Theatre

The right man and the right place at the right time in the right province

PETER HAY November 15 1976
Theatre

The right man and the right place at the right time in the right province

PETER HAY November 15 1976

The right man and the right place at the right time in the right province

Theatre

John Neville is tired of two questions: Why did he choose Edmonton, and Why does he wear a gold earring? Corporate lawyer Joe Shoctor, executive producer and chief fund-raiser for the Citadel theatre, takes credit for the answer to the first. As Shoctor tells it, he flew to Winnipeg in 1973 to interview the actor, and they talked for hours. Suddenly Neville picked out a photograph from a pile of PR material in front of him. “What’s this about?” asked Neville quizzically. “That’s Citadel on Wheels,” Shoctor replied, “our touring company, up in the far north.” With little more ado Neville phoned his wife of 27 years and then agreed to take over the stagnant and politically troubled Citadel, at that time a typical minor-league regional company. “I work at my best in community situations,” Neville explains today, “where I’m responsible to the audience. You can’t be, in places as big as London, New York, or Toronto.”

Now, three years later, Shoctor’s hunch and Neville’s faith have been repaid: on November 12 Premier Peter Lougheed opened the remarkable new Citadel complex in downtown Edmonton. Cost: $6.2 million, of which his government donated one million.

Unlike the cultural fortresses that massage the civic pride of Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa or Charlottetown, the new Citadel belies its name. “We wanted a building immediately identified with its function and meaning,” says Shoctor, who raised $2.8 million for the project. Architects Richard Wilkin and Barton Myers responded with an imaginative, common-sense design. The result is warmly welcoming, a place for people, with a pedestrian mall and thoroughfare merging with the lobby. Vast glass walls establish eye-contact between the people inside and the people passing by. The concrete-and-brick complex houses a 700-seat theatre which nearly triples the capacity of the old Citadel with a minimal loss of intimacy. There’s also a studio space with flexible seating, two classrooms, a cinema and a lecture hall; soon there will also be a bookstore and a restaurant with sidewalk café. With its spacious rehearsal area, scenery and storage space, and the latest developments in adjustable acoustics, the new Citadel would be a source of envy to any theatre company in the world.

But money and new buildings alone don’t make exciting theatre, as even province-proud Albertans, familiar with both, well understand. The Citadel also has the more important ingredients: intelligent

leadership, responsive governments and widening community support.

While other regional theatres are tottering under their deficits, the Citadel management worries about explosive growth. The main season is already about 80% subscribed, giving it the highest subscription rate in the country. “We might sell out completely in advance, but I’d prefer always to have casual seats available,” says Bernard Havard, who defected eight months ago from Toronto Arts Productions to become the Citadel’s general manager. By the time the new complex was opened, the Citadel hoped to have passed TAP’S 15,000 subscribers—“and Toronto,” Havard notes, “can draw from a potential audience six to eight times larger than we can.”

What draws and keeps audiences is the choice of plays, the quality of productions. This is squarely the responsibility of the artistic director, and John Neville, 51, now in his fourth season, is among the best there are. Son of a motor mechanic, Neville paid his early acting dues at the Old Vic theatres in Bristol and London. By the late Fifties he was one of the Shakespearean stars of the British stage, and toured Canada in roles as varied as Hamlet, Romeo, Richard II, and Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. “I was lucky,” he shrugs, his face a

blend of the comic and tragic masks. “During my time at the Old Vic we did the entire Shakespearean cycle—after six years I was desperate to wear a pair of trousers.” In the early Sixties he made a small science-fiction classic called The Unearthly Stranger, and at one point was offered a seven-year Hollywood contract. “Richard Burton took that route,” he notes, “but it wasn’t for me.” Instead, in 1963 he quit a long London run SLsAlfie—a play written for him— to become artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse, which he turned into Britain’s model regional theatre.

Though in three years he has become a fierce Western nationalist, Neville doesn’t parrot the Albertan superlatives of his board members. He claims only to be trying his best. He works hard, sometimes 12 hours of rehearsals a day, taking the actors in shifts because their hours are watched over by the union. He directs two or three shows a season, acts in several more. He visits schools, reads poetry during lunch hour in public, five or six scripts a week in private.

Neville has not only increased the Citadel’s audiences by 60% in three years; he also strives to stretch them. Last year he started a studio theatre (Citadel Too) with Michel Tremblay’s homosexual and transvestite play Hosanna, which some consid-

ered too risqué for Edmonton until it had to be extended for another week. “New work is any theatre’s lifeblood,” he says— and this season the Citadel is presenting four Canadian plays, more than any other regional theatre. As well as directing Romeo And Juliet and Ibsen’s The Master Builder, Neville will play the title role of Bethune, by Rod Langley, and direct Sharon Pollock’s The Komagata Maru Incident', which tells the story of racism against East Indians in Vancouver’s early history. Whenever he can, he will bring in the best person to direct a particular play. So Beverley Simons’ neglected masterpiece Crabdance will be directed by Malcolm Black, who first staged it in Seattle in 1969. For the premiere of Jill, the winner of last year’s Clifford E. Lee award by the University of Alberta, he has asked Harold Pinter to direct. No word yet from Pinter, master of the stage pause, but the invitation gives an idea of Neville’s scope. Another instance was last year’s run by Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the Citadel being the only stage in Canada on which she appeared.

Neville and the Citadel have been markedly helped by three levels of government. The city of Edmonton donated the theatre’s prime location for one dollar a year for the next half-century, and although the governments of Canada and Alberta rarely see eye to eye, they gave between them $2.5 million toward the new complex. In addition, the theatre’s endeavors are vitally supported by Alberta Culture, a remarkable arm of the provincial government: started in 1947 and the first of its kind in North America, it gives five million dollars a year to cultural activities, the highest per capita expenditure in Canada. In many other places the artistic community looks on politicians as barely necessary evils—a view often warmly reciprocated. In Alberta, Horst Schmid, the Minister of Culture, is generally admired for his “progressive” attitude, and Walter Kaasa, director of Alberta culture for the last 20 years, last season played the villainous Moriarty—“a beautifully contrived performance,” the Edmonton Journal decided—opposite Neville’s Sherlock Holmes.

With another two years to go on his contract Neville admits that at the end of it he may move on to new challenges. He intends to stay in western Canada, and perhaps to produce whole seasons of nothing but Canadian plays. Chances are he will still be wearing his gold earring. It has become less of a talking point than it was. During his first year in Canada—at about the time the Stratford Festival caused an uproar among cultural nationalists by importing Britain’s Robin Phillips—a Toronto drama critic once grilled Neville along similar nationalistic lines. Finally he asked Neville why he wore the single gold earring. “Because two,” retorted the exasperated father of six, “might be considered effeminate.”

PETER HAY