I was very young – still in middle school – when I saw the production of Diary of Anne Frank starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. It’s one of my first strong memories of going to the theatre. The story, of course, is well known, but I still vividly remember the beautiful and elaborate set. I also remember the feeling of being moved – transported – as part of that audience, and even at that young age, I realized the magic of live performing arts to have that effect on a group of people. That production was one of the theatre pieces that taught me, as a child, what could be accomplished by the arts and that paved the way for a career working in the arts.
I grew up in the theatre but not traditional theatre. I grew up in Passe Muraille, TWP and the Blyth Festival, the alternative theatre, the theatre of new Canadian work. My parents were the upstarts. I grew up with The Death of the Donnellys, The Farm Show, 1837, and Richard the Third Time. All these were collectives, and some entirely improvised. While I love going to Stratford, one of my earliest memories was seeing Brian Bedford in Richard II, the coach race from Lucan to London in Death of the Donellys was way more exciting for a boy of nine. Watching Layne Coleman as Will Donnelly, my mum and Miles Potter pretend to be horses and the other actors twirling staffs to mimic the coach wheels, it was fantastic storytelling. I got to do a few collectives in my career and one of them was Whale at YPT. It was a largely improvised script based on a play that was written about a news story of two Grey whales being trapped in the ice flow in the North.
Usually, I’m not nervous rehearsing a play but Whale made me nervous. The thing about doing established plays is that they are just that, tried, tested and true. There is inherent faith that the play works, it’s been done before. With new work, you need to make that leap of faith. We had NO idea if Whale would work. As we approached the tech week of rehearsals I thought, “This is a mish-mash. There’s nothing holding it together.” We would draw the arc of the story on a white board in the rehearsal hall trying to make sense of it, taping up bits of the story to try and find something we all thought would tell an interesting yarn. We were rewriting the dialogue right up to tech week. Then, during my lunch hour on our first tech day, I remember hanging by my hands from the lighting grid 50 feet above the stage floor, looking down, not wanting to let go and let the harness carry my weight, when our stunt coordinator, John Stead, slowly, gently pried my fingers off the bars saying, “Just let go, brother. Just let go.” So, I did.
Did it work? We did three productions of Whale. The first year we mounted the show we won a Dora for best production. The second, we mounted for a week in order to take it to St Louis to shop it around to houses in the US. The third time was a remount for the YPT 1995 season that finished in Washington DC at the Kennedy Centre.
It all started for me at YPT. I was in SK and desperate to follow in my sisters’ footsteps of attending the drama camp. Unbeknownst to me, my mom had to lie and tell the camp that I was in grade one. The secret was out when they handed me a script and I couldn’t read at all. Now, seventeen years later, I’m returning to YPT as part of the cast of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m pretty excited that it’s all coming full circle… and this time, I can read!
Our family has had a 37-year love affair with Young People’s Theatre. First our children and now our grandchildren have experienced the wonder of the productions of this theatre. As parents and grandparents, we have had the added bonus of relishing the productions ourselves and delighting in the children’s excitement as they watch and enjoy the magic. We all have our favourites, but one that will always hold a special place in our hearts is The Miracle Worker starring Hollis Mclaren.
One summer in the late seventies, our 8-year old daughter was enrolled in the YPT Drama School. One day, we got a call from the theatre asking us if she would be interested in a role in their upcoming production of The Miracle Worker. They explained that they had cast some children who were deaf or visually impaired, but one of the children needed to be replaced. Our daughter would have to play the part as if she were blind and deaf.
Aside from their roles as students at the Perkins School for the Blind, the children were expected to act as “stage hands” to move furniture and props on and off the stage. For Laura, it meant learning how to act as if she couldn’t see. During the rehearsals, she became friends with the children, quickly learning some sign language so she could communicate with the deaf children.
This turned out to be an extraordinary experience for Laura and for the whole family. Laura had the unique opportunity to perform with a professional theatre company. With 8 performances each week for 6 weeks or so, it was a major commitment. Her school was supportive but stressed that she would have to keep up with her work. We had to bring her back and forth to the theatre and sit through long hours of rehearsals. Watching the play come together, especially with the unique concept of using the children to move items around the stage was fascinating, but also frustrating. The children were not seasoned performers, and they sometimes struggled with the demands of the play. Laura took her part very seriously; she found it difficult when she or the others had a hard time, and she was triumphant when she and they earned the director’s praise.
The members of our family have never again had the chance to be insiders in the theatre; nonetheless, we have continued to enjoy our participation in the audience. The closest we came to another family member being in a play was when Laura’s son, Justin, at age 9, raised his hand at the fund-raiser to bid $2,000 for a walk-on part in A Year with Frog and Toad. We grabbed his arm, and he had to settle for a front-row seat.
One of my most profound memories involves the 18-year-old me sitting in a dark theatre watching YPT’s production of The Hobbit while weeping quietly and believing in the possibilities and magic of theatre. At the time, I was a brand new immigrant working as a co-op student in the theatre. I was working alongside Pierre Tetrault, the Artistic Director, and I was responsible for sorting resumes and helping the administrative staff with anything they needed. It was bliss. On the second or third day of my co-op placement, Pierre called me into his office and invited me and my mother to the opening of The Hobbit. I was nervous going into the theatre that night as it was the first time my mother and I would see a “Canadian Play”. I remember the profound joy I felt as the lights went down. The play was magical and like nothing I’d ever seen in India – the costumes, the colours, the performance, the production all of it! I remember turning to my mother at the end of the show and saying “I want that, I want to do that…”for the rest of the night!I’ll never forget that moment, and as always, I am so grateful to YPT for making me believe in the possibilities.
I was an actor in two productions in the second season of YPT. The Dandy Lion played at the Colonnade Theatre and I was Dalton the Daring, a lion tamer. I seem to remember we did six performances every weekend. That same season, I was also in a school touring show by Brian Way called On Trial. It’s hard to believe that, even though it was only YPT’s second year in operation, we took that show on the road and played for a week in Ottawa.
Right from the start, YPT had a strong audience. And I think most of Toronto’s theatre artists worked for YPT at one point in their careers. In those days, you felt like you knew everybody in the business. The community has grown and thrived so well over the years, it would be impossible to know every theatre artist now!