In founding the John Abbott Theatre Department and sharing his zeal for the arts with his students for 35 years, Napier has contributed waves of professionals that support every facet of the performing arts in Canada and the United States.
By Barbara Ford
Where would we be without those diligent people who, driven by their vision and passion, take it upon themselves to carve out something from virtually nothing, re-shape our reality to create something we didn’t even know we needed until there it is … a bright new shiny thing? Murray Napier is one such visionary.
Born in Halifax, Napier received his higher education in English studies at St. Mary’s University where his fascination with theatre took root, dabbling in a workshop program that by his final year, he headed up. He came to Montreal for his post-graduate studies, majoring in literary drama at McGill. After graduation, he experimented with this and that: courted the corporate world for a spell, taught in New Brunswick and at a high school, but eventually landed a teaching job at the McDonald Campus of McGill, where he taught English to both the Agriculture and Education students.
In 1971 when John Abbott College was formed, Napier stayed on at the campus as the first Chair of the English Department. His first order of business was to form a Theatre Department. Napier didn’t know anyone in the theatre world that he could approach to help him develop the new program so “when actor Stanley Mallough walked in the door to apply, I hired him on the spot!” laughs Napier. In those first years, the two shared the teaching equally, allocating 50% of their time to English and the other 50% to theatre.
Over the years, the department evolved into two separate streams: a three-year Theatre Professional program that enables graduates to launch into a performing arts career immediately, and the Theatre Workshop program which is only two years and prepares students for further study in any arts program.
The expression ‘I knew them when’ seems to have been coined for dedicated and inspirational teachers like him.
When Mallough migrated to the professional theatre program full-time, EMSB teacher (English, music and German) and pianist Ian Smith, who trained at Trinity College in the UK, picked up the mantle in the Workshop program. With the addition of such an accomplished musician (Smith also holds a Master degree in German and a Ph.D. in English) to the faculty, it’s no surprise that musicals became more frequent in the student productions. Napier specifically remembers Godspell and the Wizard of Oz as two of the more outstanding shows he directed with Smith in the 80’s. Rob Burns, another musically inclined professor, took over for Smith in the 90’s and the Workshop program went on to produce such notable musicals as A Chorus Line, Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar and Little Shop of Horrors.
Over the years at John Abbott, Napier directed more than 60 shows and taught many of Montreal’s most talented actors, technicians, designers and administrators. The expression ‘I knew them when’ seems to have been coined for dedicated and inspirational teachers like him. He recalled one production of Toad of Toad Hall, an adaption of The Wind in the Willows, which featured Neil Barclay (21-year veteran in the Shaw Festival), Cas Anvar (founded Repercussion Theatre and Shakespeare-in-the-Park, CBC Television’s The Tournament), Winston Spear (well-known stand-up comic) and Matt Holland (Human Trafficking and screenwriter for Moose TV). Of keen interest to readers of this blog is that publisher Gaëtan Charlebois was also once a theatre student at John Abbott. Napier remembers that Gaets, his moniker at the time, was a very good student, bright and outspoken. Not much has changed and as Napier confided, “He knew his stuff. He wasn’t afraid to state his opinion but he could also back it up. I enjoyed that about him.”
Napier “can’t get over how hard these people work, how talented they are, and they do this as volunteers. It’s incredible!”
The Workshop program allowed Napier to try his hand at writing as well as directing and to date, he has written three plays. The first was adapted from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron which Napier co-wrote with Peggy Regan and Ian Smith. The second was Rehearsed to Kill, which then student and current member of the acclaimed Uncalled For improv group, Dan Jeannotte helped to edit. Napier is still working on his third play, a more serious undertaking entitled Gert’s Wake, through the West Island Writer’s Group, founded in 1998 and which he’s belonged to for several years.
Since retiring six years ago, Napier is busier than ever in the theatre community, directing both downtown for companies like Tableau D’Hôte Theatre (The Elusive in 2008) and out in the West Island for the 46-year-old Lakeshore Players and the Hudson Players Club, the oldest continuously operating English language theatre group in Quebec. Napier is currently in rehearsal with the Lakeshore Players for the upcoming production (February 3 – 12) of the comedy thriller, Deathtrap, the ingeniously twisted play within a play by Ira Levin who also wrote The Stepford Wives, Rosemary's Baby and The Boys from Brazil. Napier confides his admiration for community theatre by saying that he “can’t get over how hard these people work, how talented they are, and they do this as volunteers. It’s incredible!”
Deathtrap marks Napier’s fourth play for the Lakeshore Players. Most of the time, he follows the usual interview process to secure the directorship of a production, but last season’s production of Twelve Angry Jurors was the exception. In that instance, he proposed the project with him at the helm and they accepted it. Napier also directs the upcoming Hudson Players Club in the favourite On Golden Pond, to be presented at the Hudson Village Theatre in April.
Now, when the two are out socially, the tables are turned and Murray is now introduced as Neil’s dad!
Napier’s family is golden well of artistic talent: wife Halina is a multi-media and water colour visual artist, his daughter Monika, an installation sculptor who has exhibited across Canada recently started to teach fine art at, you guessed it, John Abbott College and his son Eric is a musician. Napier proudly notes that his other son, Neil, noted Montreal actor performing regularly at Centaur and local indie companies, used to be introduced on campus as Murray’s son. Now, when the two are out socially, the tables are turned and Murray is now introduced as Neil’s dad!
Carla, Halina and Murray’s oldest daughter, was killed tragically in a fire in 1988. It was an incident that rocked the Montreal theatre community and was made even more crushing by the fact that she had just landed her first acting role at Centaur … her career was poised to take off. Carla had gone through the Theatre Workshop program and Napier fondly reminisced about the fun they had in the John Abbott production of Around the World in Eighty Days. An award has since been established in Carla’s name to be given to first year students showing the most promise, as Napier felt there were enough honours for graduating students. Why not spur the beginners on to greatness with an award of their own?
“(Deathtrap's) wit is delightful … delicious, so of course I thought of Cole Porter’s music and lyrics to underscore it.”
We end our interview returning to Deathtrap, Napier’s current and fourth directorial project with the Lakeshore Players, which he describes as brilliant and self-referential. “The play’s wit is delightful … delicious, so of course I thought of Cole Porter’s music and lyrics to underscore it.”
In founding the John Abbott Theatre Department and sharing his zeal for the arts with his students for 35 years, Napier has contributed waves of professionals that support every facet of the performing arts in Canada and United States. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting and talking with ‘Neil’s dad’, take a moment to appreciate that you’re in the unassuming presence of the genuine article, for there is no truer definition of a pioneer than one who blazes a trail never before attempted.
To buy tickets for the delicious, delightful and delovely Deathtrap, call 514-631-8718.
Next week on Ford’s Focus: theatre educator, director and author Muriel Gold