Keep­ing cow­boy cul­ture alive, one poem at a time

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - THE­ATRE

Most of my ca­reer was about orig­i­nal work and I think that we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity as artists to fos­ter, de­velop, nur­ture new works and new voices. STAFFORD ARIMA ARTIS­TIC DIREC­TOR, THE­ATRE CAL­GARY

A bold vi­sion – and maybe some­thing more – brought the Toronto-born direc­tor from New York to The­atre Cal­gary (with a quick Cal­i­for­nia de­tour), Mar­sha Le­d­er­man writes

Stafford Arima was look­ing for a sign. The Toronto-bor­nand-raised direc­tor had never as­pired to run a the­atre com­pany. He was lead­ing a suc­cess­ful life in New York, and had no short­age of work op­por­tu­ni­ties or cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tors. Still, when The­atre Cal­gary came call­ing, look­ing for a new artis­tic direc­tor, Arima ap­plied. When he re­al­ized he was a se­ri­ous can­di­date, he knew he had to make a de­ci­sion. So he went look­ing for some other­worldly guid­ance.

He had been in New York for 20 years, in the same rent-con­trolled fourth-floor walk-up apart­ment he had moved into when he was fresh in the city. He had di­rected on Broad­way – the world pre­miere of the mu­si­cal about Ja­pa­nese in­tern­ment dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, Al­le­giance. In Lon­don, he had re­ceived an Olivier nom­i­na­tion for Rag­time. Back home in On­tario, he had di­rected at the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val. He had also di­rected the New York re­vival of Car­rie and the mu­si­cal Al­tar Boyz.

So why would he want to give that all up for a job in Cal­gary, a city hardly con­sid­ered a world the­atre cap­i­tal – and a place he had never even vis­ited?

Still, he was in­trigued. When asked to plan a sea­son as part of the ap­pli­ca­tion process, the York Uni­ver­sity grad­u­ate en­joyed it so much, he planned two. He thought about what he could do as an artis­tic direc­tor: The orig­i­nal pro­duc­tions he could pro­gram, the im­pact he could have by bring­ing new works to the stage.

Arima has a the­ory about life – that it con­sists of five acts, based on a Shake­spearean struc­ture. Act 5 is death, Act 4 is re­tire­ment. Act 1 is fig­ur­ing your­self out and estab­lish­ing your ca­reer. “And then you have two acts, 2 and 3, to con­tinue to rein­vent, to con­tinue to ex­plore, to ex­pand,” he ex­plained over a break­fast of green tea and avo­cado toast in Cal­gary. “And I didn’t want to be 59 and go, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ or ‘I should have tried that.’ ”

Cal­gary seemed like a good Act 2. But it would be a huge life change and he wasn’t sure. He was pin­ing for the guid­ance of his mother, Daisy Arima (born Lim), who died in 2008.

They had been very close. She was re­spon­si­ble for in­tro­duc­ing Arima to the the­atre, dur­ing a 1980 trip to Cal­i­for­nia. Then 11, Stafford wanted to stick with a theme-park agenda, but Daisy in­sisted they see Evita. Stafford re­sisted, pout­ing all the way to their back-row bal­cony seats at the Shu­bert The­atre. And then the cur­tain rose – and ev­ery­thing changed.

“I fell in love with the the­atre based on that,” Arima said. He has de­vel­oped traces of a New York ac­cent; you can hear it when he says cer­tain words – “Broad­way,” for one.

On that same child­hood trip, his mother, who loved flow­ers, also took an un­will­ing Stafford to the Botan­i­cal Gar­dens at the Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary in Los An­ge­les.

So, more than 35 years later, when he found him­self on the horns of a dilemma, Arima de­cided to drive up from San Diego, where he was di­rect­ing a play, and re­visit the same grounds, hop­ing to find some life di­rec­tion there. “Just give me a sign, Mum,” he thought. “Make the rock move. Have a lit­tle skunk come up to me and kiss me. I don’t know, just some­thing. Like, Mum, just tell me that you think this is a good idea.”

Arima bought his ticket and re­ceived de­tailed di­rec­tions from the at­ten­dant about how to find the lot where he should park. When Arima ar­rived at the des­ig­nated en­trance, he saw a large sign there an­nounc­ing its name: Daisy.

“I just burst out in tears,” Arima says. “And I re­mem­ber I looked up and I said ‘Mum, I told you to give me a sign, not ac­tu­ally put a sign in front of me.’ ”

One could eas­ily dis­miss the fact that Arima was sent to the Daisy park­ing lot, rather than Bam­boo or Cac­tus or Eu­ca­lyp­tus or what­ever, as sim­ply a weird co­in­ci­dence. Arima did not.

Although not re­li­gious, Arima is very spir­i­tual – sev­eral peo­ple I spoke to use the word “Zen” to de­scribe him. He wears a crys­tal around his neck, over his sig­na­ture flow­ing black garb (“ObiWan Kenobi robes,” he calls them). On the first day of re­hearsals, he likes to of­fer crys­tals to the cre­ative team. He did the same for the staff at The­atre Cal­gary when he started there last year.

This Septem­ber, Arima launched the first sea­son he has pro­grammed at The­atre Cal­gary. It fea­tures three world pre­mieres, in­clud­ing a one-two cre­ative punch to start the sea­son: Hon­our Beat, star­ring, writ­ten and di­rected by Indige­nous women, fol­lowed by a show Arima is di­rect­ing, Mary and Max – A New Mu­si­cal.

“Most of my ca­reer was about orig­i­nal work and I think that we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity as artists to fos­ter, de­velop, nur­ture new works and new voices,” he says, when I ask about the box-of­fice risks in­volved in mount­ing new shows.

Adapted from Adam El­liot’s 2009 Clay­ma­tion film Mary and Max, the mu­si­cal is the brain­child of U.S. com­poser Bobby Cronin. Mary is an eight-year-old Aus­tralian girl who has a large brown spot on her face and is bul­lied. Max is a New Yorker in his 40s who has Asperger’s Syn­drome – and no friends. They be­come pen pals. Cronin watched the film on the sug­ges­tion of a friend, who knew he was look­ing for a project. “By the end, I was on the floor cry­ing, tex­ting my agent,” Cronin says. It took him two years to get the rights.

Crys­tal Skill­man, Cronin’s cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tor, wrote the book. They were hav­ing brunch with Arima five years ago in New York, dis­cussing an­other project, when Cronin switched gears and started talk­ing about Mary and Max. It was the first time Skill­man had met Arima and she was im­me­di­ately im­pressed.

“He started tak­ing the salt shak­ers and the sugar pack­ets and he was just il­lus­trat­ing how he saw it on stage,” Skill­man says. “And I was like, ‘Oh wow, the way Stafford talks is the way I think.’ ”

Skill­man was ex­plain­ing this story on the sec­ond day of re­hearsals, in a lit­tle of­fice across the hall from the rehearsal space at The­atre Cal­gary. Cronin was lead­ing the cast mem­bers, sit­ting at mu­sic stands, in a few num­bers. An­thony Galde, who plays Max, stood up to sing Side­walks, bring­ing pretty much the whole room to tears. Galde also sang a lovely duet, The Friends Song, with Cal­gary ac­tor Katie McMillan, who plays young Mary. (McMillan is 18; she grad­u­ated from high school in the spring.) I heard the same lyric sung again and again that morn­ing, at var­i­ous points: “Noth­ing is an ac­ci­dent” – a cen­tral theme in the show.

Shortly af­ter that, I was speak­ing with Cronin, who, in ex­plain­ing the ori­gins of the project, used the full names for the two main char­ac­ters, taken di­rectly from the film: Max Jerry Horowitz and – can you be­lieve it? – Mary Daisy Din­kle.

Mary and Max – A New Mu­si­cal is at The­atre Cal­gary from Oct. 16 to Nov. 11 (open­ing Oct. 19).


Arima Stafford, a grad­u­ate of York Uni­ver­sity in Toronto whose ré­sumé in­cludes di­rect­ing the world pre­miere of Al­le­giance on Broad­way, says he sees life in five acts – like the struc­ture of a Shake­speare play. De­ter­mined to make the most of Acts 2 and 3, he came to Al­berta last year.

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