Reading quotes in a press release is like being handed a play’s script without any stage directions. You’re given the dialogue, so to speak, but you don’t know how it was said. It’s all text – the subtext’s up to you to direct in your mind.
Here’s a scene study for the amateur theatre directors out there. The background: The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is about to undergo a change in command after five years under artistic director Des McAnuff, a robustly inventive interpreter of Shakespeare. His replacement is long-time Stratford administrative head honcho Antoni Cimolino, whose recent work as a director is known for its fidelity to what the playwright set down on the page.
In a release announcing his upcoming first season, Cimolino takes the opportunity to say a word about his philosophy of running a classical theatre festival centred on Shakespeare: “First, I will put the actor and the text firmly at the centre of what we do … In a culture that has become so visually oriented, I think people crave the kind of storytelling that relies above all on the uniquely compelling power of the spoken word.”
So, how would you ask a performer playing Cimolino to deliver those lines? There are at least two ways to go. In one, an artist is excitedly and straightforwardly outlining his statement of principles. In the other, a leader looking at a decade-long decline in audience attendance is sending a signal to the press and patrons that the era of his predecessor – with his visually oriented productions – is over.
I wasn’t there when Cimolino said those lines, if he ever spoke them aloud. If I were looking to stage a gripping drama, however, I know which directorial interpretation I’d go with.
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Since he assumed the mantle of North America’s premiere classical theatre company five years ago, Des McAnuff has unquestionably raised the festival’s profile, in Canada and around the world – but that hasn’t stopped certain observers from wondering whether he was the right man to run it.
Indeed, in contrast to his widely acclaimed and commercially successful work on Broadway rock musicals, such as Jersey Boys and The Who’s Tommy, the American-Canadian director’s reputation as a stager of Shakespeare has been rocky.
Take one of his critically controversial productions of Twelfth Night. In it, the 17th-century words of William Shakespeare were set to a contemporary pop score punctuated by electric-guitar riffs that McAnuff himself had composed with Michael Roth, while the characters’ costumes time-travelled through different eras, sometimes jumping centuries of fashion from one scene to the next. The set was no less eclectic: One scene took place on a tennis court, another under a fully stocked refrigerator that hung in the air like a chandelier; another took place in a steam room, McAnuff’s favourite place to relocate scenes and provide flesh-flashing titillation.
This Twelfth Night was popular with many critics, but it also attracted vehement detractors who wondered where the Shakespeare had gone. Chicago-based director and critic Terry McCabe was so appalled by how McAnuff’s production favoured “visual quirkiness over dramatic logic” that he used it to open his indictment of director-driven theatre in his book, Mis-directing the Play. “Directing that seeks to control the text, instead of subordinating itself to the text, is bad directing,” McCabe wrote, excoriating McAnuff for entertaining “by means of sleight-of-hand rather than by storytelling.”
This Twelfth Night that McCabe hated wasn’t at Stratford – it was staged in 1990 at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, a prominent regional theatre that McAnuff ran off and on for 24 years. If it sounds familiar, however, that’s because McAnuff borrowed many elements from it for a 2011 production at Stratford – one that led to a similar bizarre mix of over-the-top raves and vitriolic negativity.
The question of whether McAnuff knows how to “properly” direct Shakespeare has been raging for over two decades.
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Indeed, the debate over McAnuff’s merits as a classical director is a flashpoint in a larger artistic argument that has been raging in the Anglosphere since the actor-manager model of putting on plays disappeared after the Second World War: Who is more important to the vision of a production – the director or the playwright? Should theatre’s primary allegiance lie with authors or, as in the film world, auteurs?