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Stodgy No More? The Shaw Festival is Full of Surprises

Mr. Carroll, 51, represents a curious blend of familiar and radical: He is best known stateside for the “original practice” Globe productions of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” that he brought to Broadway in 2013, which hewed as closely as possible to the staging choices made at the turn of the 17th century.


Tim Carroll is shaking things up as the new artistic director of the Shaw Festival.

via Shaw festival

But he is also a founding member of the British guerrilla theater known as the Factory, which once staged a “Hamlet” in which any actor could end up performing any of the roles on any given night.

The Shaw Festival actors presumably knew their parts for the Secret Theater performances, about which all parties have been tight-lipped. Mr. Carroll finally allowed that one such event asked the audience to walk around Niagara on the Lake with a map, as scenes popped up around them.

“Basically, our new mission is to celebrate the work and spirit of George Bernard Shaw any way we want,” said Mr. Carroll, who is known throughout the company as “T.C.” If that includes recent works by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins or Will Eno (a fine-boned rendition of his 2010 “Middletown”) in its 11-play season, so be it.

Mr. Carroll has stepped into the role on the heels of two consecutive years of operating deficits. Ticket sales have followed a gradual decline over the last decade here, and plans are currently on hold to build a new theater on a tract of land that the festival purchased for $3.63 million in 2014.

One casualty of his arrival is the festival’s much-discussed mandate. The first three years of its existence were devoted solely to Shaw, and for decades the repertory was confined to works written during his lifetime. (He lived to the age of 94, giving the festival quite a bit of latitude.)

Over time, the definition expanded to include contemporary works set during Shaw’s lifetime as well as plays on Shavian themes. “It had become a bit of a running joke, about the ever-expanding mandate,” Mr. Carroll said. (In fact, next year’s season includes a work by a playwright who missed Shaw’s lifetime by some 240 years: William Shakespeare.)


A production of Will Eno’s 2010 play “Middletown,” with Jeff Meadows, is a sign of how the 56-year-old festival is broadening its mandate.

Emily Cooper

The repertory acting system, however, remains a hallmark of the festival. On this particular day, Jonathan Tan was assaying a smug Lord Chancellor in Shaw’s “Saint Joan” less than two hours after hopping around the stage as a frog in a charming family adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s tales for children. Three of Mr. Tan’s “Wilde Tales” co-stars got a longer break before making up the cast of that evening’s surprise performance, “1979,” a comedy about Joe Clark’s absurdly short tenure as prime minister of Canada.

Still, it is Mr. Carroll’s innovations that have become the talk of this town’s many coffee shops and wine bars and ice cream parlors. It is not unusual to find audience members who have been attending the Shaw Festival for decades. And unsurprisingly, opinions among these stalwarts vary widely.

“Change is hard, especially for people who are older,” said Betty Schaeffer of Rochester, who has been coming with her husband for 31 years and had seen two previous festival stagings of “Saint Joan” before this year’s streamlined production, directed by Mr. Carroll. “It all feels very, very different all of a sudden. I like it.”

But Leslie Varnick and Michael St. Clair, who have been visiting from Cleveland for nearly as long, warned that the unique nature of the festival is in jeopardy.

“Anyone wants to come in and put their stamp on things, of course,” Ms. Varnick said. “But I want the work to be honored, and a lot has been lost. It can feel a bit like a circus now.”

Mr. Carroll will be the first to admit that the new approach is a work in progress. “Some people in the company would rather not try something until we’ve worked out exactly how to do it,” he said. “And I say to them, ‘Let’s just get it wrong this year. And then next year, it will be much easier to get it right.’ ”


Sanjay Talwar as Remarkable Rocket, Kelly Wong as Roman Candle and Jonathan Tan as Worker in “Wilde Tales,” a festival production aimed at young audiences.

David Cooper

The festivities begin before each play starts. Rather than use the typical recorded preshow announcement, Mr. Carroll enlists a member of the festival’s cast, crew or staff to speak live.

Gray Powell, who performed for 10 seasons under the previous artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, recently gave his first of these impromptu addresses. “It’s an experiment, but then, all theater is an experiment,” said Mr. Powell, who has roles in “Middletown” and “Saint Joan” this season. “The important thing is that T. C. has gotten people off the backs of their seats and closer to the front.”

And while Mr. Powell has relished the Secret Theater forays, he occasionally balks at interactive works like Mr. Carroll’s “Androcles,” in which the actors will elicit stories from audience members at intermission and then include them in the text.

“There are certainly times when I feel like, ‘I don’t want to talk to you. I just want to look at you,’ ” he said.

When audience members ask Mr. Carroll how Shaw might have reacted to these changes, he has an answer at the ready — a letter Shaw wrote in about 1930 to Barry Jackson, who wanted to name his own summer theater festival in England after the dramatist.

“Shaw said, ‘Don’t do that, because you shouldn’t be held back by what I am doing or have written,’’ Mr. Carroll said. “‘People like me and Ibsen shouldn’t be sat in the road, blocking the way of the new young generation.’”

And if longtime festivalgoers feel that Mr. Carroll is in the way, he has thoughtfully provided plenty of juggling balls, perfect for chucking.

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