LAUGHTER & TEARS. The 1960s
On May 25, when the curtain goes up on their production of Heartbreak House, the Shaw Festival will begin celebrating its 50th season of operation.
In that time, it has gone from a small-scale operation presenting a pair of small-scale shows over 4 weekends in a simple venue to an internationally acclaimed organization mounting 764 performances of 11 shows in 4 beautifully-equipped theatres.
How best to tell this story? From the very start, the Shaw Festival's major strength has rested with its actors and directors and so we've asked 50 of them — one per season — to share their memories with us.
In the case of a few much-beloved performers who are no longer with us, interviews they gave at the time have been used instead.
The end result, being run in the Star over the next five days, ten names a day, ending on opening night, will offer a crazy quilt of laughter, tears and memories.
As veteran actress Jennifer Phipps put it "We just plow on, yes? Sometimes making hay, sometimes not. When a show works, it gets tucked away as a happy thought. It felt like theatre, it was theatre and we are still theatre."
BARBARA RANSOM (Candida)
It was 1962 and a group of our Community Theatre players was invited to audition for two Shaw plays, "Candida", and "Man and Superman". It was the beginning of Brian Doherty's dream of a Shaw Festival. Amazingly, I was given the role of Candida. I was such a romantic in those days. I pictured Brian as being tall, slim and handsome, smoking a pipe and wearing a cravat — a Rex Harrison look alike. We finally met. I was not disappointed. He was wearing a cravat — he was a wonderful man and I adored him.
DENISE FERGUSSON (Androcles and the Lion)
Conditions were rather "basic" backstage at The Court House. No "loo." I remember one opening being on hold for what seemed an interminable time. Nerves finally reached my bladder. I threw on a robe over my costume and battled my way through the curtains that separated the audience from the wall to the ladies room in the foyer which was mercifully empty. But when I emerged from the stall, the room was packed. A lady eyed me sternly and declared: "Well, I hope this will be worth all the bother it took to get here." All that came out of me was a little nervous squeak: "I hope so, too."
JACK MEDLEY (The Dark Lady of the Sonnets)
I remember Niagara-on-the-Lake being such a tiny town in those days. Very tiny and very pretty, like a chocolate box. None of the glitzy stores that are there today and we all stayed at a tiny motel by the lake. I remember thinking how daring it was that I was playing Shakespeare in a play by Shaw and I also remembered arguing with Donald Ewer who played The Beefeater and kept eating bananas on the battlements. I told him there couldn't have been bananas in England back then! But we had a good time and did the plays and people liked them.
JOYCE CAMPION (Pygmalion)
I came to Canada from Ireland and was very conscious of my speech patterns. When I'd be at an audition for a Canadian show and I heard "Do I detect an accent?," I'd know that was the kiss of the death. But for the Shaw Festival, it was perfect. I was able to become British for Pygmalion and when we did Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman, I thought I was home free. Then one reviewer wrote that "The only member of the cast who had trouble with the Irish accent was Joyce Campion." But everyone rushed to my defence. It was that kind of a happy company.
ZOE CALDWELL (The Apple Cart)
Our dressing room space at the Courthouse was so small, I remember that they had to hang sheets between the men and the women to give us privacy. But it was all very jolly. Well, how could it not be, acting with the great Paxton Whitehead who could be sexy and make you laugh at the same time. I loved doing Shaw, because his stage directions tell you all you need to know and you never have to ask the director anything. If the script says you say a line "with a wry smile,winningly. Then darling, that’s all an actress needs to know.
MARTHA HENRY (Arms and the Man)
There were four of us playing in Arms and the Man at the Shaw Festival in 1967 who were also rehearsing James Reaney's Colours in the Dark during the day at the other festival in Stratford. We managed this by flying back and forth in a little four-seater plane flown by a pilot with a crippling stutter — when he was on the ground. In the air, communicating with the flight tower in St. Catharine's, he was smooth-tongued perfection. The flight proved to be the idyllic (and literally the only) way to morph four actors from GBS to John Hirsch and back again.
DIANA LEBLANC (Heartbreak House)
My own heart was breaking that summer and my marriage was unravelling even more than I knew, but something about the cool irony and detachment with which Shaw looks at all the various heartbreaks in that house, kind of saved me. Work does that. And I was surrounded by wonderful people. Jessica Tandy had me up to her room at the Oban Inn so we could work on our scenes. Ellie's journey from heartbreak to peace, although it was far from my own desperate state of mind, at least gave me an imaginary place in which I had to make that journey. And so it was a blessing, truly.
SAM MOSES (The Doctor's Dilemma)
It was the time that if you wanted to be a part of the company it was necessary to either play tennis, cricket or cribbage. If you could do all three you were in like Flint. Talent? Not necessary, but would help. So when Paxton Whitehead asked me the fateful question, "Sam, do you play tennis?" I told him I had a wicked serve taught to me by a pro and of course being born in India could play cricket and also a mean game of cribbage. Thus began my formal acting career. And one night, Paxton missed his cue on stage playing cribbage with me. Served him right.
JENNIFER PHIPPS (Candida)
Franny Hyland, who was playing Candida, came down with laryngitis and we had no understudies in those days, but did we close the show? Oh, no.
We had two other stars in the cast as well. Stanley Holloway (the original Doolittle from My Fair Lady) came on and did some of his famous vaudeville act and then Tony Van Bridge offered a preview of what was to become his famous one-man show on G.K. Chesterton. Who would ask for their money back when they could see an evening like that? Back then the whole administration was Paxton Whitehead and one lovely secretary, working from a tiny office above the liquor store. But we made some marvellous theatre there.
PATRICIA COLLINS (The Philanderer)
I recall so fondly working with the great Jimmy Valentine. We don't have character actors of that type anymore. Back then, we were all young and we took everything to the limit.
There was no air-conditioning, it was blazingly hot and we were all dolled up in these incredibly tight corsets. We did it because we loved the art of the theatre. Tony Van Bridge directed and just let you get on with it. He figured the good actors all knew what they were doing and the bad ones really couldn't be helped.