Articles

Canadian theatre’s fiery godmother

Now that our theatre’s out of the garret to stay, Dora Mavor Moore looks at her fledgling with pride and anxiety and an occasional sigh for the rewards of poverty

BARBARA MOON February 15 1958
Articles

Canadian theatre’s fiery godmother

Now that our theatre’s out of the garret to stay, Dora Mavor Moore looks at her fledgling with pride and anxiety and an occasional sigh for the rewards of poverty

BARBARA MOON February 15 1958

Canadian theatre’s fiery godmother

BARBARA MOON

Now that our theatre’s out of the garret to stay, Dora Mavor Moore looks at her fledgling with pride and anxiety and an occasional sigh for the rewards of poverty

After generations of fitful flickering existence, Canadian theatre seems finally to have kindled.

Canadian actors and actresses are snug by the hearth now, what with television, a Shakespeare Festival at Stratford. Ont., a festival drama presentation in B. C. this year, new production groups springing up in the cities and dozens of straw-hat outfits competing for the summer trade. A top actor at last can earn at least six hundred dollars for a week’s work on stage, and as much as a thousand dollars for a single TV appearance. Canadian emigre stars are even being lured home to warm their hands at the blaze. A Stratford touring company, a Théâtre du Nouveau Monde company and two troupes of Canadian Players are off with rush-lights for foreign lands.

But there’s one theatrical worker who dislikes, distrusts and disapproves of all this radiant new professionalism. She is a doughty sixtynine-year-old Toronto dowager named Dora Mavor Moore. She is also the person who probably did more than any other to tend the low flame through the cold years.

For nearly four decades Mrs. Moore has taught theatre arts and staged performances of one kind or another so unflaggingly as to suggest that her ambition is for every Canadian either to be putting on a play or watching one every night at 8.30—but not for money. “I hate

like billy-o the whole idea of charging even $2.50 for a theatre seat,” she snaps. “Theatre is for the masses.”

Mrs. Moore has given drama lessons to tots, grandmothers, juvenile delinquents and a group of Anglican deaconesses. As evidence of her belief that anybody is the better for putting on a play she has, tor several Christmases, staged a medieval mystery, using talent from the mental hospital at Whitby. Ont. But when any of her actors gets good enough to go on the open market she's apt to dismiss him curtly: “He'll do anything for a dollar,” she'll say.

Twelve years ago she founded the New Play Society, a non-profit theatrical workshop and drama school in Toronto. The NPS put on Morley Callaghan’s To Tell the Truth, the first Canadian play ever to be booked into the Royal Alexandra in Toronto. Canada's premier professional theatre. The NPS has given professional production, among scores of imports, to a dozen original Canadian plays, plus ten annual versions of an original topical revue called Spring Thaw. Spring Thaw holds the Canadian theatrical long-run record, having been held over in the same Toronto theatre last year for fifteen weeks.

The NPS has also launched or endorsed so many new talents that it's hard to name members of the new highly paid Canadian showbusiness elite who haven’t worked for Mrs. Moore. The list includes Donald Davis, Gisèle MacKenzie, Don Harron. Lome Green, Dianne Foster and Bernie and Barbara Braden. I wo thirds ot the entire Stratford Festival cast, the first season, were NPS alumni.

Most of them remember—ruefully, bitterly or indulgently—that they used to haggle unsuccessfully for more money with Mrs. Moore every time they accepted another part.

Bv virtue of her credentials, Mrs. Moore is Canadian theatre's exacting, exasperating, autocratic, fiercely dedicated grande dame. She is also an unrepentant anachronism.

A bright-eyed matriarch with the commanding proportions—and

the attack — of a classic diva, she begged, browbeat, improvised, scrimped, borrowed, wheedled and worked for years to keep the theatre alive. She can't seem to stop now. She herself works for only eighty-five dollars a month, and refuses to take even that if the society's funds are low.

Mrs. Moore used to put on classical productions costumed entirely in crepe paper and, when there was no money for crepe paper, presented Shakespeare in modern dress.

For nearly a decade she used an old barn on her own property as a theatre, and perched the overflow audience in the rafters. Now the New Play Society has just moved from an abandoned coach house into an abandoned school wing—and Mrs. Moore is thrilled because it has a gymnasium that will seat three hundred and fifty. The coach house had no stage at all and for eleven years all NPS plays were presented in rented quarters, first in a tiny theatre in the basement of the Royal Ontario Museum and latterly in a converted movie house.

Mrs. Moore has gone down on hands and knees to scrub a stage before the evening's performance; she has torn up her own dresses to make costumes and lent family heirlooms as stage props.

In the recent NPS move Mrs. Moore caught a helper discarding a battered and ancient Brownie toadstool, veteran of two decades of make-believe woodland scenes. "Don't throw that out." she said sharply. "It might come in handy.”

A grandmother with three grown sons, she has hawked the sheet music for Spring I haw tunes in the theatre lobby at intermission. She even went into court once for the cause. When the New Play Society was threatened with a business tax seven years ago, the society's own counsel said she had a better chance of confounding the city's lawyers than a mere professional man. He was right. She made so formidable an advocate that in just twenty minutes' pleading she got the NPS excused from the tax. In 1953 the society was continued on page 52

continued on page 52

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“In the theatre,” Dora Mavor Moore chided, “one only misses a performance for one’s own funeral”

incorporated as an educational, nonprofit. non-share corporation with Mrs. Moore as its managing director and director of education. There is also a benevolent unpaid board oi directors. The NPS is exempt from entertainment tax and exists on the proceeds of the drama school: the profits from Spring Thaw, its only sure-fire box-office presentation: the bounty of the Zonta Club, which has adopted NPS as a project and a sprinkling of donations from well-wishers.

In dismissing the business-tax case the Toronto magistrate remarked, "I don t think this woman's in it for profit."

Mrs. Moore is so personally careless of the profit motive that at least twice after voting her a salary, her board of directors has discovered she was not bothering to collect it. The $85 a month she is accepting at the moment is for a work week that often stretches to eighty hours and includes taking at least six of the NPS drama classes. She has more than once used her own meagre funds, in a crisis, to pay off NPS debts.

She expects every other worker in the theatre to be just like her. When a young Englishwoman with credentials from the costume department of Covent Garden applied for a job with NPS, Mrs. Moore turned her down. The girl said she was exclusively a costume designer. Mrs. Moore said, "Around here the managing director even scrubs floors if necessary." Mrs. Moore's official title is managing director of the NPS.

Charles Tisdall, an advertising executive and spare-time musician, recalls Mrs. Moore's hurt incredulity when he rejected her suggestion that he push Spring J'haw tunes in the lobby during the show’s intermissions. Tisdall, who now heads the unpaid NPS board of directors, was already donating his services as accompanist for the show.

Along with versatility and generosity. Mrs. Moore exacts a strict standard of theatrical conduct from her colleagues. When two members of Spring Thaw's cast last year requested time off to attend relatives' funerals, Mrs. Moore said crisply, "In the theatre one only misses a performance for one’s own funeral.” Mrs. Moore herself once conducted a fourhour rehearsal after a bad fall and didn’t notice, until she got home and felt faint, that she'd been working with several cracked ribs.

Her voice is the kind that novelists used to call "thrilling," with the rich chest tones and crisply flicked “r’s” of the trained elocutionist. She can use it to withering effect.

Before one performance a few years ago she discovered a bottle of whisky in the actors' dressing rooms. "To whom," she demanded coldly, "does this belong? The actors, to a man, studied the floor. She looked them over slowly. "Very well . . ,” she purred, and poured the whisky into the sink.

She does not abide tomfoolery during any show. One year actor Ted Follows

had to turn down the part of The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg in a parody pantomime the NPS was staging. During he second week of the run Follows paid a visit backstage and was coaxed, as a ark, into entering the goose-shape and joing on. Only his shins and feet proected below the elaborate papier-mâché shell but Mrs. Moore, sitting in the audi:nce, was not fooled. Awful in her wrath, -he swept backstage crying, “Who’s in .lie goose?”

The query is still quoted in Toronto beatifical circles as a classic.

Mrs. Moore has an equally overwhelming effect on non-professionals. One '1 oonto journalist had occasion to drop by he NPS offices on the afternoon of the premiere of Purvey, an army comedy adapted from Earl Birney’s book. "Be:ore I knew what had happened." she recalls dazedly, "I found myself driving all over Toronto, to the homes of perfect strangers, picking up army trench coats Mrs. Moore was borrowing to use in the show."

After several decades ol shoestring theatrical operation, Mrs. Moore is at least the equal of an army man at liberating materiel she covets for her shows, and considerably better than a stage magician at getting free assistance from the bystanders. Some inkling of how she does it was given recently by Bob Johnen, an NPS ex-business manager.

Mrs. Moore asked Johnson to move hto her house in northwest Toronto as caretaker one summer while she was away. The day before she was due back Johnson hired three friends to come and cut the grass. In the midst of the cleanup Mrs. Moore arrived back unexpectedly. Pausing only to unskewer her traveling hat. she joined the party as overseer.

As Johnson tells it, "One of the boys was taking his turn cutting the grass. She sent the other two next door to borrow an'extra lawn mower. I hen she turned to me and said, “You're not doing anything. You can pull weeds.' A tree on the property had blown down in a storm: when we finished the lawn and the weeds she had us all chopping firewood."

"And." Johnson adds with unselfish admiration, "1 was paying for it.

Mrs. Moore, who has occasionally been accused of demanding a little more unselfishness than her co-workers can strictly afford, makes a distinction between the professional theatre and the commercial theatre. In the commetcial theatre, people bother about money. "I've never bothered about money," says Mrs. Moore.

It is on this score that she periodically clashes with her second son — and probably her best-known production— James Mavor Moore. Moore, the only one of the three boys who has gone into the theatre, is a bald owlish man of thirty-nine with a remarkable record of versatility in the arts. Playwright, composer, actor, director, painter and poet, he has been associated with the New' Play Society on and ofl since its beginning.

He has produced all but one Spring Thaw and acted in a number of its most memorable plays. The NPS. in turn, has backed a number of his theatrical essays, including handsome productions of Sunshine Tour, a musical comedy adapted from Stephen Leacock, and I he Optimist. a musical comedy adapted trom Voltaire's Candide. Both w'ere financially disastrous, but Moore continues to believe that commercial theatre is more professional than shoestring theatre. Mrs. Moore believes no such thing.

They are, therefore, prey to moments of great professional exasperation with

each other, including one occasion over a year ago. when they booked rehearsals at the same hour on the stage the NPS was then renting. Mrs. Moore arrived first to rehearse some of her pupils in their closing class exercises but her son claimed priority because he was rehearsing The Optimist, a commercial production. They waged a memorable battle at one remove. offering icy arguments to the front-office manager for relay to each other and alternate commands to the house electrician to douse or raise the stage lights.

Mrs. Moore is indexible in her view that the theatre is more than mere commercial entertainment. In fact, she tends to regard it as a kind of welfare work, therapeutic to audience and cast alike. “ People cannot live without some form of expression,’ " she quotes British playwright Harley Granville-Barker. Consequently she has branched out extensively into the fields of adult education, mental health and social service. As part of its program the NPS has arranged lecture series on the theatre, produced dramas illustrating mental-health problems for

presentation at cost to the public and professional groups, and is now exploring a scheme for taking free plays around to Toronto playgrounds this summer.

"1 was brought up to be socially conscious,” she explains.

She was one of three children—and the only daughter — of Professor and Mrs. James Mavor. Mavor, a Highland Scot and a cousin to Scottish playwright James Bridie, was professor of political economics at the University of Toronto and a confirmed socialist. Dora, a pretty brown-eyed girl with a slim boyish fig-

lire anil a low lovely voice, grew up in an atmosphere of books, brilliant conversation and interesting unorthodox visitors, ranging from Prince Kropotkin to eighteen Doukhobors who dropped in one Sunday at dinnertime on their way to Ottawa.

She went to public school in Toronto and finishing school in Belgium, but flunked out of an arts course at the University of Toronto because she’d begun to devote most of her time to dramatics. She transferred to The Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression in Toronto and won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art —the first Canadian student to be enrolled.

Over assorted parental bribes and entreaties she proceeded from RADA first to a stock company in Ottawa and then to Now York to try her luck. After one or two minor roles she joined the company of Sir Philip Ben Greet.

Greet, an Englishman, was renowned for his then-daring pared-down productions of the classics, witli which he toured the North American hinterland on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits. Young Miss Mavor got her first big break when the leading lady fell ill and she was sent on in the role of Kate Hardcastle in School for Scandal.

She almost froze onstage the first night when Greet whispered a deliberate aside to her, apparently as a test of lier mettle. “You're too tall for this role,” he said. But she recovered and after the performance pitched her powder box full in his face, at which he nodded approvingly and said, “I think you'll make an actress.”

She toured with Greet’s company until the outbreak of World War I, then returned to Canada and married Francis Moore, a young clergyman. When he went overseas as a padre she followed him to England and in London re-encountered Greet, who had returned to become director of the Old Vic. Another leading lady fell ill and Greet summoned her to take the part of Viola in Twelfth Night. Mrs. Moore thus became one of the few Canadians ever to star at the Old Vic.

After the war the Moores returned to Toronto and, since she had no outlet there as a professional actress, Mrs. Moore turned to direction and drama coaching. She and her husband separated in 1928 and Mrs. Moore, with three

small sons to rear, plunged into an even heavier teaching schedule.

She lectured on dramatic expression at The Margaret Eaton School, Forest Hill Village School and in the University Extension Department. She directed the Hart House Touring Players, counselled in dramatics at girls’ camps in the summer, adjudicated drama festivals, staged plays, pageants and assorted entertainments for every conceivable kind of group, and taught speech and etiquette at the YWCA. “So long as they are clean and tidy and pleasant, clothes don’t matter much,” she told her classes.

By 1938 she had decided she liked working with teen-agers best of all and when a group of high-school graduates asked her to help them form a drama group she forthwith launched the Village Players, forerunner of the New Play Society. She had bought a charming hundred-and-forty-year-old log house in northwest Toronto and she converted a barn on the property into a playhouse.

It is possible to suspect that this was the kind of theatre Mrs. Moore liked best of all. No one got paid: everyone worked very hard both backstage and onstage; there were no unions to deal with; costumes, scenery and props were improvised but accurate; the company went around to schools with productions of the Shakespearean plays on the curriculum, so the community-service part was all right. And best of all, the players included some genuinely talented youngsters, including Mavor Moore, Barbara Kelly (Mrs. Bernard Braden) and, eventually, Don Harron.

In fact, the whole venture was so successful that in 1946 Mrs. Moore felt emboldened to form the New Play Society, on a non-profit basis. The drama school has since been added. The idea was to present genuinely artistic professional productions to the public and plow the proceeds into more productions.

In a series of highly successful seasons the NPS presented plays ranging from Oedipus the King to Charley’s Aunt and talent ranging from Lloyd Bochner to the Four Eads. In some highly unsuccessful seasons, it has since gone into — and climbed out of — holes as deep as thirtyfive thousand dollars.

The NPS even invented a tradition. In 1948 Mavor, as producer, planned to present an adaptation by writer Hugh Kemp of Hugh Maclennan’s Two Soli-

tudes. Two weeks before opening night it became obvious that Kemp was going to miss his deadline. Mavor decided that only a variety show could be assembled fast enough to fill in. He strip-mined the local scene for skit material and put together a fast, funny, topical revue spoofing Toronto and Torontonians. Called Spring Thaw, the show was such a hit that a second edition was presented in 1949. Further editions have raised equinoctial gales of laughter each year since then. They have also been the means of paying off some staggering deficits incurred by other NPS productions.

All in all. Mrs. Moore herself was something of a tradition hv 1952. trudging along Bloor Street toward the NPS offices, Queen Mary toque planted on head, galoshes flapping open, string shopping bag in hand; in the lobby during intermissions in her plum velvet and beads: in rehearsal hall in a white Russian smock embroidered in red. Even Tom Patterson, who didn’t know much about the theatre at the time, knew about Mrs. Moore.

He called and asked her whom he should see about getting a Shakespearean Festival going in Stratford, his home town.

Patterson called Tyrone Guthrie in Ireland on Mrs. Moore’s telephone (and forgot to pay her the charges), and pul Guthrie up at Mrs. Moore’s home when Guthrie first arrived in Canada. The NPS offices were borrowed for the first Festival auditions and the NPS workrooms were borrowed for the Festival costume department. Mrs. Moore’s personal list of theatrical angels also proved useful.

But the Festival is not the only reverberation from Mrs. Moore's lifetime of theatrical work. Pupils such as Josephine Barrington are now themselves teachers of the drama. Other pupils, outside the professional theatre, have started amateur theatrical groups as far afield as Halifax and Regina. Still other pupils, such as Harron and the Bradens, are international headliners.

And Mrs. Moore is still going strong. In 1956, for instance, she got busy and started a fan club among her teen-aged drama students for Bob Goulet, the handsome baritone who was then starring in The Optimist and about to star in Spring Thaw. I his year she s already got the NPS moved into new' quarters, with a gymnasium where plays can be staged, and proper dressing rooms. At the moment there’s a faculty of three and an enrollment ot one hundred and forty pupils who come in the evenings and on week-ends to classes in fencing, mime, voice and other theatre arts.

But with the new facilities, plans are under way for adding to the faculty, increasing the enrollment, starling classes for mothers, to he run by deportment and grooming experts, while their children go to other classes, to be run by progressive-education experts. Then there are the plans for the free playground dramas, and a dream of the drama school’s becoming a daytime school with a full curriculum just like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

And there’s an even dearer dream: to go back to professional productions using the advanced students of the school. "We would do experimental productions, not the commercial sort of thmg.” says Mrs. Moore enthusiastically.

She is working to realize the dream by early summer, and already she has all the details worked out.

"The students would work for nothing,” she muses happily. "We wouldn't have to bother with unions. It wouldn’t cost very much at all.” it