Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

"Shaw: It's a great gig!" says Jackie Maxwell

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of Niagara on the Lake's Shaw Festival which has transformed the once sleepy town into a must-go-to destination, particularly for most of Toronto.

Inside her compact office, just past the Green Room, where the actors hang out and snack in the Donald & Elaine Triggs Production Centre, Jackie Maxwell, Shaw Festival Artistic Director for the past eight years, smiles broadly and says, "You know, sometimes there's one too many meetings about roads and passports, but really it's a great gig!"

     I ask about her role here as 'dramaturge.' "Sounds weighty," I suggest. "How do you apply it here in Niagara on the Lake?"

     "In North America, a dramaturge is someone who works with a playwright, like an editor with a novelist," she explains. "You help the playwright create a new play, assisting with ideas for structure, editing and such, and you are first to respond to each draft. At the Factory Theatre in Toronto, I did this a lot as all the plays were new. Sometimes, I've directed the play. I've instituted new play development at Shaw, so I worked with Anne-Marie MacDonald, whom I've known for years, on Belle Moral, and it was a delight. I get a real kick on opening night because we offer a world that has never existed before; people see it for the first time; the actors play the roles for the first time. And Anne-Marie is a wonderful writer and character. Also, I have arranged for adaptations and translations which are tricky because you want to maintain the spirit and develop a nice contemporary feel for the piece.

     "Being an Artistic Director combines so many skills, but if someone asks what I do, the first thing I say is that I'm a director (her eyes sparkle) because that's what I am in my heart, and I certainly would not be interested in this job if I didn't get to direct as well. It puts me out there on the ledge. We need to do that to create art."

     Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1956, Jackie studied drama at Manchester University and acted in Ireland and England where she met Canadian Ben Campbell. They fell in love, Jackie moving here in 1978. Married for 28 years with two daughters, Darragh (now 21) and Lucy (now 18), the marriage dissolved. "These things happen. We were very good friends and we were determined to remain good friends."

     I ask about leadership style. "As the Artistic Director, I cover so many bases. I choose all the plays, creative teams, casts, set up play development, make public appearances, beat the drums- it's a lot, and I enjoy it very much, but directing is a totally different part of my brain, more associated with my heart, and I derive great joy from it.

     "As far as style goes, I'm not laissez-faire; I'm very 'in there,' but it's a collaborative process. My job is to create an environment for everyone to bring forth ideas. I'm not a dictator. My job as director is to have strong ideas about the piece and how it can be done, but also remain very open. It's joyful to act with this company and they surprise me endlessly!"

     How does she relax? "I'm a voracious reader; I read a lot for my job. I actually like to read plays, but I read fiction to relax. Just finished A.S. Byatt's latest novel, The Children's Book, based upon Shaw's period with the Fabians up to WW1. I'm a big A. S. Byatt fan. Stieg Larsson has been recommended, but I don't often read mystery. Also just finished Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage and will read February by Newfoundland's Lisa Moore. Mary Walsh was here recently and I dragged her to the local bookstore because she's a fiction freak as well."

     Besides reading, she loves cooking. "I don't eat meat, so living here in the Peninsula at this time of year - I'm in heaven. I can cook wonderfully fresh food and I know the people at all of the stands and markets."

     Also, she admits to being a city girl and never into gardening before but here in Niagara "Everything goes zoom," she explains, waving her hand in the air to simulate wild growth "so I have my garden and love it."

     " Darragh is at Concordia studying creative writing, and Lucy just graduated from high school and is soon off to Tanzania to volunteer at an orphanage. We brought our kids up to be independent and they are! I'm proud to hang with them whenever I can."

     I read her response to a question by Toronto critic, Richard Ouzounian: "I really do believe if you are in theatre, you're always using your own life. You're always examining your own heart; you're always looking at everything you believe in and bringing it to work every day. That's the only way to live."

     So, I ask, "What do you believe in that shows up here at Shaw?"

     "I'm very curious. The role of good theatre is to challenge and clarify at the same time. That's why I'm drawn to Shaw and his spirit. I'm Irish and politics is part of our blood. I don't think of people sitting back in their chairs. I see them sitting forward, engaged. I'm engaged. I'm optimistic. I'm sceptical not cynical. I bring forward a kind of energy so I'm part of the conversation.

     "Long range, I'm just about to sign another contract here at Shaw. And then I'll see. I will stay for a certain amount of time, not too long, and I will know because I will feel it."

     What has she put in place here at Shaw that she will be most proud of when that time comes? "I've introduced new voices, Canadian writers, female voices. I've tried to establish a connection between Shaw and modern writers as people know less and less about Shaw; I've tried to shown his spirit of provocation and vigour and wit to be valued and continually looked at. Theatre is a live forum, a group of people watching another group that you cannot reproduce anywhere else. Yes, we must embrace new technology, but in the end, it's always a good story well told."

Mike Keenan      


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