Tim Carroll has been appointed as the new Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. When the news was announced last week, my instant reaction was that “this may be the weirdest and most inexplicable AD appointment I’ve come across;” having had time to ponder, I remain baffled.

At first glance, it’s not glaringly obvious why Carroll would even make the short list for this job. He’s never run a major outfit like the Shaw; he has very little expertise in the period or even the thematic focus that the festival’s mandate dictates (even in the expanded form current AD Jackie Maxwell has devised); he has not had much success in Canadian theatre, and his work here has been limited to three productions at Stratford; he has very little experience working in North America (besides the Stratford shows, he directed Peer Gynt at the Guthrie seven years ago. And that’s it. Unless you count the Broadway transfer of his Globe/West End Richard III and Twelfth Night a few years ago — but why would you?). As far as familiarity with the theatre world this side of the Atlantic, let alone an established track record of artistic success, are concerned, there must have been dozens of more obvious and more obviously qualified candidates. (He says in a recent interview with Robert Cushman that “in the US, where I’ve worked a lot, the reputation of Canadian actors is very high – especially for the classics, which in America of course means anything more than five years old” — but I can’t find a trace of an original US production other than the Guthrie Ibsen in his CV. I’m sorry to say that his characterization of US theatre and its attitudes sounds to me like an awkward mix of pandering and British stereotyping.)

Nor is this fairly weak North American profile counterbalanced by an awe-inspiring resume elsewhere: Carroll was a leading figure in the early days of Shakespeare’s Globe, under Mark Rylance’s artistic directorship, and the work on the so-called Original Practices approach that informed the Globe’s first decade evidently remains an influential factor in Carroll’s own theatrical practice. But since 2005, he has a relatively patchy record: his one production at the RSC, a Merchant of Venice in 2008, received decidedly lukewarm reviews. He recently directed a brace of new plays for the Hampstead Theatre (neither of which was reviewed widely), and an adaptation of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall — first at the Bristol Old Vic in 2008 and then on tour, which received quite favourable reviews. Probably his most interesting work has been with an independent acting company, the Factory, with whom he has staged versions of Hamlet, , and The Odysee in recent years. The latter, none of which I have managed to see, sound like intriguing experiments — but they are by design intended for a smallish audience, intimate experiences with a strong focus on improvisation. In sum, Carroll’s profile in the UK is that of a professional, steadily working director with a few unusually well-defined notions; but he has not done the kind of work — at least in the last 10 years — that would have established him as a figure of influence.

And neither is Tim Carroll an major force in theatre outside the English-speaking world. He has directed in places one doesn’t often find on English theatre makers resumes, it’s true: at a small theatre in Budapest, in Romania, a production at the National Theatre of Portugal, and some others. But his work, as far as I know, has never been featured in any of the major European theatre festivals; he hasn’t worked in the kinds of theatres in Europe that set the tone. And although he has done much work in opera, there, too, he has a limited track record of directing in major houses — the Liceu in Barcelona seems like the only one to come close.

This is a pretty dismissive account, I know. If the question were “is Tim Carroll a successful director,” I’d say it is an unfairly and ill-spiritedly dismissive account. Carroll is clearly a theatre professional of some standing, with a lot of experience and a successful career. But is he an internationally leading figure? I think it would be extremely hard to make that case with any seriousness. I don’t think it would be any easier to argue that he is a leading figure in the current UK theatre world. He has certainly had the good fortune to work closely with one of the most captivating performers of our time — but the fact that so many of Carroll’s shows have been so focussed on Mark Rylance makes his record as a director even harder to read. (As one critic wrote about their Minneapolis Peer Gynt, “The job of director Tim Carroll … seems to have been to create a playground for the central character.”)

Now, I will say that I have little time for nationalist arguments when it comes to artistic appointments. I think a major arts institution such as the Shaw Festival should search internationally (as well as within Canada) to find the most impressive candidates possible. That said, familiarity with audiences, locations, and especially the broader theatre scene — who are the established and up-and-coming directors, actors, and designers; what are the major theatres, big and small, and what kind of work do they stage; what are the established and the most innovative acting programs; and so on — is obviously a huge advantage for the AD of a major festival, and certainly a qualification the successful candidate would have to acquire before starting the job. That has little to do with one’s passport: Jackie Maxwell may have been born in Northern Ireland, but she worked at the NAC in Ottawa in the 1980s and ran the Factory Theatre from 1987-95 — she was hardly a stranger to Canadian theatre when she took over the Shaw in 2002. I would have thought that a candidate without any real familiarity with our theatre scene would have to bring other, unquestionably remarkable achievements to the table to overcome the significant disadvantage of not knowing the place.

And that’s where I can’t make sense of this appointment. If Rupert Goold had applied for the job? Emma Rice? David Lan? Any of the dozen or two dozen British theatre makers evidently qualified to run a place like the Shaw that anyone paying attention to the UK scene could reel off with ease — all of whom would have the track record of artistic innovation and popular success that the Shaw Festival must surely be looking for. Yes, if anyone on that list had applied, I’d understand why a committee might rank the candidate’s established reputation and achievements elsewhere more highly than his or her knowledge of the local and national conditions. But I can’t seriously imagine anyone putting Tim Carroll, despite his successful career, in the same category as those theatre makers. UK friends: would you disagree?

How else to explain this appointment? Perhaps Tim Carroll says things about theatre — and about the kind of drama for which the Shaw Festival exists — that are so scintillating and brilliant that anyone listening to him might well be persuaded that his greatest days as a theatre artist are still to come. They’d have to statements about the art of theatre, I would think: the other core responsibilities of an Artistic Director, areas like fundraising, audience development, community relations, organizational matters, are surely fields in which a candidate needs to show concrete evidence of competence and, ideally, experience. Since to my knowledge, Carroll has never had any responsibility for any of those things in North America (and only in a limited capacity in the UK), in this regard, too, he must have convinced the committee to disregard his lack of experience and knowledge — must have impressed them, that is, with his artistic approach so much that they were willing to take on trust that he could handle all the other key competencies as well.

However, trying to identify what might be so exciting about Carroll’s thinking about theatre only made the conundrum all the more puzzling to me. It’s difficult to believe that the Shaw Festival thought his ideas about “Original Practices” in Shakespearean performance would be of much relevance — although, admittedly, the Festival’s “Manners of the Mandate” attitude and their continued (if intermittent) reliance on a period aesthetic means they’re already half-way there. Perhaps the plan is to install arc lights and turn off all the air conditioning?

I jest. Beyond the OP stuff, the most detailed statements about Carroll’s attitude towards performance I have been able to find come from the transcript of a Q&A available on the RSC website. I can’t lie: I found this both an unpleasantly arrogant and deeply irritating interview. The insistence on not doing any interpreting, on a directorial stance that is totally neutral and explicitly isn’t trying to “say” anything at all — well, that, to me at least, is not only extremely boring, it’s also theoretically naive — and in the aggressive form adopted by Carroll in this interview, intellectually dishonest. The most bizarre moment in the interview arrives when Carroll essentially (consciously?) seems to deny that theatre has much to add to drama:

This is a really off-putting thing to say (I hope you won’t be put off by this!) I wanted the experience of watching the play to be as exciting as the experience of reading it. When I read it, I find it incredibly interesting and it just gets to the end and he says, “So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring. Exeunt.” Play’s over. It doesn’t say, “Exeunt leaving Jessica looking tearful,” or “Exeunt leaving Antonio looking a bit melancholy.” It just says, “Exeunt”, just says, “That’s it.” So we do the nearest we can to that. In fact, you’d think the nearest thing to that is: he says it and they all leave the stage. But even leaving the stage you’d notice who went first and all the rest of it. So we say, “So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring. Dance.” Even the dance is deliberately only a kind of fantasia recapitulating the play. You could derive no sense of the production’s attitude from the dance, I hope.

Seriously? Because something isn’t stated explicitly, in a stage direction, actors shouldn’t do it? In other words, Carroll’s aesthetic ideal in his Merchant of Venice production, was not to make any choices that weren’t as much as possible driven by the text? Why bother staging it all then? This kind of talk reeks of anti-theatre to me. The bit about “exeunt” is also supremely weird. “Exeunt” is just how printed plays end. Carroll seems to think his extreme textualism mandates that everyone in fact has to leave the stage. Or does it? Did they dance off? If not, why is “dance” a more accurate translation of “exeunt” than a simply, snappy blackout? What says “that’s it” more emphatically in the theatre than the lights snapping off? In other words, not only do I find Carroll’s radical textualism reductive and rather strange as a premise for a theatrical production — I also find his explanation for how it worked in practice in this show oddly inconsistent.

Following on the heels of the impressive (if not always completely successful) work directors like Peter Hinton or Eda Holmes have done under Jackie Maxwell’s ADship — work that certainly struck attitudes and certainly had things to say, with, through, and sometimes against the grain of the plays they were directing — Carroll’s attitude of studied, recalcitrant “neutrality” feels dispiritingly like a big leap backwards.

In more recent interviews and profiles in the Canadian media, both accompanying his Stratford shows and the news of his Shaw appointment, Carroll has made similar pronouncements about the relationship between text and performance. As in an interview with Donal O’Connor of the Beacon Herald, apropos his Stratford King John: “‘I’ve done plenty of Shakespeare performances with lots of lighting and sound cues and modern dress and all the rest of it, and I’m most certain I shall do so again,’ said the British director in a recent interview. ‘But I do think it’s really an interesting journey to be exploring — as I discovered at the Globe — the imaginative power of the audience.'” The implication being, one presumes, that production with a less “neutral” attitude somehow don’t rely on the audience’s imaginative power.

At the same time, he does grant (and look for) a specific power in performance: “Ideally what I require of the actors is that they train so that the play can work out differently every time they play it, so that the play can work itself out in the moment.” That sounds exciting — and certainly relates to the entirely improvisatory approach his shows with the Factory have taken. But right on the heels of that claim comes this one: “I’m very interested in what happens when you let the play speak for itself, even if in the end that’s impossible and you can’t help imposing something.” How do you square those two things? Is the actorly freedom the first statement pronounced really just the freedom to become a vessel for the text? The freedom not to interfere with the free play of the text’s meanings, unfolding as the words fall freely from your free lips? It certainly sounds like Carroll doesn’t have an awful lot to say about what actors do on stage, how their presence affects meaning (no matter whether it’s a presence that’s regimented by a strict blocking scheme, which he doesn’t use, or whether it’s totally loose): “Basically a Shakespeare play can be done on the radio and you get it completely, which is because Shakespeare knew that he wasn’t going to have lots of sound cues — except maybe some thunder — and he also knew he wasn’t going to change the set so it had to be self-sufficient.” So, what actual theatre adds, beyond voices, is sound, sets, and lights? That’s a really depressingly desiccated notion of what theatre is and can be.

Then again, a theatre this limited in its own, specific artistic means fits well with Carroll’s understanding of what makes for a good show, as expressed in an interview with the Globe & Mail’s Laura Beeston: “Good writing is good writing and makes for good theatre.” I can personally attest to the inaccuracy of this claim. I have seen many terrible, sleep- or rage-inducing productions of excellently written plays. I have seen many shows that I loved based on texts that really weren’t especially remarkable, as works of writing. And as a professor of literature, I must confess that I don’t really know what the circular statement “good writing is good writing” means. A clear instruction manual is “good writing.” I’m not sure that by the same token, every stage production of our new dryer’s operating manual will make for magical theatre. As far as I’m concerned, good theatre makes for good theatre. But good theatre, typically, in most cases, requires a bit more than a radio play.

What’s especially mystifying about all this is that Carroll’s attitude to the text, and the apparent dislike of actually directing plays (in a sort of literal sense), sound so very old-school Canadian. A little over a year ago, I sat in a lecture hall at U of T, grumpily listening to Ken Gass actually invoke the midwife metaphor to describe the director’s role; reading over Tim Carroll’s various statements about directing and staging plays, I think he and Ken Gass could agree on many things. But if that’s true, what’s the point of bringing in an outsider, with all the limitations I’ve covered so exhaustively above? Why turn to the UK, if all you’re looking for is a theatrical conservatism and narrow-focused textualism that has a long tradition in our own theatre culture — a tradition which at least some practitioners not of retirement age obviously still follow. Why not hire one of them?

I don’t know if there is a positive note I could end on. This appointment feels to me like a significant opportunity squandered. Nothing Tim Carroll has said in the interviews he’s given since his appointment suggest what his specific plans for the Festival might be — precisely what kind of brilliant ideas he may have offered the committee to overcome the limitations and problems with his profile that the board members surely must have considered. The only article that reported anything remotely less than pure boilerplate was Cushman’s — and what Carroll said about Shaw doesn’t exactly impress me as especially insightful or profound (“What most attracts Carroll to Shaw’s plays, and by extension plays in his tradition, is that they have ‘real intellectual meat. All Shaw’s plays confront us with our prejudices – especially our comfortable, liberal ones.'”). I suppose I could say that he clearly has a lot of respect for actors. That is certainly a good thing. But, again: how unusual can it possibly be?

But still. Reaching for the positive, I’d offer four thoughts:

– The Factory seems like a genuinely interesting theatrical project. One can learn a lot about the endeavour on their website, which documents their rehearsal processes in exhaustive detail. I have no idea how the spirit of that company could be translated into an institutional setting like the Shaw Festival, but if he could find a way, I think there’s potential there.

– Carroll has so little experience directing plays from the Shaw’s “mandate period” that the encounter might actually produce more theatrically intriguing results than his previous work. As far as I can see, he’s directed one Ibsen, one Chekhov, and Peter Pan — nothing else he has done, at least in the last 15 years or so, really relates to the repertoire the Festival has drawn on for most of its existence. I’m not going to claim that that is in fact a strength; but it just might give him a newcomer’s perspective, if he’s willing to adopt a perspective at all, that may yield surprising results.

– For all I know, his very lack of familiarity with our theatre scene might be a strength, too. Perhaps he will, wittingly or unknowingly, ignore established connections and disconnects. Perhaps he will invite actors and directors who’ve never been asked, or wouldn’t have considered to work at the Festival. Perhaps he will audition people that would otherwise not have had a chance. I certainly hope he will continue Maxwell’s commitment to hiring female directors. So, by accident or deliberately, Carroll may break old habits and come up with new approaches. Who knows. I certainly hope he does.

– Lastly, one does not have to be a brilliant director to be an effective Artistic Director. So, again: who knows. It worked for Nick Hytner.

And I do want to say this. I find Tim Carroll’s appointment baffling. It really makes no sense to me, and the longer I’ve thought about it, the less sense it makes. I cannot believe that an equally qualified — strike that: a more clearly qualified — candidate could not have been found in this country, or at least on this continent. But despite all of this, I do hope for the best. I wish Tim Carroll well. I hope he produces exciting theatre, now that he has his own company. I hope he finds collaborators that excel at the things that he is unwilling, unable, or disinclined to do. I can’t claim to be especially optimistic, but I would love to be proved wrong. I really, genuinely would.

2 Responses to The Tim Carroll Conundrum

  1. Lou Fedorkow says:

    any change to your impressions with the recent announcement of his first season line-up for the Shaw?

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