Peter Hinton did not become an academic, as his parents wished – but you might easily mistake the 53-year-old stage director for a charismatic and popular university professor if you happened to be eavesdropping on an interview in his first-floor apartment on the outskirts of the Annex in Toronto this past Tuesday afternoon.
Speaking quietly, but authoritatively, and in a nearly uninterrupted cadence, Hinton dispenses knowledge about Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice in Wonderland – which he has adapted for the stage and is directing at the Shaw Festival this summer – in a series of a bite-size lectures.
One moment, Hinton, whose red hair is recovering from a recent Mohawk, is comparing Alice's Wonderland quest to the Odyssey, the next he is noting that the novel's central question – Who am I? – is the same asked in Hamlet.
Throughout, Hinton weaves a defence of Victorian culture – citing Matthew Sweet's Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know About Them and Why We're Wrong.
"Lewis Carroll is a wonderful example of the great exploration there is in the Victorian imagination – and I think that's true of Blake, [Christina] Rossetti, Dickens," he says. "It's such an incredible time – and yet, when you say Victorian, it conjures up Whistler's Mother and everything uptight.
"Lewis Carroll challenges that."
Far from a detour into children's theatre, Alice in Wonderland is Hinton's biggest challenge yet at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., which has been his primary home, both physically and artistically since he left the artistic directorship at the National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa in 2011.
Alice is the first new play or musical – it's a bit of both, with 19 songs by Allen Cole – to premiere in the festival's A-house during artistic director Jackie Maxwell's tenure.
And while it's not the most expensive production in the festival's history, the word in Ontario's wine country is that it is its most ambitious, with a cast of 22, hundreds of costumes and non-stop video projections designed by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson.
Developed over multiple workshops, Hinton's Alice in Wonderland has undergone major changes even while in previews – with about 20 minutes shaved off its running time since the first performance.
After last season's main stage shows at the Shaw, particularly the musical Sweet Charity, failed to hit their sales targets and left the festival $1.75-million in the hole, programming it was no small risk.
"I certainly had to sell the board on this," says Maxwell, who wanted to shake up the festival's long-standing model in her final season by not opening with a tried and tested Broadway musical. "It really is paying off – it's selling really well."
Since Maxwell first invited Hinton to direct at Shaw in 2011, the director has taken on the role of house visionary – a slot left open after the director Neil Munro passed away in 2009. His initial show was in the studio space, but a stunner that ended up on many critics' end-of-year lists – Andrew Bovell's intergenerational drama When the Rain Stops Falling.
"It needed the mixture that Peter had – an ability to deal with text, but also bring a very strong visual context," Maxwell says.
That ability to please both the spectator (who sees) and the audience (who hears) has made Hinton's productions the most consistently impressive at the Shaw Festival ever since. Indeed, when Maxwell announced she was stepping down, he seemed a strong contender to take the reins. Instead, Tim Carroll, a British director with some Canadian experience at the Stratford Festival, was hired.
According to Hinton, the interest from the board and the search committee was "lukewarm."
Although they danced around a bit, he was never directly asked in for an interview, and he didn't officially throw his hat in the ring.
It's probably just as well – as it is hard to deny that Hinton's artistry has reached a new level as a freelance artist. "I'm a better conscience and agitant and advocate than I am the guy running the ship," he says, noting that while he is proud of his time at the NAC, he was never really happy there. "I'm a better Sulu than I am a Kirk."
Indeed, part of Hinton's success at the Shaw has had to do with the way Maxwell has matched him with material. He had never directed Oscar Wilde before his exquisite, Impressionistic take on Lady Windermere's Fan in 2013, and never directed Bernard Shaw before last season's modernized, Zadie Smith-inspired production of Pygmalion.
In fact, Alice is the first project that Hinton pitched to Maxwell, rather than vice versa. His love of Lewis Carroll dates back to his childhood with five brothers in Kingston, Ont. – one he describes as "very gender-policed." Alice was considered a book for girls, and his father, a professor of microbiology, would have preferred for him to read Treasure Island.
But Hinton sought out Alice anyway. "I thought it was freaky as a child – the image of Alice with the long serpent's neck, all the shrinking and growing," he says.
Hinton's fascination with Alice returned again in his late teens and lasted into his early 20s. "It doesn't have a predictable, certain secure moral compass," he says of the book, which he views as a kind of coming-of-age story. "You can bring wild drug things to it, you can bring wild sexual things to it – and you can bring a great innocence to it. It's very much like A Midsummer Night's Dream in that regard."
Published one year after Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Alice in Wonderland – which begins with Alice toppling down a rabbit hole, of course – is part and parcel of the Victorian curiosity about "what is underneath."
And working on his adaptation for the past few years has led Hinton down the rabbit hole of his own childhood. "A lot of my memories of being a small child are very happy ones; it's my memories of being a teenager that are very fraught and very unresolved," he says. "That's what Alice walks right into, the crux between the idyllic child life and …"
It's unusual for Hinton not to complete a sentence – but the words don't flow quite as easily when the subject turns to his adolescence. Hinton had a fraught relationship with his parents and five brothers – and, indeed, has been estranged from his family for about 25 years, since his mother and then his father died.
His is, sadly, not a surprising story: Being gay was "an issue"; so was going into theatre. Although his parents had taken him to see Hedda Gabler at the Royal Alexandra in Toronto at age 12, they wanted him to have a career in academia rather than the stage.
"My parents were very Victorian – they thought theatre was an important thing an educated person went to, but they thought it was very low class if you did it," Hinton says. "My mother used to say, 'You want to go to a good restaurant; you don't want to work at one.'"
Knowing his family history, you understand what lies underneath Hinton's love of research – which is so strong that one season at the Stratford Festival he directed a production of The Taming of the Shrew so studious that he staged a second show outdoors called Shakespeare's Universe that further pondered the place of women in Elizabethan England.
"It's not lost on me that part of that is proving to them that I have the capacity to do what they wanted me to do," Hinton says.
Denise Clarke, Alice's choreographer who has known Hinton for 25 years, believes part of the director's recent spate of artistic success is that he's found a balance between work and life in Niagara-on-the-Lake amid close friends. "I think we all need a home," she says.
And Maxwell emphasizes that Hinton is more than the guru; he's a friend who loves to laugh and dish as much as she does. "I think people think visionaries just wander along having visions," she says. "In his real life, he has problems with his dogs, etc, etc, as much as anyone else does."
As the interview in Toronto comes to an end, those dogs – pugs Iggy, Molly and Jughead – and Hinton's partner, actor Howard J Davis, return from a long walk. The director is mobbed by the pugs. "I would have 10 of them," he says, "but they're so much work."
Alice in Wonderland is currently in previews at the Shaw Festival (shawfest.ca) and runs from May 14 to Oct. 16.