Play summaries from the festivals and reviews from The Globe and Mail
Homecoming kings and queens
Most of Stratford's stars have moved on to bigger paycheques over the years. But its 50th anniversary has brought them back, writes KATE TAYLOR
Saturday, May 18, 2002
STRATFORD, ONT. -- Trackers of Canadian talent may have spotted and wondered at the briefest appearance by actor Colm Feore on a recent episode of the popular U.S. television series The West Wing. He was playing an embittered ex-lover of presidential press secretary CJ Craig and had all of two or three lines to say. For this a great Shakespearean career was overthrown?
Well, perhaps it would be fairer to suggest that Feore, a former Hamlet and Richard III, left the Stratford Festival back in 1994 so he could play the title roles in such prestigious Canadian projects as Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and the more recent Trudeau television series. And this summer, he is back at Stratford, lending a bit of that star power to the 50th season that opens May 27.
He is one of several successful alumni returning for a party with a guest list that includes Christopher Plummer, Brent Carver, Tom McCamus, Stephen Ouimette, Sheila McCarthy and Geraint Wyn Davies. If you take the half-full view, actors like these are fantastic ambassadors for the Shakespearean festival as they prove the value of a classical education on film sets across the continent. If you take the half-empty view, they are a serious loss to a theatre company that has problems retaining mature talent.
"It's an ongoing question here," Feore said in a recent interview between rehearsals for My Fair Lady, in which he plays Henry Higgins. "What's to become of us? Who will commit to us in the world of television and film, the exotic things that draw us away from the monkish life of the classical actor?"
Monkish may be a bit of an overstatement -- when not memorizing blank verse, Stratford actors have managed to conceive the odd child or two -- but the alumni describe the classical repertory season as brutally hard work compared to film. For the anniversary season, Feore, Davies and Carver have all been lured back by shorter-than-usual contracts in single roles, but full-time actors in the company usually take three roles and may work from late February to early November, rehearsing as many as six days a week and then performing as many as eight shows a week.
Paid a top Actors Equity rate of $814.63 a week -- and a lot more if they have a big name and a tough agent -- the company members are well compensated compared with colleagues who are struggling to piece together a living out of stage acting and the odd TV gig in Toronto or Vancouver. But nothing compares with the financial rewards of a successful career in film, especially in the United States.
"You make less a week here than you make a day in film," said McCarthy, who has appeared in everything from I've Heard the Mermaids Singing to Die Hard 2.
For some, the financial lure is inevitable: "At 18, I don't think I thought I would ever make a decision based on salary," reflects Davies, who turned down an offer of a plum role in a Chekhov drama with a British theatre in the 1990s "to play a vampire on TV."
Today, bloodthirsty fans still talk about his work on the Forever Knight series, maintaining a Web site that follows a career that first took him from the Shaw and Stratford festivals to the English stage but is now firmly entrenched on American television. He will be coming back to Stratford briefly this summer to take over the role of Higgins from Feore in July.
Others threw over the security of the Stratford paycheque without any lush TV contract in sight, but they all say another prime motivator is the need to see the world from a different perspective than the intense but narrow vision offered at the festival.
"I think people should go away and come back," Davies said. "Seeing different kinds of theatre, doing different kinds of theatre, keeps us more agile." During a recent break in shooting on a film set in London where he was playing an evil geneticist in a low-budget Canadian movie, McCamus, for example, took the opportunity to see Shakespeare staged in ways he would never have experienced in his years at Stratford.
"You learn other things," agreed Ouimette, who returns after a three-year absence spent on other stages and in television to direct McCamus in the role of Macheath in The Threepenny Opera. "I found all that stuff useful, coming back saying I have been out gathering this. Anyone interested?" Also, he talks of a gut feeling that it was time for a change, as does Carver, who appeared at the festival for four seasons in the 1980s.
"I hope it doesn't mean a lack of devotion or anything, but for me it's a kind of instinct to do other things," said Carver, who famously did not pursue a career in the United States after he won a Tony for his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway in 1993. He was back at Stratford in 2000 playing both Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and the Shakespearean actor Ned Lowenscroft in Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex. For the 50th, he'll be playing in Shadows, another new play by Findley and one of the shows that will be running briefly this summer at the small Studio Theatre the festival is opening in July.
Good roles such as these, and the flexibility of the shorter runs that this new space will offer, can lure the actors back, but this season it's simply the excitement of the 50th that is the draw.
"I thought this was a season not to be missed," said McCarthy, who previously appeared at the festival in 1987 and 1993. This year, she has the unusual opportunity not only of performing with her husband -- Stratford veteran Peter Donaldson -- but also of playing his wife in both The Threepenny Opera and The Scarlet Pimpernel. After playing recurring characters on CBS's Picket Fences and CBC's Emily of New Moon, she is rapidly rediscovering the challenge of stage work.
"You get lazy when you do film and TV. You are cast because they know you can do it. . . . Those actors muscles . . .," she sighs. "This is the first time in a long time I've loved being an actor."
Like Feore and Davies, McCarthy brings with her a little bit of that television stardust, brightening the festival with some borrowed glamour. Stratford has always sought that thrill, from the original 1953 season that imported Alec Guinness and Irene Worth from Britain to the 2000 season that imported Paul Gross from television to play Hamlet.
"Paul Gross is an example of going after someone you know will put bums in seats. You could just as well go after Madonna or Dustin Hoffman," Feore said. "Paul was very helpful bringing people who might not otherwise come to the theatre, but the grunt work is done by everyone else. If you don't have people who are willing to spend years saying, 'Dinner is served, my lord' or 'The queen is dead!' you don't have people to swell the scenes."
Canadians often remark that the country won't champion its own, and company members sometimes complain the festival won't give them star billing. But still, Stratford is willing to pay the big names much bigger salaries, unlike the Shaw Festival, where artistic director Christopher Newton has eschewed a star system and tried to keep gap between the highest- and lowest-paid performers smaller. At Stratford, when a Carver or a Feore stays away, the festival is losing both some fine acting and some box-office buzz.
"Like most places, they do sell shows based on certain people's names," said Ouimette, who gets stopped on the street in Stratford and asked why he and McCamus, who appeared together in the festival's acclaimed 1998 production of Waiting for Godot, have been absent. "People are very loyal and faithful to the people they like."
Still, turning recognition on Ontario Street into true stardom is another matter: Stratford is a long way from Hollywood.
"People know Eric McCormack worked here and now makes a king's ransom," Feore said, referring to the actor who spent several seasons at Stratford and now stars in the NBC sitcom Will and Grace. "People ask how long do I have to work here before that happens?"
McCamus recounts how, after shooting a movie recently with Montreal actor Luc Picard, he went out for a drink with him to find the Quebecker surrounded by autograph seekers. "What are you [I asked], a hockey player? We can't do that in English Canada because the American stars are so huge and you have to play in their playground. . . . We don't need that kind of star system but we do need recognition for our work."
Feore sees the festival providing a fabulous training ground rather than stardom, and tells young actors, "Suck the marrow out of this place. It will give you for free things you can't buy in New York or L.A.," before they inevitably move on. And, he wonders, watching a veteran such as William Hutt (still the most powerful classical performer in the company and now celebrating his 38th season), how can an actor find the stamina to build such a career? If the young hopefuls who enter the festival through its conservatory training program are going to stick around, the alumni say it is crucial they have long-term company members such as Peter Donaldson, Lucy Peacock or Seana McKenna to act as examples.
Ouimette, for one, isn't worried that the theatre is going to run out of classical actors: "They will surface no matter what. The need to do this work isn't going to go away. When you look at how many kids are clamouring to get into the conservatory, they are here."
So, where's the next William Hutt going to come from?
Davies believes he is already in place in the person of Donaldson, who is increasingly moving into mature lead roles, including the part of George in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last season.
"A company member gets to be a star, that's what everybody hopes for," McCarthy said.