NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont.— Tim Carroll is not here to make you comfortable.
This became clear about five minutes into my interview with the Shaw Festival's Manchester-born, Oxford-educated and Tony-nominated artistic director, when he described live theater as a way to "conduct an experiment with people's souls."
But it really hit home about an hour later, when, at Carroll's insistence, I was staggering on three limbs across the cold floor of a Shaw Festival rehearsal room encircled by the cast, crew and designers of the Shaw's production of "Androcles and the Lion."
This was the first rehearsal of Carroll's unhinged take on "Androcles," which will feature an unusual of level of audience participation, improvisation and other non-traditional tactics few associate with the genteel lakeside festival now entering its 56th season.
For example: Why don’t we rope the unsuspecting theater critic into playing the lion?
"The beauty, as well as the horror, of the kind of work I'm talking about," Carroll told the cast before kicking off a rehearsal filled with improvisational games and on-the-spot requests, "is that it only rewards honesty."
The horror bit, I get. I did my best in the part, struggling to oblige Carroll's requests for more authentic facial expressions and reassuring myself that someday long from now this might make a good story. When Shaw's stage directions told me to "rapturously waltz" into the jungle with a crew member playing Androcles, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. (My review of myself: Not even remotely leonine. Zero stars.)
Based on the first run-through of "Androcles," it seems clear that Carroll, an accomplished Shakespearean who served as associate director of London's Globe Theatre for seven years before making a name for himself in North America, is no slave to orthodoxy.
This is despite his outsized reputation for mounting "original practices" productions of Shakespeare, which have tried to transpose the natural habitat of the Elizabethan outdoor theater into 21st century spaces.
Carroll rode that approach to success on Broadway in 2013, when his Tony-nominated Globe productions of "Richard III" and "Twelfth Night" starring Oscar-winner Mark Rylance earned beyond-ecstatic raves in The New York Times and The New Yorker. But he also ran into trouble with the approach that same year at the Stratford Festival, where his "original practices" production of "Romeo and Juliet" was savaged by critics.
But he is also known for creating much edgier productions at his own Factory theater in London, whose experimental approach to classic material seems more likely to influence his work in Niagara-on-the-Lake than the small handful of Elizabethan-inspired productions he has mounted.
In succeeding the Shaw's longtime artistic director Jackie Maxwell at the Shaw Festival, Carroll is stepping away from the comfort of his Shakespearean wheelhouse to take on a new challenge.
That involves a four-century gear-shift from Shakespeare to Shaw, whose plays he has never directed until this year: He will helm both Shaws on the 2017 season: "Androcles," opening June 24 in the Court House Theater, and "Saint Joan," opening May 25 in the Festival Theatre.
It involves building one of the world's best-established repertory companies by expanding its audience, reaching into other markets and making its work more accessible to the community.
And it involves a personal goal: to grow and refine the Shaw ensemble into an unequaled squad of actors capable of tackling any challenge he could possibly devise for them. Up to and including handing over key roles to audience members.
"One of the reasons I went for this job was because I really wanted to develop as a trainer for actors," said Carroll, a self-described "obsessive sportsman" who often resorts to athletic metaphors. "I wanted to develop as someone who can build an ensemble and put together a squad of people who have the right work ethic, and the right level of courage to play as boldly and responsibly as I'd like."
This season, for the first time, that ensemble will include the Stratford Festival regular Sara Topham, who will play the title role in Shaw's "Saint Joan," about the life and death of Joan of Arc.
"I knew from the second I applied for this job that I would do Saint Joan with Sara Topham," he said. "It has an incredible mixture of lyricism and passionate, poetic writing, and brilliant philosophical, political writing. It seemed to have the elements in maybe the best balance he ever found in his plays."
In contrast to the playful "Androcles," Carroll's "Saint Joan" exists in its own meticulously conceived, minimalist universe inspired by the work of English scenic designer Edward Gordon Craig and Czech lighting designer Josef Svoboda.
The production's minimalistic design, he said, "creates a completely abstract landscape of the soul, rather than a realistic one, and the kind of landscape in which you can conduct an experiment with people's souls."
Carroll, more than many of his contemporaries, views the audience as an active participant in his productions. That's true not only in "Androcles," which will feature a different audience member playing the lion in every performance and cast members taking prompts form the crowd like an improv comedy troupe, but in any play he directs.
It's a style forged in the outdoor venue of the Globe in London, where the natural light and sense of joviality involves the audience in the production in a way their indoor counterparts could not. That means that Carroll often had to instruct his actors not to let the audience steal the play from them, turning it into something it was never intended to be.
But it also means he has keen sense of where the boundary between drama and comedy lies, and how to manipulate it. Hence a production of "Androcles" that seems free-flowing but is in fact quite choreographed, and a meticulous production of "St. Joan" that Carroll says can be read as an improvisation.
"I want to get more playfulness and flow into the things that are fixed and I want to get more accuracy and sharpness and precision into the things that flow," he said. "And I always try to have a mixture."
Beyond his own shows, that tension and closeness between outrageous comedy and heartbreaking tragedy can be found in the Shaw productions of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play "An Octoroon," as well as Will Eno's "Middletown" and even Bram Stoker's "Dracula" on the Festival stage.
"There are many plays in which the laughter is pushed right up against pain or tragedy or awkwardness or uncomfortable considerations," he said. "I find that kind of extreme shift of gear is one of the great joys of theater and that theater can do that in a way that is more exciting than film."
When he succeeds at doing this, he causes critics like Hilton Als of The New Yorker to muse over "how good acting can be when it’s handled by a director like Carroll, who possesses authority and vision as well as an inspired spatial sense."
"Actors flower under that kind of leadership," Als wrote in his review of Carroll's productions of "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III." "It allows them to reach deep into their craft, while also acknowledging the poetic reality that each performance — a rope trick powered by dexterity and stamina — is both immensely joyous and immensely sad."
Carroll, whose acting career ended at Oxford when his friends told him he was terrible on the stage but not half-bad in front of it, has built his career on the mystical coexistence of joy and sadness in Shakespeare's best work.
It helps that this same quality exists in Shaw, which in some ways makes his new role at the Shaw Festival more of a logical side-step than a quantum leap.
And in many ways, Shaw has been with him for the whole ride: When he was 15 or 16, Carroll read "Pygmalion" for the first time and found himself "thrilled by the perverseness of it" and impressed by the fact that Eliza and Higgins didn't become romantically connected at the end.
"I remember finding that really bracing," he said, "that someone was going, 'No, it's not my job just to give you what you thought you were going to get. Wake up.' "
Carroll, it seems clear, is not about to give audiences what they thought they were going to get.
"You just want to laugh at those things?" Carroll said, posing a hypothetical question to an audience that dares to find itself merely amused at one of his productions. "Well, maybe we'll push it away from just letting you laugh. Maybe we'll push a bit harder into the dark."
The Shaw Festival's main 2017 season, which features 11 productions, opens in previews on April 5 and runs through Oct. 15. Tickets are $35 to $117. Call 1-800-511-7429 or visit shawfest.com.