If there was ever any doubt that comedy, tragedy and song belong together on the same stage, Funny Girl, currently at the Segal Centre, puts the matter to rest. Director Peter Hinton has turned in a magnificent piece of work, bringing a fresh feel to the happy/sad story of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice. Gabi Epstein is breathtaking. Design and performances are impeccable.
One of Canada’s top directors, Peter Hinton spent many years in Montreal working behind the scenes as dramaturg at Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal. He has worked across Canada, at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, and is know to Montreal audiences for acclaimed productions at the Segal Centre and Centaur Theatre.
I caught up with Peter mid-way through rehearsals. Here’s what he had to say.
Did you choose to do Funny Girl, or were you chosen?
Oh I definitely wanted to do this show. Right after Chekhov at the Segal, Lisa (Rubin) asked me what else I had in mind. I think she was expecting Electra, or something like that, but when I said Funny Girl, it was right up their alley. I’ve always wanted to do this musical. Fanny Brice is probably the first big female comic. The play has definite subversive elements, and it’s a brilliant script. I love doing popular theatre, finding the edge. Audience members who only know the movie version are going to find a lot of new material, songs that didn’t make it into the movie.
What do you think of the state of theatre today? Do you feel limited by the kind of people who can afford it?
Well, ticket prices are a problem, definitely, but theatre is very expensive to do. I think theatre-going divides these days. There’s a vigorous indie scene, affordable for a wide slice of the public. But I do also want to talk to audiences that come to this kind of theatre. I don’t want to be cut off from the mainstream.
You were artistic director of the National Arts Centre English-language theatre in Ottawa for seven years. What was that like? Why did you leave?
Look, for the first two or three years, it was exhilarating and scary. Then I hit my stride for a couple of years. The last two were painful. I’m not a career artistic director. At the NAC, you’re working for the government. I got the idea after awhile that Ottawa audiences would be just as happy to see middle-of-the-road shows on tour. It was torture near the end. I’m a born freelancer, I guess.
You’ve also done a lot of work at Stratford and the Shaw Festival since leaving Montreal. Where do you call home?
I have a house in Niagara-on-the-Lake. A boyfriend and dogs, so that’s home. I love working at the Shaw. In fact I’m doing a new piece there next year. My own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland opens the season.
You’ve done great work at Shaw. How did you feel about not getting hired to replace Jackie Maxwell as artistic director?
I have a good relationship with the festival, but they weren’t interested. It seems I’m one of the last nationalists around. Do I think it’s important to have Canadians running important Canadian cultural institutions? Well, yes. You wouldn’t find Americans uncomfortable with the argument that an American should run the Lincoln centre. I guess the Shaw board of directors wanted someone of international stature. They seem to see the festival as a destination. That said, Tim Carroll (a Brit) is a fine director.
You lived in Montreal and worked here for many years. How does it look from the outside? Describe the city in three words.
Ah. World-weary. Worldly. I’d say there’s something unchanging about this city. Tompson highway once said Montreal is a jaded old drag queen whose done and seen it all. He’s not wrong. Montrealers, at least the ones I know, are more integrated into the broader cultural scene. In Toronto, you’ll get a Tarragon scene, a Soulpepper scene. In Ottawa I don’t think people who pay attention to the NAC theatre ever go to the National Gallery. Here you’ll find people going to theatre, galleries, music events.
Apart from Alice, what’s coming up on your work schedule?
I’m going straight into production at The Factory (Toronto). A dark piece about the sex trade, called Bombay Black, by Anosh Irani. Completely the other extreme from Funny Girl. I’m working on a revival of Riel the opera, for the Canadian Opera Company, which will open in 2017. It’s amazing. This work was created in 1967 and hasn’t been done since. Back then the story was seen as part of the French-English debate, but now it appears to be completely about struggle between the First Nations and colonizers. I can’t wait to see how audiences respond.
If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
Ha ha. I’d like to have more rehearsal time for Funny Girl. Three weeks just isn’t enough. Theatre is always under the gun. Then it opens, and they say, “See, you had enough time.” I’d like to be able to live on directing two shows per year, instead of four. It’s exhausting.
But you love it.
Funny Girl has already been extended to November 8 at the Segal Centre. Don’t delay. Good seats will be scarce. More info here.