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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ford's Focus: Ted Dykstra

Classic Renaissance Man
"...every time is your first time and you've got to break through all over again."
by Barbara Ford

This week’s feature presented a bit of a dilemma: what could I possibly write about Ted Dykstra that hasn’t already been covered, with all the ink he’s received since making his professional debut at 15? How about starting with the years leading up to his stage launch in Frank Moher’s The Broken Globe?

Born in Chatham Ontario in 1961, Ted moved with his Dutch immigrant parents (who grew up under the Nazi occupation) to St. Albert, Alberta while still very young.  His dad was a telephone repairman and his mom took on various jobs, full or part-time, to scrape enough money together to provide piano lessons and regular trips to the symphony for Ted and his 3 siblings. Not surprisingly, all but one of the Dykstra children migrated into artistic livelihoods, with the fourth, “the black sheep of the family” becoming an engineer, though he now admits that he wished his parents hadn’t let him quit his musical pursuits.  Kids … as a parent you just can’t win!  

He wowed audiences with his sizzling portrayal of Cale, the Jerry Lee Lewis inspired character in the Ledoux/Young musical, Fire, which won him his first Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1989.

Acting blipped onto Dykstra’s radar while in school, where he remembers one of his earliest roles as the Second Bird in Once upon a Clothesline. His break-out performance was playing the Hobbit in a grade 8 show at Sir George Simpson Junior High.  He also performed with the St. Albert on Sturgeon Players, a local amateur group. Dykstra’s mom happened to see an audition notice in the newspaper for a 15-year-old actor for the Frank Moher piece. Dykstra auditioned and well, you know ...  

From the age of 15 to 19, Dykstra got most of the teen roles in locally produced television and film projects. Admittedly, Edmonton in the 70’s wasn’t a glut of small and large screen opportunities, though one production he was involved with stuck out for Dykstra: Amber Waves with Dennis Weaver, Kurt Russell and Mare Winningham, a little known but lucrative contract.

A lover of the classics, musically and theatrically, Dykstra longed to play Shakespeare but knew he lacked the proper training, which led him to apply at the National Theatre School of Canada, where he was accepted and studied from 1981 to ’84. When I asked him who he most remembered from his years at NTS, without a moment’s hesitation, the name Mike Mawson popped out. "If you think of six degrees of Kevin Bacon, it's one degree of Michael Mawson. You go to any show in Canada, and he's there in some capacity by one degree. And true to people of great magnitude, he never sought a reputation. Quite the contrary.  He's almost the only teacher I've ever had who influenced me as an actor."

Though he loved Montreal, he felt his sub-standard French skills would be a problem and decided to move to Toronto after graduation. A tribute to his newly acquired classical training, one of his first gigs there was in an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Though he was accepted into the Stratford Young Company in 1985, that only lasted a disappointing year before he was cut. Undaunted, Dykstra persevered landing parts over the next twenty years at the Shaw Festival, Centaur Theatre, Canadian Stage, Theatre Passe-Muraille and the Neptune Theatre among others. He was in Factory Theatre’s premiere of George F. Walker’s Criminals in Love and later played in the Suburban Motel series as well.  He wowed audiences with his sizzling portrayal of Cale, the Jerry Lee Lewis inspired character in the Ledoux/Young musical, Fire, which won him his first Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1989.  (Incidentally in 2008, twenty years later, he reprised the role, having less difficulty imagining the 47-year old character, now that they were contemporaries!) He made his way back to the Stratford Festival mainstage where he played several leading roles including Mozart in Amadeus and Sloane in Entertaining Mr. Sloane and in 1995, Dykstra almost stole the show from the lead as Cousin Kevin in the Mirvish production of Tommy, for which he won his second Dora.

But in 1996, things really started to cook with 2 Pianos 4 Hands, a play Dykstra co-wrote with Montreal’s Richard Greenblatt. The two met in the Chamber Concerts Canada's children’s piece So You Think You’re Mozart, which for Dykstra was the first time he had worked with another actor whose musical chops were comparable to his own. A healthy competitive relationship, with a great deal of underlying admiration, developed as the two discovered that they shared almost identical, parallel upbringings at opposite ends of the country.  

Observing the chemistry between the two artists and aware of their similar paths Andy McKim, then Associate Artistic Director at Tarragon Theatre, prompted them to turn their similar musical journeys into a script. The company Talking Fingers was founded and a grant was successfully secured to produce a short version of 2 Hands 4 Pianos, which was workshopped through Tarragon’s Spring Art Fair.  Needless to say, it was well received, and before the expanded version was anywhere near completion, it was slotted into the Tarragon’s next season, and Dykstra and Greenblatt organized a Canadian tour of 10 other cities.  From 1995 to 1998 the showed toured, not just across Canada (to every major city except, oddly, Edmonton) but also to New York, London and Tokyo, earning another Dora Award as well as the Chalmers Award for Dykstra in 1996. Here’s a scoop for all you TO kids: Mirvish Productions is remounting the favourite next fall and (you read it here first) a tour, still under wraps, is yet to be announced but definitely in the works!

When I asked Dykstra, during his Centaur rehearsal lunch break, what stuck out most from that first tour, he said, “it was nothing in particular. Mostly it was the touching stories of how the show affected people.  That happened a lot.” He shared one such tender anecdote of an elderly gentleman waiting for the two performers after the show to tell them how much he had enjoyed hearing them play Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, a piece that he and his late wife used to play together.  

With such a long list of accomplishments to his credit, at this point in his career you would think that Dykstra could rest on his laurels for a spell.  That is not the case as in a 2008 interview with Richard Ouzounian of The Toronto Star, Dykstra quoted Canadian actress Sara Botsford saying , "There's a ladder of success in Canadian show business, but it's lying on the ground”, adding that “every time is your first time and you've got to break through all over again."

In the late 1990’s, Dykstra was one of the founding members of the now prominent Soulpepper Theatre CompanyIt was formed by a group of Stratford actors that wanted to continue playing in the classics but were finding it increasingly difficult (as they married, started families and had flourishing television and/or film careers) to take 7 or 8 months of the year to live in or near Stratford, either uprooting their families to go with them or having to leave them behind. Most were disciples of Stratford’s Robin Phillips, who assisted Albert Schultz in the formation of the actor-driven troupe.  Dykstra admits that he has a pretty sweet deal with Soulpepper, Schultz giving him free reign, an arrangement that has been mutually beneficial: Dykstra won his third Dora Award in Soulpepper’s 2003 production of A Chorus of Disapproval.  

"She was so generous, letting me into Mordecai’s study, where a year after his death, cigar ashes still lay on his desk with his bottle of scotch nearby."

TV aficionados who may not have been aware of Dykstra’s stage career were blown away by his performance in the CBC mini-series Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion which won him the 2004 Gemini for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. However a couple of years prior to that, Michael Levine, Mordecai Richler’s literary agent and lawyer, approached Dykstra  to write a tribute for the noted Canadian author and native Montrealer. Through this project Dykstra had the opportunity to fly over to London to meet Florence, Richler’s widow.  “She was so generous, letting me into Mordecai’s study, where a year after his death, cigar ashes still lay on his desk with his bottle of scotch nearby.  I felt like I’d been admitted to the inner sanctum.”  A long list of  celebrities who were Richler’s colleagues or whose lives had somehow been touched by him, participated in the special event held at Théâtre Monument National, including Richard Dreyfuss, Bret Hart, Jean Béliveau (who read an excerpt from Dispatches from the Sporting Life), Fiona Reid, David Fox, Eric Peterson, Geraint Wyn Davies and Mavis Gallant. Levine even managed to wrangle a rare audience for Dykstra with Conrad Black (before his downfall) to reminisce about Richler.  The tribute later aired on CBC Television as Mordecai Richler: A Celebration.  

These days Dykstra takes an average of one acting gig a year, splitting the rest of his time between directing and writing.  Currently commissioned by the Art of Time Ensemble, he is adapting the Tolstoy novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, into a play about a jealous husband who thinks his piano-playing wife is having an affair with the violinist with whom she’s rehearsing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Most years (except this one) Dykstra also preps the NTS classes for the 3-day Theatre Ontario Auditions where agents and artistic directors from across Canada come to check out the newest batch of emerging artists every spring.  Dykstra’s home life is rich as well, sharing joint custody of his two kids, Rosie (7) and Theo (9), with singer-songwriter Melanie Doane. Both children, musically inclined and attending theatre camp, are showing clear signs of following in their successful parents’ show biz footsteps, to which Dykstra has no objections. Still hot for Shakespeare, (which he hasn’t done by his own reckoning since 2004 in Calgary), Dykstra listed some of the roles he covets: Iago, Richard III and King Leontes. I don’t think I’m alone when I say we look forward to seeing him in those roles at some point in the future.  

For now, he’s got his work cut out for him with Montreal’s two leading Anglo theatres laying claim to his time and talent. The Soulpepper Company of Billy Bishop Goes to War settled into the Segal Centre  the first week of February, after playing Theatre Calgary at the end of January, just as Dykstra started rehearsals for Centaur’s two-hander, Instructions to any future socialist government wishing to abolish Christmas. Working opposite Gemma James Smith “is great. And this summer she’s playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie” which he’ll be directing for Soulpepper in July at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in Toronto.

Juggling eclectic and overlapping contracts, I asked Dykstra if he ever feels overwhelmed but he just laughed it off saying “it’s not really hard work is it? It’s more like hard fun!”

Billy Bishop Goes to War is now playing at the Segal Centre until March 6.  For tickets call (514) 739-7944.

Instructions to any future socialist government wishing to abolish Christmas runs at Centaur Theatre from March 1 to April 3.  For tickets call (514) 288-3161.

Next week: Randy Davies, director and choreographer of Hudson Music Club's The Drowsy Chaperone

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