Saturday, September 27, 2008

Interview: Graham Abbey

Richard Ouzounian interviews Stratford veteran Graham Abbey (click to get personal and see the timeline):

"Relax, fellow Canadians.

"You can sleep securely as long as Graham Abbey is standing on guard for thee, which he will continue to do as agent Gray Jackson in the popular CBC TV series The Border, which starts its second season Monday at 9 p.m.

"Four years ago at Stratford, I described him as 'boyishly handsome.' Abbey is 37 now and he has a leaner, meaner edge to his appearance. Underneath, he remains the nice guy he's always been.

"It's early on a misty morning and Abbey has been working since 6:30 a.m. at the former Rochester Ferry Terminal, home base for The Border's production.

"'What have I learned about myself on this show?' he asks rhetorically on a break. 'That I can get up at 4:30 a.m. and still function.'

"The scene being shot today is a low-key, largely informational affair, but during the dozen takes, Abbey keeps tightly focused, snapping out his lines with just the right measure of casual tension, then relaxing as lights are reset and cameras adjusted.

"'For me, there's one basic thing that took getting used to,' says the veteran of nine seasons playing leading roles at the Stratford Festival.

"'It's that when you're performing in the theatre, it's dark and everyone disappears. Here on TV, when you're ready to go, suddenly 40 people with booms appear.'

"Throughout his career, Abbey has had a knack for learning where to seek the best counsel. In this case he turned to Colm Feore, who can play Coriolanus at Stratford or appear on the upcoming season of 24 with equal skill.

"'Colm gave me great advice,' recalls Abbey. 'He told me to remember that the actual size of the Festival stage is so intimate that you don't have to change your performance style that much from stage to screen.'

"Watching Abbey breaking hearts and taking prisoners as the complicated Gray Jackson in The Border, it's obvious he's learned his lessons well.

"The series is on one level an exciting drama about the people guarding the Canada-U.S. border, but it also manages to work a fair bit of social and political commentary into its scripts. Abbey enjoys that a lot.

"'This show presents a great forum for Canadians to debate and think about what that border means. Usually we hear the voices from the south, so it's nice to give voice to our point of view as well.'

"During the first season, Abbey mainly dealt with what he calls 'the action stuff,' which gave him enough to worry about.

"'I joked with the guys on the show that I spent 10 years learning how to fight with a sword, and now I have to learn how to carry a gun.'

"Having done a convincing job of that, Abbey has been rewarded by having the scripts delve more deeply into his personal life.

"'Nick Campbell has been brought on to play my dad, which is great. On stage, I learned from Bill Hutt. Here on TV, I'm learning from Nick. You don't get luckier than that.'

"This year he also gets a relationship with Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica).

"Abbey jokes, 'Hey, you even get to see my apartment. You look at the set they've designed for the first time, and you say, Oh, that's what my character is supposed to be like!'

"Besides dealing with the pressures of filming the second season of his first TV series, Abbey has had to deal with some major joys and sorrows in the past few months.

"The joys came in August, when he married his former Stratford colleague Michelle Giroux. 'We were very dear friends who finally fell in love and decided to get married,' says Abbey of the woman he's known for over a decade. 'I don't know what suddenly shifted in my mind, I can't explain it. All I'm sure of is that it was the right thing to do.'

"The story of their proposal is classic Abbey, combining romantic bravado with adolescent insecurity.

"'I thought Ireland would be a nice place to propose and I knew we were planning a trip there. So I bought the ring and carried it with me.

"'We climbed up this high mountain and looked down on this beautiful vista – it's where they shot Braveheart, actually – and all the way up I kept thinking, It's going to be a long walk down if she says no.'

"Fortunately, she didn't, and they tied the knot in August.

"Only a few weeks later, Abbey faced the loss of one of the main influences in his life. Richard Monette, who had been artistic director at Stratford during Abbey's time there, died on Sept. 9 at the age of 64.

"'So many of us have him to thank for our careers,' begins Abbey, his emotions held in check. 'I wouldn't be an actor if it wasn't for him. He brought me up there, he fought for me, he kept me there...'

"Despite his best intentions, his voice thickens and the tears start flooding his eyes. 'Damn it, I thought I'd be better at this,' he says. 'I always meant to thank him, really thank him, but those moments go by in a flash and before you know it, they're gone.'

"A small smile breaks through. 'He used to watch The Border and told me he was proud of me doing it. So I'd like to think this season is for him.'"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Earnest Cast

In the most recent bit of news for the 2009 season (since it was announced that Colm Feore is returning), we learn that Brian Bedford will both direct and star in The Importance of Being Earnest. Bedford will play Lady Bracknell.

Also in the cast are Ben Carlson as Jack, Stephen Ouimette as the Reverend Canon Chasuble, Mike Shara as Algernon, and Sara Topham as Gwendolyn.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Public Monette Memorial

A public memorial for Richard Monette, who died Tuesday, is scheduled for October 20 at 7 PM in the Festival Theatre.

A private funeral is scheduled for next week.

His family requests that donations be made through the Festival to the Richard Monette Travel Grant for Artists Fund.

Cimolino Remembers Monette

Antoni Cimolino writes in a special to the Globe and Mail:

"You arrive in the snow; you leave in the snow.

"Those were the words Richard Monette used every year to welcome the Stratford Shakespeare Festival company. Eventually, the veterans in the company would lead the newcomers in raising their voices to complete the sentence: '… we leave in the snow.'

"It was literally true: Festival rehearsals begin in the darkest days of February, and performances usually end by early November – just as the first snows start in Stratford, Ont. But over the years, I came to realize that Richard wasn't just talking about the weather. A Festival season has a cycle, and the lives of our artists follow that cycle.

"So, too, over the course of 64 years, did Richard's own life.

"We begin our work in the cold, in adversity. As Lear says, 'The first time that we smell the air,/We wawl and cry. . . . When we are born, we cry that we are come /To this great stage of fools.'

"Richard was born into adversity. His Italian-immigrant mother and French-Canadian father had little money and an abundance of personal problems. His aspiration to be a classical actor was an unlikely one. But he was determined, and at 19, to everyone's surprise, he landed the part of Hamlet at Toronto's Crest Theatre.

"The reviews were famously bad. The first line of the Telegraph review, titled Hamlet – A Tragedy, read: 'Stop reading right here if you happen to be Richard Monette.' Still, many of his future friends, including Martha Henry and William Hutt, saw the potential in his performance.

"The following year, Richard won a place in the Festival company. On the first day of rehearsals, Bill Hutt stood on the Festival stage, opened his arms and said, 'Welcome home, Richard.' For many years thereafter, Stratford would indeed be his home. Spring was in the air.

"As we begin rehearsals each year at the Festival, the weather begins to warm, energizing us as we examine those great texts, and shedding light on their darker corners. We work toward opening week, a time of great excitement and accomplishment that ushers in the longest days of the year. For Richard, joining the Festival was just such a time of growth and dreams coming true.

"Like so many actors, Richard was shy. For him, performance was a mask to hide behind – and he realized early on that this was holding him back. He tackled the problem by going to Britain and joining the cast of the nude cabaret, Oh! Calcutta!, a cure most people would consider extreme. But this was just one example of his commitment to improving himself as an artist. His library is stocked with a wide variety of well-worn books, their pages full of passages he has underlined. From philosophy to painting to architecture, Richard was forever developing his mind to serve his art.

"Above all, it is his voice that I will never forget. Those warm, deep tones reflected his kindness and generosity. They also had an edge that could cut glass, an edge he would use to expose the ridiculous or to affectionately poke fun. That voice was the channel of an electric energy and wit; to be around Richard was to have the circus come to town – every day.

"I first heard it in the 1970s as a teenager attending a matinee performance of Love's Labour's Lost at the Festival Theatre. A comedy about four pairs of adolescent boys and girls, this is a dense piece, filled with intricate wordplay. As I sat there waiting for it to begin, how could I know it was about to change my life? Then the lights dimmed, and out came an actor who made that difficult language as clear and simple as if it had been written that very day.

"Suddenly, I realized that my own adolescent fears and hopes had been anticipated by a writer called Shakespeare some 400 years before. And I wasn't alone. As I looked around me, I saw 2,200 others, mostly grownups, former adolescents, laughing along with me at Richard Monette's luminous performance. For the first time in my life, I understood my profound connection to humanity both past and present.

"Seeing what he could accomplish, it dawned on me that I, too, had to be part of this magnificent festival. So I went home and told my parents that I wasn't going to law school after all; I was going to be an actor. Some would say Richard Monette has a lot to answer for.

"As I followed his career, I marvelled at Richard's daring. He spoke clearly in a Canadian voice at a time when our country was still finding its own voice in the theatre. Whether he was performing at Stratford, or at the Tarragon in Toronto, in new plays or classics, he spoke to be understood. And being understood with nuance and vulnerability, he made enormous successes of new works such as Hosanna and Judgement.

"He was far away from the snows now, approaching the best of summer.

"In 1988, when I eventually joined the Festival company, Richard was directing his now-famous production of The Taming of the Shrew. He had decided to set this difficult play in Italy of the early 1950s, à la La Dolce Vita. I wasn't in the production, but I asked if I could audit rehearsals when I was free.

"Here was magic in the making. An extraordinary cast and a director on his first major assignment – filled with energy, detailed direction and passion. If Richard had a secret to his success, it was his faith and trust in his actors. The confidence he instilled in them was the key to one of the simplest yet most extraordinary characteristics of any Monette production: You always understood what the actors were saying.

"The opening night of Shrew was a revelation for its fresh, romantic and deliciously funny approach. It was clear to me even then that here was someone who should be the Festival's artistic director.

"In many ways, summer is when the Festival is at its best. Most productions have opened, the company has developed cohesion, and new excitement is building as rehearsals get under way for the late opener. Likewise, Richard's life was now in full summer.

"The early years of his tenure, and those immediately leading up to them, were extraordinary for their fast pace and magnificent volume of activity. I had started to work as an assistant director at the Festival, and after I played Romeo opposite Megan Follows in his 1992 production of Romeo and Juliet, Richard asked me to assist him on Antony and Cleopatra. From that time, a trust was forged between us that lasted for the rest of his life.

"I remember the early tests of Richard's resolve. During one crisis, Colm Feore, his eyes twinkling, told me, ;They can push Richard only so far before his sharp, pointy teeth come out.' Richard was tenacious through it all, determined to assemble the finest actors and the most interesting projects. I remember sitting in his garden, helping him plan renovations to the Festival and Avon theatres, and the creation of a new, fourth space, the Studio Theatre.

"We became great friends. He became godfather to my children, Sophia and Gabriel. Looking now at the photos of baptisms, birthdays and Christmases, I see that Richard was the ideal 'uncle' to any child. He never missed a birthday; he took childlike joy in celebrating Valentine's Day and Easter. He gave cooking lessons to my son and had long talks with my daughter.

"Looking at those photographs, I also see how rapidly he aged. From morning to night he thought only of the Festival; the role of artistic director literally consumed him. After his farewell gala at the Festival Theatre in September, 2007, a night of performance and tribute with such warmth from so many extraordinary artists, fall was certainly in the air.

"Fall in Stratford is bittersweet. As the plays finish their runs, the question of what happens tomorrow arises more regularly; actors wonder if they will return next season. The days shorten and the leaves fall in anticipation of the snows that come early in Perth County.

"Richard's health began to decline. The theatre lifestyle of heavy smoking, martinis and late nights had taken its toll. He was suffering from severe peripheral vascular disease, which made him virtually immobile and in constant pain. There was also evidence of possible lung cancer, and it was during his consultation with the oncologist that the pulmonary embolus struck.

"When he came to our home for dinner the Sunday before his death, he was more mobile and witty than he'd been in the past couple of years. My children commented that he looked five years younger.

"We arrive in the snow, we leave in the snow. Richard did not wait for the snow. Perhaps, seeing the extreme weather of winter approaching, he decided to leave us while it was still Indian summer.

"As a family, we have decided that he has now joined a brilliant theatre company. We imagine him sitting with his great friends Kate Reid, Susan Wright and Nicholas Pennell, while Bill Hutt opens his arms and says, 'Welcome home, Richard.'"

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Share Your Memories of Monette

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is inviting friends, patrons, and admirers to share their memories of actor, director, and longstanding Artistic Director Richard Monette.

I encourage you all to leave a comment.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Richard Monette Dies

I regret having to report this. Here's the official press release from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival:

"It is with profound sadness that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announces the death last night of Richard Monette, the longest-serving artistic director in its history. Mr. Monette, whose tenure lasted for 14 seasons, from 1994 to 2007, died of a pulmonary embolus in hospital in London, Ontario. He was 64 years old.

"'I remember first seeing Richard on the Stratford Festival stage as Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost,' said the Festival’s general director, Antoni Cimolino. 'He was brilliant – so brilliant that it changed my life and I’m sure the lives of many, many others. He made one of the most difficult parts in Shakespeare seem effortless and a joy. And so he did for the all the great roles he played, from Hamlet to Hosanna.

"'As an actor, a director and finally as an artistic director, he was singular. His love for the Festival was the centre of his being. His accomplishments as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival have set the standard by which all others will be judged.'

"'I am deeply distressed by our dear friend Richard’s death,' added the Festival’s current artistic director, Des McAnuff. 'I have been Richard’s ardent fan since I first saw him in Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre production of Hosanna, in which he was utterly virtuosic. He was a brilliant actor, a gifted director, an inspiring artistic director and a great Canadian. I will sorely miss his wit, his insight, his advice and especially the warmth and wisdom that were among his many distinguished attributes. The entire Stratford Shakespeare Festival family is in mourning, and we will not fill the immense void left by the loss of our beloved artistic statesman anytime soon.'

"Richard Monette was born in Montreal in 1944, the son of a French-Canadian father and an Italian mother. He attended Loyola College (now Concordia University), where he appeared in several student productions before making his professional stage debut at the age of 19, playing Hamlet for the Crest Theatre in Toronto.

"His first Stratford season was in 1965, when he appeared in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and in Julius Caesar. After two more seasons at the Festival, he joined a new company, Theatre Toronto, and went to Broadway with its production of the controversial Rolf Hochhuth play Soldiers, before deciding to seek new opportunities in the United Kingdom.

"There he performed in open-air theatre in Regent’s Park, London, and toured with the Welsh National Theatre. In 1970, he was in the original cast of Kenneth Tynan’s groundbreaking erotic revue Oh! Calcutta!, and in 1972 he became a member of Charles Marowitz’s experimental Open Space company.

"Returning to Canada later that same year, he spent two seasons at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto before securing what would prove to be his breakthrough role: the transvestite title character in the English-language première of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna. His electrifying performance in that production, which also transferred to Broadway, made him a Canadian star and led Stratford’s then artistic director, Robin Phillips, to invite him back to the Festival – this time as a leading man.

"Over the next decade and a half, he played a variety of major Shakespearean roles – among them his second Hamlet, in 1976 – as well as starring in the one-man play Judgement. He also appeared in many TV productions, and in such feature films as Iceman (1984) and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987).

"In 1988, he turned his focus to directing, scoring an immense hit with his first major production, The Taming of the Shrew. He went on to direct more than 40 Festival productions, in addition to working at other theatres across the country. He won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for his 1990 production of Saint Joan at Theatre Plus, and in 1991 he directed Beethoven’s Fidelio for the Canadian Opera Company.

"His appointment as artistic director, succeeding David William, was announced in June 1992. His first season, in 1994, produced a dramatic turnaround in the Festival’s economic fortunes, turning an accumulated deficit into an $800,000 surplus. That success continued throughout his tenure, which was marked by record levels of attendance, reaching an all-time high of 672,924 admissions in 2002, the Festival’s 50th season.

"Memorable productions he directed during his tenure included a multi-racial Twelfth Night in 1994; productions of King Lear (1996) and The Tempest (1999 and 2005) with William Hutt in the title role; his first musical, Camelot, in 1997; Much Ado About Nothing and The Miser, both of which transferred to New York’s City Center; a hitherto unproduced four-act version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in 2000; and the first production of a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe to appear at the Festival: Edward II in 2005.

"Other artistic highlights of his tenure included Diana Leblanc’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1994 and 1995), later made into an award-winning film by Rhombus Media; Brian Bedford’s 1996 production of Waiting for Godot; and the world première of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex (2000), directed by Martha Henry and also subsequently filmed. His tenure also saw extensive renovations of the Festival and Avon theatres; the founding of the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre; the establishment of a formal program of new play development; the creation of a long-dreamed-of fourth venue, the Studio Theatre; and the building of a $50-million endowment.

"A recipient of the Queen’s Golden and Silver Jubilee Medals, Mr. Monette received honorary doctorates from the universities of Windsor and Western Ontario, and from his alma mater, Concordia University. He was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1997, and in 2006 he received the Herbert Whittaker Drama Bench Award for Outstanding Contribution to Canadian Theatre from the Canadian Drama Theatre Critics Association.

"His retirement in 2007 was marked by a gala celebration of his tenure in the Festival Theatre, an exhibition on his life and career, and the publication of his memoir This Rough Magic: The Making of an Artistic Director.

"Mr. Monette leaves behind his brother, Mark, and Mark’s wife, Judy, along with many friends, colleagues and admirers. Details of a memorial service to be held at the Festival Theatre will be announced at a later date. "

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Feore is Macbeth, Cyrano

CBC News reports:

"Stage veteran Colm Feore has been tapped to play two leading roles for 2009, Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac.

"'I can think of no actor that is better equipped in terms of his talent and his skill set than our leading player, Colm Feore,' festival artistic director Des McAnuff said Tuesday. McAnuff will be directing Macbeth.

"'I have wanted to work with Colm for more than 25 years, and I can't believe my good fortune in getting to work with him on this extraordinary role in one of my favourite plays.'

"Feore is considered one of the country's foremost actors. In 2007, he was given the Award of Distinction at the Banff World Television Festival.

"Feore's stage credits include leading roles in Don Juan (in both English and French), Coriolanus, Hamlet, Richard III, My Fair Lady and an earlier production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

"Feore will be directed in Cyrano de Bergerac by Donna Feore, his wife.

"The couple has done previous Stratford collaborations, including Oliver!, Don Juan and My Fair Lady, for which she served as choreographer.

"Feore is also a star of the screen. He portrayed former prime minister Pierre Trudeau on the miniseries Trudeau, capturing a best actor Gemini.

"He'll play the husband of the U.S. president in the upcoming season of the hit TV series 24.

"Feore's film credits include Paycheck, Chicago, The Deal, The Red Violin, Bon Cop, Bad Cop and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould."