Innovative director Mitchell Cushman sprinkles his magic on the classic coming-of-age action novel Treasure Island, updating it for the Stratford Festival.
Mitchell Cushman has established a theater career in Canada without any negative comments from one of the country’s go-to stage critics — Robert Cushman, his dad, whose reviews have appeared in the National Post since its start in 1999.
Of course, to avoid any conflict of interest, the father cannot write about his son, but that doesn’t mean there is any absence of attention to the plays Mitchell Cushman has written or directed.
“My father comes to see my work, and we chat about it off the record,” explains the writer-director-educator, who has been recognized by a group of reviewers with a Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Director in 2013 and is considered something of a wunderkind in Toronto’s theater world. “My parents are my biggest fans and incredibly supportive. They’ve never been anything but cheerleaders for what I do.”
This year, as the Stratford Festival launches its new season, Cushman’s parents will get a chance to watch an updated version of Treasure Island as directed by their son, who came up with contemporary twists. It runs through Oct. 22 among 13 other productions. (See sidebar.)
“The play was newly commissioned with an adaptation by Nicolas Billon, one of our leading Canadian playwrights,” says Cushman, 30, who was raised and continues to reside in Toronto. “It looks at Robert Louis Stevenson’s  story from more of a 2017 vantage point,” Cushman says of the swashbuckling adventure novel that has inspired every pirate story since.
“Our story begins with a father reading the story of Treasure Island to his young son and daughter, and it quickly unfolds into how these young children imagine the story will unfold.
“In the novel, almost all the parts are male, but our cast is half female. A lot of the characters, including the doctor and Ben Gunn, are being transformed into very dominant females. The character of Ben Gunn becomes a young girl who lives in the trees, and we’re working with a circus aerial performer who spends the whole show dangling on silk.”
In earlier Stratford seasons, Cushman has directed Breath of Kings, a cycle of Shakespeare history plays, and Possible Worlds, a fantasy about alternate universes. He has been assistant director for The Beaux’ Stratagem and The Merchant of Venice.
“I grew up going to Stratford among other places because of my father’s work,” says the director in his fifth season at Stratford. “From a very early age, I knew I wanted to be involved in theater.”
Cushman started as a playwright before completing a master’s program in directing at the University of Alberta.
“I founded my company, Outside the March, so I could create work I wanted to see and didn’t think there was enough of in Toronto,” he says. “I followed my passion from one thing to the next.”
Outside the March, an immersive and site-specific company, creates innovative audience experiences. The company, started in 2009, is not for profit, receiving funding from government grants, individual donations and sponsorships in addition to ticket sales, and it has developed 10 mainstage productions, a national tour and a feature film.
The core idea is to put viewers, especially young people, in the center of the action, and that goal is brought into Treasure Island.
“Before the show, the kids are invited to come on stage and look through Billy Bones’ spyglass and find pirates,” Cushman explains. “We’ve embedded virtual reality technologies with video content from clips of England.
“The kids also are given treasure maps at the start of the production, and they use them to help the pirates find the treasure. If they’re lucky, they get some treasure to take home with them.”
Cushman, who has traveled to Orchard Lake for seders in the home of relatives, has ties to Jewish cultural expressions through theater. For the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, he directed New Jerusalem, a play about the philosopher Spinoza.
“My theater company is developing an adaptation of a graphic novel, The Golem’s Mighty Swing,” Cushman says. “It’s about anti-Semitism and discrimination in the 1920s.
“The production is about a Jewish baseball team, and we’re adapting it to be done with all kinds of hand puppets. We’re exploring puppets of all sizes, and we’re demonstrating the different kinds of athletic movements baseball players go through in a game.”
Cushman’s creativity has been experienced outside of Canada with distinctive productions.
“A one-woman show I directed, I’m Doing This for You, has traveled all over the world,” he explains. “It recently was in Japan and Finland. It’s about someone throwing a surprise birthday party/standup comedy show for an ex-boyfriend, trying to win him back.”
The writer, in a long-term relationship with a woman met during university years, thinks as an audience member when he works.
“I like experiencing an unexpected path so I’m always trying to think how to bring the unexpected to whatever I do,” he says. “When I directed Possible Worlds, I staged the whole thing in two inches of water.
“My first big project at Outside the March was set in a kindergarten classroom, and performers and audiences inhabited this classroom together; people sat in little chairs and drank from juice boxes.”
To add to the element of the unexpected, Cushman reaches out to actors as productions take shape.
“I work very collaboratively with actors,” says Cushman, on commission for a future Stratford season with an adaptation of The Canterbury Tales. “I’m looking to see what each individual actor can bring to the role.
“People do their best work when they’re able to bring their own humanity and life experiences to what they’re doing, so I see my job as getting to know the people and figuring out how to harness everyone’s special potential.”
Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer
Treasure Island runs through Oct. 22 at the Stratford Festival in Canada. See the sidebar for this year’s other productions. For full information, including travel accommodations, call (800) 567-1600 or visit stratfordfestival.ca.
This year’s Stratford Festival has begun its new group of productions and spotlights a number of Jewish cast and creative team members:
Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s classic love story, stars Sara Farb in the title role through Oct. 21. Farb, who has taken on many parts at Stratford, also will be seen as Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, in The Virgin Trial.
Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial, staged through Sept. 23, depicts young Princess Elizabeth navigating political and sexual intrigue in the Tudor Court while facing threats to her freedom and her life. Laura Condlln plays Ashley and also is in Bakkhai.
Anne Carson has adapted Euripides’ play Bakkhai in dramatizing the actions of a creature coming to earth in human form and establishing a cult of women. EB Smith, who plays the Herdsman, also plays Orsino in Twelfth Night and appears in Tartuffe. This production continues through Sept. 23.
The Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night, performed through Oct. 21, uses disguise as a path to humor with a twin posing as a man for a ruse of confusion.
Tartuffe, Moliere’s tale of a con artist, explores power and hypocrisy with Sarah Kitz as assistant director. Katherine Arcus is the assistant stage manager for the play seen through Oct. 13, and she also is working on The School for Scandal.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal has an uncle in disguise to find out the truth about his relatives and others. It runs through Oct. 21.
With lighting designs by Itai Erdal, The Komagata Maru Incident, by Sharon Pollock, recalls a 1914 episode that has East Indian immigrants denied entry into Canada. It will be presented through Sept. 24.
Erdal lighting also enhances The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy, a mystical presentation following a polar bear through various centuries, starting in 1534 and moving through climate change. It can be seen until Sept. 22.
The Changeling, with Sean Miller as the apprentice stage manager, showcases a woman hiring a hit man to kill her fiancé and getting trapped in deceit and lust. The play, by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, is scheduled through Sept. 23.
In Timon of Athens, by Shakespeare, a generous man copes with disillusion when he needs reciprocal actions. It is staged through Sept. 22.
Romance across the classes sings its way through the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore, running until Oct. 21.
The Madwoman of Chaillot, by Jean Giraudoux and translated by David Edney, pits culture against greed as oil is found under the streets of Paris. It is scheduled through Sept. 24.
Guys and Dolls, the enduring Frank Loesser musical, has gamblers betting on an unlikely romance and will be staged through Oct. 29.