Director making good on a wider stage

White Rock’s Ashlie Corcoran has been appointed artistic director for Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre

Call it a full circle of sorts.

When last interviewed for Peace Arch News – by this reporter – some 20 years ago, Ashlie Corcoran was a Semiahmoo Secondary grad packing furiously to head to Newfoundland as a youth delegate to an international conference on preserving the oceans.

From there, the academic high-achiever (she earned a 4.0 grade-point average in high school) was to travel straight on to Hearstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, England to study for a year under a scholarship established by Ontario’s Queens University, owners of the castle.

Now, the White Rock native – she was born in Peace Arch Hospital – is packing again, this time for a move that will take her and Mabel, her faithful English Springer Spaniel, back from Ontario to Metro Vancouver.

It will bring her closer to her parents, who now live in Qualicum Beach, her older brother, Sean, who lives in Ladner and other family members.

But the main reason for her latest move is a plum assignment in the arts realm.

Now well-established as a highly versatile and dynamic Canadian theatre and opera director – her revival of the British musical warhorse Me and My Girl opened this year’s Shaw Festival – Corcoran will take over as artistic director of the Arts Club Theatre Company when Bill Millerd retires early in 2018.

Artistic director of Ontario’s Thousand Islands Playhouse since 2012 – when reached by phone last week, the Dora Award-winner was in the midst of rehearsals for their latest production – she will help plan the Arts Club’s next season when she arrives in B.C. in October.

Her assignment will also allow her to continue practising her craft by directing three shows a year, she said.

Corcoran acknowledges that her current career may surprise some Peninsula residents who remember her from high school.

“Back then I was really involved in the music program,” she said, noting she has known current Semiahmoo band teacher Dagan Lowe since they were both in Grade 1 at Ray Shepherd Elementary, and still has fond memories of band teacher Kevin Lee – still very much in evidence at the school – from when she played trumpet in the award-winning jazz bands and sang in the jazz choir.

There were a few hints of coming events in PAN’s 1997 article, however.

It pointed out that, while she excelled in most subjects, including sciences, she had “a strong leaning toward the arts” and was looking forward to courses in literature and arts history at Hearstmonceaux, including weekly field trips to London’s museums and galleries.

The last paragraph – prophetically – noted a “surprising career goal…to be a professional stage manager for Shakespeare and musical theatre productions.”

Corcoran admits that all those field trips from Hearstmonceaux – including seeing plays and musical shows in London’s West End – only reinforced her yen to be involved in the theatre and the creative possibilities of the medium.

An email preserved by her parents, which she no longer recalls writing, said that while she was enjoying stage-managing a student production of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, what she really wanted was to direct – “but I’m only 18.”

“I think I knew all along I wanted to direct – being away for that year had a really strong impact on me,” she recalled. “Looking back, I can really see the steps.”

There was no question it was her path by the time she returned to Canada for further studies at Queens, where she graduated in 2001 with an honours degree in drama, followed by another sojourn in England for studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she received her MA in directing in 2004.

Back in Canada in 2005, she co-founded Theatre Smash in Toronto and began a successful freelancing career as a director of theatre and opera (credits include Salt-Water Moon, Waiting For The Parade, Blithe Spirit and Into The Woods, with opera credits including productions of The Magic Flute and The Electric Messiah with the Canadian Opera Company, and Die Fledermaus with the Cowtown Opera Company).

While she’s been asked if she’s interested in film, Corcoran said “my love affair is with theatre first.”

“It’s the live energy between performers and an audience and the feeling that anything can go wrong at any moment,” she added, acknowledging that while the magic of theatre is inevitably doomed to evaporate after the show ends, “for me, the legacy is not about leaving a monument, but the process and the relationships and having an effect on the audience.”

“It’s so collaborative – although I’m technically the director, at the top of the hierarchy, I’m really at the centre of a wheel, working with imaginative, talented people who are passionate about what they do. I love working with people like that.”

In an early press release on her appointment as Arts Club artistic director she said she is excited to build on “Bill Millerd’s phenomenal legacy and collaborate with executive director Peter Cathie White and the Arts Club’s fantastic staff and board.”

She was also quoted as saying her vision for the company is to “be internationally renowned, driving the development of local theatrical talent and voices, while deeply engaging with its community, audience and stakeholders.”

Corcoran said her own theatrical tastes are “very catholic” – and the kind of work she chooses to direct ranges from highly experimental, such as Theatre Smash’s recent Kiss, a fourth-wall fracturing examination of theatre’s often flawed approach, to real-life political issues such as the ongoing Syrian crisis, to very traditional farce (she’s currently rehearsing Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies with Thousand Islands).

“For a lot of people, farce is just funny froth, but to do it really well is very complicated.”

People can expect her to choose plays from the whole spectrum, she said.

“I look at it as conscious eclecticism – from accessible shows that get people into the theatre to the kinds of opportunities the Goldcorp Stage (the 250-seat studio theatre at the BMO Theatre Centre) provides to develop plays that dig deeper,” she said.

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