Festival mourns the loss of actor Wayne Robson

April 6, 2011

April 5, 2011 … The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is deeply saddened to announce that company member Wayne Robson has passed away peacefully at his home.

After a long and varied career, Mr. Robson was to make his Stratford debut this season as Grampa in The Grapes of Wrath.

“In the brief period since Wayne joined the Festival company, he very quickly became close to us all with his enthusiasm, good humour and enormous talent,” said General Director Antoni Cimolino. “He was generous in sharing stories from his past and from his vast experience in theatre across many countries dating back to the 1960s. He was immensely practical and yet a true imaginative child of the stage light.

“His work as Grampa had us both in stitches and in tears. Within The Grapes of Wrath, Grampa dies suddenly and his loss forever leaves a mark on the Joad family. So too does Wayne’s parting leave a gap in our Festival family.”

“I first met Wayne Robson more than 30 years ago,” said Artistic Director Des McAnuff, “when I offered him a part in A Mad World, My Masters at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto – which he had to turn down in order to accept a role in Robert Altman’s movie Popeye. I’d been looking for another opportunity to work with him ever since, so I was naturally delighted when he agreed to join our 2011 company.

“Now I am utterly heartbroken that he has been taken from us so prematurely, with such an important contribution still to make. Wayne was an outstanding artist who had a diverse and accomplished career on stage, in film and on television, and his loss will be heavily felt not only here in Stratford but across our country.”

The Festival will dedicate this season’s production of The Grapes of Wrath to the memory of Mr. Robson.

Mr. Robson appeared in over 100 theatre productions in Canada, 30 feature films and 120 television productions, including 12 seasons as Mike Hamar on The Red Green Show. Last November he played Morrie in Tuesdays with Morrie at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. He won Gemini Awards for his roles as Wally in And Then You Die and Christie Logan in The Diviners, a Dora Award for his portrayal of Stan in Walking the Tightrope at Theatre Direct and a Blizzard Award in Manitoba for his work in The Diviners. He also received Genie nominations for his roles as Shorty in The Grey Fox and Hank in Bye Bye Blues, and was named Actor of the Year by the Vancouver Sun.

In his 65th year, Mr. Robson leaves behind his children Ivy and Louis; their mother Lynn; and many, many friends and colleagues in theatre, film and television.


Festival mourns the loss of actor Peter Donaldson

January 20, 2011

Peter Donaldson

January 9, 2001 … The Stratford Shakespeare Festival was deeply saddened to learn of the death of actor Peter Donaldson on Saturday, January 8, 2011. Mr. Donaldson was to return to the Festival this year for his 25th season, playing Buckingham in Richard III and Marcus Andronicus in Titus Andronicus.

“Peter was the finest actor’s actor,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino, who worked with Mr. Donaldson on many productions. “He was deeply admired for the conviction he brought to his work and the unsparing truth of his portrayals. He was versatile and able to give outstanding performances in modern plays, musicals and classics. But his home was Shakespeare.”

““He spent a lifetime at the Stratford Festival and gave us a world of great performances. His Timon of Athens made a seldom-performed part unforgettable and was a tour de force of virtuosity. But this was only one of many brilliant performances at Stratford.”

Mr. Donaldson was last seen on the Stratford stage in 2008, when he played Rufio in Caesar and Cleopatra and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, both under the direction of Artistic Director Des McAnuff, and Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, under the direction of Michael Langham, the Festival’s artistic director from 1956 to 1967.

“I was looking forward immensely to Peter’s return to our company for what was to have been his 25th season, and I am shocked and saddened by his untimely passing,” says Mr. McAnuff.

“He was one of those rare actors who excelled at everything he touched, able to sound the depths of tragic emotion even as he delighted us with his flair for wryly deadpan comedy. No one who enjoyed his stellar performances at Stratford and elsewhere could have doubted that even greater triumphs lay ahead of him, and our sorrow is all the deeper when we think of the King Lear or the Prospero we might someday have seen him play but now have lost forever.”

“Peter leaves those of us at the Festival with a tremendous sense of responsibility because we know he held this theatre in the highest possible esteem.”

Mr. Donaldson was born and raised in Midland, Ontario, and attended performances at the Stratford Festival as a high-school student. A graduate of the University of Guelph, Mr. Donaldson began at the Festival in 1977 as a journeyman actor, playing Potpan in Romeo and Juliet and the Page to Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well. He remained for three seasons, and then moved on to study in New York under Uta Hagen, Stella Adler and Olympia Dukakis, and to perform at a number of Canadian theatres, including the Shaw Festival, Toronto Free Theatre and London’s Grand Theatre.

After a single season at Stratford in 1982, Mr. Donaldson returned in 1986, growing into one of the Festival’s most versatile and admired leading men. Over 12 seasons, he gave such memorable performances as Jaques in As You Like It, both Kent and Edgar in productions of King Lear, Guy Thompson in Homeward Bound, Boy Staunton in World of Wonders and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, opposite Lucy Peacock’s Katherina.

One of his many stand-out performances came in 1994, when he was part of a remarkable ensemble, playing James Tyrone Jr., in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with William Hutt, Martha Henry, Tom McCamus and Martha Burns, under the direction of Diana Leblanc. He reprised the role in a film version, winning a Genie for Best Supporting Actor. After that performance, he appeared in Atom Egoyan’s film The Sweet Hereafter.

From 1995 to 1999, he worked on the television series Emily of New Moon, in which he played Ian Bowles opposite his wife, Sheila McCarthy, who played Aunt Laura. They had also performed together on stage, in the Grand Theatre’s 1992 production of Norm Foster’s Wrong For Each Other.

In 2001, Mr. Donaldson again returned to Stratford to play Malvolio in Twelfth Night (directed by Mr. Cimolino), George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Trigorin in The Seagull. The following year, he was joined on stage by Ms McCarthy for the Festival’s 50th season. They performed as husband and wife in two productions, playing Mr. and Mrs. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera and Sir Percival Blakeney and Marguerite in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Aside from The Threepenny Opera, Mr. Donaldson’s foray into musical theatre, included playing Harry the Horse in 1990’s Guys and Dolls (a production that featured Ms McCarthy as Adelaide), Horace Vandergelder in 2005’s Hello Dolly!, again opposite Lucy Peacock, and the Mysterious Man and Narrator in Into the Woods that same year.

Mr. Donaldson’s position as one of the finest classical actors of his generation was solidified with such significant performances as Mark Antony in the 2003 production of Antony and Cleopatra, featuring Diane D’Aquila as Cleopatra; his unforgettable portrayal of Timon of Athens in 2004, truly a piece of theatre history; Benedick in 2006’s Much Ado About Nothing, once again opposite Lucy Peacock; and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird in 2007.

“Peter’s work and career reminded me of William Hutt,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Like Bill, in his mid-life Peter was now coming into the best, deepest and richest part of his talent. We will not know exactly what we have lost from his sad early passing. We are only left to wonder and mourn.”

Mr. Donaldson died of lung cancer in hospital in Toronto, surrounded by his family and friends. He is survived by his wife, Sheila McCarthy, and daughters Mackenzie and Drew. His loss is deeply felt by members of his extended theatre family, who cherish him as a remarkable talent and friend.

Festival mourns the loss of Michael Langham

January 19, 2011

Michael Langham

It was with profound sadness that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival learned of the death of Michael Langham, the Festival’s Artistic Director from 1956 to 1967. Mr. Langham, 91, failed to recover from a chest infection contracted before Christmas and died at home near Cranbrook, Kent, at midnight on January 15.

Tyrone Guthrie, the Festival’s founding artistic director, passed the reins to Mr. Langham in 1956. What Mr. Langham inherited was a summer Shakespeare festival in a tent. Within a year he had overseen the building of the permanent Festival Theatre. He went on to extend the season and introduce student matinees. He established the Stratford Music Festival, originally founded under the leadership of Louis Applebaum, and introduced musical directors such as Glenn Gould. He advocated the purchase and renovation of the Avon Theatre and launched North America’s first film festival. In 1962 he worked with Tanya Moiseiwitsch to modify her original design for the Festival Theatre stage, making possible a more dynamic approach to productions there. During these years he also contributed to the establishment of the Canada Council and the National Theatre School.

“Michael Langham was one of the true giants of 20th-century international theatre. For that matter, in the 21st century he was still directing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, staging Love’s Labour’s Lost right before his 90th birthday in 2008,” says Artistic Director Des McAnuff.

“While great credit rightfully goes to Tyrone Guthrie as Stratford’s founding artistic father, it is important to recognize Michael as the intellectual architect of this theatre’s artistic policy. It was Michael who articulated the approach to Shakespeare’s text – a philosophy he described as ‘living thought’ – that to this day forms the aesthetic foundation of the classical work done at Stratford.”

Says General Director Antoni Cimolino: “For so many of us, for so long, and for the Stratford Festival as a whole, Michael was our father. It was Michael’s vision and attention that enabled Stratford to stand and grow as an institution of international renown.

“Michael Langham had a shrewd eye for talent. His commitment to so many young, untried but promising actors created Canadian theatre – Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid, Bruno Gerussi, Douglas Rain, William Hutt, Martha Henry, Christopher Newton and Richard Monette, among so many more.”

Mr. Langham’s directorial mastery of the thrust stage gave Stratford an extraordinary succession of stage triumphs. His Henry V in 1956 vaulted Christopher Plummer to the world stage and introduced William Shatner to prominence. He also brought the incomparable designer Desmond Heeley into the Stratford fold with Hamlet in 1957.

“Michael Langham more than anyone – even Tyrone Guthrie – solidified, matured and transformed the Stratford Festival into the finest theatre company in North America,” says Mr. Plummer. “He also gave me, quite literally, my career. Without his talent, taste, intellect and wit, God knows where I might have gone with my life. I owe him buckets for his wisdom, his deep friendship and astonishing loyalty – and so does North America, whose culture he so enriched.”

Adds Mr. McAnuff: “Michael Langham was, without question, one of the greatest directors of his generation, mounting glorious production after production of significant and memorable works. His ingenious stagings of Henry V and Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Christopher Plummer, were quite simply the stuff of legend.”

For Timon of Athens in 1963, with John Colicos in the title role, Mr. Langham featured music from jazz great Duke Ellington and a dazzling modern design from Brian Jackson, bringing new meaning to a rarely produced Shakespearean play. He tackled it again in 1991 with Brian Bedford in the title role. That production transferred to Broadway in 1993, winning three Tony nominations for best director, best actor and best revival of a play.

“We’ve lost a great man of the theatre,” says Mr. Bedford, who worked with Mr. Langham on a number of other productions in Stratford and the U.S. “Michael Langham was a great influence on me. He was a meticulous director and was relentless in his pursuit of an interpretation of a play. He put productions together like a sort of mosaic, paying tremendous attention to what we might think of as minutiae. It drove some people crazy but I don’t think I worked with him on a single production that wasn’t a tremendous success.”

Mr. Langham first directed what would become his signature work, Love’s Labour’s Lost, at Stratford in 1961. He directed the play three more times at Stratford in addition to productions elsewhere. In 2008 at Stratford, he directed what would be his last production, and fittingly it was Love’s Labour’s Lost. It featured the members of the Birmingham Conservatory, allowing him to touch a new generation of actors with his searing discipline and insightful direction.

“Rehearsal days with Michael were long, arduous but always rewarding,” says Mr. Cimolino, who worked with Mr. Langham on Timon of Athens and Measure for Measure. “No one left unscathed. From the stars to the apprentices, we were all pushed to our limits. At day’s end our reward might be to hear him mutter, ‘Well that was promising.’ Yet we all returned eager to see what the next day’s work would bring. So often it was marvellous.”

Mr. Langham’s 1962 redesign of the Festival’s thrust stage served to establish the famous diagonals between the downstage tunnels and the upstage entrances. He became the master of this stage, with an uncanny instinct for organizing movement on it to allow for perfect focus at each point in a play. It was one more in a series of accomplishments that established the Festival as a cultural leader.

“By the time Michael resigned his artistic directorship in 1967, he had steered the Stratford Festival to the undisputed position it has held ever since: the leading classical theatre in North America,” says Michael Bawtree, founder of the Atlantic Theatre Festival, in Wolfville, N.S., a former associate director at the Festival, and a dramaturge and assistant director to Mr. Langham. Mr. Bawtree later brought Mr. Langham to Wolfville to direct a number of productions, some co-directed by his wife, Helen Burns.

Mr. Langham was Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse in California in the 1960s during its dormant period when plans were being made for a world-class facility. Mr. Langham moved on from La Jolla in 1971 to become artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where he served until 1977. La Jolla Playhouse finally opened in 1983 under the direction of Mr. McAnuff, who served there for more than 20 years.
Mr. Langham also served as the Director of the Juilliard School’s Drama Division in New York, from 1979 to 1992, and continued to direct at Stratford and elsewhere. He was working on a book on his life in the theatre at the time of his death.

“Michael deserves much recognition for his key role as a leader in Canadian national theatre,” says Mr. McAnuff. “During the 1950s and ’60s, he mentored many theatre artists who went on to pioneer our country’s resident and alternative theatre scene. As a mentor and teacher, he had a profound effect on my own career: he called me after seeing a New York production of mine in 1978 and invited me to teach in the Drama Program at the Juilliard School, which he headed at the time. As I got to know him, he encouraged me to direct Shakespeare. Michael’s inspiration and my high regard for his work led me to follow in his footsteps as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I will greatly miss our meetings and his sage advice. I know for certain that I am not alone.

Concludes Mr. Cimolino: “While Michael Langham oversaw the building of our permanent theatre, he built something more important than bricks and mortar – he secured Stratford’s artistic foundations. The extraordinary example he set will guide us all in the important work ahead.”
To honour Mr. Langham’s legacy, the Festival established the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction in 2009. The inaugural session was held during the 2010 season.

The Festival will dedicate the 2011 season to Mr. Langham.

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Festival mourns the passing of beloved artistic director Richard Monette

September 10, 2008

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.”

Shares your thoughts and memories about Richard Monette.