BWW Interviews: The 2012-2013 Acting Up Stage Season with Mitchell Marcus

Acting Up Stage had a wildly successful year last season with sold-out runs of Ride the Cyclone and Caroline or Change. Still a relatively young company (they began in 2005) Acting Up Stage has quickly shown themselves to be a powerful force within Toronto’s musical theatre scene.  In addition to their regular programming the company offers unique one-night only concerts which serve to showcase the incredible musical theatre talent that Toronto has to offer.

Last week they announced their 2012-2013 season which looks to build upon the success they enjoyed last year.  They kick off with a new Canadian musical Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craiglist Cantata which recently wrapped a sold out run at Vancouver’s PuSh Festival.  The original musical by Veda Hille and Bill Richardson sets actual Craigslists postings to music in a 90 minute song cycle. The second show in their season is Falsettos, which will be produced  in association with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.  The production will be the first major Toronto revival of the show in eighteen years. The company will also showcase the music of Carole King and James Taylor in a concert entitled Tapestries, which will play the Jane Mallet Theatre in November.

To celebrate the new season announcement BWW spoke with Mitchell Marcus, the founder and Artistic Producer of Acting Up Stage Company.  Mitchell took some time to discuss his company’s vision for the future, how they program their season, and how he thinks we can encourage young people to enjoy the theatre:

First, congratulations on the announcement of your new season! You had a great run last year with the success of Ride the Cyclone and Caroline or Change, is there a bit of pressure to make sure you live up to the success you had last year?

Thanks for reminding me! Yes, this last season was a banner year. Both Ride The Cyclone and Caroline, or Change received rave reviews and sold out completely. Over 11,000 people saw an Acting Up Stage show in 2011-2012 and so the pressure is on to continue the momentum that has begun. No two seasons are ever going to be the same, and there is certainly no sense in trying to 'replicate' a past success. But I believe that our programs for next year will appeal to those who enjoyed Acting Up Stage this past season while continuing to push our audiences, artists and company in new and interesting directions.

You've got an interesting and brave season - how did you go about choosing the shows?

There are so many factors that go into programming and no two shows ever make it to the finish line via the same journey. In the case of Do You Want What I Have Got?, I was introduced to the show nearly two years ago and have closely kept my eye on it as it raced towards its world premiere. As Canadians, musical theatre isn't a part of our heritage the way that it is in the USA. So I'm always very intrigued by Canadian musicals that aim to find a unique voice and style rather than trying to fit into an American pedagogy of 'what is a musical'. I loved, loved, loved Ride The Cyclone for this very reason. So when another original Canadian musical emerged with its own unique voice, style and sensibility, I knew that we had to find a way to produce it in Toronto. Our company has been known for 8 years for bringing to Toronto boundary pushing musicals that defy our expectations from the genre; in that regard, it is imperative that we also play that role with similar kind of works that are being developed in Canada.

In regards to Falsettos, we've had a very fruitful relationship with William Finn for many years. We produced the professional Canadian premiere of Elegies: A Song Cycle and A New Brain, and we brought Bill to Toronto in 2009 with Canadian Stage where I got to conduct a public interview with him at the Berkeley Street Theatre, while our Elegies cast members sang excerpts from his work. Falsettos might be my favourite musical ever, and I was shocked that it hasn't received a major revival anywhere in the world since its Broadway run in the early 90s. Somehow the timing felt right now. I think we are able to look back at the plays from the early AIDS-era with a new perspective (e.g. The Normal Heart, Angels In America). They are - for the first time - period pieces, and yet, through a contemporary lens, they offer us tremendous opportunity for discussion and discourse and offer canvasses for fantastic art-making due to the urgency and passion in the writing. On a purely personal note, my husband and I are expecting twins this summer and so the history of the non-traditional family is certainly top of mind for me!

Do You Want What I Have Got? recently sold out its run at Vancouver's Push Festival - did you see it out there? What made you think it would be a good fit for Toronto audiences?

I did! I spent 10 hours on a plane to watch a 90 minute show! But it was worth it. The material had always appealed to me, but seeing it live showed me how much underlying poignancy there can be in the piece... it's amazing how all of these isolated classified ads can say so much about our human condition. It had all of the characteristics of what I look for in a show for our audiences -- it was funny but also certainly provoked thought and discussion. It took the 'rules' of what a musical normally is and broke them. And it requires a healthy balance between form and content in order to make an impact on the audience. I got off the plane and phoned Ken Gass and Sara Meurling at Factory Theatre (literally... before I got back to the parking lot) and within a few short weeks, we had plans locked down for a Toronto run.

The next show you will be doing is Falsettos, a difficult musical but one that really showcases the talent of the people who are in it.  Your company has received a lot of praise recently for it's musical productions and talented casting - will this show be cast locally and how big of a challenge do you think it will be to find actors who can sing this material?

Absolutely! We always cast our productions locally and I strongly believe that we are blessed in this country with the best musical theatre talent in the world. Casting is always a challenge, and finding the 'right' person -- not just a 'good' person -- for each role takes a lot of effort and care. We spent over 18 months casting Caroline, or Change to make sure that every single role was perfect. We plan to do the same with Falsettos over the next year, and I am confident that we will find the 'perfect' group to bring this show to life. Perhaps not surprisingly, the more meaningful the material, the more likely it is to attract a stellar group of artists, and inspire everyone to do their best work.

Could you tell us a bit more about the collaboration with Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre and what that means for Acting Up Stage and for theatre in Toronto?

The work that is being done to revitalize Regent Park is astounding, and I think that the Arts & Cultural Centre may be the crowning achievement. I did a walk through of the space recently (which is set to open in September) and it is going to be so exciting. The main floor has two state of the art performance spaces, and the upper floors will play home to some wonderful arts organizations and community groups. The main theatre will be one of the only flexible spaces in Toronto, giving us 6,000 square feet to play with for each of our shows and the opportunity to configure the space as we see fit. The ability to deviate from a standard proscenium set-up is highly liberating, and will allow us to better find the right aesthetic for each production.

Perhaps more importantly, because of the social-relevance of the pieces we do, we have always focused on community dialogue. This core value aligns beautifully with the vision for the Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre which -- by its very design -- will encourage cross-pollination between disciplines, communities, and people.

All in all, I think it's going to be an amazing new space, and we are very proud to be one of the first tenants of the building and look forward to a long-term relationship with them.

Toronto has been taking a lot of criticism lately from people saying that we aren't the world class theatre town we once were and that we don't have what it takes to produce quality sit-down productions here.  Do you think that's a fair assessment? Where do you think that complaint is coming from?

I love Toronto. And without doubt, we are a world class theatre town.

Our artists are outstanding, and we have the talent in this city to handle many, many first-class productions. Whether or not a sit-down production can last has less to do with the artistic quality, and everything to do with the demand for ticket sales. While the quality of the work will of course impact an audience's desire to see it, the quality of the marketing, the accessibility of the subject matter and the influx of tourists sometimes play a much larger role. I think the reality is that our audience figures aren't what they once were. The tastes of the masses have changed, tourists aren't flocking to Toronto the way they once were, and the demands on our leisure time and finances increase daily.

All that is to say that it's a complex matrix that determines whether sit-down productions can thrive in the city. But just looking around at some of the remarkable shows that have graced our city's stages in the last twelve months should leave no question as to whether or not we are a world class theatre town.

Finally, in today's fast-paced society that sees theatres having to compete with other more 'mainstream' media for the attention of our youths, what do you think theatre companies can do to encourage the younger generation to come and see shows?

That is the million dollar question, isn't it?

We are very lucky to have an audience that is quite a bit younger than some of the institutional theatres in the city. But we haven't really done anything to specifically target young audiences. We've simply focused on telling interesting stories, and producing productions that touch the mind and the heart, leaving audiences with a very human experience.

On the marketing front we make sure that our prices are accessible, and we work with key influencers of young people (e.g. teachers, instructors, mentors) to make sure that our productions are on the curriculum. But artistically, we have received rave reviews from younger audiences simply from ensuring high quality, moving productions.

I think there are a lot of incredible initiatives taking place to make going to the theatre more of an 'experience' for younger audiences. At the end of the day though, the play is the thing. Young or old, I believe that our audiences want to be transported, and ideally transformed, from an intimate experience with an important story, performed by a group of gifted artists. That's always been our recipe at Acting Up Stage, and I hope that it's one that appeals universally.

When and Where?

Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata

February 2-March 3, 2013

Factory Studio Theatre

Falsettos

April 23-May 12, 2013

Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre

Tapestries: The music of Carole King and James Taylor

November 17-18, 2012

The Jane Mallet Theatre

For more information on Acting Up Stage Company’s 2012-2013 Season please visit their official website at www.actingupstage.com



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