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Theatre director Jackie Maxwell sits in the audience at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto on Feb. 1, 2018.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Jackie Maxwell wants to make herself available. "Any time you have any power in the theatre, you have to use it," she tells me. "I can be an ear, an eye and – hopefully – a voice."

We're sitting inside a flood of afternoon light in the second-floor lobby of Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre. Downstairs, a tech crew is busy putting up an elaborate two-storey duplex – the set for Stephen Karam's The Humans, which comes to Canadian Stage via its Canadian premiere at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. The production is Maxwell's third job as a director since leaving the Shaw Festival in 2016, where she was artistic director for 14 years.

By all expectations, I should start my interview with questions about her vision for Karam's challenging and widely feted play, which opened on Broadway two years ago and won the Tony Award for best new play.

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But the Toronto theatre community is distracted these days and so, it seems, are we.

Before I've so much as turned on my recording app, we're talking about #MeToo and its impact on the arts. Throughout her 40-year career in Canadian theatre, Maxwell has worked diligently to promote female artists and safe workspaces and she's dismayed to confront how much systemic sexism remains in place. In her first season at the Shaw in 2002, she employed seven women directors for 11 shows. "The reaction was so big, it was like I let off a nuclear bomb or something. Which, you know, was a bit depressing." She chuckles wryly. "We're talking about Martha Henry and Eda Holmes – it's not like I was dragging people off the street!"

Maxwell was in her 20s when she became associate artistic director of Toronto's Factory Theatre, one of the country's first major non-profit theatres, and just 30 when she was promoted to artistic director. I want to know about her own experiences of sexism as a young woman in a leadership position in the 1980s. "You really had to develop a kind of ballsy, bolshie persona. It wasn't that that came too difficultly to me." She laughs. "If I were freelancing somewhere and working with a big crew of guys who didn't know me, I realized I had to promote a tougher mode." It wasn't a mode that felt comfortable or conducive to the best work. "I believe in working very collaboratively. I believe you create a safe space."

The Soulpepper scandal – the sexual-misconduct lawsuits filed against the Toronto theatre company and its founding artistic director last month – hits especially close to home. This spring, Maxwell will begin directing a production of Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott at Soulpepper's Young Centre. "I made the decision to go and work there because I don't believe what has happened should break that theatre company. We shouldn't lose Soulpepper. But Soulpepper has to be rebuilt."

Rebuilding is key to Maxwell's current outlook. "The door is now open – how we keep the door open is really going to be the big thing." One way she's doing this is through Got Your Back, an initiative that Maxwell's friend, Toronto actress and founding Soulpepper member Martha Burns, started in her living room. The idea was simple: get female theatre artists of very different generations together to talk. "I have a lot of knowledge; I'm very happy to share it. I also need to keep in touch with what's happening to the younger women in this situation."

Beyond Burns's group, Maxwell is carving out a role for herself as a mentor and advocate for women in theatre. When jobs open up for artistic directors at Canadian theatres, she's quick to encourage both eager and hesitant female artists to apply. "I still hear stories about women being asked about child care at interviews." She widens her eyes. "I mean, would they ever ask a man?"

She's also tried to have a positive influence on the way women audition for companies and plays. After noting a tendency for young women to sexualize themselves at general auditions, she reached out to theatre schools: "You mustn't do this. You're trivializing yourself. You're selling something that isn't even what's wanted and it certainly isn't needed." When Maxwell auditions an actor, she places a ton of value on the postmonologue chat, asking about the artist's work and passions, getting a sense of who they are outside the studio.

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What does she think about the trend of casting female actors in male roles as a way of increasing opportunities for women? Is there a concern that letting us all "be men" is a problematic form of equality? She says she thinks swapping gender in casting can only be part of the solution and has to be justified on artistic grounds. "Does that [choice] do something?" she asks hypothetically. "Does it switch the power around?"

In her mind, programming plays that tell women's stories is also essential. But she never vetoes a play simply because its most conventional or cursory interpretation might ring feminist alarms. Her production of Thomas Middleton's The Changeling at the Stratford Festival last year – a play about a sexually manipulative young woman – is a case in point.

"I did it specifically because I think it is an incredibly complex story," Maxwell explains. Rehearsals were framed by a series of questions: "What were we doing? Who had the agency? What did it mean? Who became unempowered? Who became empowered? How would we do the sexuality with the necessary care and safety?" Maxwell and lead actress Mikaela Davies talked at length about how the play interrogates and exposes the difference between agency and entitlement. Maxwell also had a few good chats with her daughters – both in their 20s and working in the arts – whom she loves to go to for feedback.

The Humans appealed to Maxwell because of its examination of another theme: class. "It's all about anxiety – the anxiety of people who assumed they would get their pension and live out their lives in the way they'd expected and suddenly it seems that – in all different ways – they may not be able to."

Karam's hypernaturalistic style was also a big enticement. The play spans 95 minutes in real time, with no blackouts. On the two-level set, three scenes are happening at any one moment, meaning every tiny gesture and activity must be meticulously choreographed so that it synchronizes at key junctures.

"It's an amazing thing to see in action. It's the notion, to me, of being brave with time. You just take the time that something takes. And you don't –" here she snaps her fingers a few times, mocking an impatient director. On a practical level, it was also hugely challenging. "Directing Ragtime at the Shaw with an enormous cast, huge moving pieces, was actually, in a way, easier than this!"

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In this new phase of her career, she's excited to focus on her favourite role. "I'm a director. That's where I'm most at home." She's eager to tell me about an upcoming premiere she'll be directing at Stratford: an adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost by award-winning Canadian playwright Erin Shields. "Erin wanted to examine how the notion of original sin has completely been a basis for why women have been treated in the way that they have," she says.

"Theatre is joyful," Maxwell says when we've returned to the topic of how to move forward in Canadian theatre. "We need to maintain the joy of the struggle – of what we do. That's why creating spaces where people can be joyful is so essential."

The Humans runs from Feb. 8 to 25 at Bluma Appel Theatre (canadianstage.com).

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