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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ford's Focus: Joan MacBride

(Photo: Sabrina Reeves)

Joan McBride Sticks to her Turtle
When I told my mother at the end of high school that I wanted to be an actor, she told me to get on a bus and go to New York.  In other words, "over my dead body..."
by Barbara Ford
[Ed: read the PS]

At the age of four when Joan McBride launched into the rehearsal process of one of the numerous pageants she organized, this particular ‘spectacle’ based on the well-known script about a reindeer named Rudolf, she realized the leading role was curiously un-cast.  Not to worry: her seasoned team of five and six-year-old thespians unanimously voted her  to lead Santa’s sleigh and they were off to the races, or rooftops as it were, in true Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland neighbourhood theatre style.  It was a circuitous route from there to professional actor, director and John Abbott theatre professor, but an interesting one that most recently landed her and her 2010 graduating class on the roster of performers at the recent 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a national first for any Canadian college group. Way to celebrate the John Abbott Theatre College’s 40th anniversary!

“When I was twelve years old, I saw a professional production of The Sound of Music at the old Her Majesty’s Theatre” [situated at the corner of Guy and St. Catherine Streets], “that totally captivated me.  When I told my mother at the end of high school that I wanted to be an actor, she told me to get on a bus and go to New York.  In other words, ‘over my dead body; you’re going to be a teacher and that’s that!’”


With first grandchild, Spencer (photo: Andrea Austen)
Even with two toddlers to run after, McBride felt she could find the energy and make the time to squeeze in something she’d wanted to do since she was a teenager. 

So Joan went to college to become a teacher.  She started out at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick but switched to the MacDonald College Campus of McGill, where she got her teacher’s diploma.  She got married and started a family, living in Montreal’s West Island where she grew up.  Even with two toddlers to run after, McBride felt she could make the time and energy to squeeze in something she’d wanted to do since she was a teenager.  

JAC'NBURGHER Travelling Troupe
(Photo: Maggi MacAuley)
John Abbott College, which was literally right across the street, had opened a theatre department in 1971. Once she had her two kids safely nestled in the co-op daycare that she and fellow JAC/MAC (John Abbot College/MacDonald) parents set up, McBride was back at school and juggling housework and homework, she completed the three year program. After graduating she got an agent and started doing the rounds auditioning, landing a few gigs here and there including a principal voiceover role for Martin Duckworth, NFB documentary filmmaker, and several stage roles on the local independent theatre scene.
  
It was around this time that Abbott professor Daniel Landau was called away to coach Lily Tomlin for her role in 9 to 5. Joan interviewed for his position, got it and within a year and a half had tenure, teaching theatre history to both actors and designers/technicians. With her family still very much the mainstay, so began a whole new and unexpected chapter in her life.

Her brother-in-law, Montreal journalist Mike Boone, had been a contributor to the best-selling book The Anglo Guide to Survival in Quebec and he gave it to her for a Christmas present.

Tin Can rehearsal (photo: Annie Yao)
Astonishingly at the same time, as if she wasn’t busy enough, McBride became involved with a ‘little’ project called Anglo. Her brother-in-law, Montreal journalist Mike Boone, had been a contributor to the best-selling book The Anglo Guide to Survival in Quebec and he gave it to her for a Christmas present. On the first read-through on Boxing Day, Joan laughed herself silly and realized immediately that she wanted to create a theatrical version of the book. McBride conceptualized and directed the instant sell-out hit Anglo - A Musical Cartoon, which ran first for a year at the La Diligence dinner theatre and was remounted for a second successful run at Puzzles

McBride worked alongside La Diligence owners Sam and Harry Rubin for three years putting up a string of lucrative productions such as The Owl and The Pussycat and Once More With Fooling but by the latter half of the 80’s, between teaching, acting in film and television, producing/directing and her family, she needed a time out. 

Fun at the Fringe
McBride relegated herself strictly to teaching and family.  Over the past few decades, she has taught almost every acting course offered at the college including voice, text, theatre history and acting; movement being the only skill she hasn’t tackled.  “Having taught several of the courses the students are required to take makes it easier for me to show them how to take the skills they acquire and apply them to discover an artistic process that works for them.”

“Is the story clear? Is it simply told? Is it dramatically engaging (do we care about the characters)?  Is it believable and does it resonate with the audience? That’s the bottom line.”

Once she became one of the core acting teachers seven years ago, part of her duties was to direct, which she was delighted to do again. McBride believes that the teacher informs the actor/director and vice versa. “I was in a workshop with Gordon McCall when he told me he saw my position as both teacher and director as an enviable one. It caught me off guard, considering it was coming from the Artistic Director of Centaur Theatre, but I wasn’t surprised at all when I heard he left Centaur to teach at Purdue University.”

Sightseeing at Sterling Castle
Whether teaching or directing, McBride adheres to a straightforward set of guidelines.  “Is the story clear? Is it simply told? Is it dramatically engaging (do we care about the characters)?  Is it believable and does it resonate with the audience? That’s the bottom line.” McBride warns her students about the ego, always lurking in the wings ready to pounce if it’s not kept in check. “You’re dead if you let your ego get in the way. There’s a Sarah Bernhardt quote that I love and share often with my students: ‘I am not a humble person but I always practice humility.’”

This past year she had an opportunity to put what she preaches into practice, giving her class a rare glimpse of their prof in performance mode. The group McBride was taking to Edinburgh staged a fundraising performance of The Vagina Monologues.  One of the monologues is a grandmother describing the birth of her grandchild.  Having lived through that experience herself, McBride decided to slip into her acting shoes and work shoulder to shoulder alongside her students to help raise funds for their trip.  Following the show she was pleased to hear her students say how encouraging it was for them to watch her use the skills she teaches. “Performing is a great leveler. It’s not easy to get up in front of people and sometimes we, as teachers, forget that. Teaching acting can be dangerous because it’s so easy to start thinking that you know everything when it’s really the opposite. You need to stay out of the ivory tower.”

Rehearsing Tin Can (Credit: Annie Yao)
So how did McBride parlay her 2010 graduating class into a spot in the limelight at the world’s largest Fringe festival?  The American High School Theatre Festival was established in 1994 to give outstanding high school theatre productions a once-in-a-lifetime learning and performing opportunity.  They recently broadened their scope to become the International Collegiate Theatre Festival (ICTF) and approached McBride by phone to see if she was interested in applying to the program.  Duh!

"John Abbott College was behind us all the way from the Director General and Academic Dean to the Chair of the Theatre Department, Chris Brown."

“The timing was perfect.  My 2010 graduating class was outstanding: serious, talented, very mature and focused and they all leapt at the idea.  We extended the opportunity to other actors and designers/technicians in the department and in the end, our JAC’NBurgh troupe numbered 25 students or grads. John Abbott College was behind us all the way from the Director General and Academic Dean to the Chair of the Theatre Department, Chris Brown. The college even offered to pay for the production costs.  The ICTF applied to the Edinburgh Fringe on our behalf and took care of all the details that can make a touring show such a headache: finding a venue, arranging on-the-ground support, advertising, finding residences for everyone, providing bus tickets, meal tickets, workshops and tours for the students to take in their off time, etc.  They were amazing!”

Visiting The Abbey "religiously"
McBride chose The Tin Can People for their overseas adventure, written by one of her favourite playwrights, the controversial British writer, Edward Bond. She had directed it before in 2008 and wanted to tackle the edgy material again. They staged a preview of the show here in Montreal in June, which was very well received, took July off and reconvened at the beginning of August to prepare for Edinburgh.

While there and under her care, McBride took the responsibility for her charges very seriously. “We went to church every night,” she chuckled, referring to a pub they frequented called The Abbey. Beaming, McBride spouted off a few stats about this year’s Fringe: it was the largest festival since its inception in 1947 with 2,542 separate events that involved 41,689 artists and attracted over 1,000,000 spectators in a city with an average population of roughly 435,000. And we were there! Each student had to come up with air fare plus $2,600 to pay for their end of the meals and accommodations, venue, public transit, sightseeing, etc. Some arrived early or stayed on after the festival to explore various European countries.  

They must prepare to go out and make it happen and not expect opportunities to come to them.  The Edinburgh Fringe project was the perfect example to drive home that point.

Chris Brown (r) (Photo: Annie Yao)
All of the John Abbott theatre profs try to instill the importance of taking responsibility for their own careers into their students. They must prepare to go out and make it happen and not expect opportunities to come to them.  The Edinburgh Fringe project was the perfect example to drive home that point. “They learned so much in that short twelve-day period; they were different people by the time it was over. I was so proud of them - how they conducted themselves, the work they produced. They did themselves and their college proud. And the atmosphere was so rich; so much to do and see. It was theatre heaven.”  

Heaven came up a few times in my interview with McBride.  In July she was in domestic heaven when she and husband Charles shared a cottage with all the kids (first born Joel, a pharmaceutical executive, and his wife Evica with their two kids Lucas and Sierra; daughter Andrea, a nurse in Kingston, with her husband Adrian and their two kids Spencer and Connor; and her third child, Rob, a Montreal-based engineer with his partner Mandy) as well as her ex-husband Jon and his partner Zena, for a vacation in Cape Cod.  “We’d never done this before and we had a great time.  It may turn into an annual family tradition.  Between July with my family at the Cape and August with my class in Scotland, I’m finding it hard to come back down to earth and get back into the routine at school.”

Her acting classes and looking ahead to her first production of the year, poet Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood is quickly bringing back her focus. Like her 2010 graduates, her current acting class (that will graduate in 2013) is also highly talented, focused and committed.  Joan considers it a privilege to work with such enthusiastic young adults year after year. 

"I took thirty people to Edinburgh and came home happy."

Tin Can People (photo Annie Yao)
As her 2013 retirement from John Abbott rapidly approaches, McBride confided that it would be great if she could make one more trip with another class to the Edinburgh Fringe before she leaves, but if it doesn’t work out, she has no complaints. “I took thirty people to Edinburgh and came home happy. If it doesn’t happen again, I’m okay with that but I would love to give this opportunity to one more group of grads and then pass the torch to another acting teacher; build on our first experience.” Either way, it’s no shabby end to her teaching career by any stretch.

“I use Aesop’s fable of The Hare and the Tortoise with my students to illustrate that an acting career is not about the big leading roles and bags of slick tricks. If you still want to be acting when you’re sixty-five, you have to take the time to learn the craft … be the turtle.  He stuck at it, even when everyone laughed at him for even trying and he reached his destination and won the race. During training (and while we were in Scotland), whenever things get rocky, we just say, ‘stick to your turtle’. Works for me!”  

The Tin Can People by Edward Bond. A John Abbott College Department of Theatre Production.   Directed by Joan McBride with Trevor Barrette, Vanessa Carter, Davide Chiazzese, Alana Cosgrove, Ezra Fama de Smit, Simon Fontaine, Ian Geldart, Bailey Green, Meaghan Henstridge, Samantha Hodhod, Natasha Inniss, Jillian Lalonde, Justine Lewis, Gab Lubin, Mary Picard, Mike Romano, Cedric Roy and Tristan Roy. Set and Costume Design by Genia De Marco; Sound Design by Michel Drolet; Lighting Design by Peter Vastis (also the Technical Director); Choreography by Lea Berry and Carol Harwood; and Stage Management by Thomas Gatehouse. Behind the scenes: Owen Howarth, Cameron McKenzie, Shauna Murphy, Beecher Pinet and Natalie Ramsay.


P.S. It’s Saturday morning, less than 24 hours before this article is posted on CharPo, and I just got off the phone with a very, very excited McBride. She was aware of the Fringe Early Bird Special: the first eight in line at the MainLine Theatre offices at eight o’clock September 17 are guaranteed a spot in the 2012 Montreal Fringe without having to enter the lottery. She’d heard that people sleep outside MainLine’s door the night before but didn’t feel up to that. (The days of camping out on the sidewalk in front of the Forum to buy concert tickets are long gone.) However she woke up at 2:30, figured ‘what the hell’, and beat a path down to the Main where she joined a large and anxious group, some of whom had been there since 6:30 PM, despite the QDF fall launch taking place at the same time where it seemed (at least to me) that most of Montreal’s theatre community was crammed inside the Centaur. And guess what Montreal? McBride scored the last Anglo spot on the list. The Tin Can People are a lucky bunch to have someone as dedicated and ballsy as McBride backing them up; I’m betting they already know that. Congrats Joan … see you at the Fringe!

1 comment:

  1. Joan Eyolfson CadhamSeptember 18, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    Thank you for an interview that does credit to one of the brightest, most talented, women I know.

    I remember Anglo. I should - we saw it more than once - more than twice, more than - well, every friend or relative who visited us in Ste-Anne was dragged off to Anglo, just so we could go again. And yes, though they were from out of province, and should not have caught the inside jokes, they all laughed themselves silly.

    Sometimes, with no handy visitors around, we simply had to take in a performance. Of course, anything that involves Joan calls for more than one visit.

    By the way, I should have added multi-talented. In and around everything ese, Joan is also a keen and capable sailor.

    Joan Eyolfson Cadham
    Foam Lake, Saskatchewan

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