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theatre in the park

Alan Dilworth, left, the pregnant Maev Beatty and Mitchell Cushman bring passion to their latest play.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Over plates of salmon omelets, bacon sandwiches and duck hash on a Sunday morning, three of the city's top names in theatre discuss the importance of taking it slow.

"It's like slow food," says stage director Alan Dilworth. "In terms of our relationship with food now in North America, like, everyone's a foodie, and I want to create a world where everyone's into a slow kind of the theatre."

"It kills drama to rush it," says his wife, actress Maev Beaty. "It takes great courage when something takes its time."

If there ever was a trio to inspire a trend supporting well-crafted theatre in Toronto, it's Mr. Dilworth, Ms. Beaty and their fellow diner, Mr. Dilworth's current co-director, Mitchell Cushman.

They're three very different, but very exciting, artists: Mr. Dilworth, 42, the recent winner of the inaugural Christopher Plummer Fellowship Award of Excellence for his work with classical texts; Ms. Beaty, 36, one of the city's most diverse, reliable and busy actresses; and Mr. Cushman, 27, a the young director whose immersive style of theatre resulted in of 2012's Terminus, which won raves from critics.

The three have come together for what seems to be their biggest – and slowest – challenge yet. Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl, opening June 10, is a three-act, nearly-four-hour epic that follows communities from Elizabethan England to 1930s Bavaria to mid-1980s South Dakota as they attempt to stage the story of Christ's crucifixion.

"We try to refer to it as an experience rather than a four-hour play," Mr. Cushman says. The 'experience' is a result of a big collaboration: Two years ago, Mr. Cushman approached Mr. Dilworth and Ms. Beaty's Sheep No Wool Productions and Julie Tepperman and Aaron Willis's Convergence Theatre to collaborate with his own Outside the March Theatre Co. on a an immersive, site-specific production. Along with Toronto's Crow's Theatre, Passion Play will take place in the east end's Withrow Park and Eastminster United Church.

"I can't even fathom one person directing the whole show," Mr. Cushman says. "And it's not a collaboration for financial reasons, because if you look at it, none of the companies really have anything. It's more of a collaboration of manpower, passion, and love, and you figure out how to make everything else work. We all need to wrestle with the fact that people's attention spans are getting shorter."

Though some companies are picking up on the marathon theatre trend — last year's Luminato Festival produced Philip Glass's five-hour-long Einstein on the Beach and three-hour-long Playing Cards: SPADES and Soulpepper Theatre is presenting both Angels in America and The Norman Conquests in their entirety this summer and fall – they present a unique challenge for smaller companies. When budget is more constrained , shows usually keep to one act with a small cast and a bare-bones set. And with smartphones never far, theatre artist now struggle to hold their audience's focus for 90 minutes, let alone four hours.

"The desire is to not be intimidated by the size," says Aaron Willis, who shares directing credit with Mr. Dilworth and Mr. Cushman. "The farther we get in our careers, what we work on and who we work with is really important. If the chemistry is there… we go for it. It's literally a passion project."

At some point, every collaborator refers to Passion Play as a passion project, which may be a good way to justify spending two years on a production that will yield little to no revenue for the 35 cast and crew members involved – or to justify Ms. Beaty's decision to stay on in her roles as each era's political figure with a baby due in late July.

"I thought: Queen Elizabeth I, Hitler and Ronald Reagan, eight months pregnant, I can't not do it!" she says.

Mr. Cushman has another connection to the characters in Passion Play. "It's about amateur actors putting on a play, and I don't mean that in a degrading way. It's about people putting on a play for the love of it as opposed to for a job," he says. "The chorus in the prologue actually says, 'Take pity on our simple play.' We can all get behind that."

Passion Play, June 6-30. Withrow Park (south of Danforth on Logan Avenue). $30.

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