Shaw director Jackie Maxwell adept at juggling programming, casting, nurturing


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"Sometimes I get to be Santa Claus," especially with a rising young actor, says Jackie Maxwell. "And sometimes we don't have something for an older actor, and that's very hard. ... These are people's lives."

The Shaw Festival artistic director was in the midst of these delicate 2014 casting discussions two weeks ago. With 10 plays in repertory over a seven-month season, it seems impossibly complex, except that she has done it before, which may explain her good cheer as she took a generous slice of her jam-packed time to talk.

The artistic director's chief task is programming -- what plays to do, in which theater and with what artistic team. Each stage director has some say in casting, but because each of the festival's 63 actors (the budget limit for 2014) has to be cast in two plays, running on non-overlapping schedules in the festival's four theaters, Ms. Maxwell necessarily oversees casting herself.

It's not just casting, it's building and maintaining a company that rehires most of its actors year to year but doesn't have work for some and must keep bringing in fresh blood. The resulting company has to be satisfied with the work it's given.

Ms. Maxwell believes firmly that face-to-face discussions are essential, even though with bad news it might be easier to phone or email. "I think it's important to talk about where they are," she says, especially with the younger actors who are developing their skills.

For her, casting began even before the 2014 season was announced in August, because you have to have your Sally Bowles before you choose to do "Cabaret." But once the plays are announced, "it's like a feeding frenzy" as everyone reads them, looking for what they might play.

How many actors thought they could play Sally or the Emcee? "I'm always interested in how they see themselves," she says diplomatically, in apparent sincerity. "Actors have to be their own advocates. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it's complete delusion."

The resulting whole is a complex tapestry. "I get it all done and dusted, then someone gets an offer elsewhere," and part of the season has to be pulled apart and rewoven. "And whenever an actress in her 30s asks, 'Can I talk to you?,' the odds are she's pregnant."

In spite of the stress of round-the-clock meetings, Ms. Maxwell was upbeat, partly because of the success of the current season. "Guys and Dolls" has been the rising box office tide that lifted all boats. " 'Lady Windermere's Fan' is pretty much neck and neck, and 'Our Betters' is way over budgeted income." Five shows are drawing above expectations, "with no duds."

She's going into her 12th season, a long tenure for a contemporary artistic director. "I'm not one to outstay my welcome," she says, but she hasn't run out of shows she's eager to do. For one thing, she keeps expanding the festival's scope. "We see through a Shavian lens," is how she puts it, so his plays remain central. But there are modern Shavians to do: Tony Kushner, for one, "even though his plays are behemoths -- but we're good at behemoths."

Another new commitment is to black plays -- "Topdog/Underdog" two years ago, "The Mountaintop" next year, abetted by collaboration with Toronto's Obsidian Theatre. August Wilson is definitely in the future, probably "Gem of the Ocean."

The 2014 Shaw Festival season: "Cabaret," "The Philadelphia Story," Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock," Shaw's "Arms and the Man" and "The Philanderer," St. John Hankin's "The Charity That Began at Home," Edward Bond's "The Sea," J.B. Priestley's "When We Are Married," Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop" and a lunchtime show to be announced.

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