Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Martha Henry on the Birmingham Conservatory

Auditions for the next batch of students for the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training end this Saturday, March 1 in Chicago. It is the only stop outside of Canada for actor and Conservatory Director Martha Henry, who talks to Robert Cushman in today's National Post:

"When Henry was approached, in the fall of 2006, to be [the Conservatory's] new principal, it was, she told me over drinks at a Toronto hotel, 'a complete surprise. In fact I said no. I didn't want to stop acting. But they told me that wasn't the idea.'

"'They,' in this case, were Antoni Cimolino, Stratford's new general director and Marti Maraden, one of its even newer triumvirate of artistic directors; the other two are Des McAnuff and Don Shipley, and the team launches its first season this spring.

"Henry is part of that season as an actress, with major roles in The Trojan Women [2008] and All's Well That Ends Well [2008]. The idea, plainly, is that she should lead by example as well as by precept and experience.

"'They insisted that I should continue to act: Not necessarily just at Stratford, they're not guaranteeing me years of work there.' (Though why would they ever want to let her go?)

"Henry has not, by her own account, had 'a lot of pedagogical experience,' though she has taught before: at the National Theatre School in Montreal (at which, back in 1960, she had herself been one of the first students), at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto and at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. She was also the artistic director of the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., for several successful years, with a de facto role in the nurturing of actors if not their formal training.

"When she began to think about the Stratford offer she 'tried to look back and see how much of it had gone into my head and my bones. At the end of two weeks I thought, I could do that. And so far that's proved to be true.'

"'So far' means the greater part of one theatrical/academic year. Henry's steering of her first group, the class of 07/08 has been, according to Cimolino, a roaring success: 'She's opened all kinds of doors, built all kinds of bridges.' She says herself that 'my greatest value is that I've done everything you can do as an actor; I've done stupid things, I've made all the mistakes.' (She's also done a lot of things right, which I suspect her students may find equally inspiring.)

"The [C]onservatory runs a 20-week, six-day-a-week, course -- she hopes, next year, to expand it to 21 weeks -- divided into three terms. They come in September, and emerge in mid-February, having spent five months in the Tanya Moiseiwitsch Rehearsal Hall, named for Stratford's first great designer and situated in the theatre basement.

"It sounds gruelling, not least for its principal who by her own admission is not a naturally early riser: 'They go from 10 to six, alternating voice and movement every morning. I sit in on classes, and I meet with them every Sunday.' The current group spent their first term working with a variety of teachers, including people from the company; they were also exposed to such visiting luminaries as Olympia Dukakis .

"In their second term, David Latham -- Henry's predecessor as principal and now in charge of the expanding area of training within the main company -- worked with the students on Macbeth and taught them mask-work.

"'David,' says Henry [pictured above], 'teaches with enormous concentration on the depth in Shakespeare: what goes on underneath the text. I try to give them the skills to do that.' (This includes 'giving them yellow Post-it notes on diction.') In their third term, Henry has been working with them on Twelfth Night -- and finding new things in a text she thought she knew off by heart.

"The Conservatory started during former artistic director Richard Monette's regime; it was one of his most cherished projects, along with the Festival theatre studio. Some of our best young actors emerged from the Conservatory's earlier years: Michael Therriault, Jonathan Goad, Michelle Giroux, and others.

"Goad [who will prove his singing talents this season in The Music Man (2008)] and Therriault [who will appear in the two-part adaptation of The Englishman's Boy (2008), airing the next two Sundays on CBC] were already in the Festival company when they enrolled in the conservatory, and some other experienced actors have gone there; a notable example is Dan Chameroy, already a well-known performer in musicals who has painstakingly and rewardingly made himself over into a dramatic and character actor.

"For the most part, though, the conservatory in Monette's time enlisted, as Henry says, 'people fresh out of school.' The new emphasis is slightly different: 'The present directorate want actors capable of playing medium or big parts in the fairly new future. For that to happen, you need fewer people with more experience. Last year, from hundreds of applications, we took eight, not 12 (the previous customary intake). They mostly have two years in the professional theatre -- no more than that, before they develop bad habits.'

"Conservatory actors generally progress into the main company; the current batch have small roles in several of the coming season's shows and will have one of them, the perennially young play Love's Labour's Lost, more or less to themselves. 'If you bring in twelve people every year willy-nilly, you end up after five years with a lot of the company being inexperienced young people. The company begins to look semiprofessional.'

"'I've enjoyed,' Henry says, 'watching these kids evolve, trying to make sure that what we're doing for them is the most constructive use of them in the long run. I don't care if they're in pain in week four, but I do care about their well-being at the end of week 20.'

"By their well-being, she means 'their potential as actors. If they can absorb the Shakespearean text, they can do just about any text.' Nor, obviously, can they all be expected to spend their entire careers at Stratford.

"Henry herself hasn't, though she's been a powerful presence there ever since playing Miranda in The Tempest in 1962, fresh from her own training. "It's very important to me that the students come out of this being productive members of the society and the community; that they're proactive-- terrible word--in rehearsals or in the running of a theatre. I want artistic directors, in any theatre in the world, to be glad to have them. No theatre school can teach what the Conservatory can -- being exposed to designers, cutters, lighting designers, what it's like to make a wig, how to treat dressers and stage managers -- that's with the assumption that they already have a natural graciousness. I had to learn all this by hook or by crook. Nobody said to me 'this is the way you say hello to a wig.'

"After checking my notes on this, I phoned her to ask if I had made a mistake. Didn't she mean, how to say hello to a wigmaker? 'No,' she said firmly. 'I want them to know how to talk to a wig.'"

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