A national dreamer in the spotlight

John Bemrose October 26 1987

A national dreamer in the spotlight

John Bemrose October 26 1987

A national dreamer in the spotlight


Prying off miniature roofs as he proudly displays a model of the new theatre that he will soon be a partner in running, Guy Sprung resembles an affable, bearded giant. Certainly for the past 15 years, the 40year-old artist has been a towering presence on the national theatre scene, stepping effortlessly between most of Canada’s major cities. Now co-artistic director of Toronto Free Theatre/CentreStage, he is also artistic director this season at The Vancouver Playhouse, which is currently mounting his version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream (page 62). Sprung first made his name in the 1970s as a developer of original Canadian plays: many, including Sharon Pollock’s Doc and Rick Salutin’s Les Canadiens, have toured widely, becoming cornerstones of the national repertoire.

The robust style of those productions has led actor R. H. Thomson to call Sprung a “virile visionary of our theatre.”

In recent years Sprung has mounted increasingly flamboyant and controversial productions of international classics, including the works of his own favorite, Shakespeare. His current production of Dream has delighted and appalled audiences with its use of forklift trucks and punk-style costumes. But the project that now promises to dwarf his formidable past achievements is the recent merger of his own theatre, Toronto Free, with that city’s more upscale CentreStage, run by Bill Glassco. The two men are coartistic directors of the new organization, one of the largest theatrical entities in the country. The conglomerate intends to showcase its dramatic fare in a new theatre, as yet unnamed, that it hopes to build by 1990.

The plan derives much of its impetus from Sprung’s stated ambition for “a theatre of national scope.” That pan-Canadian vision typifies the fierce nationalism of his generation of directors. Thirty years ago

Canadian drama was known primarily for the Stratford Festival and several conservative regional houses, staging mainly foreign plays. Directors such as Sprung who by the early 1970s had begun to do Canadian work were confined to alternative theatres which they usually had to establish themselves.

But in recent years the distinction

between alternative and mainstream drama has broken down as the little theatres have grown up and the oncerenegade nationalists have moved into positions of influence. Those directors include Glassco and Paul Thompson, a former head of Toronto’s innovative Theatre Passe Muraille who was recently appointed head of the National Theatre School in Montreal. Such figures have brought Canadian drama to life.

Sprung’s own selection of plays at Toronto Free has helped that institution ride the crest of the continuing theatrical boom. He says that in the 1985-1986 season attendance at Toronto Free productions, including its immensely popular Romeo and Juliet, staged in the open-air setting of High Park, reached about 170,000. Yet Sprung’s success rate has slipped as he gravitates increasingly toward spec-

tacularly operatic productions. When they succeed, as with his fast-paced 1986 version of Hamlet, starring R. H. Thomson, he throws open the doors of discovery. But some of his bigger shows have stumbled badly. Plays such as Paul Gross’s grandiloquent 1986 medical saga, Buchanan, have been denounced by critics for their vapid scripts and flashy execution.

Sprung’s grand visions have provoked strong reactions from his colleagues. Richard Ouzounian, artistic director of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, denounces Sprung’s recent productions as “designer populism.” Another critic is Montreal playwright David Fennario. Sprung directed the writer’s fourth play, Balconville, in 1979, and its tale of life on the seamy side of Montreal became a hit across Canada and in Britain. That experience left Fennario with immense respect for Sprung’s ability to illuminate a story line. But the playwright says that in recent years Sprung “has become more of a formalist.” He added: “I think he’s leaving behind the content. Theatre audiences are more conservative and Guy is caught up in that.”

But Sprung has many supporters. One of the strongest is his partner in

the merger, Bill Glassco.

When the two directors announced their plans last year, observers predicted that there would be friction between Sprung and the soft-spoken, careful craftsman, Glassco. But Glassco says that he feels reinvigorated by the relationship. Pointing out that no theatre can survive without a healthy audience, he added, “Guy has a much better sense than I do of what the public wants.” He also praised Sprung’s production as “masculine, in the best sense; grounded and muscular.”

Unlike the extravagantly theatrical nature of his recent work, Sprung himself is reserved. There is little about him to suggest an artist of grand gestures—except for his shoulder-length hair and a Mephistophelian upward curve to his eyebrows. But his eyes gleam whenever he talks about his favorite topic, Canadian theatre. “It’s our last chance,” he said flatly. “Unlike film, it is free of the inhibiting necessity for massive financing. Only theatre can consistently reflect the reality of the country.”

Sprung’s deep commitment to the stage has not always been with him.

The Ottawa-born son of a Canadian army colonel, he went to McGill University to study archeology in 1966 but gravitated to drama, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in English and German literature. He first proved his theatrical mettle when he cofounded London’s HalfMoon Theatre in 1972. At first the operation was so impoverished that he stole —and sold —sheets of lead from the roofs of nearby abandoned warehouses. But the HalfMoon soon became one of the most respected alternative theatres in the country.

When Sprung returned to Canada in 1976, he was accustomed to a level of dedication that was to take a heavy toll on his personal life. In 1982 he married actress Kate

Trotter, but under the stress of two busy theatrical careers, the couple, who have a daughter, Kathleen, separated a year ago. Although reticent about private matters, Sprung grows voluble on the subject of his favorite sport, hockey. A Montreal Canadiens

fan, the burly six-foot, three-inch director lets off steam every Wednesday at midnight in a pickup league. He also likes to playfully compare hockey and drama. “At their best,” he claims, “the circuits of communication in both activities take place at a subconscious level —there’s simply no time for rational thought.”

Sprung is determined to power the new theatre with the same kind of dramatic electricity. Critics say that the project, which will launch its first unified season next fall, may absorb grants, audiences and artists 8 from smaller enter□ prises. But Sprung de1 scribes the new entity as a necessary flagship for Canadian theatre. And he claims that it is the responsibility of artists such as Glassco and himself “to step onto the bridge and say, ‘The course to take is this. Full steam ahead!’ ”

— JOHN BEMROSE in Vancouver