Mamma Mia!

Ashlie Corcoran is the Artistic Director of the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver, as well as the co-founder and Artistic Producer of Theatre Smash. Corcoran visited Edmonton in June 2017 for auditions for the Citadel’s upcoming production of Mamma Mia!, which she will direct this season. We chatted with Corcoran to learn about her vision for this popular musical.

Citadel Theatre: Mamma Mia! is the most-seen musical in history, with millions of audience members worldwide, and it’s the longest-running jukebox musical in Broadway history. Is there an added pressure directing such a popular, beloved show?

Ashlie Corcoran: I don’t think there’s an added pressure. It’s exciting to work on such a great piece. One of the reasons that Mamma Mia! has had such success is that it is a great piece. It’s always exciting and actually easier to work on a piece that has such strong legs and a strong foundation. I saw Mamma Mia! in Toronto in 2001 or 2002. I remember thinking ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be into this,’ and I was the first person up on my feet, dancing, at the end of it. The tunes are so great, ABBA is so fantastic but the story of this mother and her daughter and the trios of friends around them are so compelling. So there’s no pressure but it’s just exciting to work on such a wonderful piece.

CT: The production will take place on the thrust stage of the Maclab instead of on a proscenium stage. How will this change the show for audiences?

AC: When Daryl [Cloran, the Citadel’s Artistic Director] asked if I wanted to do this, I was so excited and in my brain, I was like, ‘Oh, I hope that it’s in the Maclab,’ and he said it was, so I was really thrilled by that because I love work that is immediate and accessible. I think it’s really exciting to see musical theatre in a thrust configuration because the choreography is completely 3D. It’s more challenging from the creative team’s perspective because you’re thinking about these pictures in a multitude of ways. But it means that for the audience, they’re right there and really a part of the whole experience. I think it’s going to amp it up.

CT: You previously directed the Gay Heritage Project at the Citadel in February 2016. What was that experience like?

AC: That is a show that I had actually done in 2013, with Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto. It was a really big success so we brought it on a western Canada tour. It came to the Citadel, the Cultch in Vancouver, and the Belfry in Victoria. It was an amazing experience because I actually got to come out to each of those venues and help set it up with the actors, which isn’t always the case with a tour. I was in Edmonton, at the Citadel, for 36 hours. I was directing another show in Toronto at the time, so I came out here on my day off, and totally fell in love with this theatre. I got an amazing tour of it, and got to meet a lot of people who worked here. I was hopeful that one day I would get to come back, so getting this opportunity is very exciting.

CT: During auditions, what are you looking for in potential cast members?

AC: I’m looking for someone that I can make eye contact with and someone that I feel has a good heart and I want to spend a bunch of time [with them]. That’s a really easy first step – I want to make sure it’s people that I click with, and who will work well in a large team, since it is such an ensemble piece. And then we’re also looking for amazing dancers, since it will be a really dance heavy show, and people with fantastic pipes because there’s such great music in it. I think that maybe people think Mamma Mia! or ABBA is easy but it’s not – it’s pretty complicated. There’s a lot of crazy pop harmonies. We’re looking for people with a take on a character and a sense of humour and a sparkle about that character. Each of the roles has its own requirements. We’re in auditions right now and I’m seeing some people for a role and they’re great but maybe there’s another part that I think that they might fit more with, so I’ve been asking people to come back and read for other parts. I love casting. I love putting together the team that feels right, and it’s exciting to match the spirit of an actor to the spirit of a character.

CT: The show's score is made up of ABBA songs. Obviously Mamma Mia! will appeal to fans of the group. Do you think the show will draw in younger fans, who may not be familiar with the music?

AC: That was my first experience with ABBA, when I first saw Mamma Mia!. I knew ABBA but I didn’t know their work extremely well. One of the things that I found was that I was surprised by how many of the songs I actually did know, so I think that people who think they might not know the music probably will because it’s infiltrated our culture so much. But there’s a great story and a great heart to it, so I think that attracts people of all ages. The music, even if you’ve never heard it, is so incredibly catchy and so fun. I think it would woo anyone to be an ABBA fan.

CT: This is a very upbeat show. What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing Mamma Mia!?

AC: It’s a show about friendship and love. There are – we call them the “moms,” “dads” and the “kids” - but there are three older male characters, three older female characters, three younger male characters and three younger female characters. So that’s interesting that in the four sets of trios, in each of those trios there’s really strong friendships. And the ways that those relationships criss-cross. So I think that it’s a piece about relationships, family and love.

CT: You’ve previously said that from an aesthetic point of view, you have “a desire for incredibly pacey, quick shows – and comedy.” How does Mamma Mia! fit into that aesthetic?

AC: That is true – I do love that. That goes back to that really sharp, tight staging that I like. I really love exploring in rehearsals and going in many different ways; and then I like crafting and honing down the work. I think that by the time audiences come see this next winter, they’re going to see a show that’s pacey, that flies along, with lots of laughs and that we’ve really considered every moment of it.

CT: What else do you take into consideration when choosing which productions to direct as part of your very busy schedule?

AC: I love directing all sorts of things. I love directing operas, big, fun pop musicals like Mamma Mia!, brand new Canadian plays or tiny, one-person shows. I’m looking for a piece that has something to say and says it in an interesting way. I hope that each piece that I do is different than the one before. What I’m really excited about with this piece is that there is conflict in it and their relationships are sorting themselves out but it’s all about love, so it’s a really heartwarming, joyful piece. I’m excited about experiencing that in the rehearsal hall and having an audience around us feeling that joy.

CT: You used to run Thousand Islands Playhouse from May to October. Now you’re the Artistic Director of the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver and you’re also the co-founder and Artistic Producer of Theatre Smash. How do you prioritize what to focus on during any given day?

AC: It’s all important, so you can’t let anyone down. I work really hard and I work quickly. Every night when I go to bed, I have a clean inbox. I make sure that anyone who is waiting for anything on my part, that they have it, so I’m not holding anyone else up. It all has to be a priority. If there is a human being behind a thing, that human being is a priority and it’s up to me to get it done.

CT: You’re one of the youngest Artistic Directors in Canada and you’re also the only female to direct an opera for the Canadian Opera Company in 2017. Have you always been ambitious, and at what point did you realize that this is the career path you wanted?

AC: I guess I’ve always been ambitious – I think of it as being determined. I figured out pretty early on that I wanted to be an artistic director, before I even knew what that meant. I remember, when I was about 18 years old, saying to my mom that I wanted to be in a position at an arts institution where I could help people create, which I think is what an artistic director does. And within that year, I started dabbling in theatre, in my first year of undergrad. I realized then that I wanted to direct because I liked having a creative voice in the room. Since then – it’s been, like, decades – I feel so fortune that I get to do that job that I do and I love doing the job that I do, so that means I work hard at it.

CT: How is directing an opera similar to directing a musical, such as Mamma Mia!?

AC: They’re really similar and really different. The biggest difference is the level of choreography that will be in Mamma Mia! versus an opera. When I direct operas, I still like the staging to be tight and all the aesthetic things that are across the board in all the shows that I direct. Opera is choreographed but it’s less dance-y. Mamma Mia! will be really dance-y.

CT: You most recently directed Me and My Girl, which is also a musical, at the Shaw Festival. Did you learn anything from that experience that you’ll apply to your work on Mamma Mia!?

AC: I kept saying to people that I feel like Me and My Girl is the prototype for Mamma Mia! because it also is a really joyful, fun show. It has tons of tap dancing and great tunes [but] they are two different musical styles, and the story is very different. Me and My Girl has tap dancing and Mamma Mia! won’t have any tap dancing but the sense of play and joyfulness is really similar, so I hope that the great experience that I had at the Shaw – I know that we’re going to have the same great experience here at the Citadel.

CT: Who are some female directors you look up to?

AC: Jackie Maxwell, who’s coming [to the Citadel] next season to direct The Humans. She’s someone who I have a huge theatre/girl crush on. I was an intern director at the Shaw Festival in 2009, and I was her assistant. I learned a lot from her, so I think it’s very exciting that she’s coming here.

Mamma Mia! runs February 17 to March 18, 2018, at Citadel Theatre. To learn more or to purchase tickets, click here.