One summer in the early 80s, after I had returned from a couple of years in Latin America, I applied, whimsically, I thought, for the position of Artistic Director of one of the country’s oldest summer stock theatres, and one with a unique cultural role. Located in rural Quebec, it was historical evidence of a thriving, if small, English population. It’s performances meant more than performances, they were cultural flags planted in old ground, if you know what I mean.
I’m from that part of Quebec, and knew that ground, although I’d never seen a play there. I submitted my resumé (lightly upholstered for the occasion) listing my directing experience in Cuernavaca, Mexico (expat community theatre, a dozen plays), my Toronto record (a small but very well-received and reviewed production of Lanford Wilson’s Great Nebula In Orion) and my less dubious acting credits.
To my immense surprise, I received a call one morning in Toronto saying I had been shortlisted, when could I come to Montreal to meet the board? We arranged a date a few weeks hence (this was late fall) and I got out my one suit.
This suit was special. I owed my success to it. I had bought it at Goodwill for my role as a suave but sinister Italian gentlemen in a long-running Agatha Christie play. It was purchased for its 1930s suave yet menacing air. Coal black with a bold chalk stripe, it was double breasted, with lapels wide enough to fly with. It came with a double breasted vest with more pockets than a fishing vest. It was lined with pale baby blue watered silk. It was a treasure.
Not only had it served me for four long months in the Agatha Christie mystery, it had won me several suit and tie auditions, including a US nationally broadcast commercial that kept me fed and clothed for a year. Frankly, I thought it was overstated and ridiculous, but I seemed to be able to carry it off. I was going to ask one more favour of it. I had it cleaned (for the first time since I bought it) and packed it in a suit bag.
Two days later, I was striding through Place Ville Marie in my freshly cleaned suit, flapping like a Monsignor in the breeze. I rode the elevator to a floor high enough to see Vermont from and waited in the Eero Saarinen antechamber of the largest law firm in Canada. The interview was in their main boardroom.
I’ve always treated job interviews as auditions. Listen, follow direction, and give your best performance. The suit made me feel invincible. I left feeling quite good about my pitch and not remembering a thing I had said. That’s not strictly true, I had prepared a position in favour of premieres, previously unseen plays (in that region at least) to increase the relevance of summer stock. They bought it. I was hired a week later, to my immense surprise and almost paralyzing fear.
I already had my opening play in mind; Deathtrap, by Ira Levin, a very twisty and violent stage thriller that had opened on Broadway just 2 years previously. This would be our Quebec premiere (it had already toured Toronto).That was going to cost most of our rights budget, so I had to be careful with the other two choices (it was a three play season, each running for one month). For my second play, I wanted a classic Feydeau farce, with slamming doors, errant husbands and fin-de-siecle frocks and frockcoats. The Shaw Festival had just had a remarkable success with Feydeau’s well-known farce A Flea In Her Ear the year before, and I though I might as well get on that train.
As it turned out, I was approached by a young bilingual playwright in Montreal who had just finished translating a Feydeau farce that had never been performed in English. This would be our English-language, North American premiere. He also had a nice little kitchen sink family drama he’d written about English/French relations in Quebec that was politically apt for our mission. I recall we made a deal where we got the Feydeau translation for free in return for doing his play, so everything worked out fine. The family drama, having never been performed before, would be our world premiere.
Casting was next. The first mistake I made was hiring my best friend, another actor, as my lead. Mind you, there was nothing wrong with the choice, he was an experienced stage and film actor, ruggedly handsome with a chiseled face and a deep baritone. But he was my friend, and it never turns out well hiring friends. We had a pattern of having too much fun together, which was no fun. Oddly enough, the best choice I made was hiring another friend as the main comic foil. He was side-splittingly funny and physically inventive, both qualities the Feydeau piece needed. I hired a young couple straight out of theatre school in Montreal for the young lovers in the kitchen sink drama, thus avoiding the inevitable grousing about importing my actors from Toronto. Rounding the cast out was a round lady of a certain age from Poland, who was screamingly funny, and would be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with Canadian TV.
I had an awful time finding a mature actor for the lead role in Deathtrap and the Feydeau farce. In summer stock, mature is anything over about 45, and actors that age, if they’re still acting, don’t particularly want to leave home to sleep in rented houses and act in barns all summer. Long after all the roles had been filled, I was still looking for my mature lead. I finally found him, a little more mature than I really had in mind, with a little less hair, but a genuine working actor all the same, with an Equity card, which was really the most important thing.
I hired some of the finest young designers in the country, because I had access to the National Theatre School’s pool of graduates, and they weren’t getting hired in Quebec. My designer went on to win a Tony and designed at Stratford and Shaw. The shows were beautiful, considering our budget.
The season was a success. We did 110% capacity, which is possible because we had to add folding chairs to the rows of fixed seats for every performance. Even during torrential downpours, when the roar of the rain on the tin roof of our barn drowned out the actors, the laughter and screams were genuine and deafening.
My downfall was my abhorrence of administration. I was hired at a decent salary to be artistic director AND general manager, in other word, to direct the shows AND keep the books. I had no interest in this, so I told the board I was using half my salary to hire a general manager. I found a good one, recently laid off by a Summer Festival that had gone broke up the road the year before. She was very good, and ruthless, and she wanted my half of my salary as well. As a theatre administration professional, she didn’t think much of my resumé and wanted to be the boss, and hire directors who worked for her.
She had the ear of the board, I had the ear of the cast and crew. I lost. I was told at the end of the season that they found my fare a little too challenging, a little too cosmopolitan. They wanted to do the classical musicals next year, The Music Man perhaps, Oklahoma. I had already said I had no experience and no interest in musical theatre, and they knew this. We parted ways. They got a great season and retired their deficit, I got a good credit.
I remember one magic moment that summer. My friend and I had stayed up all night talking art and theatre and women (and killing a case of beer). We hiked up to the top of the hill overlooking the lake just before dawn. As we watched, a veil of fog gathered over the village below, hiding everything except the steeple of the church in a mist tinged pink by the first rays of the rising sun. We burst into song, singing “Green Grow The Rushes Oh”, our anthem, at the fog. It trembled at the onslaught, and began, slowly at first, then more and more rapidly, to roll back over the lake where it had come from. We had sung the fog off the village that morning. We went to bed satisfied.