Mitchell Cushman is a theatre writer, director and producer based out of Toronto and Stratford.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
Where did your attraction to the theatre begin? When did it hit you that this was what you wanted to pursue?
I feel really lucky to have grown up in a household that was passionate about theatre. It was my Dad’s line of work, and I grew up going to the theatre two or three times a week at the time, with exposure to work being done in this country and in other countries. I’m often quite fascinated by how other people came to theatre, especially people who had no exposure to it growing up. It feels like I was sort of cheating the system in some way. I never had to look very far for it.
I think I always knew I wanted to be involved in theatre, but I didn't know in what capacity. Like almost everybody at first I wanted to be a performer, but didn't always feel comfortable in that skin. Ever since a very young age I have liked to use my spare time to do some writing. But it wasn’t until grade ten that I really started taking theatre seriously. I was given this opportunity to be a part of a co-op program at the Tarragon Theatre run by Don Hannah, a Canadian playwright. I was in a group of seven high school students from grade ten to grade thirteen, and we all got two high school credits for the year. Out of that I wrote my first play, which ended up being the first play I ever directed. It was the first time I got to hang out in the rehearsal hall at the Tarragon, my first peek behind the curtain at the professional theatre scene. I haven't looked back since.
In your set description for one of your earlier plays, 'It's All Relative', you describe the stage this way: "The set is arranged with the philosophy that empty space is good; that the stage is for actors to fill, instead of furniture." Do you ever go back and reflect on how much you've changed in the past ten years? Has your theatre philosophy evolved radically? Do you still agree with theat set description?
I went back and read that play recently. We did it when I was in high school, as part of the Sear's Festival that year. As part of the 65th anniversary of the Sear's Festival, they got artists to come back for readings of pieces they had done in the festival. It was interesting to return to that piece with the actors I had worked with in high school.
What I remember about that play, which was largely set in a bookstore, was trying to paint these giant flats with these fake books spines, that being a very big undertaking for a bunch of 17 year olds who had never made a set before. We were all working behind my friend's mom's cul de sac condo, hoping it wouldn't rain on us, with all these flats.
Now as a director who largely works site-specifically, I find site-specific work more satisfying. In general the kind of design I'm attracted to in the theatre doesn't tend to be any form of realistic depictions of anything. The flip side of that is that I'm very excited about actually being inside the place, the real place, instead of scenic representation of a place. I don't know if that means the space is there for the actors to fill, but I think a lot of my work is about being very interested in location and space as the context for where the work happens. That is what drew me to site-specific theatre: space plays such an important role in a show, and it often goes unconsidered. I think about that when I'm directing in a found space. For Outside of the March, spaces we used were a kindergarten classroom, a garage, a residential house, obviously there really space defines the work. But I try to take that approach into the traditional theatre work I've done as well.
This year I was directing on a big proscenium stage at the Stratford Festival doing Treasure Island at the Avon. That too was a space that comes with its own interests, preconceptions, challenges. I tried to engage with them instead of making them invisible. In the case of Treasure Island, I used the boundary of the proscenium to have moments where we break through it.
You studied at the University of King's College in Halifax. Could you comment on the theatre community there, the King's Theatrical Society? What did you learn during your years there? What does the Pit mean to you?
I can't think of anything that I've done that more solidified my life long desire to create theatre, than my time at Kings and especially time I spent with the KTS in the Pit. It was a such a haven for unfiltered creativity, the fact that it was student- run, that there was such an ambitious slate of a dozen projects that would be put on every year by people who didn’t know any better not to be afraid of these things. During my years there I directed a number of shows, including a complicated Tom Stoppard play and a production of Waiting for Godot. These were my first introductions to these plays. I would be terrified to take them on now! KTS would rank against any theatre in the world, in terms of the ambitions reflected by the titles it took on; not necessarily in the polish of the execution but certainly in the attempt. It was such a learn by doing exercise, I ended up studying academic theatre as well for my English degree and took a bunch of philosophy classes, but my real education was at KTS, getting to play, experiment, fail, and try, it was phenomenal. And also, because it was student-run, I got the experience of helping run KTS as vice-president. With no outside guidance, you just figure it out, one of the things that made me feel equipped to run my own theatre company.
You co-founded Outside the March in 2009. Why is immersive theatre so powerful for an audience?
At the beginning, it wasn't an immersive company, Simon Bloom and I were looking to create the kind of work that we were best equipped to do. We gravitated towards projects with a level of experimentation to them, where we could bring a clear vision and which didn't require huge resources. This led to our second play, Mr. Marmalade, which allowed us to realize a play in a kindergarten classroom. We were able to employ a different type of creativity. I drank the Kool-aid of immersive theatre.
It's a really great time to be creating work that celebrates the presence of the audience. People spend so much of their time in virtual space and that's only going to increase. The kind of theatre that most affects me is work that honours and celebrates the fact that it isn't recorded, it isn't a mediated experience. We are all in this space together, interacting in ways that are inherently live, inherently unpredictable. The ability to make the audience move through space is one of the things that allows theatre to own what it can do that other mediums can't.
What have been some of the challenges of running this theatre company? Some of the greatest rewards?
The challenges are largely economic. At the beginning, when you're starting a theartre company, you're doing other things to pay your bills. It takes a lot of work and persistence to build up an organization into something which can significantly contribute to the livelihood of the people involved. The company is slowly trying to gravitate into that kind of an organization. That's been an eight year process and it's still going on. There are enough reminders of why you're doing it and a long term vision of what you're hoping to build it into, that gives you the stamina to keep juggling all the things you're going to inevitably deal with.
The rewards have been many. The projects that have given me the most creative fulfilment have been those with Outside the March, and that's because they had the least restrictions to fit into any box. When I both produced and directed a project, I've had a love-hate relationship, having to be part of the producing team, the marketing team, in order to get to direct the work I wanted to do. Increasingly, however, I’m thinking of that dual role as a real gift. Every part of the experience can be one integrative whole, and that's such a big part of what we do, we don't think of producing and creation as two separate things. There's a lot of synthesis that goes into the two sides that hopefully means it all feels part of the experience for the audience. Not just when you buy your ticket, but when you first find out about the show. The marketing experience is part of the whole experience. When we promoted Tomorrow Love, we created a VR 360 trailer, with a deleted scene, or an offshoot from the production itself. It was a thrill to be integrally involved in all of that.
You've now worked on a number of Stratford shows, Treasure Island, Breath of Kings & Possible Worlds. How does the production experience differ from more independent theatre? What has been your most magical moment in Stratford?
As I'm having this phone call with you I’m on a chartered bus that the Stratford Festival arranges to bring audience members to see the work, certainly that's beyond the resources of Outside the March.
It's been a real dream to work at Stratford, I grew up coming here and had a lot of formidable theatre-going experiences here. It really is unlike anything that exists anywhere else and it's kind of amazing that it exists at all. There are lots of interesting questions about how it will continue to adapt in a changing landscape. As a counterpoint to what I said before about the joys of producing and directing, it's also really nice where you're the artistic lead of a project and don't have to worry about any other aspect. That allows for a creative focus that I've really valued. The spaces at the Festival are very different from one another, and I've enjoyed getting to explore all of them in different ways.
But what I would say is that even though Stratford has some of the largest budgets in the country, pre-production has its own set of opportunities and challenges. In some ways, I have more freedom creating an Outside the March show on a shoestring budget. It's not the same as this financial machine at Stratford. There aren't as many parties involved, as many restrictions, A small amount of money can go quite far if you work in an elastic and creative way. Stratford has many remarkable artists involved in its shows. It's difficult to produce anything cheaply and that means that certain decisions, especially large set decisions, need to be made very far in advance.
Treasure Island was a new adaptation commissioned last summer and our design deadlines were due in September, so we had to commit to our designs before we had a script. We managed to make that work, with the playwright and the designer and I carefully storyboarding out the whole production. The script was written afterwards. It was a pretty unique and a little bit cart before horse way of doing things but it's the only way they can achieve things on the massively designed scale that they do. You need to know the opportunities and challenges of the organization to make it work. If you have the chance to work in that kind of structure more than once you have an advantage, because you know how to play that game.
Do you think that there is enough of an appetite amongst Millenials to sustain arts institutions like Stratford fifty years from now?
I hope so. It's a real challenge though, one that the Festival is acutely aware of. The bus I'm on right now is the Festival’s attempt to remove one of the economic barriers for young people to come to Stratford. Think of how hard it is to get someone to commit $25 of their money and two hours of their time to see a show in Toronto. For the Festival, now you're talking about someone devoting a full day or weekend and the expense of driving and staying somewhere and eating. It leads to a five hundred six hundred dollar price tag quite quickly. Does the experience represent something fundamental enough in their life to be worth that?
One thing Stratford has going for it though; Stratford is a destination. People are facing more and more demands on their time, especially as they get older and have families. They are looking for a destination outside the city to get away from all that, and Stratford is a really beautiful place. If they can keep promoting that alongside the work, that's a big part of the answer.
But I also think the programming needs to evolve, and you're seeing that in the increased diversity on the Festival stages. I don't think there' has ever been a broader diversity of work, of different kinds of work, at the Festival. Hopefully that means there's something for everyone and people can find the work that speaks to them and that's what will bring them. I think they haven't gone far enough with this, but their move towards gender parity, on stage and behind the scenes, shows the Festival knows that it needs to become more representative of the community it's trying to attract. Education is a huge part of that.
Some lifelong Stratford-goers are people who first came to Stratford as part of a school group, and I was very acutely aware of that, when directing the family show they have this year. If you can deliver a memorable theatre experience to people at any age, they will cross hell or high water to find you again. If you don't do that, if you give them something forgettable, or that doesn't seem entirely for them, I don't think anything you can do is going to attract them there again. It does all stem from the work.
What non-theatre art forms do you turn to for inspiration?
A personal resolution of mine is to try to spend more time with those non-theatre art forms. Certainly growing up, in high school, I was a big film nut. Even though I don't spend as much time watching film as I used to, a lot of that fed into my creative background and subconscious. I'm actually working right now in an immersive theatre project set in a video store in the dying days of VHS. The entire set will be shelves in a video store with thousands of video tapes that one can explore. The one week workshop we just did in Kingston was a real return to some of the things that inspired me towards art in the first place. I worked at a Blockbuster video in 2003 and then amassed a really large VHS collection that I still have. The collection will be a big part of that show.
Literature is also an inspiration. Reading is the thing I have done the most to expand my mind, and I'm trying to find more time to return to it. I also just got a Nintendo Switch; that platform reminds me of why I love immersive work, just the treatment of space is really incredible. I see really exciting
links between these video game technologies and the work that I do, that I want to explore.
Who have been some of your role models or mentors along the way?
I've been really lucky in that department. When I was trying to find my way early on, I did a lot of assistant directing. Unpaid work, but invaluable in terms of the relationships I was able to form and the master directors I was able to observe. The first time I for a show at Theatre Passe-Muraille directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones. She was an incredible mentor for me, even though I was a twenty-two year old kid at the time. The cast included some leading Toronto theatre people. I felt so welcomed into the group and felt like my voice was listened to. I’m still in pretty close touch and in collaboration with some of them.
And also worked as assistant director with Chris Abraham. He named me as his protégé when he received the Siminovitch award. He also brought me under his wing working at Crow's Theatre, which is where I learned how to run a rehearsal hall and how to run a company. Learning both those things has equipped me for the work that I've done since. I also assisted for two seasons with Antoni Cimolino at Stratford before I started directing there. He has been so generous with his time and support. Even though the work I do with Outside the March is so different from Stratford, he's been a fierce supporter of our work and I really value the conversations we've had about all aspects of theatre.
Why is theatre important?
It goes back to what I was saying before about it being a celebration of presence. There are less and less things, less and less public live rituals that force us to be in the here and now, that don't encourage us to have split focus or to be sort of passive receptors of information. If we don't use those active muscles of presence, they will wither away. Theatre is going to become more and more paramount to our existence as some of those other media forces continue to take hold. I think that's why you see immersive theatre becoming such an attraction, but also escape rooms and board game cafes, any of these things that force us to be present and here and now in the moment They provide an oasis from the rest of the way we're bombarded.
What are you looking forward to?
I think we're in a moment now where a lot of younger theatre artists, millenial generation types, are being given the keys to larger institutions. There has been a lot of turnover at some of the leading regional theatres across the country and there's more of that coming. I'm excited about where people who have never run these larger institutions, who don't have the same entrenched notions of things having to be a certain way, will take them. Hopefully, in a direction where they're going to be courting the next generation of audience members. Out of that will breed directions that the industry will go in that we can't even envisage or predict right now, but we're starting to see some of the shockwaves of that and it's really exciting.