Director Sue Miner inspires actors to play, in all senses of the word. In her work and in person, Miner suggests the sensibility of a child -- wide-eyed, eager, excited about projects -- so that each theatrical adventure becomes a trip into exciting territory.
It's a balmy summer day in Withrow Park. Children play on jungle gyms, dogs pull their humans along as they investigate a swirl of smells. A cool summer breeze stirs the leaves on the trees.
Hard to believe that in a few hours, in the same space, Romans and Goths will clash, hands will be cut off, rapes committed, revenge and counter-revenge plotted.
It's Shakespeare's early, bloody tragedy Titus Andronicus, performed by Shakespeare in the Rough in the park. Known for its outdoor productions of lesser-known works by the Bard, the company's drawing on Miner's considerable talents for the first time.
First Shakespeare Incredibly, with dozens of shows to her credit, Miner -- an acting grad of the National Theatre School -- has never guided a production of Shakespeare.
So why start with Titus, the play du jour recently seen on movie screens in Julie Taymor's time- travelling production and currently on the Stratford bill in a Richard Rose production?
"The first thing that struck me about the show is that it's not gory, bloody and dark, but instead is very funny," is Miner's first unusual thought. She sits under a tree, wearing a straw hat and carrying a multicoloured bag she calls her Rusty the Rooster bag.
She does admit that by the end of the play, everyone except an infant has blood on his or her hands, which brings up the gore factor that Miner wants to underplay. This is, after all, a play that features a tongue cut out, the aforementioned hand amputations and multiple stabbings, all occurring onstage.
"Sorry," says Miner with a queasy little smile, "but I'm a wuss about violence. Tarantino films are too much for me. I go to the bathroom till the bloody parts are over.
"This Titus has no blood -- not even any weapons -- which surprised Daniel Levinson, our fight director. But I feel that if someone brings a knife onstage, the audience is watching the weapon and losing the passion of the characters. They think, 'Cool knife fight,' and forget about why the action is happening."
But the comedy is there, a fact confirmed when an eight-year-old neighbourhood girl sat down next Miner at a rehearsal and remarked how funny the action was.
"These characters are at the extreme of their passions, and it's both a vulnerable and funny place to be. At the same time, it's the kind of situation everyone can understand.
"I hope audience members find themselves in league with one character or another, only to discover that they themselves are culpable when their favoured characters do things that are less than nice."
The park setting underlines Miner's take on the material, with children such a constant during rehearsals and performances that they've begun to inform the material.
"It's struck me that when kids play in this setting, in a non-organized way, much of what they do is play war. This production has lots of kid energy, with the kind of tenacity and vengefulness that youngsters have when they say, 'This is mine, I'm not going to give it to you, you can't have it.'"
While cutting with weapons won't be apparent, there has been a lot of text pruning behind the scenes, which Miner has done with the help of her dramaturge -- and husband, frequent theatrical collaborator and co-head of their company Pea Green Productions -- Mark Brownell, whom she met at theatre school.
Tight writing "Shakespeare, even early Shakespeare, is so tightly written that cutting individual lines is hard," notes Miner, sitting up on her haunches on the grass and taking a pull from her water bottle. "I may be delicate, but Mark's pushed me to take out huge chunks of text. Sometimes, in fact, we've found that a scene is really about a single line.
"I tell the actors that an audience can smell the end of a play coming, and when they do it's our job to give it to them soon," she says, making a machete-like gesture with her hand.
And what about the future?
"I've gotten to the point in the past year that I want to work on projects where I'll learn something. I did my first musical -- Sondheim's Sunday In The Park With George -- and this is my first Shakespeare.
"As a kid, I was an annoying child actor, dragging people into the backyard to watch me perform. But my time at National Theatre School -- the rigid idea that one way of working is good and another bad -- knocked all the fun out of me. I've rediscovered that the seat-of-your-pants stuff is much more fun."
TITUS ANDRONICUS, by William Shakespeare, directed by Sue Miner, with Richard Alan Campbell, Dinah Watts, Malcolm Xerxes, Marjorie Chan, Marvin Kaye, Michael Valliant-Saunders, Jason Jazrawy, Cheryl McNamara, Sherry Roher, Valerie Sing Turner, Jovanni Sy and Sanjay Talwar. Presented by Shakespeare in the Rough at Withrow Park (south of Danforth, between Logan and Carlaw). Previews begin Friday (July 21), opens Sunday (July 23) and runs to September 4, Friday-Sunday and holiday Mondays at 2 pm, silent-voice performances August 11-13. Pwyc. 410-9677.