Jeremy Hutton nudges Hart House Theatre in a new direction
On this Saturday morning in late September, the “Ladies Parlour Room” at St. Luke’s United Church in Toronto’s east end feels less like a space for genteel, tea-sipping women than the set of a Judd Apatow movie. Four young male actors are rehearsing a scene in which they’re supposed to be drunk. They giggle, bellow and cavort about the large, broadloomed room. The penis jokes fly, the homoerotic horseplay is non-stop. A choir is practising next door and occasionally someone pops their head in to see what the profane commotion is all about.
If the choir members had stuck around long enough, they would have realized that what they’d caught a glimpse of was a scene from Romeo and Juliet. One of the play’s more ribald scenes, perhaps – and its director, Hart House Theatre artistic director Jeremy Hutton, is cheerfully amping up the bawdiness. It’s the 20th time he’s been involved in a production of the Shakespeare classic. This time around he’s set the play in a contemporary Italian slum, striving for an authentic and relevant rendition. Hutton has frequently told his actors that Romeo and Juliet is a play of adolescent rebellion, and he’s urged them to think with their bodies, not their heads. And he’s also been grappling with some of the outdated sexual mores of the original text. At the moment, he’s going with “the raunchier the better.” Dressed in torn jeans, a black hoodie and white loafers, he constantly gets up from a large crushed-velvet armchair to interrupt the actors. A masturbatory gesture is permitted, even encouraged, while Hutton deems a formal bow too anachronistic. He returns to his directing chair. “Many people have the mistaken belief that Shakespeare’s clean,” Hutton says, smiling and stroking his stubbly chin. “OK, let’s take it from after the humping.”
Hutton, who is 33, became the theatre’s artistic director in 2010. This wasn’t Hutton’s first job at Hart House; he’d been performing with and directing at the theatre, off and on, for almost a decade previously. The first show he directed there, Othello, in 2004, was only the third he’d directed anywhere.
Theatre was not his first love, however. In Kitchener-Waterloo, where Hutton grew up, he was a gifted trumpet player, and he enrolled in U of T’s classical music training and performance program in 1998. In high school, he had also taken up acting (Shakespeare’s been a constant – his first small role was in Macbeth), and he continued to do so while still studying music. At university, it became apparent to him that theatre offered something music could not. “The classical music career is limited,” he says. “It’s very hard to get a symphony job and even if you get a symphony job, you’re still freelancing. If I had to play Pachelbel’s Canon at somebody’s wedding one more time, I would have shot myself in the face.”
Hutton found theatre a more liberating art form, as well, and more encouraging of new and experimental work. And it didn’t necessarily mean leaving music behind. At Trinity College, he directed his first play – a contemporary version of The Merchant of Venice – and realized that his musical training and skills, even his time spent in a marching band, allowed him to do much more than just direct actors. Through sound, music and design, he could conjure an entire world. “I spend a lot of time with the actors,” he says, “but my brain really likes to work on how the sound and the lights and the set work together to tell a story.”
Hutton subsequently joined small companies geared toward young performers and theatregoers, the Classical Theatre Project and Canopy Theatre Company – the latter run by Hart House Theatre’s general manager Doug Floyd – before becoming artistic director at the fledgling Toronto Youth Theatre in the city’s west end. There, he began to direct musicals – “I’m one of the directors in town who can actually pick up a musical score and read it,” he says with characteristic self-possession – eventually doing almost 20 productions, including Into the Woods and Little Shop of Horrors, over a span of five years. Paolo Santalucia, who’s playing Romeo in the Hart House production, was just 15 when Hutton first directed him in Jesus Christ Superstar at the youth theatre. “He’s always approached his work very energetically,” Santalucia says. “At the end of the day he’s trying to make something fun and watchable.”
During his time at the Toronto Youth Theatre, Hutton became a certified fight director – “There’s a lot of fighting in Shakespeare,” he says, “and I figured out pretty early that I would be a lot safer if I knew what the hell I was doing in the fight department.” In the summer of 2004, and again in 2005, he decamped for Halifax. There, at Shakespeare by the Sea, he worked as an “everything man” (he wrote lyrics, acted, did fight direction) and in 2011 starred in a remount of the company’s “collective creation,” The Adventures of Robin Hood. The Chronicle Herald included it in their top-11 plays of the year, and one fawning blogger compared the blond, rangy Hutton to the actor Bradley Cooper. (Stephen Dorff might be more accurate.)
When Hutton was hired in 2010, Hart House Theatre hadn’t had an artistic director for 30 years. Reviving the position was part of an attempt, according to Floyd, to move the theatre “forward artistically while providing a more coherent and unified artistic voice.” Hutton, who acknowledges that the theatre’s offerings then could range from the fantastic to the “not-so-great,” applied for, and got, the job. Richard Ouzounian, the Toronto Star’s chief theatre critic, met Hutton when he was just an “advising director” at Hart House and echoes Floyd’s sentiment. “Jeremy’s trying to bring a consistency to the level of quality,” Ouzounian says. “And what I like, too, is he varies the shows. He directs Shakespeare, of course, and is terrific at it. But he also does shows you might not otherwise see in Toronto.”
Hart House Theatre opened its doors in 1919. From the start it was an integral part of Hart House, diplomat and philanthropist Vincent Massey’s grand vision of a student centre. At the time, there was no drama program at U of T, and precious little professional, made-in-Canada theatre. But from nearly the beginning, the 500-seat venue (now 450), built under Hart House’s quadrangle, was considered one of the premier amateur theatres in the country. Many of Canada’s most eminent actors, directors and theatre professionals began their careers on its boards, including Donald Sutherland and Norman Jewison (see p. 35). Robert Gill, who’s credited with launching the country’s postwar theatre scene, served as Hart House Theatre’s director from 1946 to 1965. For 20 years after that, it was the home of the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama.
Despite such renown, Hart House, like countless other small theatres, has endured its share of financial setbacks. Following the Graduate Centre’s departure, the theatre barely subsisted on student revues, rentals and touring stage productions. And it long depended on the university to subsidize its operations (that subsidy ended a couple of years ago). In 2000, when it looked like the theatre could go permanently dark, Hart House took over its management and launched an endowment campaign to raise $7 million. In 2001, original programming was revived and over the next several years the theatre successfully returned to its roots as one that produced its own work. In 2008–09, box office sales increased over the previous season by about 50 per cent. The majority of the theatre’s revenue now comes from box office, occasional rentals and alumni gifts. The theatre underwent a large-scale renovation in 2008, under the guidance of managing director Paul Templin, adding a theatre history display, new box office and permanent bar. Attendance for the entire 2011–12 season was 33,000; that season’s highlight was Cabaret, which was sold out for almost its entire run, a record for the theatre since 2001 – a testament to Hutton’s guidance.
Even though the theatre is situated squarely within the U of T campus, at least half of its audience comes from outside the university, drawn by Hart House’s singular position in Toronto’s theatrical ecosystem. Rarely reviewed by non-student media, and far from the turmoil that constantly afflicts the city’s theatre community – this year alone has seen internecine fighting at the Factory Theatre, the demise of Dancap and the proposed razing of the Princess of Wales Theatre – Hart House Theatre enjoys an isolation that arguably allows for greater risk-taking. Even more importantly, its actors and artistic teams (save Hutton and Floyd) are volunteers or are paid honorariums, permitting it to mount productions of a size that many professional theatres simply can’t accommodate. Ouzounian directed a production of Jerry Springer: The Opera at Hart House in 2009, an experience he says he’d love to repeat. “No one else could afford to do it,” he says, due to the 30-plus-member cast and large orchestra, “except maybe the Canadian Opera Company and they’re not going to do it.”
Hutton’s hiring in 2010 signalled a new artistic maturity for the theatre – or at least a new era of stability. Under Templin, Hart House had created a compelling admixture of work, typically producing four plays per season, and always including Shakespeare, a musical, a modern classic and something offbeat such as David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, which blends fact with fiction. Hutton was brought in to maintain that successful formula while still gently testing the theatre’s – and its audiences’ – limits. For the 2012-13 season, he added a fifth production, the provocative, and not exactly crowd-pleasing, one-woman show My Name is Rachel Corrie. Hutton felt so strongly about the work – based on the life of a 23-year-old American student killed at a protest in Gaza – that he squeezed in a five-day run in mid-October. “You’ve got to be careful not to alienate your audience. You don’t walk into this job and say, ‘OK, we’re no longer doing a musical, we’re just going to do these South American plays this year.’ But you do want to nudge your audience, see if you can get them interested in new things, a different type of theatre or thought process.”
As befitting his comprehensive CV, Hutton has a hand, sometimes many, in every production. He programs the entire season, of course, and selects all the directors and artistic staff. On most shows, he does the fight direction and sound design (that’s his mellifluous voice telling you to turn your phone off). Every season, he directs at least one play himself. He sits in on all auditions and then personally responds to every single actor who makes the effort, whether or not they got the part. (Anyone can audition for a Hart House production, not just U of T students or alumni.)
He also revived the Hart House Players, a student-run-and-directed theatre group, in which he guides aspirants in theatre management and production. While Hart House is not affiliated with any of the university’s drama departments, Hutton makes a considerable effort to provide opportunities for the entire student body – especially those outside the drama programs. “There are a lot of student groups who rent out the theatre,” he says, “and we make it a policy to help them out with the basics of production. You just never know where the next person with theatre magic is going to come from.”
Running an amateur theatre can present its own peculiar challenges. A week into the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals, Hutton, ironically, still hasn’t been able to get the two principals in the same room. This Saturday, Juliet has to work, and Romeo’s not around. Mercutio, for his part, has just lost his job at Medieval Times because the dinner theatre wouldn’t give him the necessary time off for the rehearsals. Darwin Lyons, the 24-year-old actor who’s playing Juliet, says that one of Hutton’s greatest assets as a director is his openness and flexibility. “If I was at a major league theatre, with my age and experience, I wouldn’t be able to play Juliet,” she says, and it’s exactly her youth that Hutton’s using to give the character more authenticity.
Running an amateur theatre can also be akin to coaching a minor league baseball team – every now and then, someone will get called to the big show. The young actor Tyrone Savage, to cite just one recent example, who was in the chorus of Jerry Springer, moved into the lead during its revival production, and then, this past season at Stratford, received acclaim as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing and the Duke of Gloucester in Henry V. Hutton, who likes to describe Hart House Theatre as “a place for emerging and developing artists,” loves nothing more than to see his talent move on to bigger and better things.
He’ll likely do the same in a year or two. His contract ends in April 2013. When I ask him what he’d ideally like to do next, he ticks off a series of goals unsurprising for someone already so accomplished. He wants to write a couple more musicals (a Robin Hood based on the Shakespeare by the Sea version, with music by Hutton, will be staged at Hart House in January); get one of those musicals produced in Stratford or New York; direct at larger, professional theatres and become more involved in the Toronto indie scene; maybe even do a bit more acting again. “How’s that for ambition?” he says.
Jason McBride is a Toronto writer, editor and cultural journalist, and a frequent contributor to, among other publications, Toronto Life, Maclean’s, The Grid and Canadian Business. He is also the non-fiction editor at Coach House Books.