The Humans

Jackie Maxwell, former Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, is coming to Edmonton next season to direct at the Citadel for the first time. Maxwell, who has been a dramaturg and teacher at numerous institutions, including the Banff Centre for the Arts, will direct Stephen Karam’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, The Humans, in Shoctor Theatre January 6-27, 2018. The Broadway production of the show won four Tony Awards, an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Play, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.

Citadel Theatre: This is your first time directing a production at the Citadel. Is it your first time working in Edmonton?

Jackie Maxwell: Yes, it is. It was all a bit of a surprise. I had originally talked to Canadian Stage about The Humans and then I found out that they were talking about a co-production with the Citadel, so it was a lovely coincidence that, in the end, I get to come to the Citadel and do this play there, as well. I’ve known Penny Ritco [the Citadel’s Executive Director] for ages. I know Daryl Cloran [the Citadel’s Artistic Director] well. I asked Daryl to come be a director when I was running the Shaw Festival. I’m really happy to be there in Daryl’s first year [of programming]. I think that’s really exciting and it’s a nice thing to be a part of.

CT: When did you first become aware of Stephen Karam’s play The Humans? Did you see it on Broadway?

JM: No, I haven’t. I would have gone to see it on Broadway but I found out just before I was thinking of going to New York that I was going to do [the play] with the Citadel and Canadian Stage. And once you know that – I’ve heard lots about it, I’ve read it. I read a lot of plays – I used to have to for my job at the Shaw and I just naturally do anyways. I’m one of those slightly nerdy people that just enjoys reading plays. So I loved the play and I really found it very moving, even just reading it. Once I found out I was doing it, I just didn’t want to go see it. I didn’t want to have someone else’s production imprinted in my head. Our designer, Judith Bowden, has seen it. We’re already in design conversations, of course, and so on. And she was saying it’s always a little hard when you’ve seen a production to just try to - not blank it right out of your head - but not let it affect your initial decisions.

CT: How would you describe The Humans to someone who’s not familiar with the play?

JM: I think The Humans is absolutely what it’s titled – it’s human. It really is a brilliant mixture between comedy – and some of it’s very, very funny – and a kind of very current drama about class and what it’s like to be living in North America today, what it means to be working class, lower-middle-class today. It’s a family drama, so I think that people can really relate to it. Interestingly, it also has a slightly … there’s a bit of a mystery around it, as well. If you said to somebody, ‘It’s a comedy-drama-mystery,’ they’d go, ‘Wow. It’s got to make up its mind.’ But, in fact, I think it does. It’s a story of a family today and what that means. It’s very relatable, too. It’s also provocative, at times. I don’t want to give away the plot but really, it’s not a huge plot – a family meets for Thanksgiving dinner. As we all know, anyone who has done that or Christmas or whatever, anything can happen in those situations. So, in that sense, I think people will be very … it’s like going to see a piece where you get pulled in. I think the characters are eminently likeable but flawed, of course. I think it’s a play that will get under your skin in the best kind of way.

CT: The play is a single act, with no intermission, and it all takes place in a duplex apartment in Chinatown in New York. What are some of the challenges of staging a play like this?

JM: It’s going to be fun. It reminds me a bit of having a doll’s house – you know, when you get a doll’s house when you’re a kid and you open the entrance to it. It’s kind of like a duplex sliced in half and we get to see four rooms. The fascinating thing about that, in terms of the actors, normally, in a play, a scene takes place in a room and when you leave the room, you’re no longer in the play. But, in this case, everybody is on the stage all the time. Even if a scene is happening downstairs in the kitchen, you still have an action, a narrative that’s happening upstairs in a different room. You have to work out the narratives. A lot of it is in the script. But the thing that you have to do is make sure that everything all times out. If the father is upstairs, for example, trying to get cell service out the one window, and there’s an argument going on downstairs. He comes into that argument at a certain point, so he has to know how long he’s doing what he’s doing before he comes down and interrupts the argument. If you multiply that by six [actors], that’s a lot of narratives that you have to pull together, so it’s going to be a very interesting rehearsal process.

CT: The Humans includes a wide spectrum of feelings: fear, love, terror, resentment, weariness, heartbreak, etc. but there’s also a lot of humour and sarcasm throughout the script. How will you work that balance between the sadness of this family’s reality and the humour they manage to find in their situations?

JM: I think in most cases, you work to understand what are the problems and the issues. And, as in most cases, the humour is how to almost cover that. In a sense, it plays on a level of comedy. But, because we start to know things – people make fun of their situations or they are sarcastic or they hide in their situation through humour. You have to work in parallel. You have to find out exactly what’s going on, exactly what the problems are. Then, you have to understand how they are covering it by humour or how they are using humour to deflect or using humour because they want to forget about it for a while.

CT: How do you decide which productions you want to direct? What attracts you to a project?

JM: Humanity, funnily enough. I love all sorts of different plays. If I just look over the last year, I just finished doing a Jacobean tragedy at the Stratford Festival, called The Changeling, which is a lot of sex, blood and death. Before that, I did a Lillian Hellman play at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, which was really quite a tense drama. Before that, I did Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and Sweeney Todd. I’m only giving you that list because through that list, you go from a musical to a Chekhov to a Jacobean tragedy to a drama. What I would say is in common with all of those pieces is that, first of all, they rely on actors really giving of themselves and committing to it. I love been with a group of actors in a room and really, really digging in to find the world and how far we can commit to it and examine it. I love that; I love working with good actors, especially on really good parts. I think also the fact that I do like to think that there is a beacon of hope somewhere [in the plays]. It was a little hard to find that in the Jacobean tragedy. I think the notion that a play has to have a way forward out of it. I always like to think to myself, ‘I wonder what happened after the play? I wonder what happened next?’ and I like plays that make you want to ask that question, as opposed to just leave the theatre running for the hills.

CT: One thing that comes up a lot when discussing the Broadway production of The Humans is that the ending is sort of ambiguous. It’s one of the those plays that makes you wonder what happened next.

JM: I like plays that are open-ended in the sense that they don’t end neatly; they aren’t tied up with a little bow. To me, theatre has to last well after you’ve seen the play. You have to be able to go to the bar, get a drink and have a really good conversation about what you saw. Or maybe even an argument about what you saw. I’ve always believed that. The saddest thing you can hear in a lobby is, ‘Ok, where do you want to go have dinner?’ You want people to go, ‘I want to keep talking about the play and thinking about the play’ because it’s how we find that – I think that theatre can explain things to us or at least show us examples of things and it certainly can provoke us to try to understand other people’s points of view or to see how other people live. I like the idea that people will definitely go out humming the tune, so to speak.

CT: When you were a youth in Belfast, you got into acting, and studied theatre at the University of Manchester. You made the switch to directing when you moved to Canada. Why the change?

JM: I think to be an actor, you have to have a very, very deep core belief in yourself as an actor because you’re constantly dealing with rejection and it’s a hard road, and there’s always a lot of actors for every part. I had acted when I was quite young. I was one of those kids that always played “the kid” in the local theatre’s plays. But, after a while, as I got older and I went through university, which I loved, and I found out more about theatre, I started to find that I didn’t have necessarily that core belief. So, in the end, I knew that I wanted to be in theatre – I’ve never really wanted to be in anything else but theatre. But I was lucky. I got a job at the National Arts Centre as an assistant to the artistic director. I ended up assisting on all sorts of different plays with different directors. As I watched that, I thought, ‘This makes more sense to me now.’ For directing, you have to be able to keep the big picture in your head; you also have to be able to zero in on details. I realized that it was closer to how my brain worked.

CT: What qualities make you well suited for directing?

JM: I think directing is both an overrated and underrated job, in that people often think that a director is someone who has an idea or a concept and just kind of delivers it from on high. Whereas I think it’s a very collaborative job. I certainly am a very collaborative director. I love collaborating with my design team and my actors. I think you have to be a good psychiatrist. You have to understand how to work with actors. You have to understand that every actor can work very differently. You have to be able to go into detail and then stand back and see the bigger picture. I enjoy that. I have a multi-tasking kind of brain, so I can keep a lot of things in my head at the same time, which certainly helps, when I’m trying to build a world. I like to have fun in rehearsals. I like to enjoy them, even if it’s a more serious play. In fact, sometimes the more serious the play, the more giddy you get because people have to really go far down into a dark place so you have to create a safe environment for them to do that.

CT: You recently left the Shaw Festival after 14 seasons as Artistic Director. What’s next?

JM: Yeah, I’ve got lots of plans for the future. I’m going to move to Toronto and move into an apartment. I have two great daughters who now live in Toronto, so I want to be close to them. As a freelance artist, which is now what I am, it’s a much better place - Niagara-on-the-Lake is not really a base to operate from. It’s a retirement community that happens to have a beautiful theatre in it. I’ve got some really interesting projects coming up. I want to travel more; it’s something that I love. One of my presents to myself right after I finished [at the Shaw Festival] was to go to Spain for a month. Now that I’ve got the time, I can do that. But I love directing. Even when I was an artistic director, if people would ask me what I did, I would say, ‘Well, actually, at heart, I’m a director.’ I loved running the Shaw. I loved running Factory Theatre when I ran it. But, to me, the real joy is being in a rehearsal hall with a group of actors. And I’ll continue doing that until they drag me out, feet first, I guess.

CT: One of the other directors coming to the Citadel in the 2017/18 season, Ashlie Corcoran, mentioned that she really looks up to you and that you taught her a lot when she was an intern director at Shaw Festival. Is mentoring female directors something that you consciously set out to do?

JM: I find it very, very important. When I ran the Shaw, I made a point of hiring female directors – not just female directors, but many more than most people did at that time. I was the only woman to run a really major institution. There are other women running theatres, of course, but maybe not as many as there should be. I really believe in that. I believe that I have experience that can be helpful. I’m always happy to talk to any young artist, but especially a young female artist or a young female director. I’m always open to that. How do you learn? That’s one of the ways you learn. By the time you get to having several years of experience, it’s good to share that.

CT: Even though The Humans is set in New York, it seems like the family’s situation is something Canadian audiences will relate to.

JM: Oh, totally. [The playwright, Stephen Karam] has said that he feels like this could be a family in many, many places. He happened to have family in Scranton and New York. But I believe it will be eminently relatable to Canadians.

CT: What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the play?

JM: I hope, first of all, they will have had a very full evening in the theatre. I think they’re going to take away a sense that sometimes you have to be more careful when you think with the people you love. I think people may find or see that what seems to be on the surface often isn’t when you probe a little deeper. And that a lot of the time, even though people may not always treat each other perfectly, that usually in these situations there is love – it’s just that people don’t know quite how to behave.

CT: The opening of The Humans is still far away but auditions were in February. Is there anything you can share with us about casting and what you looked for in an actor?

JM: It’s a true ensemble, in the sense that they really do – there is no one star. Everybody is there, and they are there all the time. I’m really happy. It’s a real mix of Edmonton and Toronto actors, which I always think is interesting. So I’ve got some people I know and some people I don’t, who I really admire. I think we’ve all got to get together and be in that room and make it happen.

The Humans runs January 6-27, 2018, at Citadel Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.