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Mitchell Cushman: Taking Theatre to New Places

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Over the past few months, I have been introducing you to some trailblazing professionals in my ongoing effort to change the perception of the word "millennial." These six adventurers, ground breakers and revolutionaries are changing their industries with their unique views as young professionals. Last month, you met Rudayna Bahubehsi, a woman who is likely going to change the world before she's 30, and today I have the pleasure to introduce...

mitchell cushman

Meet Mitchell Cushman
Immersive Theatre Creator
Founder and Artistic Director of Outside the March
Freelance Director, currently directing his second production at the Stratford Festival

If you've picked up a NOW Magazine or a Stratford Festival guide, you've seen his name. In 2009, Mitchell co-founded Outside the March, a theatre company dedicated to making immersive, site-engaging, new theatre. You may remember his 2012 off-Mirvish production of Terminus, which opened at the Royal Alex Theatre to rave reviews. This summer he is co-directing the ambitious 2016 Stratford production, Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption -- a staging of Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 and Henry V, back-to-back.

Caitie Drewery: As I write this, you are in tech rehearsals at Stratford. What is it like to be part of such an iconic theatre festival?

Mitchell Cushman: It's a really exciting time to be here. Antoni Cimolino is doing a lot of innovative things to expand the audience base -- and he is genuinely supportive of the next generation of Canadian artists.

CD: Your theatre company, Outside the March, is known for its "site specific" productions, meaning that all of your shows are performed in non traditional theatre spaces. Why?

MC: One of the first productions we did with Outside the March was a show called Mr. Marmalade, and it was the first site specific show that I had ever worked on. It helped me discover my voice as an artist and the kind of work I wanted to be doing. It was staged in a real kindergarten classroom and I just found it so much more freeing -- both for myself and the performers. Since then I try to think of the stage, or a set, like a playground, using as much innovation and creativity as possible.

So now at Outside the March we're doing things that only we can do. Shows and performances that aren't going on anywhere else. And when you're in a city in Toronto where there's such a glut of exciting things going on, I think that as a young artist trying to break in, you really have to figure out what it is you can do that other people aren't doing.

CD: Theatre can often be misconstrued as stuffy and rigid. What role can millennials play in transforming theatre?

MC: Theatre is a niche thing -- but I don't believe it should be. I think there is more that theatre could be doing to challenge people's expectations. I think millennials can play a role in redefining it. In our shorter attention span culture where everything is mediated on screens, the value of a truly live, inter-personal experience is huge... if you can just get people through the door and keep their attention.

I'm excited about working with people of all ages but in general I'm excited to work with people who don't have a fixed definition of what they think theatre should be, or how they want to work. I think that too much formula is really death to putting on something creative. Millennials are more flexible -- they don't have any expectations that are going to correspond to a certain kind of mold and I think that's really exciting.

CD: What advice do you have for someone looking to follow in your artistic footsteps?

MC: I think the hardest thing for a young artist or a young company to do in this city is to develop their own brand, or identity. And it MUST be genuine. I remember being in playwriting class in Grade 12, and I had just written this one-act play called Intermission (a sitcom-esque comedy) and now I felt I needed to write something really, really serious. So what I tried to write, was just so melodramatic and plodding and terrible because I was writing what I thought other people expected me to write. And I remember reading it and thinking (and this was the aha moment for me) if I was an audience member, I would hate this. That's what lead me to write this other one-act called All Relative about people who coincidently turn out to be related to one another, it was almost taking the piss out of those more serious situations. And taking it somewhere that I found was genuinely entertaining. You really just have to create work that you first would want to see and trust that there is other people like you out there.

CD: What does the concept of "millennial" mean to you?

MC: I guess millennials are considered to be this new wave of young workforce, but we ourselves are also feeling like dinosaurs compared to people who are coming just after us. I think there's not really anything that's different going on than what's gone on in any sort of other generational wave. People always come in with their own new ideas and when those new ideas can't get plugged into an existing system, it's that the system itself that needs to change.

And I think maybe this generation is not looking to be just a cog in the wheel, but maybe have a little autonomy and ownership. I think millennials get a bad rap for not wanting to grow up. There's this idea that the generations before us are saying "well you're 25 now, get a job, start a family and and stop having your hands in all these different pies." But I think that it's not a refusal to grow up, but it's actually something really interesting and cross-disciplinary about people refusing to define themselves in one very linear, narrow way.

CD: Bonus question: favourite TV show you are binge-watching right now.

MC: To be honest these days I listen to podcasts more -- because I can listen to them while I go about my day. I feel I get behind on TV. I'm still catching up on Game of Thrones, because I had never seen it before and I thought that before directing this Shakespearean history epic, I should catch up on that show.

The Mitchell Cushman Crib Sheet -- My Top Takeaways

For all of you theatre nerds out there, Mitchell is proof that you can make it in the arts -- but only if you are willing to work your butt off, be extremely creative and be open to the ups and downs of the industry. And because he knows how hard it is to work in the industry, he's exceptionally supportive of young people and new theatre. Mark my words, Mitch is on the path to theatre fame... just remember, you heard about him here first.

Here are four quotes that really stuck out to me:

"I think there's not really anything that's different going on than what's gone on in any sort of other generational wave. People always come in with their own new ideas and when those new ideas can't get plugged into an existing system, it's that the system itself that needs to change."

"In our shorter attention span culture where everything is mediated on screens, the value of a truly live, inter-personal experience is huge."

"I think that it's not a refusal to grow up, but it's actually something really interesting and cross-disciplinary about people refusing to define themselves in one very linear, narrow way."

"I think there is more that theatre could be doing to challenge people's expectations."

Next time, meet the incredibly smart, incredibly tough and incredibly fearless Yolande Gooderham, portfolio manager at Coerente Capital Management.

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