’ll put in a sound cue and then I’ll go, Oh fuck, I’m really turning the screw there. Maybe I should pull that back a little bit.

Look, it’s interesting, I went to see Angels in America at Soulpepper which I hadn’t seen for years. And it was interesting now (not that the issues aren’t around but it isn’t the heat of the time in which it was written in terms of AIDS and so on). So I’m sitting there and I’m going okay, so what am I— I’m enjoying this, and as always with Tony Kushner who’s so brilliant I mean there’s just still stuff that gets said where you just go, “Okay, well that’s fantastic.” But then I’m going, “Okay, what am I finding old fashioned?” I’m finding the structure, the episodic nature of it a bit of a thing of the past. Somebody asked me, “Do you really like these AIDS plays?” I really don’t think we can be quite that blasé about it. I was very happy to be there watching it, but I was not actually completely and personally engaged in it. But I didn’t mind that. I don’t feel that every time I go to the theatre I have to leave weeping. On the other hand, I went to Soulpepper to see Death of a Salesman that I’ve seen many, many, many times and by the time I got to the scene where Joe Zeigler, who played Willy, is being told he didn’t have a job, I was so— I couldn’t even look. I saw Joe afterwards and of course all I did was just burst into tears. \  I’ve seen it a million times and I kind of suddenly— Whatever they found in that, whatever core, completely demolished me. So it’s very personal. But when I’m working on a play, I really do work at times to deliberately make myself mistrust the moment of “oh-that-will-get-people.” To me, it has to be so fucking earned.

 

Kathleen: That’s what Richard Sennett says in his last book about the idea of rehearsal—that those moments are earned. In the Renaissance workshop they were earned. And they have to be earned now.

 

Jackie: It all has to be earned. And that sounds very moralistic. It’s not. I don’t make art. I guess I translate art, but I hope in the end the creation ultimately is art, or artful. You have to go on a journey. You have to turn over every fucking stone. You have to find a way of reconstituting and rediscovering a narrative.


Kathleen: As you know, the title of our book is “Why Theatre Now?” And for us—my co-editor and I—both the why and the now were central to that question. So if I pose that question to you, what would you say?

 

Jackie: I think we have to continue to keep proving it, but for me, theatre now is vital. Why? Because it is a place where a community of people can be brought together in a live experience, to experience a story in whatever form it is that potentially will radicalize, question, clarify, anger. I think that if we don’t have that, there’s the potential now, because of the global world that we live in, first of all for homogenization. But there’s also the problem that knowledge is given and received so quickly. We need to be able to sit in a room (importantly, with other people) and to see that knowledge can be re-constituted into a narrative that requires time and thought. It’s vital that we find another way to look at our experiences and the information that is around us.

 

Kathleen: Where does your confidence in theatre to make us see anew come from?

 

Jackie: So I was born and brought up in Belfast and all my teenage years were right in the middle of the troubles, when they were at their height. I was very aware of it and it was the mid-sixties to late-sixties and into the early seventies. I remember being in school and like a teacher coming in and often they would say girls (I went to this all-girls grammar school that I got a scholarship to go to) and Kathleen: say, “Girls, Kathleen: been a bomb scare, can we check your bags and desks.” And Kathleen: thinking, well like what would you do if you found a bomb? So there was a necessary casualness about it, in a funny way. You got used to the fact that if you went into town you had to go through security and if you went into a store you had to go through security. But then I thought about it, you know, later for my mother and what Kathleen: like brining up teenagers, period. Well of course my Kathleen: at home, knowing Kathleen: been a bomb in downtown Belfast and Kathleen: where I… and she doesn't know until I walked in the door. There were no cellphones. And I think about that and I thought, fuck that Kathleen: been just terrible. I mean I was just like fifteen. But the other thing is Kathleen: where my love of theatre and words started. In Belfast. Because my mother taught theatre and English and art. She was very big in community theatre so there was always people in the house making props and all that kind of stuff. So I joined a youth theatre, the Lyric Theatre, which is the main regional theatre in Belfast and there was a Lyric youth theatre and it was run by this woman called Mary Kathleen: who was the founder of the Lyric and she was this sort of scary woman for me—I was only nine. She was a staunch Irish nationalist. And the only thing that we did was Yeats. She believed [putting on a thick Irish accent] “the only person for any child to learn about in theatre was Yeats.” Fucking Yeats. So every year, we would do these Yeats one-act plays. So I would come home and my mom would say, “So now Jacqueline, what play are you going to do this year?” And Kathleen: going, “Kathleen: going to do At the Kathleen: Well.” And Kathleen: go, “Oh for Kathleen: sake! What the hell?!” And there Kathleen: be “Who can have trod in the grass?” Doing these crazy fucking Yeats plays.

 

Kathleen: And Kathleen: why Kathleen: in theatre now, Kathleen: no question about it!

 

Jackie: Of course! I mean, absolutely. And in the end I think somewhere right in there, that seed, of all of those words, those torrents and torrents and torrents of words, half of which I Kathleen: really understand. But nevertheless. And then because I became the local kid actor. I got my equity card, so any play that was happening that needed a kid in it, I would be the kid. So I was in some good and some terrible plays. I remember a play called The Famine. I remember mom saying, “Jacqueline, that has to be one of the most turgid plays Kathleen: ever seen.” You know? Where it was all about the potato and I played a corpse, and a keener, and—prophetically—someone immigrating to Canada. So the notion of the theatre and words and words and words and words was something I grew up with. I went to Manchester University in England, quite convinced that it was just a stop on the way to becoming Juliet at the RSC. Manchester University was fantastic because we had this little studio theatre and this was now in the early seventies. And it was on the circuit of all the political theatre companies that were just starting up. So like, Caryl Kathleen: Monstrous Regiment, Joint Stock, Kathleen::Kathleen: from Scotland, they all came and we tore the tickets. We had to run the studio. So suddenly I started seeing this stuff and going, “Ohhh… Okay.”

 

Kathleen: Yeats?!

 

Jackie: Yeah! And it took me a long time to put the two things back together again, you know?  But that was it. I went, “Oh, okay. Kathleen: what theatre is! Kathleen: what theatre is.”

 

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