The roles will reverse for Toronto’s theatre critics Sunday night, when they step on stage to perform You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
Robert Cushman, the long-time National Post critic who also reviewed for The Observer in London before moving to Toronto, will be playing Schroeder in this concert staging. It’s a family affair for the British-born writer as his son, the up-and-coming Mitchell Cushman, is directing the charity event for the Actors’ Fund of Canada.
The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck, who will be playing Charlie Brown, spoke with the elder Cushman over a mug of hot apple cider this week.
Why are we doing this?
You tell me. I’m doing it because I was asked and because it was fun the last time [when we did The Producers in 2010].
Did you want to be Schroeder? Is there some sort of affinity there – a love of dead German artists?
No, I was just asked to play Schroeder. There was another part I had my eye on. I'm not going to tell you what it was.
I've never quite figured out the timeline… Did you follow directly after Kenneth Tynan at the Observer?
Oh, no, no, there was quite a gap – a few people in between. However, Kenneth Tynan was partly responsible for me getting the job.
I met him some years earlier when I was working as a researcher on a BBC TV arts program. While we were chatting, I had the opportunity to tell him that I wrote reviews for Plays and Players, the theatre magazine, and could I possibly prevail on him to read them. And he said ok, and he did, and he liked them and said how can we get you a job? It took me some years, but he still had some pull on the Observer.
There’s one reference to you in Tynan’s diaries. He’s having lunch with Tom Stoppard before being interviewed by you, and he's conspiring to trick you by telling lies for a feature you were writing about the famous opening night of Look Back in Anger.
Yeah, I remember that interview. And I remember thinking the whole story he told me was very dodgy at the time – but who am I to question Ken Tynan? Maybe I should have.
This isn't some British tradition, is it? You're not making up your answers to these questions right now?
I'm telling you the whole truth as far as I remember it.
So, your son Mitchell is now a hot director. Has this complicated your job as a theatre critic?
Not so far. I haven’t reviewed productions he’s directed.
You did review shows that he assistant-directed at Soulpepper.
What am I supposed to say: “This show was brilliantly assisted-directed by…” It’s hard enough to know what a director does, let alone an assistant director.
What’s it like to work with him on Charlie Brown?
I’m impressed. He seems very comfortable.
You have worked professionally in the theatre before – both in working in PR for Livent and…
It wasn’t actually PR. It was speech-writing for Garth [Drabinsky] and sort of being unofficial dramaturge.
What was your title?
Director of Corporate Communications. I didn’t know what it meant at the time and I don’t know now.
And you’ve been involved on the artistic side as well.
Yes, I have. I directed quite a bit before I became a critic full-time. Rather surprisingly, it was only after I became a critic that I appeared on the stage professionally.
The one thing I know about is your West End show, a revue of songs by E.Y. Harburg, the lyricist for The Wizard of Oz.
Over The Rainbow. Yes, that I just devised and directed. There was another show called Nashville New York about Ogden Nash, which I didn’t direct, but put together, designed and appeared in.
Do you think that theatre critics should have hands-on experience?
I don’t think they should. If you do, fine. If you don’t, fine. It depends how good you are at being a critic.
For tickets to You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, produced by Talk is Free Theatre, visit tift.ca.
This interview has been condensed and edited.