When a young Stafford Arima travelled with his mother from Toronto to California on spring break in the late ‘80s, he had his heart set on Disneyland and Sea World. What he got instead was a visit to the Shubert Theatre to see a matinée of Evita—“the Hamilton of the ‘80s,” as he now fondly recalls. He had never seen anything like it before.
“I just became completely hooked by this experience of being in a darkened room, having the lights come up and seeing music and lyric become a kind of narrative vehicle for the story,” he says. “It took my breath away.”
That experience laid the foundations of what would later become Arima’s guiding artistic philosophy. “I always say that theatre is meant to reveal, to heal,” he explains. “The experience of going to see theatre has a kind of awakening energy to it.”
Arima has found much acclaim in New York and abroad directing stories that lend themselves to that illuminating principle. He became the first Asian-Canadian to direct a musical on Broadway when Allegiance premiered in 2015. His direction of Ragtime in 2003 earned him eight Olivier Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Musical. He debuted Altar Boyz off-Broadway, successfully revived infamous Broadway flop Carrie and holds numerous comparable credits to his name after a 20-year stage career. It may sound strange to some that for his encore, Arima chose to move back up north and become the next artistic director of Theatre Calgary (page 38), but he says it was an obvious next step.
“I’ve always been attracted to the underdog, to the individual or the group that needs to be heard. That entrepreneurial spirit is in the DNA of Calgarians—that spirit of proving to oneself and to the world that we are here.”
As Theatre Calgary celebrates its 50th anniversary this season, Arima says he is fortunate to take part in reflecting on all that the company has accomplished in the last half century, suggesting it will prepare him to look at the next 50 years both with anticipation and reverence.
“Theatre Calgary has had an amazing Act One, and one that this city and its artists can be proud of. Now, what do we have in store for Act Two? I’m very fortunate to have the chance to discover that.”
What has surprised you the most about Calgary?
Calgary feels very defined and proud of itself. The Canadian way is usually to be apologetic, but I think there’s a kind of exuberant, unabashed pride here in who we are, as Canadians and as Calgarians.
Your favourite place to dine out in Calgary?
I’ve had, surprisingly, some really great sushi here. Zipang (page 55) and Roku (page 55) are both quite good and worth checking out.
Where do you hang out in your down time?
Inglewood. It’s very individual, and has a variety of shopping that is quite eclectic. Recordland (page 45) is a favourite. I’ve also been hanging out at the Crossroads Farmers’ Market (page 41) and the Calgary Farmers’ Market (page 41).
What excites you the most about Calgary’s theatre scene?
Calgary theatre is located not just in one area. It’s not like Broadway or off-Broadway. You can see something amazing in the downtown core, and then you can drive 20 minutes and see an exciting new piece right across from an Arby’s.