"For me, every project in the theatre is an excuse to enter a new universe," the director, producer and writer Des McAnuff says. "In just the last few months I've gone from the high Renaissance in Italy with Romeo and Juliet to 45 B.C. in Alexandria with George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra to Damon Runyon's New York as seen through Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows with Guys and Dolls to 11th-century Scotland with Macbeth. And the most exciting thing in exploring all these universes is applying them to our own lives and times."
McAnuff has been inhabiting those universes of the imagination for nearly 40 years now. He has won two Tony Awards, as Best Director for Big River in 1985 and The Who's Tommy in 1993, and garnered directing nominations for Jersey Boys in 2006 and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1995, as well as a writing nomination for Best Book of a Musical for The Who's Tommy.
He was artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in California from 1983 to 1994 and 2001 to 2007, establishing La Jolla as one of the best regional stages in the country and winning the Tony for Best Regional Theatre in 1993. He is currently artistic director of the legendary Stratford Shakespeare Festival in his native Ontario, Canada.
As a member of the renowned Dodger Theatricals producing team, he has also co-produced many Broadway shows, among them Titanic, Urinetown and revivals of The King and I, 42nd Street and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And that Guys and Dolls he mentioned is the current Broadway production he's directing at the Nederlander Theatre, starring Lauren Graham and Oliver Platt. To McAnuff, a love of the theatre "starts with childhood play — I don't think it starts in university or even in a school play. I think it begins at a much earlier age, with a passion for make-believe, even before you're conscious of it." And, looking back, that's when he thinks his need for a life involving the stage began.
He grew up in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. "I was born in Illinois, but my dad was killed in a car crash before I was born and I ended up in Canada with my grandparents and then my mother. My mom and my stepfather were both interested in the arts — he was a French-horn player and she was involved in amateur theatre — and they encouraged a passion for music and theatre."
But the person who influenced him the most, he says, was an uncle — "Eric Aldwinckle, a Canadian composer, painter and graphic designer who worked for the Stratford Festival. He kindled my interest in music. He was one of those magical people who I had the good luck to encounter. And now that I'm artistic director at Stratford it's like the completion of a journey — I remember him telling me stories, when I was 10 or 11, about Alec Guinness and Tyrone Guthrie."
McAnuff's specific focus on theatre began with the musical Hair — an interesting coincidence in this year of that musical's Broadway revival, which will probably be up against McAnuff's Guys and Dolls for the Tony as Best Musical Revival.
"As a teenager I was much more interested in music than in theatre," McAnuff says (though he did play Kurt in a high school production of The Sound of Music). "My instrument, like many people of my generation, was the guitar, and I composed and played in rock 'n' roll bands through my teens. Hair was a big influence because it revealed to me that the music that I listened to also had a place in the theatre. When Hair came to Toronto everyone who was in a rock band auditioned for it. I didn't make it into the Toronto company — I was only 17 — but I did get to the last callback. And it inspired me to really think of the theatre as a canvas for my own work."
In his last year of high school, he composed a science-fiction rock musical called Urbania "that changed my life. The show was produced at the school and was perceived as a success."
He went to a new theatre program at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University) in Toronto and then became part of that city's very vibrant alternative theatre scene in the 1970s, writing, composing, acting and directing. He composed music to a stage version of Michael Ondaatje's novel The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and it was done at the Folger Theatre in Washington.
Then McAnuff arrived in New York on a Canada Council Grant to spend the summer. "It was 1976, just before I turned 24, and I met Michael David, who was executive director of the Chelsea Theater Center at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The next year we did a 1920s play called The Crazy Locomotive, by a Polish playwright named Stanislaw Witkiewicz." McAnuff directed. "Glenn Close was in the cast. I ended up staying in New York. I hadn't planned on moving here. I came with a trunk and I still had my apartment in Canada. But because of this project I became the Chelsea Theater's dramaturg. And in 1978 Michael and I went off to form the Dodger Theatricals, and we've worked together ever since."
In the late '70s and early '80s, McAnuff worked as a director for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater. And then, in 1983, he was asked to interview for the job of artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. "It was a brand new operation. The search committee asked me to describe my dream theatre to them. When I finished, they said they'd like me to come out there to build my dream theatre. When someone asks you to fulfill your dreams, it's hard to say no." These days, he says, his prime interest, among many, involves his home province and the Stratford Festival, where he was named sole artistic director last year. "We did that wonderful Caesar and Cleopatra with Christopher Plummer last summer, and I hope to be able to bring it to New York. But the most important thing to me is to lead the world-renowned Stratford Festival into the future."