“This is Theatre at its Best”: Jim Garrard on Directing ‘Bakersfield Mist’

Headshot of Jim Garrard.
Photo of Jim Garrard. Photo provided by Theatre Kingston.

Jim Garrard calls himself a tyrant, but this season, he’s softening his grip. After announcing his ‘sort of’ retirement in 2015, the playwright, actor, and director has remained a presence in Kingston’s theatre scene, most recently in his TK Fringe performances of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. This winter, Garrard directs Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs for Theatre Kingston, starring Rosemary Doyle and Cassel Miles. 

Inspired by true events, Bakersfield Mist follows a woman who buys a painting from a thrift store and becomes convinced that it’s a lost Jackson Pollock masterpiece worth millions. Bakersfield Mist asks what makes art and people truly authentic. Taking a cue from the play, I begin our conversation by asking Garrard a similar question. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

I’ll start with a softball question: What makes art real?

I think sincerity of emotions. Insincerity makes us stop. The other thing is that art needs to be made by artists. In our society, we call a lot of things art that aren’t art. We call a lot of people artists who aren’t artists. I think there’s a big difference between somebody with talent, but no training, and somebody with training, but no talent. And then if you’ve got talent and training, you can probably make art. And if you spend the bulk of your working life on it, then you’ve got a better chance of making art than somebody who is fingerpainting in grade four. (The interviewer would like to note that, by the age of nine, most children have surpassed fingerpainting.)

We talk about culture as though it [means] art. And culture is a much broader term than that. When we pass by a gas station on the highway that sells hamburgers, that’s part of our culture. So I always find the word very difficult.

But I’m a big believer that artists make art. And everybody else should have a chance to get involved educationally or recreationally. But that doesn’t—it’s confusing when we refer to that as art. So that’s the answer—sincerity of emotions. And art is made by artists.

Now the harder-hitting question: How’s it going? 

It’s really a big pleasure for me, doing this. I’m a writer by trade. I have directed all my life, but infrequently, and I usually only direct my own shows. But this was too good to turn down because Cassel Miles is a fantastic actor, and Rosemary Doyle is also a fantastic actor. I think they’re two of the very best actors who live in and around Kingston. So working with them is a treat. 

I read the play, and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do that.’ It’s not about much, but working on it, digging into it, it has quite a bit of significance. It’s a worthwhile play to do. I think it’s a play that makes the world a better place to live in, which is my measure for whether a play is worth doing or not.

So it’s got better cultural impact than a gas station hamburger? 

I mean, it’s trying to be entertaining on almost a sitcom level, but the substance, the subject matter, and the degree to which the themes are explored in a more universal way, puts it up there… We can not only be entertained, but we can think a little bit, consider some of the world’s problems. And in this case, that’s very topical, because I think its overarching theme is about divisions, particularly the divisions in America, but divisions in the whole world today. Why don’t people get along? Why don’t tribes get along? Why is there so much war and trouble? Why are there Trumpites and Bidenites and Trudeauites and whatever the other guy’s name is? We seem to have so much polarization. And this play is a look at one very specific instance of polarization between two people, who are, in a way, representing two different antagonistic segments within society. When a play is about something, it’s more fun to do. With good actors, it’s more fun to do. So I’m happy as a clam.

How does it feel to be directing actors in someone else’s work?

It’s way easier to direct your own play than to direct somebody else’s. Especially for me—I’m an old man, and I have an old brain, and for me to look at a script and study it and learn what it’s truly about, takes a long, long time. And I don’t know if you ever really get there. So you sometimes patch it over with something that works. Whereas when you write a play, you pretty well know how it’s supposed to go. And in a way, that’s hard on the actors, when I know how it goes. I know how it’s [supposed to be] acted, my tendency is to say, well say the line this way, put the emphasis here. And that’s not good. Micromanaging actors doesn’t produce their best work.

These two actors are both very inventive. They’re not sitting around saying, ‘What do you want me to do?’ They’re saying, ‘Would you like me to do this? What do you think of this?’ And I say, well, that’s great. Let’s try it another way and see which one you like best. So we’re getting something close to a collaboration. My tendency is to be a tyrant. The better the actors are, the more I can back off on that, and the less of an authority I become on meaning, substance, and the final shape of the piece.

What can Kingston audiences expect from Bakersfield Mist?

You’re going to see good actors in a good play, which is a comedy, a serious comedy. So you get both things. You get entertainment, a chance to laugh, but you also get a chance to think. I think that’s relatively rare in the theatre everywhere, and it’s very rare in Kingston to have a play that covers both those bases… 

I hope that folks come out. It’s harder and harder to get people to leave their homes and go to the theatre at 7:30 at night—all over Canada, and I think in most places in the world. We undervalue the audience by giving them lesser and lesser attractions. I think it’s only part of the reason, but if we give quality work that involves the mind and the body, people would see why theatre exists and what it’s for. I think we’ve kind of dumbed it down to such an extent that people think, why bother? But this is theatre at its best. 

Jim Garrard is a playwright, actor, and theatre administrator. As a director, he has worked at Twenty-Fifth Street Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille, Bristol Old Vic and the legendary Theatre Second Floor. Also, locally, at Queen’s Drama, Domino Theatre, Kingston Summer Festival, SALON Theatre, Theatre Kingston Fringe (Krapp’s Last Tape).

Theatre Kingston’s Bakersfield Mist plays at the Baby Grand from February 7th to 25th. Tickets and more information can be found here