Ever since artistic director Robin Phillips left the Stratford Festival in 1980 and plunged Canada’s most renowned cultural institution into a temporary crisis, the world of Canadian theatre—to say nothing of film and television—has been primed for his dramatic reappearance in the limelight. Now the controversial prince is back, riding high on advance notices for his direction of the film The Wars and great expectations for his multimedia production centre at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. As the Grand’s repertory season opened last week with JohnMichael Tebelak’s Godspell, George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor's Dilemma, John Murrell’s Waiting for the Parade and Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, it was clear that Phillips had returned with a vision—and a vengeance. If his star-spangled scheme succeeds, the balance of Canadian theatre may tip his way for years to come.
As the opening night crowds packed the lobbies of the Grand Theatre, the excitement matched similar nights at the Shaw and Stratford festivals—just as Phillips had intended. Despite extreme opening week jitters, the stellar cast lived up to its billing, and Phillips’ definitive production of Timon, one of Shakespeare’s most challenging works, brought the celebrations to a climax. Meanwhile, Phillips had already leaped ahead of his rivals in the race to translate theatre to film and television. Waiting for the Parade, filmed in July by Toronto’s Primedia Productions, will appear on CBC TV early next year. The Grand Theatre and Primedia have contracted to film three plays and one movie a year, with some postproduction activity taking place at the theatre’s facilities. “In live theatre we cannot ignore television—it is a colossal communicating force,” said Phillips. “We have skirted around each other for a long time, but somehow that marriage has to happen.”
Essentially, Phillips has resurrected his Stratford empire at the Grand. The names of Stratford expatriates dominate his 32-member acting company and production staff: actors Martha Henry and William Hutt, head of design Daphne Dare and executive producer Peter Roberts. Along with Stratford and Shaw, the Grand will add to the huge pool of acting talent already concentrated in southwestern Ontario. The bizarre situation includes directors as well: internationally acclaimed di-
rector John Neville is in the Grand company, and former artistic director Michael Langham has returned to Stratford. The anomaly of five world-class artistic directors (including Shaw’s Christopher Newton) guiding such thespian wealth outside a major urban centre like Toronto prompts Stratford’s artistic director John Hirsch to remark: “It is typically Canadian. If there is an absurd and perverse way to organize things, we do it.”
But Hirsch finds the situation no laughing matter. Fiercely protective of his festival’s educational mandate— and its massive budget—Hirsch has ex-
pressed public concern that enterprises like the Grand will spread resources too thinly. The predictable rivalry between Stratford and the Grand has already flared into open hostility. Stratford Executive Director Gerry Eldred has accused Phillips of tampering with the internal workings of his administration, and all Stratford departments are on strict orders not to co-operate with the Grand. Meanwhile, Phillips’ welcoming message in the opening night program defensively referred to “negative response from some quarters within our own profession.” The two boards have been seeking reconciliation but so far without result.
However, Phillips is not the only
prime mover at the Grand with a Stratford past. For a decade he has been blessed with a fairy godmother in Barbara Ivey, a theatre patron from the heart of London’s establishment who has served on the Grand Theatre board for 17 years. As a Stratford board member Ivey figured prominently in Phillips’ taking over the festival in 1975. Later they shared the dream for a multimedia operation, but it never materialized. However, once the Grand board, having renovated its theatre in 1978, decided that it should take a major step forward into film and television, the choice for a new artistic direc-
tor was obvious. “It was a very short short list,” says Ivey.
So far, harmony has reigned between Phillips and the board, and the $4.4-million budget for 1983-84 (close to double last season’s figure) has raised no eyebrows—only $800,000 in government start-up grants. Formerly Theatre London, the Grand remains a regional theatre, although now plays will not run one at a time to subscription audiences but in repertory as at Stratford and Shaw. Operating a repertory season over the fall and winter is a definite risk, since there is little hope of audience support from Toronto and nearby U.S. cities.
Phillips is noted for running a tight
ship, however. The problems he encountered in his final years at Stratford were not fiscal but administrative, as he tended to concentrate power in his own hands. By appointing Roberts and Lucille Wagner, former managing director of Alberta Theatre Projects, as head of administration, he seems determined not to repeat that mistake. Nevertheless, his penchant for hoarding artistic power remains: with typical zeal he directed three of the four opening plays. And with the notable exception of Neville’s directing Brent Carver in Hamlet, Phillips has not invited any first-class directors to share the standard regional fare he will be offering.
A theatre organization can accept total artistic control more readily if a director will share his vision with others. Until now, Phillips has only talked in general terms about his search for “new ways of communicating,” although he hopes that novelists like Timothy Findley, who adapted his novel The Wars for the screen, and Robertson Davies might play a vital role. Said Phillips: “We have not really tapped our greatest writing talent. Our novelists are the ones who speak with a totally Canadian voice.” In transferring their works to the stage, his intent is not to dramatize the novels but to encourage the company to re-create their essence through scenes and images in a communal manner. Experiments in that process will begin later this fall on the Grand’s second stage, where assistant directors Gregory Peterson and Don Shipley will stage five novellas by the late American writer Paul Gallico for family audiences.
Already, Phillips has discussed his ideas with several Canadian novelists, and Findley, among others, has responded enthusiastically. Said Findley: “He digs at you and makes you believe you can. He lets you go anywhere and at the exact right moment he will pull you back. Directors are always scared to do that here in Canada.” Actors echo Findley’s opinion: their respect for Phillips verges on the devotional. More than any other Canadian director, he seems to inspire trust. As Henry says: “Robin can spot right away when you are taking shortcuts. He takes away those crutches and gives you the courage to live in the middle of it all, to take risks.”
Phillips has evidently persuaded the Grand’s board to take risks too. However, the near-demise of Stratford after the Phillips regime is vocal testimony to the danger of running a cultural institution as a one-man show. Robin Phillips has demonstrated that he is an institution in himself. And the ultimate success of his vision for the Grand may still depend on him alone.
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