At 26 years of age, Mitchell Cushman is fast emerging as Canada’s hottest young director. His compelling play selection and highly innovative staging locations have brought him to the attention of companies across the country as prominent as Mirvish in Toronto. Combining a deep theatrical family background (his father is respected national critic Robert Cushman) with a youthful enthusiasm for embracing new approaches to theatre, Cushman arrives in Barrie to direct ‘Possible Worlds’ for Talk is Free Theatre this month. This dramatic thought-provoking work by Canadian John Mighton is the first of two productions Cushman will direct in Barrie; he returns next season to direct an age-reversed version of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’. The Green Room editor John Bleasby sat down with Mitchell Cushman to discuss his innovative view of story-telling on stage.
Putting aside your obvious talent that is being quickly recognised coast-to-coast, do you ever look back at your success to date and wonder how it all happened so fast?
Not in those specific terms. I grew up seeing lots of theatre. I knew from very early on that this is where I felt I belonged.
Run me quickly through your rèsumè.
I was interested at first being a playwright and then started directing because I was directing work I had written. I then branched out directing other shows at university. One of the great things about being at Kings College (Halifax) for my undergrad is that there is this really amazing extra-curricular theatre society. It is completely student-run, and they do a selection of shows that would embarrass any theatre company in the world. In one season, we would do Equus, Marat Sade and all this other stuff. It was very ambitious without ever thinking about being ambitious. After I graduated, I moved back to Toronto. Directing was starting to become something I was taking more seriously and wanted to pursue professionally. I spent a year Assistant Directing some of the directors in Toronto that I admired, often for free, just made myself available. I really value the artists I was able to train under, like David Storch. Sometimes I was in a very observational capacity, other times it was a more hands-on, but it was a better theatre school than I could have had anywhere else. I did a directing course at the University of Alberta that ran me through the gauntlet of many different experiences, helping me make the transition of working with more established professional actors who were quite a bit older than I am.
You’ve really come into prominence quite recently though.
For the last 2 years, I’ve run a company in Toronto that does site-specific work. I guess the first production that put us on the map was Mister Marmalade. The next year we did Terminus which kind of sky-rocketed the company a bit more and was picked up Mirvish. That’s something that really hasn’t sunk in yet, even 6 months after it happened. There’s been a lot of serendipity to it all. The shows were in the right place at the right time.
Do you have any guiding outlook to your productions?
If there is one thing I learned that has helped me develop as an artist is to always consider the relationship between the audience and the performers, to have a clear image of what the audience experience should be. So for example, in Mister Marmalade, it was the idea of staging it in a kindergarten classroom, surrounding the actors and the audience with an environment of imagination; for Terminus is was really important for me to bring the audience in close proximity with the actors, and that meant bringing people up on stage.
Do you attribute your innovative approach to the energy and freshness of youth?
It does give me a lot of energy. I have learned over the last couple of years how to work on multiple things at once. It’s essential in this business, to pay your rent and so on! But if I look back on the last couple of productions I’ve done I would credit much of it to the team. In addition to the relationship with the audience is the decision surrounding casting, people who suit the roles but also people with the type of experience I need who are willing to work in the kind of environment I want.
Your company ‘Outside the March’ has as one of its objectives to “tell storytelling in all of its forms….that we are all children searching for a story we can escape into, though…ideally not one that will help us fall asleep”. While your productions are non-traditional, you have recounted that throughout your youth you were immersed in traditional theatre like the Shaw and Stratford Festivals. Is there a reactive element that leads you to somewhat darker themes and unusual settings?
I read a lot of plays; I grew up reading a lot of plays. I think more than anything else, I have a great appreciation for writing that I really connect with. It’s always the element I notice first. If I see a play and I don’t connect with the writing, there’s little the actors or the direction or the design can do to bring me into the story. It’s the appreciation of the art of play writing that has drawn me to the plays I’ve done. Many of them are dark and risky, and I think I am attracted to that, but more than anything else I feel I am attracted to strong writing. I always say that one of things that makes me want to direct a play is the feeling that I wish I had written it. But I also like to think about what I can do that will make it a different experience. There’s a lot that I love about more traditional proscenium theatre. But once I started working in the non-proscenium fashion, it just excited the artist in me more. There’s so much theatre going on in Toronto, so we have to ask ourselves “OK, what are we going to do that’s different from what is already out there?” That’s especially true for a group of younger performers with less resources. We could do a very traditional version of Death of a Salesman , but there’s no way we’ll do it better than a group like Soulpepper. So working in this mode we can actually offer something that is new.
The issue of Form versus Content is always a balance. For you, which leads and which follows?
It’s important for me that staging is never a gimmick. With Mister Marmalade for example, I didn’t say “I want to set a play in a kindergarten class” and try to find one to fit. The content led me to the form. Writing, especially strong writing, leads you somewhere.
Obviously your father Robert has influenced you greatly. Is there any one thing he has instilled in you that carries you forward today?
I think he turned me on to all the right things when I was a kid, not just theatre. I think by age eight, I could recite every Marx Brothers movie. I remember a school trip in Grade 6 to see Beauty and the Beast. I had probably seen 100 plays by that point in my life, but most of my classmates were going to the theatre for the first time. So my interaction with that piece and what it meant to me was very, very different. I go to schools now and do workshops with some young artists. A lot of them say they want to go on and be actors, and I ask “What plays have you seen recently?” Aside for the stuff that goes on at Mirvish, a lot of them have never seen a play. Mirvish is a very specific kind of theatre. How could people grow up wanting to be an actor if they had never been exposed to the rest? I don’t think a lot of teenagers go to the Tarragon Theatre or Soulpepper. Certainly some of them do, but for me it was part of my upbringing; that’s what I was excited by.
Arkady recently produced, and you directed, a fund-raising production in Toronto of ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’. The cast was made up of some of the country’s leading theatre critics, including your father. How did you enjoy that experience?
My dad is actually a great performer, especially a great singer. I’ve never directed a musical before and never directed him before, but the whole project worked. If it had been more serous it might have bothered me more. I just didn’t know what to call him in rehearsal; I didn’t want to say “Hey, dad; Go over there!” I didn’t want to call him ‘Robert’ either; that felt strange too. So I would call him ‘Schroeder’. It was fun.
You’re coming back to Barrie to direct ‘Romeo & Juliet’ next season for Talk is Free Theatre. But once again, like the gender-reversed production of ‘Guys & Dolls’, Arkady is putting a reverse spin on Shakespeare’s play. Tell me about this ‘Old Love’ take where the two title characters are in their 70’s and their families are a generation younger.
It was Arkady’s idea. He mentioned it in one of our earliest conversations and it was something we seemed to connect on. Romeo& Juliet is a play that I love, but it is a tricky play to do because people know it so well and they remember seeing it. How do you do that play and take the audience on an unexpected journey? What I found when I read the play with Arkady’s concept in mind, picturing people in their 70’s playing these roles, I heard the language for the first time, I heard the details of what they were saying for the first time, I was actually listening to the substance as opposed to the words just washing over me. That was interesting. I think that will be interesting for the audience as well. By changing the dynamic I think we’ll be able to see the other characters in the story very differently as well.
I found your 2008 valedictorian address from King’s College on-line. You say “ We’re all hopelessly retro, whether we’re performing ancient Greek plays on the library steps, debating Cartesian philosophy, listening to music from the 60’s, or dressing in an eclectic fashion style which merges Woodstock with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Is that attitude still influencing your work or that a Mitcehll Cushman from a long 5 years ago?
If I had known that this speech was going to define me…..(laughs). What I can say is that I still have a romantic notion of King’s College. The entire first year of that programme you read ancient works of philosophy and literature, right up to the 20th century. Something I realise now, but didn’t at the time, was that nothing could have prepared me better for a career as a theatre director. It’s expanded my way of thinking because I have been exposed to so much more than those who haven’t done that programme. I’m very romantic about the idea of a liberal arts education. It’s a big part of the British tradition I guess, which I get from my dad. It’s something everyone should do. I feel it’s my secret weapon. For me, that speech was about this: “We’re all about to graduate; we don’t know what we’re going to do next.” After a programme like that, you don’t feel you have any tangible skills. I still don’t feel I have any tangible skills; I don’t know how to fix anything! You know your mind has improved, but it’s hard to measure that tangibly, and if you’re unemployed it can be a little bit scary. At the same time, it’s that learning for its own sake was really inspiring.
This interview has been edited and condensed from the original conversation.
Mitchell Cushman directs Possible Worlds by John Mighton (produced by Talk is Free Theatre).
The production runs from April 11th and runs until April 20th at the Mady Centre in Barrie.
To read The Green Room’s ‘Show Preview’ of this production CLICK HERE
Call (705) 792-1949 for tickets
Or visit the web site: