Q&A August: David Prosser of the Stratford Festival

Remember back when I called Austin Tichenor my Comedy Fairy Godfather? Well, the subject of today’s Q&A August interview is my Shakespeare Fairy Godfather. David Prosser is the Literary and Editorial Director at the Stratford Festival of Canada, and is also indirectly responsible for much of Good Tickle Brain’s growth and success. (Also, if he’s reading this, I would like to sincerely apologize to him for all grammatical infelicities in today’s post, most likely related to misplaced punctuation, the correct disposition of which I have never properly mastered.)

I met David on Twitter a scant four months after I had started Good Tickle Brain. Fresh out of the gates, with few followers or readers, I was desperately trying to get my work in front of as many eyes as possible, so I went on Twitter and promptly followed everyone I could find who was remotely associated with the Stratford Festival. One of the people I stumbled upon was David, whose wonderfully dry and witty tweets immediately attracted my attention. On day, embroiled in a bit of an ongoing brouhaha with some Oxfordians, David tweeted a riff on “Duke of Earl”, rewriting the chorus as “dupes, dupes, dupes, dupes of Earl”. Never one to shy away from a song parody, I provided the rest of the lyrics. David was amused enough by my efforts that he followed me, and started retweeting my comics. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me at the time.

Later on that year, I was visiting the Stratford Festival with my family, and (of course) tweeting about it, when David slid into my DMs and invited me up to the Festival offices to have tea with him before that day’s matinee. I jumped at the chance, and we spent a wonderful half an hour or so chatting in the sunshine on the Festival Theatre balcony. It was like meeting my long-lost benevolent Scottish uncle. David was not only immediately supportive and encouraging of my work, but he also began actively brainstorming ways in which to help me reach a larger audience, specifically among the theatre community. To that end, he introduced me to the Shakespeare Theatre Association, which quickly became my Shakespeare family and has helped me grow and develop Good Tickle Brain into what it is today.

There is absolutely no reason why the Literary and Editorial Director of the largest classical repertory theatre in North America should have given the time of day to a random person on the internet who drew sub-par stick figures and routinely committed egregious spelling errors in her text. However, David did not hesitate to lift me up, and has been a constantly warm, supportive, and thoroughly entertaining presence in my life since then.

But I’ll let him talk now. He’s much better at it than I am.


1. Who are you? Why Shakespeare?

Who am I indeed? Isn’t that the mystery that haunts us all? “Who’s there?” asks Barnardo in the opening words of Hamlet, and that same question echoes down through centuries of subsequent literature. Call me David. Or Prosser, David Prosser.

I was born and grew up in Scotland, where, in early childhood, I first encountered Shakespeare as the author of the “Scottish play” and didn’t realize till some time later that he’d written anything else. I came to Canada in my twenties; had a fourteen-year career at a small daily newspaper, where, among other things I was the theatre critic (boo, hiss) and editor of the TV listings (zzzzzz….); then quit in order to spend more time with my wife and cats and to pursue new opportunities for financial ruin; and finally washed up on the shores of the Stratford Festival, where, under various unconvincing job titles (most latterly that of Literary and Editorial Director), I have been an in-house wordsmith for the past quarter-century.

And why Shakespeare? As a nearly dead white male myself, I have a particular affinity for the work of dead white males in general—and Shakespeare in particular has intrigued me ever since childhood, when my father (an English teacher) showed me some black-and-white slides of scenes from a staging of that Scottish play referenced above. I’m sure if I could see them now, those images would prove cheesy; at the time, though, they haunted my imagination; it wasn’t till some time later that I realized there were words to go with them.

As I started to discover the actual plays, I found to my excitement that they had the mind-expanding power of dreams, in which human life is transformed into something rich and strange—an alternative universe of experience, if you like, but one that brilliantly illuminates the “real” one. 

2. What moment(s) in Shakespeare always make you laugh?

Sticking with the Scottish play, I generally laugh at Macbeth’s (oops, said it) “‘Twas a rough night,” and I always smile whenever an actor has to tackle the unsayable “O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart / Cannot conceive nor name thee!” Also, I’m afraid I can never suppress a schoolboy snigger when Montjoy, in Henry V, comes in and announces himself with the words “You know me by my habit.” I can’t remember where I heard it or read it, but someone, somewhere, made a joke about the entire English army responding with rude gestures suggestive of that habit, and I have never been able to get that out of my mind.

3. What’s a favorite Shakespearean performance anecdote?

See Montjoy above. Also this, one of the many stories from the late Richard Monette’s memoir This Rough Magic: an autobiography “as told to,” er, well, me. Peter Ustinov was playing King Lear at the Stratford Festival in 1979; Richard was playing Edmund.

“At one performance,” Richard recalled, “Peter began, ‘We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage. . . .’ and then he dried. ‘We’ll sing . . .’ he repeated, ‘and then we’ll sing some more. Oh, we’ll laugh. . . . We’ll dance. . . . And then . . . we’ll sing some more.’ Realizing what had happened, I tried to save him by coming in early with my line: ‘Take them away.’ He regarded me with mild curiosity, then waved me away with his hand—'Foof, foof, foof’—and began the whole speech over again, determined to say it all.”

4. What’s one of the more unusual Shakespearean interpretations you’ve either seen or would like to see?

In 1998, or thereabouts, at a theatre festival in Quebec City, I saw a production of The Tempest directed by Robert Lepage. More precisely, it was La Tempête, a translation into French by Normand Chaurette. What was novel about it were the settings, which were computer-created projections—but not just flat background images. The audience wore polarized 3D glasses throughout, which created the illusion of a three-dimensional landscape and objects (such as the royal ship) that seemed to come floating out into the auditorium. It was a stunning effect, perfectly suited to the magical powers referenced in the play, and it had a huge effect on me.

5. What’s one of your favorite Shakespearean “hidden gems”?

An obvious one, obviously, but it’s the “wretched strangers” speech from Sir Thomas More.

6. What passages from Shakespeare have stayed with you?

I am constantly on the alert for opportunities to work any of the following into my conversation:

“Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grainèd spots / As will not leave their tinct.”

“I’ll no pullet sperm in my brewage.” (Have to be careful about that one when placing an order in a bar or restaurant, though, or the server might spit in my Sauvignon.)

“For this relief much thanks.” (Always apt in washrooms.)

More seriously, I always get a wave of nostalgia for the homeland when I hear Macbeth say, “Light thickens, and the crow / Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.” For some reason that line evokes Scotland so strongly for me that I feel sure Shakespeare must have toured there when the plague was on in London.

7. What Shakespeare plays have changed for you?

When I was an undergraduate, a professor told me that Titus Andronicus was an absolutely dreadful play, what could Shakespeare have been thinking; and for many years I believed her. Then I actually read it, and thought, wow.

8. What Shakespearean character or characters do you identify the most with?

Wow, that is a question, isn’t it? Erm, well…. Oh, I don’t know: it might be…. Or, no, maybe not. No, shoot, I just can’t make up my mind. Sorry, I know I’m procrastinating, but I’m going to have to set this aside for a while, while I think on it more precisely. Maybe get a bit of sea air to clear my mind….

Okay, that’s better. I’d like to think it maybe would be Benedick, but I’m very much afraid it might be Falstaff. Or King John.

Actually, a few years ago, I really identified with the King of France, but, lacking a Helena, I had surgery for it, and I’m fine now.

9. Where can we find out more about you? Are there any projects/events you would like us to check out?

I pop up from time to time on Facebook (though not Instagram, which I’ve never seen the point of). Occasionally I make snarky remarks on Twitter. Otherwise, I can sometimes be found in the lobby of the Festival Theatre, giving Lobby Talks before selected performances. C’mon down! They’re free!


(Back to Mya) Thanks so much to David for taking the time to answer my questions! If you can, pick up a copy of former Stratford Festival artistic director Richard Monette’s memoir, This Rough Magic, which David worked on. It’s a wonderful read.

COMING THURSDAY: My other self, my counsel’s consistory, my pocket dramaturg!