Thursday, 25 January 2018

stories from the professional theatre training program: ted witzel

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

ted witzel will train in artistic direction with antoni cimolino at the stratford festival

(january 5, 2018) one of the challenges of artistic leadership that fascinates me most is the balance that has to be struck between visioning for the long-term while remaining dexterous and flexible enough to respond to rapid shifts in the zeitgeist, and new ideas that can be brought forward by collaborators, global politics, or just something you see on the way to rehearsal one day. 

it’s one of the things i love most as a director—trying to steer towards an opening night with a larger vision in mind, while having to work fast on my feet and hear what my collaborators are offering, let go of precious ideas that seemed oh-so-brilliant in that design session a few months back, and accept the fact that the props department has been troubleshooting the helicopter for 6 weeks but it just won’t fly. you measure the vision against the present moment and you make a choice—“whatever, let’s just put it on the end of a stick and have an SM cross with it. it’ll be great.”

during the rehearsal period for ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL in high park a couple years back, i woke up one day to the nauseating news that 50 queers, women, and POCs had been massacred in orlando. with the same kind of gun that we were using a replica of in the show’s climactic gay-bashing scene. we were about to start tech and i had to make a quick call. i didn’t want to shy away from the discussion of toxic masculinity and latent homophobia that was central to the way we were reading the play, but i also didn’t want to horrify anyone. it was already pushing the envelope for a family shakespeare experience, and all of a sudden that gun felt tacky and opportunistic. but did the whole scene, the whole concept have to go? in the end, we re-worked the scene, got rid of that gun, kept it brutal enough that it wasn’t avoiding the problem. and maybe that was the right choice. maybe it was still too much too soon. maybe nobody but us made the connection between the two events. i don’t know.

on any given day, i’ve got a different (somewhat tired) working metaphor for the director’s role. right now, i’m thinking about the director-as-navigator. you chart the course, know your destination, and deal with hazards, obstacles, inclement weather, and maybe even an unexpected rescue mission along the way. you’ve also got to take a bunch of people with you and hope they don’t puke, fall overboard, or get scurvy.

artistic direction works in much the same way i think. the difference being the size of the boat. and everyone knows that big boats don’t turn as fast. 

i’m thinking about this as i prepare to head to the stratford festival with the support of theatre ontario and the metcalf foundation, to spend a season working with artistic director antoni cimolino. and stratford is a juggernaut, as the canadian fleet goes. 

the size of the institution is a big part of why i wanted to go to stratford. over the last year, i’ve had some time to reflect, and i’ve been thinking a lot about the role of our major institutions in the context of canada’s artistic ecology and our broader culture and economy. i have a lot of questions and ideas about how big organizations can adapt to the current moment, a moment of massive cultural upheaval. i wonder how institutions—and the people at their helms—can not only anticipate, but also help define the function and value of art to the culture we are in the midst of becoming.

i approached antoni with my desire to spend some time working with him last year, because in the two seasons i spent working at stratford as an assistant director, i deeply admired his leadership style. like many artists, i wrestle with a healthy skepticism of institutions—and a simultaneous desire to be involved in and supported by them. at stratford, i was impressed by the fertile, open artistic environment that i saw antoni working to foster. i respect how conscientious he is about taking care of everyone who works there, and the seriousness with which he takes the organization’s long-term health. it seemed to me that he viewed a compassionate workplace, artistic integrity, responsible fiscal stewardship, and equitable casting and hiring practices as equally essential to the organization’s success, now and decades into the future. 

i feel beyond lucky, not only that antoni agreed to the proposal, but that i’ll be joining stratford at a moment of enormous change—for stratford, for the theatre industry, and for our culture and economy—and that antoni has asked me to take an active role with him as stratford navigates this change.

there is the charted course: stratford is in the midst of a great deal of change, mostly the result of long-term visioning on antoni’s part. over half the funds for a new tom patterson theatre are in place, and the approvals process is in motion. he’s been working hard to bring stratford’s programming, casting, and hiring criteria into the 21st century, and has been actively trying to improve diversity in the company. and antoni is 5 years into a 10-year mandate, and is looking to set goals for the coming 5 years while reviewing the success of the strategic plan put into place when he became artistic director. i’ll be assisting him in programming the 2019 season, and working to support his process of reviewing the past five years and setting a strategic path for the next 5, as well as working with him and other members of his team to imagine how this new building can be activated.

there are the usual obstacles: theatre’s perpetual and ongoing struggle to assert its value to canadian audiences, under the pressure of the twin forces of globalism and digitization that are disrupting every aspect of the economy as we know it—particularly how we consume and interface with culture, media, and art. it’s obvious that our institutions are going to have to make substantial systemic changes or risk going the way of sears.

but there is a changing environment to consider: last year’s election result suddenly changed the nature and the subjects of conversation that audiences want to and need to be having. most theatres had already locked in a great deal of programming for the current season by then. it’s hard to turn these institutions on a dime.

and above and beyond that, there are sudden storms: i went to stratford today to pick up the keys for my apartment and have a quick chat with antoni about how we’ll start on monday. driving down the 401, i listened to the CBC interview with the 4 women who are speaking out against a culture of egotism, abusive power, and misogyny at soulpepper. it’s a game-changer for all institutions, regardless of how they have treated sexual harassment and abuse in the past, and what changes were already in motion. this is a moment when institutions need to show leadership in demonstrating a radical culture shift, and immediately. from the conversation we had this afternoon (before albert schultz had even resigned, which he did later in the day), it is clear that this is going to impact the year’s work for all of our theatre institutions. 

antoni has asked me to consider specifically what i hope to learn this year for monday. i have a lot of small scale questions about the points of intersection between programming, budgeting, board governance, donor relations, vision planning, hiring, infrastructural projects, and economic relations with a community. but my biggest question right now—and the one that makes me so thrilled to be joining stratford at this moment in antoni’s mandate—is about the mechanisms of change in our institutional structures. how do we identify and prioritize changes that need to be made? who do you ask to design alternatives? how do you implement it strategically and smoothly—and when, if ever, does it need to be violent and sudden? and how do you do it quickly enough that you can get ahead of the game and start defining the course, rather than just playing catch-up? how do you steer a ship this big and not get scurvy cause you never slept and forgot that vitamin C was part of a balanced diet?

Related Reading:

  • (ED. NOTE: You can read the response from the Theatre Ontario Board of Directors to the lawsuits filed by members of the theatre community against Albert Schultz and Soulpepper Theatre Company on our website.)
The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2018.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

1 comment:

  1. Ted, this is a great reflection. Thanks for sharing. -Alex D (TBTB)