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Shaw Fest’s Jackie Maxwell looks back on 14-year tenure

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – It’s a balmy Thursday night at the Shaw Festival. The curtain is about to rise on Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” the first production of the season. And Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell is in her element.

As she shakes hands and makes casual conversation with theatergoers before heading into the Royal George Theatre for the last season opener of her 14-year career, nothing about Maxwell’s casual demeanor hints at the frenzied pace of her final season at the storied repertory company.

In addition to helping the festival transition to its new artistic director, the British director Tim Carroll, Maxwell is directing a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” set to open the following night; rehearsing Sondheim’s bloody musical “Sweeney Todd”; and “helicopter-parenting” one of the riskiest projects in the festival’s history, Peter Hinton’s adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” on the Festival Theatre stage.

“I’m just up to my eyeballs, happily,” Maxwell said in a slightly harried phone interview two weeks before Thursday night’s season-opening performance. “Which is kind of what I’d hoped.”

After a 14-year tenure as the festival’s guiding force and public face, it’s clear that Maxwell thrives on being up to her eyeballs in work.

When she arrived in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2002, the company’s focus remained largely on plays by George Bernard Shaw. But almost immediately, she began building on the decision of her predecessor Christopher Newton to expand the festival’s narrow mandate to include plays set during the period in addition to pieces by the festival’s namesake and his contemporaries.

Her first “shot across the yardarm,” as the Belfast native put it, was a 2003 production of Québécois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s play “The Coronation Voyage” on the festival’s main stage. It was the first time a living playwright’s work had been presented at the festival since its founding more than 40 years earlier, and it ruffled a few festival feathers. But it was also a signal that Maxwell intended to break with tradition, to push audiences into new and sometimes frightening territory and to challenge the festival’s leadership to accept ever-bolder and riskier moves in the interest of making it relevant for a new audience and solvent in a new century.

Maxwell will hand over a very different company than the one she encountered in 2002. Today, thanks in part to her influence, the Shaw Festival’s mandate includes big-budget musicals, newly commissioned works – such as Hinton’s “Alice in Wonderland” – contemporary plays that advance Shaw’s provocative ideals and, maybe most important, the studied and strategic integration of female, Canadian and nonwhite voices into the festival’s programming and casting.

The festival also features an additional performance space for more cutting-edge contemporary work, the Studio Theatre. And its reputation has improved among younger theatergoers thirsty for new ideas and new modes of performance.

Despite the disparate directions, Maxwell has pushed the festival’s programming – toward popular musicals like “Ragtime” and “My Fair Lady” on one end of the spectrum and highly challenging plays on politics, gender, race and sexuality on the other – Shaw and his ideas remain at its heart.

“I think we have to keep doing Shaw plays. I think that our job, in fact, is to do Shaw plays in a way that revivifies and re-oxygenates and shows them anew, which hope we do,” Maxwell said. “Being the Shaw Festival means that you have a great spirit that is guiding you, and it is the spirit of what he did that any theatrilization I’ve done adheres to. I think Shaw would have loved Caryl Churchill or Tony Kushner, and on and on. As long as we are maintaining the spirit of provocation and inquiry, I feel that we can still maintain that title proudly.”

Over the years, Maxwell said, she came to trust her audience’s sense of adventure more and more – pushing the envelope at first by inches, and then increasingly as she learned to take some of her Shavian impulses in more adventurous directions.

“I think I underestimated how far at first I could push the audience,” Maxwell said. “If you spend a lot of time going to see Shaw and Ibsen and Chekhov, Coward, any of those pieces, you are a playgoer that is prepared to engage in a series of really thrown out ideas. And in that sense, I realized that there was an audience that was prepared to go, ‘OK, if the argument’s good, we’ll go for it.’ ”

Asked about the biggest challenges of her tenure, Maxwell mentioned the economic and political crises of her first year, during which the SARS outbreak put a serious damper on ticket sales and America’s decision to declare war on Iraq. “It was sort of everything but locusts, it seemed to me,” she said.

After that, Maxwell’s biggest headaches came from trying to find the right mix of programming for the Festival Theater stage, which she said sometimes kept her up at night given that venue’s centrality to the economic health of the organization.

“If you have a year where two out of three of those shows do really well or even one really well and one pretty well, you’re flying,” she said. “If you don’t, you are screwed.”

More years than not, Maxwell and the Shaw Festival staff have found a mix that helped to grow the festival’s reach. But there have been some tough times, such as last season, when the festival suffered a sharp decline in attendance and a $1.75 million deficit.

Even so, it’s hard to deny during a stroll down Queen Street in mid-May that the institution Maxwell leaves is a more vibrant and essential part of the region’s cultural landscape than the one she found. As she heads into the world of freelance directing – she’ll be taking on Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine” at Arena Stage in Washington next February and taking other projects as they come – Maxwell said the emotional impact of leaving the festival hasn’t quite hit her yet. That said, she added, she’ll have a hard time leaving the Shaw ensemble and its creative spirit behind.

“One of the things I really will miss is the creative part of artistic directing, that you can have an idea, and then you can do it,” Maxwell said. “In a job like this, you have to dream.”