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Theatre & Performance Toronto’s Jim Millan and his long trip from Crow’s to ‘credentialled’ director

Jim Millan is in New York preparing to open The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible.

NEVILLE ELDER/The Globe and Mail

Whether you want to astonish an audience with an incredible illusion – or debunk how one was created – Toronto's Jim Millan is your go-to guy.

The former artistic director of Crow's Theatre has built an off-beat but lucrative career in commercial theatre and spectacle over the past decade – one that now finds him straddling the seemingly contradictory worlds of magic and myth-busting.

Right now, Millan is in New York putting a final polish on The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible, a mega-magic show uniting seven top conjurors that opens on Broadway this week for a limited run. Meanwhile in his hometown, Mythbusters: Behind the Myths, a live spin-off of Discovery Channel's addictive science-entertainment show that Millan helped to create, returns to the Sony Centre on Saturday.

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The most impressive legerdemain Millan has pulled off, however, has been in his own career: Fifteen years ago, he was a Canadian indie theatre king known for directing "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" plays like Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love and Lee MacDougall's High Life for Crow's. Now the 53-year-old father of two is working on Broadway spectacles and known for helping TV personalities from talk-show host Larry King to celebrity chef Alton Brown extend their brand into live stage shows.

But Millan is more than happy to reveal how the quick-change transformation happened – and the trick is all about the timing, five helpful friends known as the Kids in the Hall and a grant application that broke the camel's back.

Raised in Etobicoke, Millan's career followed a fairly traditional Canadian theatrical trajectory at first. After graduating from York University in 1983, he went to the Shaw Festival as an actor and, in the same year, formed Crow's in Toronto. During the more than two decades Millan ran Crow's, the company gradually grew in stature. A smash production of Unidentified Human Remains starring Brent Carver in 1989 was followed with other hits such as High Life, John Mighton's A Short History of Night and Time After Time: The Chet Baker Project.

Millan's career might have continued on in this vein forever, but in 2000 he was offered a gig that – as he puts it – "credentialled" him as "a legit theatre director who knows comedy" with producers of live entertainment south of the border and made him money without having to apply for grants.

At the time, the Kids in the Hall had finally put aside their differences to reunite for a live tour – only to discover that in the five years since they'd stopped producing their TV show, their popularity was bigger than ever, especially in the United States thanks to regular reruns on Comedy Central.

The Canadian comedy troupe had toured clubs and small theatres with shows they had designed and directed themselves in the past, but now they were faced with how to make sketches work in giant open-air theatres in Texas or the 3,880-seat space at the Chicago Theatre.

They turned to Millan – a creative contemporary who had gone to university with Scott Thompson, knew Bruce McCulloch through Calgary theatre troupe One Yellow Rabbit, and was a baseball-watching buddy of Mark McKinney (who had first met him at a party in the 1980s and remembers him having "the longest hair of anyone I'd ever seen").

Millan had ideas about how to incorporate video into the Kids act and expand their greatest sketches to fill a large theatre. Most importantly, however, it quickly became clear he knew how to wrangle each of the Kids in the rehearsal hall. Says McKinney of the guy who has now become the unofficial sixth Kid in the Hall: "There's been very few people who can deal with all five personalities at once – I can count them on one hand."

The 2000 tour was a financial success – and, as McKinney puts it, "people figured out that Jim had a really big part of that." The job offers began to flow in.

The first Millan accepted was from Clear Channel and Warner Bros. to create a giant Scooby-Doo show for Radio City Music Hall; he had fond memories of the cartoon as a kid – and jumped at the opportunity.

That show "credentialled" him in big-budget comedy – and work on an off-Broadway play with Teller (of Penn and Teller) later "credentialled" him in magic. Now, Millan has worked on everything from a Thomas the Tank Engine kids show to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the infamous $65-million (U.S.) Broadway flop with music by U2. ("It was like being a triage doctor," says Millan, who spent 10 days as a "creative consultant" banging out ideas on how to save the show in a hotel room, during the show's period of interminable previews.)

Lee Marshall, CEO of promoter and producer MagicSpace Entertainment, has been one of Millan's biggest supporters – hiring him to work with the Mythbusters, Alton Brown and to help The Illusionists, a show that had already toured Europe, become sophisticated enough to play on Broadway. (Millan is billed as "creative director" on the production – a catch-all that means he's done some writing and directing and design.)

But Marshall first employed Millan in 2004 to work on The Marijuana-Logues, an off-Broadway comedy that starred Tommy Chong – and he remembers being particularly impressed with how the director handled the star. "When I had a meeting with Jamie [Hyneman] and Adam [Savage] to do Mythbusters live, I needed somebody collaborative as a director – someone who could work with talent and stars," he says. "Jim can get the work done – and also accommodate [stars'] requests."

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"Jim is a total pro, so working with him is just a pleasure," says Savage – the special-effects designer turned TV personality who has a huge following thanks to Mythbusters. "We didn't know how we were going to translate what we do on TV onto a stage – and Jim just listened to us … and helped us find ways to do our experiments in a performative way."

For a while, Millan continued to run Crow's Theatre alongside his freelance work – but he remembers the night he decided to put the "legit" aside for a while. He arrived home from a day's rehearsal and, instead of helping his wife Kyra put their one-year-old daughter to bed, he had to sit down at the computer and begin work on yet another Canada Council application. In 2006, he began the process of handing over the reins of Crow's to current artistic director Chris Abraham.

If Millan has any misgivings about his journey from a long-haired director of legit Canadian theatre to – as the LinkedIn profile under his clean-cut picture puts it – the creator of "new touring properties for the international market for major brands," he doesn't let on. He's particularly proud of a show called Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody he co-created for New York-based Mills Entertainment with a group of young Toronto comedians like Ian MacIntyre and Alice Moran. Since its premiere in 2012, Spank! has played in more than 250 cities in North America and grossed around $10-million.

"This really works with my lifestyle; I get to spend quite a bit of time with my young family and then fly off for intense creative bursts," Millan says, whose children are now 9 and 6. He can turn down gigs he's not interested in, such as an invitation to create a Duck Dynasty stage show, several shows with "on ice" at the end of the title – and even a couple of offers to be artistic director at other Canadian theatres.

"It doesn't feel corporate at all when you're in a rehearsal hall trying to invent a new kind of magic. … It's pretty fun to do."

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