By MARSHA LEDERMAN
Saturday, October 13, 2018
Stafford Arima was looking for a sign. The Toronto-bornand-raised director had never aspired to run a theatre company. He was leading a successful life in New York, and had no shortage of work opportunities or creative collaborators. Still, when Theatre Calgary came calling, looking for a new artistic director, Arima applied. When he realized he was a serious candidate, he knew he had to make a decision. So he went looking for some otherworldly guidance.
He had been in New York for 20 years, in the same rent-controlled fourth-floor walk-up apartment he had moved into when he was fresh in the city. He had directed on Broadway - the world premiere of the musical about Japanese internment during the Second World War, Allegiance. In London, he had received an Olivier nomination for Ragtime. Back home in Ontario, he had directed at the Stratford Festival. He had also directed the New York revival of Carrie and the musical Altar Boyz.
So why would he want to give that all up for a job in Calgary, a city hardly considered a world theatre capital - and a place he had never even visited?
Still, he was intrigued. When asked to plan a season as part of the application process, the York University graduate enjoyed it so much, he planned two. He thought about what he could do as an artistic director: The original productions he could program, the impact he could have by bringing new works to the stage.
Arima has a theory about life - that it consists of five acts, based on a Shakespearean structure.
Act 5 is death, Act 4 is retirement.
Act 1 is figuring yourself out and establishing your career. "And then you have two acts, 2 and 3, to continue to reinvent, to continue to explore, to expand," he explained over a breakfast of green tea and avocado toast in Calgary. "And I didn't want to be 59 and go, 'Why didn't I do that?' or 'I should have tried that.' " Calgary seemed like a good Act 2. But it would be a huge life change and he wasn't sure. He was pining for the guidance of his mother, Daisy Arima (born Lim), who died in 2008.
They had been very close. She was responsible for introducing Arima to the theatre, during a 1980 trip to California. Then 11, Stafford wanted to stick with a theme-park agenda, but Daisy insisted they see Evita. Stafford resisted, pouting all the way to their back-row balcony seats at the Shubert Theatre. And then the curtain rose - and everything changed.
"I fell in love with the theatre based on that," Arima said. He has developed traces of a New York accent; you can hear it when he says certain words - "Broadway," for one.
On that same childhood trip, his mother, who loved flowers, also took an unwilling Stafford to the Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles.
So, more than 35 years later, when he found himself on the horns of a dilemma, Arima decided to drive up from San Diego, where he was directing a play, and revisit the same grounds, hoping to find some life direction there. "Just give me a sign, Mum," he thought. "Make the rock move. Have a little skunk come up to me and kiss me. I don't know, just something. Like, Mum, just tell me that you think this is a good idea."
Arima bought his ticket and received detailed directions from the attendant about how to find the lot where he should park.
When Arima arrived at the designated entrance, he saw a large sign there announcing its name: Daisy.
"I just burst out in tears," Arima says. "And I remember I looked up and I said 'Mum, I told you to give me a sign, not actually put a sign in front of me.' " One could easily dismiss the fact that Arima was sent to the Daisy parking lot, rather than Bamboo or Cactus or Eucalyptus or whatever, as simply a weird coincidence. Arima did not.
Although not religious, Arima is very spiritual - several people I spoke to use the word "Zen" to describe him. He wears a crystal around his neck, over his signature flowing black garb ("ObiWan Kenobi robes," he calls them). On the first day of rehearsals, he likes to offer crystals to the creative team. He did the same for the staff at Theatre Calgary when he started there last year.
This September, Arima launched the first season he has programmed at Theatre Calgary.
It features three world premieres, including a one-two creative punch to start the season: Honour Beat, starring, written and directed by Indigenous women, followed by a show Arima is directing, Mary and Max - A New Musical.
"Most of my career was about original work and I think that we have a responsibility as artists to foster, develop, nurture new works and new voices," he says, when I ask about the box-office risks involved in mounting new shows.
Adapted from Adam Elliot's 2009 Claymation film Mary and Max, the musical is the brainchild of U.S. composer Bobby Cronin.
Mary is an eight-year-old Australian girl who has a large brown spot on her face and is bullied.
Max is a New Yorker in his 40s who has Asperger's Syndrome - and no friends. They become pen pals. Cronin watched the film on the suggestion of a friend, who knew he was looking for a project. "By the end, I was on the floor crying, texting my agent," Cronin says. It took him two years to get the rights.
Crystal Skillman, Cronin's creative collaborator, wrote the book. They were having brunch with Arima five years ago in New York, discussing another project, when Cronin switched gears and started talking about Mary and Max. It was the first time Skillman had met Arima and she was immediately impressed.
"He started taking the salt shakers and the sugar packets and he was just illustrating how he saw it on stage," Skillman says.
"And I was like, 'Oh wow, the way Stafford talks is the way I think.' " Skillman was explaining this story on the second day of rehearsals, in a little office across the hall from the rehearsal space at Theatre Calgary. Cronin was leading the cast members, sitting at music stands, in a few numbers. Anthony Galde, who plays Max, stood up to sing Sidewalks, bringing pretty much the whole room to tears. Galde also sang a lovely duet, The Friends Song, with Calgary actor Katie McMillan, who plays young Mary.
(McMillan is 18; she graduated from high school in the spring.) I heard the same lyric sung again and again that morning, at various points: "Nothing is an accident" - a central theme in the show.
Shortly after that, I was speaking with Cronin, who, in explaining the origins of the project, used the full names for the two main characters, taken directly from the film: Max Jerry Horowitz and - can you believe it? - Mary Daisy Dinkle.
Mary and Max - A New Musical is at Theatre Calgary from Oct. 16 to Nov. 11 (opening Oct. 19).
Arima Stafford, a graduate of York University in Toronto whose résumé includes directing the world premiere of Allegiance on Broadway, says he sees life in five acts - like the structure of a Shakespeare play. Determined to make the most of Acts 2 and 3, he came to Alberta last year.
TRUDIE LEE/THEATRE CALGARY