For Raz Shaw, cancer proved a turning point in his life, prompting him to leave his job in telesales and gambling addiction behind and pursue a career in theatre directing. As his revival of The Producers opens at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, he tells Fergus Morgan about his extraordinary journey
At 28, Raz Shaw was not in a good place. He was a gambling addict, working a well-paid but soulless telesales job, suffering from cancer – stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, to be precise. The career in theatre he had imagined since his schooldays seemed a long way away.
Now, 22 years later, he’s published a book about his struggles and is directing the Manchester Royal Exchange’s Christmas show, a new, in-the-round production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Strangely, he says it was the cancer that helped him turn his life around.
“My life was literally going nowhere,” Shaw says. “The year I was diagnosed, I was either in a casino or a hospital. Cancer forced me to re-look at myself, and a month after I was given the all-clear I was at the Edinburgh Fringe directing a play.”
He continues: “I shudder to think what my life would have been like if I’d stayed on that path. It was cancer that drove me away from it, and drove me into this career and still drives me today.”
It drove him to return to directing with the postgraduate diploma he had earned from the London Academy of Performing Arts, drove him on to the National Theatre Studio directors’ course in 1998, and drove him on a path that saw him eventually win the 2006 Jerwood award at the Young Vic.
In building a post-cancer career in theatre, Shaw has always tried to challenge himself with each new project. In 2008, he staged an acclaimed production of Femi Oguns’ Torn at the Arcola Theatre. “It was a beautiful love story between a Nigerian guy and a Jamaican woman, and the cast was 90% black, and there was a question of how can a white, middle-class Jewish guy direct that play?” he says.
“But a director doesn’t need the answers, he needs the curiosity to ask the questions that might lead to the answers. I spent most of my time with that show asking questions about a culture I didn’t really know.”
In 2011, he took the reins of Chris Hannan’s madcap The God of Soho  at Shakespeare’s Globe. “It got mixed notices,” he says, “but staging it at the Globe, which wasn’t used to plays like that back then, was an impossible challenge that felt extraordinary to me. I was very proud of what we ended up with, even though it was very much a marmite show.”
CV Raz Shaw
Born: London, 1967
Training: National Theatre Studio director’s course
• Jerwood director’s award at the Young Vic (2006)
• UK Theatre award for best director – Wit (2016)
• The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, Southwark Playhouse, London (2003)
• Factory Girls, Arcola Theatre, London (2006)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2009/2010)
• Wit, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (2016)
• The Greatest Play in the History of the World, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (2018)
In the past few years, he’s teamed up twice with Julie Hesmondhalgh. In 2016, he directed her in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Wit  at the Royal Exchange, and this summer, he directed her again in Ian Kershaw’s The Greatest Play in the History of the World  at the Edinburgh Fringe – coaxing out a performance for which Hesmondhalgh won The Stage Edinburgh award.
Tackling The Producers might be his biggest task yet, though. The much-loved Mel Brooks musical – an Oscar-winning film in 1967 that Brooks adapted into a 12-time Tony-winner for Broadway in 2001 and adapted back into a film four years later – comes with plenty of baggage.
“We’re looking for echoes of that history,” Shaw says. “We’re looking for nods to the film, the musical, the film of the musical, but we’re also looking for it to feel new and fresh and celebratory and relevant for 2018.”
Key to that, he explains, is figuring out how to stage what is traditionally a proscenium-arch production in the Royal Exchange’s intimate, in-the-round space.
“We wanted to make the fact that we were in-the-round a positive thing, rather than something that restricted us,” Shaw says. “We wanted to explode the musical into a much more open, flowing and theatrical thing.”
The Exchange’s stage “forces you to find that new thing”, he says. Adding: “That next dimension – which maybe hasn’t been thought about before because it didn’t need to be in an end-on version – takes shows somewhere new. And that’s what we’re looking for here.”
But re-imagining a Mel Brooks musical in modern times requires sensitivity as well, according to Shaw. Brooks’ humour can rub some audience members up the wrong way. The Producers, with its satirical story of two Jewish Broadway self-styled big shots staging a car-crash show about Hitler, is no different.
“We’re not trying to be offensive, we don’t want to be offensive and I don’t think the show is offensive,” Shaw says. “First and foremost, it’s a parody and a celebration of Broadway. And then it’s also a way of ridiculing despotic dictators, and the relevance of doing that today is very clear.”
It helps, Shaw says, that he’s Jewish. “I don’t define myself by my religion, but I’m very aware of prejudice and that allows the building to breathe a bit and not worry about that side of things as much,” he says.
The director has decided to tweak some of the language though. “Mel Brooks will always be funny. For me, it’s about approaching his humour with a 2018 sensibility. There are a few little things – a word here, a line there – that might jar in 2018, when they wouldn’t have 20 years ago.”
He adds: “I’ve asked for permission to change them slightly, so it feels as though we are serving the show but also being true to who we are. If you take care like that, the show absolutely can be up-to-date and fresh and relevant.”
Q&A Raz Shaw
What was your first theatrical job?
Theatre in education tour of Macbeth. I was a less than definitive Banquo.
What was your first non-theatrical job?
Door-to-door insurance salesman.
What is your next job?
To finish writing my next book.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Two things: that admitting you don’t have the answer is the first step to creativity, and that you only stop growing and learning once you’re dead.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Bruce Springsteen. He never stops teaching me that every second counts and that music is the shortcut to your soul. Theatrically, in 2003, I met Naomi Wallace and directed The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek at Southwark Playhouse. Naomi, and her plays, taught me about restraint, instinct, theatricality and leaving your heart on stage.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have done?
I would have been a frustrated salesman who hated his life and so never gave up gambling and subsequently ended up in prison. If I was lucky, in prison I would have discovered the freedom and escape that is writing.
Do you have any theatrical rituals or superstitions?
Strangely for a former gambling addict, I am not superstitious.
The Producers is at Manchester Royal Exchange  until January 26, 2019