There’s a new one-man band in show business
Anything you can do on a stage Leon Major can direct — and has, all in the last twelve months — musical comedy and Shaw, television drama and Gilbert and Sullivan, topical satire and two grand operas at once. Now his ideas are starting to travel across Canada
LEON MAJOR, a bushy-browed hustler from the hardestbitten Jewish district of Toronto, was a self-accused failure three years ago and is now the self-made prodigy of the Canadian theatre. At thirty he is fresh from staging, somewhere in Canada within the last twelve months, at least one successful production of any kind of theatrical enterprise you can name, from Shaw to song-and-dance to grand opera. He is also fresh from agreeing to run a new professional theatre, organized and financed by the people of Halifax. And he is fresh from helping to design, for the
Canada Council, a different kind of national theatre, which will probably have a great deal to do with the plays a whole generation of Canadians will see.
Major’s idea is that we can’t get a national theatre in more than name by building a marble edifice in Ottawa, but we can make a real start toward getting a national theatre by working out a kind of interlocking schedule for the professional theatres already, and soon to be, at work in Halifax, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver. In Toronto a month or so ago the Canada Council CONTINUED OVERLEAF
Pictures of a director getting everybody into the act —including himself
CONTINUED met men from each of these theatres to discuss putting the interlocking schedule to work. This time next year people in Vancouver may be able to see productions from Halifax in what could be the first real national theatre in this hemisphere.
Major, as well as being one of the originators of this plan, may well be the one young director in our theatre whose ideas on production, style, and the theatre's relationship to its audience could begin to put an original stamp on the kind of theatre we produce. The most striking thing about the weight Major is beginning to swing on our entertainment scene is that it is based on an almost incredible variety of work done in an almost incredibly short time. During the 1961 Stratford Festival he was artistic director Michael Langham’s assistant for the entire festival, and just this summer he produced Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gon-
doliers for Stratford's tenth season. He also went to the Vancouver International Festival to revive a production of Caesar and Cleopatra which he had done originally with astonishing box-office success for the Crest Theatre in Toronto. Between these two events, he started working on notes for two operas, Rigoletto and Hansel and Gretel, which he staged for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto this October, and he has been signed up to direct the 1963 edition of the satirical revue Spring Thaw.
Major set some kind of record on the night of Saturday, August 18, 1962. At about 1 1 p.m., the final curtains were coming down in Vancouver and at Stratford on two of his productions. That night he had been working on the floor plans for two operas, and the following day he was going into a CBC studio where his production of The Gondoliers was to be adapted for the television series, Festival.
When the TV show was taped. Major boarded a plane tor Halifax to accept the artistic directorship of the Neptune Theatre Foundation. This. too. was partially inspired by Major and by the report he had written for the Canada Council during previous trips to Halifax. The plan could, hopefully, give the Maritimes its own regional theatre with a permanent professional company. Major was back in Toronto two days later to start rehearsals for the two operas.
The complaint is often made that Canada’s budding theatre suffers from an acute lack of directors. Our biggest cultural enterprises, like the Stratford and Vancouver Festivals, have relied heavily in the past on imported directors like Langham and his even more illustrious predecessor, Sir Tyrone Guthrie. Even a director of Major's ambitious persuasion regrets that he wasn’t invited to Stratford five years ago — when he needed the CONTINUED ON PAGE 87
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THEATRE’S NEW ONE-MAN BAND
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“He can go anywhere in theatre; he could write his own ticket”
experience more than he does now.
Most aspiring young directors now find themselves comfortably absorbed into television, where they quickly become fascinated with the medium and the pay and lose any urge to try the stage again. "Most of us were recruited as infants to television in 1952.” says CBC director Harvey Hart. Although he himself has worked in two Toronto theatres in recent months, he says directors “weaned on the television medium” usually "go on being nurtured by it exclusively?"
Another reason sometimes given for the slow emergence of directors is the lack of employment opportunities in Canadian theatre. But Major, almost singlehanded, has disproved this point by so diversifying his activities, that he can now pick his own assignments and earn a living exclusively in theatre twelve months of the year.
Major has also done television dramas, taking a six-month crash course in the medium. "It was a challenge.” he says. “But it was also an insurance policy. The luck that lets me earn my livelihood in theatre may not always last.”
Any such reversal seems unlikely. Mavor Moore, who has acted in a Major production and has also hired him as a director, says: “Leon could go anywhere he liked in theatre, and write his own ticket.”
“I despised him on sight”
Not everyone agrees with Moore. Some people think Major is overconfident, brash and moody. He's been known to make snap judgments, to use four-letter words to describe someone’s work and, occasionally, to give less than his best to his own shows. His wife Judith recalls her first impression of Major three years ago. "He was moody and cocky. 1 despised him on sight. But he’s changed since then. He’s matured.”
Major now feels he needs to single out one main objective. He says he’s been gadflying about in many areas, collecting a mixed bag of successes in plays, operas, musicals and revue. He expects to put most of his energy, for the next three years at least, into the Halifax theatre.
His energy is in a state of slow but steady fusion most of his waking day, which usually lasts sixteen hours, and it may go on burning, by his wife's account, even in his sleep. He has had only one week's vacation in four years and he spent it. characteristically, hacking down timber in the Gatineau Hills. Later, he lugged the wood home in small logs and made miniature totem poles. This was Major's idea of relaxation.
He put in sixteen consecutive days last month, from 7.30 a.m. until close to midnight, on the C anadian Opera Company rehearsals. When he finally managed to take part of an evening off, he took his wife Judith to see a production at the Crest.
Daily, he plunged into rehearsals with the zest of a man running a con-
vention. When he had finished putting the whole chorus of Rigoletto through its paces on one lloor of the rehearsal building, he moved to another floor to run through the threeand four-handed scenes of Hansel and Gretel. sometimes playing all the parts himself.
Fortified by kaiser rolls, chopped egg and cigars, Major is a wild demonstrator of stage action, leaping around the levels of a set as if he needed the exercise. He prefers to do a scene himself, and then discuss it. Once the singers get the pattern of the action, he stands over them and snaps his fingers like a metronome safeguarding the pace.
“We didn’t realize he had such a feeling for opera,” says Herman Geigcr-Torel, artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company. “He had a job teaching part-time at the Conservatory, and one day I saw a short operatic farce he did with the students, as a take-off of TV soap operas. Alter a year of teaching, I knew it was time for him to direct a grand opera. He had a talent so strong that he could afford to jump to bigger things without going through the intervening steps.” Torel says he "tossed" the opera Pagliacci at Major last year, and Major jumped at it.
“Pagliacci wasn’t a success,” says a rival director. “It was a blasted triumph. Nobody will ever get reviews like that again.”
“His success,” says Torel. “was no big secret. There was nothing radically new. Leon simply turned Pagliacci into damned good theatre. It had breadth and sweep.”
Toronto critic Wendy Michener, a long-time friend, says Major belongs to “the brush-fire school of directing.”
If things aren't going well, he’ll deliberately single out some routine bit of business by a bit player and make exorbitant huzzas about it. This fires all the bit players with a sense of creative importance, and it gets the leading players into a contagion of invention—leaving Major to step back from the blaze and pick the best of what’s before him. It also makes everyone feel vitally involved.
Torel says, “He comes to rehearsal
awesomely prepared. He doesn’t improvise or play it by ear because he usually knows what he wants before he gets there. It's simply a question of getting them to invent it for him.” Major's energy continues until well past midnight. “If he comes home for supper, it’s usually two hours late.” says his wife. “And after his late rehearsal he comes home wound up and ready to talk.” She is a former script assistant at the CBC, and adjusts readily to Major’s schedule, she says, because she understands the pressure of the business. “I’m not just being Rood about it. I used to be under those pressures myself.”
Married two years and still waiting to find time for a honeymoon, Judith readily sits up until three in the morning while Major unwinds. “He didn't even know how to relax.” she says. “I had to teach him to play cards to stop all those gears from going wild inside his head.”
Major quit smoking on doctor’s orders more than a year ago, when he found himself buying three packs a day. Then he rationalized his way around to cigars: “Cigars are nonsmokes. You just puff them.” He now puffs a dozen a day, and under the pressures of rehearsal, usually smokes king-size cigarettes as well.
When he finally gets to bed, the lights switched out, he's likely to go through the score once more in his head, conducting in the dark and piecing together patterns of movement from the day's rehearsal. His wife calls this exercise, “Leon's mental cinemascope.”
“You never know when he'll turn on again,” she says. “He keeps a pencil and paper by his bed, often wakes up with an idea, and sometimes scurries into his workroom to sketch it out.”
The night before one of his shows is due to open, Major usually can't sleep at all. He spends part of the night with friends who have no connection wdth the theatre. He has few intimates among actors, but is on close terms with a young stockbroker, a psychiatrist and his wife, and a CBC technician.
He plays the piano, bridge, or endless games of hockey on an electric board to dull preopening jitters. "Then for two days after.” Judith says, "whether the reviews are good or not. there’s this awful letdown, the slump after all those terrifying peaks of activity. It's the one thing 1 can't cope with alone, so 1 start inviting everyone we know to come to dinner until we’re back on the right emotional level for Leon to start work again.”
What makes Major move like a driven man through the lively arts may have something to do with his upbringing in a tough section of Toronto's Queen Street West. He says he never made the high-school football team or the debating society, and theatre was the only activity he could think of to get something going for him that would set him apart. But three years ago he had a more pugnacious view of his own drive.
"I want to show the kind of kids I was brought up with, the ones I fought with in the back alleys of Queen Street." he said at the time. "The kids who chased me around the market at Kensington and Baldwin and called me a dirty Jew and a slob because they didn't know any better —1 want them. 1 want to get them into a theatre and make them see and feel something.”
Home was a kind of theatre
Ever since he watched his first live theatre — a production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (the same opera he directed this season for Torel) and helped to work the spotlights at Parkdale Collegiate dances, Major has wanted to show those youngsters what he could do in theatre. He met formidable opposition from his relatives. Jewish dry-goods merchants who ran a small store. They kept reminding him: “Sam says you could always go into your uncle’s business.”
Sam, his father, had been a singer in a New York synagogue—-“Good enough to have gone professional.” says Major, “hut he curbed his dreams and went into business.”
The atmosphere at home was shot with personal conflicts, hot with arguments and (to young Major) highly stimulating. “We never talked,” he says. “We all yelled. They were so outgoing, you had to yell to be heard at all. Nothing u'as simply stated: it was all acted out. Big gestures and conflicts. It was a kind of theatre.”
After each family argument, about his own future, Major was reminded that, "Poppa says you got to go to U, get a degree and don’t take a chance.”
Then Major came under the influence of Robert Gill, whose theatre classes he attended at Hart House while he was still in high school. When he finished high school he readily bowed to parental pressure and went to university. “Bob Gill was still teaching theatre there, and that’s the only reason 1 went.” Between 1952 and 1955, he acted in six productions under Gill, and started reading Stanislavsky, Appia, Gordon Craig — “all those people you devour like eggs.”
He put in four summers of stock theatre after graduation, and w'ent north for the Ontario Department of Education to lecture to lumberjacks and miners. In 1957 he went to
Europe on his savings, “trying to find tor myself a basic idea and ideal that underlies all theatre — and could be put to some application in Canada.” He went broke in London early in the tour, but applied for a Canada Council grant and continued his search in nine countries during the next eighteen months. Going from the Salzburg Festival to Michel SaintDenis' school in Strasbourg, from Munich to the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s theatre in East Berlin, from the popular theatre of Jean Vilar in Paris to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Major culled the best of what he saw in the hope that he could transplant some of it in Canada.
Finally, in Dublin, he asked the crusty administrator of the Abbey Theatre, Rhea Mooney, for permission to watch the company at work.
“What do you want to know?” she said.
“I've come to learn.” said Major. “I want to start a theatre id Canada.”
"Then get the hell back,” she said, “and start it.”
He came back early in 1959, bringing with him the rights to a play he had seen in London's West End. It was Bernard Kops’ Anglo-Jewish musical drama, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, and it had much in common u'ith Major’s own background. He put in eight months of planning, and fund-raising, took over a 700-seat theatre, and opened in the fall of that year. Two and a half weeks later, the theatre folded and Major and his two partners and backers lost $16,500.
Impulsively, after the loss of his first theatre, Major announced he was
giving it up. “I felt l had nothing to contribute,” he says. For a while he took on small assignments, directed for little theatres, taught stage deportment at the Conservatory, directed at the Crest. Then he made his startling impact with Pagliacci.
Next July, in Halifax, Major gets his second chance at running a theatre of his own. In the early fall he holed up in his workroom, trying to sort out the whole conflicting range of ideas, techniques, styles and principles that he got from his experience in Europe. His own goals and purposes come into play: he has to take time out to sift the “ideas and ideals” which he found common to all theatres in Europe, and use those that have some application to Canada and more particularly the Maritimes.
He wants the Neptune Theatre in Halifax to do more than interpret the classics — to create a body of new drama that will be demotic in language, close to everyday people, and popular in what he calls “the best sense” of the word.
He wants to sec playwrights attached permanently to his theatre, so that regional legends about farmers and miners and fishermen can find expression on his stage. He wants to open the theatre on rehearsal days so that this same audience of farmers, fishermen and other everyday people can see how theatre is made.
Major thinks that if he can bring this off and if the same thing is happening in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, a national theatre in Canada will begin to take the right shape. ★