WAM Theatre Artistic Director Kristen van Ginhoven has spent the last few months working at the Stratford Festival of Canada, the largest classical repertory theatre in North America. Ever since its first season in 1953, the Stratford Festival has set benchmarks in the theatre world for the production of the classics through to contemporary plays. Located in the picturesque town of Stratford in Ontario, Canada, the festival’s artists have included the finest actors, directors and designers in Canada, as well as many from abroad. Kristen has been in Stratford since March, assistant directing ‘The Physicists’ by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in a new adaptation by Michael Healey. Directed by Miles Potter, ‘The Physicists’ is playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre, a three sided “runway-style” thrust stage that seats around 500 people. The play opens May 27. Kristen will be back in the Berkshires just in time for the next Fresh Takes play reading ‘Noms de Guerre’ on June 14.
WAM Theatre: You worked at the Stratford Festival in 2012 as assistant director on 42nd Street. What called you back there again?
Kristen van Ginhoven: I grew up in Canada, and began as an actor. As an young actor who loved the classics, the Stratford festival was always my dream job. So, the child in me still sees the Festival as the mecca of theatre work. The first time I worked there, in 2012, I had applied to take part of the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction, a program for mid career directors who are transitioning to working in larger theatres. Part of the program is working as an assistant director on a production and also helping prepare the understudies, plus there’s lots of opportunities for conversations with senior staff and visiting artists, workshops in text, voice and movement and other disciplines plus invitations to special events, access to the archives and more. It’s one of the few paying opportunities to further one’s craft as a director. The program is expertly run by Bonnie Green, Associate Producer, and overseen by Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director and David Latham, Theatre Training Consultant. This is how Stratford is investing in the next generation of directors and I feel extremely grateful to be a ‘Langhamite’. I call it my ‘paid artistic spa’!
This season, I was very lucky as they called and invited me back, which was a thrill.
When I went in 2012, WAM was just starting, and I have used a lot of what I learned at Stratford in the first five years of WAM’s growth. Now I am asking different questions, all to help me move WAM forward into its next five years of growth.
WAM: Was it hard to decide to leave WAM and the Berkshires – not to mention your home and your husband! – for such an extended period of time? (Kristen left for Stratford in March and will return in June.)
Kristen: Yes it was hard. WAM just got an office and some new team members and I knew I’d miss out on events like our first two Fresh Takes readings and the Paint and Sip Fundraiser. But it means more of the team and board members are attending events instead, which is good. As WAM grows, we need more people to represent us and it’s good there’s a strong team in place already making that happen. Continuing to build relationships with sponsors and donors has had to take a bit of a back seat while I’m away, although I have been able to do some Skype meetings, which has been fun! We’ve also been able to maintain our monthly WAM Team meetings, and I’ve had loads of google hangout meetings with different people on the team. The internet has definitely made it easier.
My husband, Nick, has been amazing, going through the WAM mail, making the donation deposits and taking care of our home. We are both ready for me to be home though- even though we have managed a lot of video hangouts and a few visits, four months is a long time to be apart!
The most positive side of this experience is that I am learning to delegate well, which is something I needed to learn as the company grows. It’s empowering for all of us on the WAM Team and gives more ownership to the team members, who have all been incredible while I’ve been away. It has actually laid a good groundwork which we can all continue building upon when I’m back.
WAM: Last time you worked on a big musical – 42nd Street. What are you working on this time?
Kristen: I am working with director Miles Potter on a new adaptation and translation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists. The adaptation is by the Canadian playwright Michael Healey, author of The Drawer Boy, who did the adaptation based on a literal translation done by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, a German/Canadian director/dramaturge, who was also a ‘Langhamite’!
Before I accepted this offer I spoke with Miles, who is one of Canada’s most senior and distinguished theatre artists. His involvement in the collective creation movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s is part of the Canadian theatre history books. I told him I wanted to be a part of the entire process and be a valued member of the creative team. He ensured me that would be the case and he has followed through on his promise. Immediately after we chatted, he forwarded me all his emails with the playwright and designers so I could get caught up! What I really love about Miles is that he is still like a little kid after all his years of working in the theatre. We like theatre geeks together, talking about audiences and process and sharing ideas through theatre. He is respectful of my ideas, incorporating my thoughts and notes into the production. This is a great experience for me at this point in my career.
WAM: Have there been any adventures during the rehearsal process?
Kristen: Geraint Wyn Davies is playing Johann Wilhelm Möbius, one of the three physicists, and Miles’ wife, Seana McKenna, is playing Fraulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, the head psychiatrist at the sanatorium where the three physicists are living. They are two of Canada’s premiere actors and it’s been really interesting watching them, and the rest of the cast, work together. Ger and Seana are also working together in Hamlet, playing Claudius and Gertrude. Lots of our cast is also in Hamlet or Pericles. Most of the actors here are on either a two or three play track- amazing to see them carrying that many plays in their head! One adventure that was unexpected during rehearsals- one of our actors collided with another actor as they were headed to entrances and got a concussion! He was out of rehearsals for a week or so, so his understudy, Wayne Best, stepped in. It was incredible to see Wayne just jump in and do all that was required so we could continue moving forward with rehearsal. Seeing Wayne’s professionalism and hard work during those rehearsals really epitomizes Stratford to me- the actors are so dedicated to the process. Another actor then got a herniated disk………it was getting comical really. Miles remained so Zen through it all and we all just threw up our hands and made the best of it- what can we do? It was nice to see the situation dealt with sans emotion. Our stage manager, Meghan Callan, is a complete star and was totally on top of the situation. The master scheduler at the Festival, Jason Miller, found a way for us to get another day of rehearsal in, which was amazing since getting one more day for us meant the Carousel company lost their understudy rehearsal and another show had to swap their onstage day with us- there was a huge ripple effect with unions and actors cast in other shows and even financially for the festival- but they did it and it made a big difference for us. Thankfully, it all worked out and now the play is in really good shape. Preview audiences are enjoying the show and we are looking forward to opening night on Wednesday (The play opens May 27)!
WAM: This is obviously an amazing opportunity for you and for WAM. Tell us what have you learned this time that you will bring back to the Berkshires?
Kristen: A lot of what I’m doing right now is reflecting on the actor/director relationship. Many of the actors who work here are extremely experienced, and have worked consistently with lots of different people around the world. Their acting muscles are very strong. At Stratford they get to work with many directors with many different styles and techniques. They are surrounded by opportunities to be extremely fit as an actor- they have text, voice and movement coaches at their disposal throughout the long season. Therefore, because their acting brains and bodies are so fit and experienced they ask really astute questions and make really informed choices. It makes me hungry to work with more actors of that caliber, which is both exciting and intimidating, as I do wonder sometimes how I would react to the challenging questions that sometimes come up- a director always has to be totally on their game and have done all the work and be an expert people manager, and even more so at Stratford!
WAM: What about the people you’ve been able to work with behind the scenes on the administrative side of the Festival?
Kristen: That’s another huge part of what I’ll be bringing back to the Berkshires. I am fortunate that the Executive Director of the festival, Anita Gaffney, is my mentor while I’m here. This has been invaluable. I don’t have an arts administrative background and have been learning as I go with WAM. As WAM grows, I felt I needed more boots-on-the ground ED-type training. So when I heard Stratford had a mentoring program, I requested Anita and she said yes! I basically meet with her every few weeks and get to ask her tons of questions and she talks with me about what she’s currently busy with and challenges she is facing and working on within the season. Additionally, I, and the other Langhamites, also get the opportunity to chat with tons of other senior staff, including the producer of the festival, David Auster, and the head of Development, Rachel Smith Spencer (whose job is to raise nearly 25 million dollars a year!), and more. We see first-hand the process that goes into running a $60 million dollar organization. I have lots of new ideas that I keep emailing to the board and the WAM Team!
WAM: Stratford is a repertory company where artists and administrators can make a career. That is very rare in the theatre world – the closest thing we have here in the Berkshires is Shakespeare & Company, which Tina Packer established on an actor/manager scheme.
Kristen: It is certainly not the norm, just a tiny percentage of people working in theatre live this life. Seanna McKenna told me that Carey Perloff, the Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theatre, who has directed at Stratford, calls this the place where actors can buy houses! What’s incredible is that even though it’s a business with an immense budget and unions and all of that, they work really hard to keep the art at the core. It could be dysfunctional, and perhaps behind some closed doors it is, but from what I have witnessed, it is a testament to the health of the Festival that the leadership is strong and the strategic plan is being executed well. It makes me hungry to work in environments like this, and feeds my ambition to create an environment at WAM where artists can do their best work. I am so excited to continue building that and hope that more and more people will see the potential of WAM and support our work.
WAM: The end is in sight. How are you feeling now about your decision to take this time away and have this experience?
Kristen: I was on the fence about taking this job and being away from home and WAM, but we never know how these opportunities inform the future. The colleagues that I’m meeting at Stratford are people who are directing and running theatres across the country and around the world. Having the chance to work at Stratford and be a ‘Langhamite’ means that I’m now part of that network, like being an alumna of a college. Plus I get to say my childhood dream came true- again!