Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Young Director’s Journey

By Tim Chapman, Professional Theatre Coordinator

A couple of years ago, I did a piece profiling a young actor’s journey with Jenny Young.   Now I want to profile Ashlie Corcoran, a young director, and her journey up to now.

I believe the directing career in professional theatre to be the most difficult in the field—a field in which all careers are at best filled with uncertainty and financial hardship.  Eleven or twelve years ago Paul Thompson asked me how many professional Canadian freelance theatre directors I knew over the age of 60.  He could only name himself and Paul Bettis (who died in 2005.)  I think he made his point, even if the number is inaccurate.  Most freelance theatre directors eventually move on to artistic direction/producing, academia, or film/radio/television.  When I related this to Ashlie, she replied, “Well, there is nothing wrong with any of those possibilities.”

Let’s go back to the beginning of her directing journey.  Ashlie’s first year at Queen’s University was spent at their International Study Centre, a castle in East Sussex, United Kingdom.  It was there at the age of 18 that she first realized that directors and producers were able to shape and create work in a way that interested her.  That realization had an impact early in her life as she has never pursued acting, by far the most common pursuit of young theatre artists.  Ashlie went on to graduate with an Honours BA in Drama in 2001.  She had started to direct shows both at Queen’s and with Beyond Chutleigh Productions in Kingston, a company for which she was co-Artistic Director and a founding member.

Upon graduating, Ashlie had identified Tarragon Theatre as the company where she wanted to work.  At Queen’s, she had created a white paper on the theatre and “became enamoured with the theatre’s mandate, culture, and body of work.”  She got a job for the 2001/02 season as an administrative assistant to Mallory Gilbert, Tarragon’s General Manager, and to me, the publicist at the time.  The following season, she worked as one of Tarragon’s apprentice stage managers on two shows: Side Man and Kingfisher Days.  “The administration at Tarragon was very supportive of me.  They knew that I was interested in direction, and that there would be a lot to learn by being in their rehearsal halls.”  In the summer of 2003, Ashlie received a Professional Theatre Training Program grant from Theatre Ontario to be Daryl Cloran’s assistant director at the Shaw Festival.

In the fall of 2003, Ashlie received a Chevening Scholarship to attend University of London’s Goldsmiths College for her MA in directing.  It was a very positive experience and it really confirmed her intention to be a theatre director.  After graduating with distinction (always the over-achiever), Ashlie received an invitation from Richard Rose at Tarragon to be assistant director for No Great Mischief, the stage adaptation of the best-selling Canadian novel.  It was perfect timing for Ashlie and it was a great experience for her to work again with Richard and with a great company of artists.

In February of 2005, Ashlie and Sarah Baumann founded Theatre Smash to produce new Canadian plays and Canadian premieres of contemporary international work.  Ashlie and Sarah had been colleagues and collaborators since meeting at Queen’s in 1999.  Since 2005, Ashlie has directed three productions for Theatre Smash: the North American premiere of Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite, Layne Coleman’s Tijuana Cure, and the premiere of a new Canadian play, A Boy Called Newfoundland.  She also produced Norway.Today.  This fall, she directs the Toronto premiere of German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One.  For her Theatre Smash shows, she is attracting actors of the stature of Martha Burns and Hardee T. Lineham to her casts.  Partnering with another theatre artist to self-produce is an increasingly necessary—and not uncommon—step for any upcoming director.  Experiencing the challenges of producing (grant applications, fundraising, boards of directors) are useful learning curves for any new director who aspires to be an artistic director of a theatre company with a more significant annual budget.  (Speaking of boards of directors, Ashlie astutely got Mallory Gilbert to serve on Theatre Smash’s board.)

In the summer of 2005, Ashlie was chosen to participate in the prestigious Lincoln Center Theater Directors’ Lab for three weeks in New York City.  The next year she was chosen by the Canadian Opera Company to be an Ensemble Studio Intern Director for the 2006/07 season.  (I might add that, prior to her selection to be a COC Intern Director, Ashlie’s only experience with opera was as an audience member.)  At the COC she has gone on to direct The Bear and Cinderella, to assistant direct Tosca, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Idomeneo and Die Zauberflöte, and apprentice directed the Ring Cycle, Faust, and La Traviata.  She has also worked as an assistant director twice for Opera North in the UK and at the Städtische Bühnen Münster, Germany.  I advise young artists that to survive a career in professional theatre in the long term, you have to wear more than one hat.  Often it is by choice, sometimes it is by necessity, sometimes a combination of both.  Ashlie loves working in both theatre and opera, and by doing so she has doubled her employment options.

There are some patterns one can see emerging in Ashlie’s career.  One is that any career in theatre revolves around the artists and theatre professionals with whom you get to work.  The other is that there are no flies on Ashlie—she continually seeks and secures opportunities for professional development.  These two patterns are mutually complementary.  The opportunities she has successfully seized have led to finding artistic mentors who have supported her directing career and given her further opportunities.  Those mentors include Richard Rose and Mallory Gilbert, theatre directors Layne Coleman and Daryl Cloran, and from opera, the late Richard Bradshaw, Tim Albery, Atom Egoyan, and Andreas Baesler.

In the fall of 2007, through the Goethe Institute, Ashlie got to be a guest artist at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin.  In 2009, she fulfilled another of her long-term ambitions when she was chosen to be an intern director for the highly competitive Neil Munro Intern Director’s Project at the Shaw Festival.  She directed Sean O’Casey’s Bedtime Story and assistant directed Jackie Maxwell and Micheline Chevrier that season.  Ashlie participated in Canadian Stage’s BASH! program, Nightwood Theatre’s Penelopiad Lab, and the CAEA Masterclass in Directing at Magnetic North in 2010.  Ashlie is currently finishing another season at Tarragon as the recipient of the 2010/11 Urjo Kareda Emerging Artist Residency.  She has also directed shows at the Festival of New Ideas at Canadian Stage, at Resurgence Theatre, the Toronto Fringe Festival and the Next Stage Festival.  Upcoming (in addition to the previously mentioned Theatre Smash production), she is directing 3rd Floor in the 2011 SummerWorks Festival and Isis and the Seven Scorpions for the COC.

Ashlie’s busy career thus far has taken her from country to country, from new plays to classics to opera, and from large theatres to small theatres.  And Ashlie is only 32.  The life of the freelance director is not an easy one, but Ashlie is finding fulfillment creatively each year.  The opportunities continue to satisfy her, so she is still ready to take life on a year-by-year basis.  I have heard more than one senior Canadian artist say that if you want to be a director, you just have to do it, you have to find ways to keep directing, keep working.  Ashlie continues to do that and I think she has the talent, inner drive and sheer love of all elements associated with directing and producing to keep reaching her goals.

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