Jim Millan has had quite the diverse career in the theatre and beyond, and his work has taken him to some places that I would love to see one day.
I knew he had founded Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre and directed some productions there, but I had no idea of how extensive his work has been. He has directed comedy, dramas, magic and musicals on 5 continents in 38 countries in 17 languages and premiered over 185 new works in his career.
Jim has a long series of innovative creations in theatre, comedy, magic and variety that has taken him from Canada to the West End to Radio City Music Hall, Las Vegas, Broadway and beyond. His unique talent is in demand as director, writer, producer, deviser of diverse and unique new entertainments built on his decades of experience in the traditional and less traditional theatre.
In the 90’s Crow’s Theatre had produced the Best Play winner at Toronto’s Dora awards 4 out of 6 years. During this period Jim made his reputation directing such daring plays as Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Come Good Rain, High Life, The Chet Baker Project, Dali and others. Praise for Crow’s Theatre and Jim Millan included USA Today calling it “everything theatre should be, dangerous, daring and disturbing.” He directed the Canadian premieres of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shopping and F*cking and numerous other revolutionary new works from New York and London. Crow’s Theatre in Toronto has continued to thrive under new stewardship and is now a multi-million-dollar hub of cutting-edge theatre. He also was one of the founders of the Toronto Fringe and Crow’s was its corporate parent in the first year.
Outside of his company, Jim began a decades-long collaboration directing the Kids in the Hall comedy group, which started in 2000. This work brought him to the attention of US producers. Five North American tours and special headlining performances have kept the 1990s comedy icons in the public eye, and they are now writing a new AMAZON TV series.
Among his more explosive creations, Jim teamed with Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman to create Mythbusters Live, which sold out across North America and toured Australia and New Zealand multiple times.
Among his favourite experiences, he worked alongside Teller and Todd Robbins on Play Dead off Broadway, Mexico City and at the Geffen in LA.
Another large-scale adventure was as the original Creative Director for The Illusionists, which opened in New York City in December 2014 and set an all-time record for a magic show on Broadway.
As a comedy writer/director he created with his comedy partners SPANK: the 50 Shades parody which played over 400 cities and it has been produced in Australia and Poland. Jim’s love of comedy and unique entertainments were displayed in Off Broadway hits, The Marijuana-Logues with Doug Benson, Arj Barker, Tony Camin and Tommy Chong, and the Korean martial arts comedy Jump.
Jim is also in demand as a creative consultant, having stepped in on SPIDERMAN: Turn off the Dark on Broadway working with Bono, Edge, writer Glen Berger and the creative team to help save the biggest musical in Broadway history. It ran for 3 years after its revamp.
He is also a creative producer of the Governor General’s Awards Gala in Ottawa (which are Canada’s Kennedy Centre Honours). Past entertainers he has celebrated at the awards include Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, Sandra Oh, Andrew Alexander, Catherine O’Hara and Ryan Reynolds
In development for the next twelve months, he has a play he co-wrote and will direct based on the book The Darkest Dark, by Astronaut Chris Hadfield, that premieres at Young People’s Theatre when possible. He is also collaborating with Lucy Darling on a new TV comedy and also with Penn and Teller for a touring project inspired by their TV show Fool Us.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom.
Thank you so much for adding your voice to this important discussion about the evolving world of live theatre in a post pandemic world, Jim:
It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.
I see the fragility of the world we’ve all lived in up to this point differently. Lots of us tended to tie our self-worth to our work, our status, that things are either progressing or regressing in our work lives. That work was disproportionately important in what many of us thought success or happiness or contentment was.
I’ve got a teen daughter and a pre-teen son as well. What became very clear was that the pandemic gave me a pause to see where I really was in my life and where my kids were in their lives.
My work has been international for quite a while, so there have been times where I’ve been away three or four months during the year. And so I am grateful for this time and this has felt grounding to be here at home and to help the family and other people who need it.
With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered?
Well, when we come back, the gatekeepers will have changed. A lot of the organizations will have had to do a lot of soul searching. And so, we will have the traditional crisis of live theatre, which is how do you balance all of the challenges of attracting an audience, building an audience, making an audience care and balance it with the influx of new priorities and realignment of so many of our assumptions. To me, that’s an exciting time.
There’s going to be a lot of people who don’t come back. There will be a lot of people who will step away, both audience and artists. I think there will be a huge attrition in the audience attendance. I was an Artistic Director in Toronto after SARS. At that point, before SARS happened, you could have 6 or 8 hit plays going on in Toronto that would be sold out. There’d be a review in the newspaper and the next day the first half of the run would be sold out because people would just get on the phone and know that if they wanted to catch that production, they would have to be quick or there might be limited availability ‘til such and such a day. Well, that went away. We’d lost the habit. I hope it’s the opposite and there is instead a pent up thirst.
That’s a little bit of weather forecasting and the one thing the pandemic has taught us: we don’t know anything. An image that I have nostalgia for is that lots of theatres around the planet have things are set on stage exactly the way they were on March 13, 2020. Costumes on hangers in the wings, things in dressing rooms, props on tables, sets; we didn’t come back as quickly as we hoped.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
I miss the people.
I realized a number of years ago that one of the skills or changes I’ve observed in myself is that I’m a better collaborator than I’ve ever been. And because being in this business for a while is humbling, and it’s energizing and defeating and you certainly learn, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to work with great people, that the experience, the journey of making something is equal to whatever the output is, if not more important to you as a person.
And so, I miss that adventure terribly. Also, I think when all of the things converge correctly that honest exploration, that adventure process you go through with the other people ends up, no matter how exhausting it is, giving you a lot more than you put in because of the sum of the energy of the group.
I just miss people. I miss the fun of it. I miss the laughter. I miss rehearsal halls. I miss having a problem that’s insurmountable, and then gifted people working together, take it apart, parcel it out, solve it, surprise each other and then you go on.
A big challenging production is like the film version of ‘Lord of the Rings’. A huge number of small incidents, victories and defeats and somehow just getting to the end without too many people dying along the way is your duty. And pretty exciting.
Crisis reveals character. Some say it builds character and yes, over time that can be true. And what has been interesting to me is that the people who have been able to flourish have found a way to take their creative energy and be of service. That has been a salvation for me. Being of service to my family, to my children, other artists that I know and just community people that have been hit far harder than I have by this storm has been key.
As artists, as this clarifying, challenging time is upon us, when we come back, those of us who are able to come back, will have a greater sense of purpose and perhaps will have refined our values because of what we’ve all been through.
When we get back into a room again, we’ll be looking at all kinds of people who have been traumatized in all kinds of ways. There will be a lot of laughter, a lot of healing. I hope there will be renewed sense of purpose and renewed joy in making things. We’ve been through a storm that has affected all of us differently, and I hope there will be a kindness and generosity of practice. We’ll work on it together.
As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?
Being busy. (Jim laughs again)
I’ve been really, really busy for around 20, 30 years. I always knew I was blessed to be that busy and have opportunities and be able to complain about having to travel so much. I also miss working in different situations and cultures with artists whose careers and taste and experiences are vastly different. I love being surrounded by people smarter and wiser than I am. Also, the challenge of making something original with fun people.
Describe one element you hope has changed in the live theatre profession.
Oh, I think it was a tremendously hierarchical organized creative endeavour. That’s not even taking into account the more commercial world I’ve often worked in, in the States and other places.
I hope the assumptions of privilege are shattered – whether that’s white privilege, male privilege, class privilege and the pomposity of some of the folks who having been doing it longer. I’ve long observed that change was coming. This last year, I think, “the theatre” has been shaken to its foundations, which is a good thing.
I don’t think I’m the only person who is curious as to what happens next. As the business of theatre, as the cultural force of theatre re-opens and touring begins (I’ve directed a lot of things that have toured significantly) it will be interesting to see what the audiences choose. Will they go on the new journey being offered by new artistic leadership like the late 60’s and 70s because the work connects with both existing audiences and emerging audiences?
I’m ready to lend a hand. We’ll see.
Crow’s Theatre was born in the second wave of founding of Canadian theatres centered on Canadian voices in the 80s. We were looked at skeptically. Brash new voices.
So I hope this re-emergence will be a new wave of Canadian theatre. I’m ready to help and certainly know a lot of people who are in that world and there will be a time and place. I’d like to spend more time in Canada now. I’m not planning to do as much of traveling as I used to do. Let's hope that there’s an opportunity for all of us to find ways to support this next wave.
We won’t know what the needs are. The challenges are post-pandemic and that’s why I think it will take a multi-layered effort from not just the artistic community but also the audience, the funders, particularly the philanthropists, the corporations. If we don’t rise to the moment, we’ll see theatre fall back significantly. I think in the short term it will take a lot to get people back, and then it will take very nimble minds and strong backs to carry us through this next period and do the next, ultimate thing – attract young people – to come to see it.
If we’re not getting young people to come to see what we do, then it’ll be the progress of 50 years of significant Canadian theatre production lost. I witnessed Canadian work being culturally important, and not just being a side bar knowing that plays, playwrights and our artists can make a difference.
For that important progress not to be diminished, we need to have a lot of hands on deck.
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.
I need to keep lifting up younger artists. I need to keep surprising people and myself. I need to lead by example because the best artists I encountered when I was young were ones able to teach me without it always being necessary to explain themselves. The people that were inspiring were able to talk the talk and walk the walk.
You need to be inspired because art needs to be brave. Artists who last and also keep challenging themselves need to keep having fun, idiotically persevering and be generous of spirit. If we keep playing the game the right way, the next generation will play the right way. It’s not as if the game doesn’t evolve and we don’t evolve, but there’s just something to be said for those who have done it for a while, and to be open hearted to sharing how we do it, humble in the face of it, as it’s been a privilege to be able to do it this long and still have a chance to do it.
My next Toronto-based project is a new play I’ve adapted from one of Chris Hadfield’s books ‘The Darkest Dark’ for Young People’s Theatre. It was supposed to have been on stage and running at this moment if all of our plans had come together. It’s scheduled for when it’s safe for all of us to gather. It’s nice to be doing a show about bravery and courage. It’s certainly got an inspiring message. Magic and wonder are what artists need to accomplish now and always.
Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre?
I don’t believe there will be a wave of pandemic plays.
(Jim then laughs and says) I don’t think anybody is going to be doing a lot of those.
I think when the Fringe, which I helped found, happens in person again 15 months from now or whenever that will be, I think the person who gets into the Toronto Fringe by lottery and announces “My Pandemic Days” will have exactly zero people in line to go see it. That’ll be a hard “no” from all of us who lived it. (And Jim laughed again).
I’m very curious to see what some of the writers who have been able to flourish have been up to. I hope those others who have been maintaining their energy and just hanging on will get busy again.
I think it’ll be indirect, and I think there will be a lot of plays about revolution. I think there will be a lot of comedy, which I look forward to. We all are looking forward to some comedies.
As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?
I think the work was daring. I think my work has a great sense of humour. At least to me, and luckily, some other people think so, too.
A boldness. Creating an honest and challenging question with the form and a playfulness with the audience so the show isn’t just like everything else.
That I did my very best to surprise them.