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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ford's Focus: Ellen David

As Judith Bellow in 18 to Life

Meant to Be
"Whatever I choose is going to help me grow as an artist, challenge me, put me outside my comfort zone."
by Barbara Ford

After interviewing Ellen David, I mourned the lack of foresight on my part for not having taken shorthand in high school (yes it was an option in my day), as I tried desperately to keep up with the rapid-fire litany of people, places and events that skipped generations and jumped continents, each story laden with meaning and purpose, exerting its own magnetic push or pull. Colourful threads wove in and out of a rich and vibrant life, each indelible experience shaping her spirit, her natural inquisitiveness and passion drawing significance from every encounter.  As one door closed and another opened, her life assumed a preternatural charm, which is not to say it hasn’t been tinged with tragedy, but even the lows seemed infused with a trace of the mystic, enriching her as a person and moulding an artist of keen sensibility.

Her earliest memories of performing were with her father, whom she adored, when the family hopped in the Buick and “went visiting” on the weekends. The father/daughter pair, famous with friends and family for their rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling”, re-enacted scenes from their favourite movies and musicals for their captive audiences. Between studies and cheerleading at Wagar High School sporting events, David also participated in several school productions, sometimes playing multiple parts and often her favourite: character roles.  

Ellen also participated in plays at sleep-over camp in St. Donat during the summers.  Camp counsellor Giselle Rucker (now the Segal Centre Academy Director), organized the talent portion of the annual colour war.  David was always chosen to perform, contributing valuable points to her team’s score.  She appeared to be having a mild psychotic break in middle of our interview at Second Cup when all of a sudden, a barrage of thickly-accented words were flying at me, machine-gun style.  It took me a few anxious moments to realize she was reciting the lyrics to the Funny Girl song, “Private Schwartz from Rockaway”, channelling not ‘La Streisand’ but Fanny Brice herself!  The transformation was instantaneous and disarmingly credible.  

With JC MacKenzie at Concordia
Midsummer Night's Dream

David’s dad had started to work for his own father in the credit merchant business at the tender age of twelve, and helped build it up to become a well-respected and benevolent financial support systemfor the surrounding community. An emotional David remembered accompanying him on his rounds to collect payments, admiring his affable manner with customers.  Following two previous generations of businessmen, she naturally assumed that she, like her brother, would go into a business, an occupation that would exploit her entrepreneurial spirit and ease with numbers as well as her quick and curious mind.  She never entertained the idea of performing arts as a career option. 

Her zeal for theatre was having a detrimental effect on her school work...

David attended the Snowdon campus of Vanier CEGEP where she continued to pursue economics while taking part in such plays as You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, rehearsals being the absolute high point of her day. Her zeal for theatre was having a detrimental effect on her school work, her actions fairly screaming that her heart just wasn’t into business but she paid no heed, persevering in spite of the inner turmoil, taking summer courses to cobble enough credits together to graduate so she could study commerce at Concordia University.

She was accepted at Concordia and did study commerce … for about five minutes, when David finally yielded to the dramatic arts.  Her mother, concerned at the abrupt switch to such a precarious career, asked David’s father to “speak to her Lou” and though he made a valiant attempt, the actor in David read between the lines, heard what her father’s artistic soul was truly saying and stuck to her guns.  

Concordia offered a dazzling array of outstanding mentors to develop David’s skills including Norma Springford, Terry Donald, Ralph Allison and Joe Cazalet.  She remembers a guest teacher coming to speak one day in her directing class, director Guy Sprung, who coincidentally also adjudicated the solo piece she wrote and performed for her Master’s degree at York University.  Who could predict that this particular thread would re-emerge years later when the fully realized David would be asked to direct for Infinitheatre, Sprung’s indie company? 

Once again fate shone her light upon David, blessing her with such expert guides as Pierre Lefèvre and Perry Schneiderman.

When she wasn’t squirrelling away money from summer jobs, David furthered her acting training at The Banff Centre. Once again fate shone her light upon David, blessing her with such expert guides as Pierre Lefèvre and Perry Schneiderman, who directed her in The Good Woman of Setzuan and Ten Lost Years respectively. The name Lefèvre resurfaced in 2008 when David directed Intimate Exchanges for Theatre Lac Brome and felt an instant chemistry with the designer Vincent Lefèvre. It all made sense when she found out he was Pierre’s son.  

As she neared completion of Concordia's three-year BFA program, our eager academic applied to graduate schools, mostly Ivy League institutions in the States (addressing her travel yen as well as her academic ambitions). To appease the family who preferred she stay closer to home, she took the advice of Banff Director, Harold Baldridge (currently Artistic Director of New York’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse) and also applied to York University in Toronto as well.

A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman … gutsy move and it worked! 

For her post-graduate audition piece she made an unorthodox choice: a transvestite’s monologue from Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna. She had seen it with Jean Archambault and “was blown away.  It was the most inspiring thing I’d ever seen and I saw no reason why I couldn’t play it.”  A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman … gutsy move and it worked!  She was accepted at NYU however chose to stay in Canada and attended nearby York instead. The family ties that tipped the scale in favour of York landed her in a stimulating program with a high regarded faculty - voice guru David Smukler, actor/director Michele George who was in Peter Brook’s ground-breaking white box production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream among others - as well as gifted peers and a diverse curriculum, just as Baldridge had promised. 

During her first summer at York, the adventurous David returned to Montreal to co-write and perform in Amouréal Tours, a novel idea she cooked up with pals Pauline Little, Patty Talbot and Robert Daviau. They played Montreal tour guides, each researching a list of local tourist attractions and writing their own comedy material for several characters.  The popular and very successful dinner theatre show, produced by Elite Productions in the Hyatt Regency, afforded David her first step into the world of professional theatre, as she became a full-fledged member of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. 

...she succumbed to more traditional means of making a living by working as a bookkeeper...

Even though David had turned pro while at York, rather than put her hard-earned skills and considerable talents to work after graduating, she succumbed to more traditional means of making a living by working as a bookkeeper at Jerome Myers International, a Montreal interior design company. It was while working there that friend Albert Schultz (co-founder of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre and who was all over television at the time) came in one day, spouting amusing anecdotes of his recent escapades in ‘the biz’ and David thought to herself, “THAT is my world, not this!”

In The Daily Miracle
Frustrated with the direction her life had taken but unsure how to change course, as fate would have it, she went to hear British actor/director Greg de Polnay present his You Can’t shut Out the Human Voice for Index on Censorship.  It was the kick in the butt she needed.  With the blessing of her boss, Jerome Myers, a big fan of the arts, she withdrew the sizable savings from all the years she had worked, (including the babysitting years), hopped on a plane and brought to life her dream of going to England to study.  

David had been accepted to and began studies at the London Theatre School while renting a small room in de Polnay’s house. There she studied shoulder to shoulder with both the theatre elite (Tim and Chris Chaplin, direct descendants of the late, great Charlie were schoolmates) as well as blue blood nobility (Lady Ogilvy a classmate as well).   The program wasn’t what she’d hoped so she applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) where by chance that particular year, they were introducing a new program resulting, for that year only, in a surplus of teachers like Oliver Neville and John Normington with no courses to teach.  David lucked out with an intense year of Shakespeare from some of the best in the world.  

While in London one of David’s two brothers was traveling through Europe.  He called her up one day to come and meet him in Paris for the weekend, a weekend that changed her life, at least for a span until the irresistible call of the muse prevailed.  Through the Latin Quarter’s Young and Happy Hostel where her brother was staying, she met a captain and parachutist from the Israeli Army and fell in love. They commuted back and forth between the two countries on weekends and long breaks while David continued her training at RADA.  

Dancing at Lughnasa, Centaur
Once she completed her courses, David moved to Paris to be with her new boyfriend. She helped to run the hostel for extra cash, living on the rue Mouffetard and taking acting classes at l’École Philippe Gaulier, former associate of Jacques Lecoq until he left to open his own school.  David gave a colourful description of the Dali-esque figure banging his cane on the floor to drive home his ideas.  In retrospect, David said that “compared to London, Paris was like someone had turned on the lights.  It’s the same feeling I get when I’m in New York.” She still has close friends in France and manages to visit regularly.  

Eventually the wad of cash ran out. It was time to go home but instead of living in Montreal, the couple took up residence on Queen Street in Toronto’s The Beaches district along with good friend Carl Alacchi, who later worked with David in Steve Galluccio’s Ciao Bella and In Piazza San Domenico and most recently in CBC’s 18 to Life. The three roomies were scavenging furniture from the sidewalk and taking whatever work they could, from bartending to phone sales.  David laughed as she recalled the drag queen that ran the Lion’s Club telemarketing campaign, just one of the five jobs she worked concurrently to pay her share of the bills.  

Marat/Sade at Toronto's Harbourfront, directed by Michele George
Toronto was awash with television series and made-for-TV films shooting in the city and David correctly figured that was her way in.  She finally got a break as a stand-in for Sonja Smits on the hit series Street Legal.  David received the sides, learned them and acted them out as she stood in for camera angles, eventually garnering a small part as a receptionist for Gordon Pinsent’s character on the show; the beginnings of another thread that would weave in and out of her career.  

“My father started to age that day; he lost his joy.”

It was 1988 and her acting career was finally taking off when she received a frantic call from her mother. Her younger brother David had been killed in a car accident. In a haze, she got on a train to Montreal, providence tenderly swaddling her, seating an angel in the adjacent seat who quite literally talked David through her grief so that by the time she arrived in Montreal she was able to go to the morgue in Quebec City with her father and uncle to identify the body. “My father started to age that day; he lost his joy.” 

David, who considers herself a private person, had an uncharacteristic Barbara Walters moment as she confided how little the family really knew about her brother’s day to day life. As they settled his affairs, parents and siblings discovered a modest and kind person who volunteered as a Big Brother and routinely visited an elderly man to ease the isolation of old age. None were aware of his generosity as he never sought any praise or recognition for his contributions. Her brother’s death taught her that whatever time you have  with a loved one is precious, that you must give them your full attention and can never tell them enough how much you love them.  

At the unveiling of her brother’s tombstone on an oppressive grey day, Emily Dickinson’s words “This world is not conclusion, a sequel stands beyond…” were inscribed on the stone and for one magical moment the sun broke through the clouds to shed a golden light on the Cohanim hands blessing the final resting place of David Cohen.  

The inner voice that had reared its head at Concordia, pleading with her to stop pursuing commerce, reappeared.

As her career shifted into high gear, David started splitting her time between Montreal and Toronto.  She was getting a lot of television work on well-known series such as Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Night Heat, Sirens, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo and Urban Angel.  She was cracking the theatre scene too, performing The Heidi Chronicles at the Saidye Bronfman Centre and doing summer theatre in Lac Brome. When she played R. H. Thomson’s love interest in The Quarrel, her first feature film, she became a member of ACTRA.  David had finally arrived; she could legitimately call herself a professional actor.  

Still with her Parisian boyfriend, as she wrapped a film in Montreal, he moved back to Paris to start up a new restaurant in which he and David would be partners – the world of business always a dangling carrot in her life. As soon as the gig ended, she beat it over to Paris but once there, the inner voice that had reared its head at Concordia, pleading with her to stop pursuing commerce, reappeared. What was she thinking, starting a business in France?  She hated to admit it, but “this was not my dream, it was his.”  The boyfriend, definitely a ‘mensch’, made the ultimate sacrifice because his advice to her, though it must have broken his heart, was to follow the call.

In Substance of Fire with Maurice Podbrey
Talking to a family member one day in 1996, she felt she should do something to honour her brother’s memory and in a flash decided to change her name from Cohen to David.  Her agent flipped, saying she was known as Cohen and changing her name at this juncture would set her career back.  She didn’t care; she was adamant.  Fifteen minutes later, her agent called back to say David got a part in the new Denys Arcand film, Joyeux Calvaire. Up to this point, David had made several don’t-blink-now Hitchcockean appearances in Arcand films but this small role gave her first billing.  In a Yiddish word, ‘bashert’ or ‘meant to be’ and getting the part was the universe’s seal of approval.  

The beginning of the second millennium saw even more activity in David’s career.  Things really started to cook with Steve Galluccio’s runaway hit, Mambo Italiano in 2002.  The Montreal run at Centaur Theatre was extended, it then toured to Toronto as part of the Mirvish season and was later made into a film, with David involved every step of the way though she played a different part in the film version.  Equally comfortable in both official languages, David continued to work on English and French television series such as Ciao Bella, Naked Josh as well as Rumeurs and Bouscotte.

In Ciao, Bella with Tony Calabretta
With each new director and role, David soaked up every nuance for future reference, refining her acting and informing her skills as a director.  “I learned so much about being a good director from Ciao Bella’s Patrice Sauvé.  I learned how to treat a crew from him.  Everyone on that set knew the blocking, felt included, so everyone had a stake in the project and it ran smoothly because of that.”  

Playwright/director David Mamet wants actors to simply respond to the needs of the text: learn their lines and say them honestly. Working with him validated her approach to strip away the sentimental bullshit and reveal the truth, both as an actor and director. “I’m analytical, a nut for puzzles, have been since I was a kid and directing is like a puzzle to me.  I’m looking for clues to illuminate a scene or the world of the play; looking for the clues to lead me to the bigger picture. Acting is an inward search but directing feels more outward to me.” 

David added voice work to her list of talents and can still be heard as the voice of Bitzi in the cartoon series Arthur, Miss Martin in Caillou and Mama Shao Fun Miao in Sagwa, the Chines Siamese Cat.  As video games became more popular, she hopped on that bandwagon too, lending her voice to Splinter Cell and two Assassin’s Creed games.  

David has been known to sneak off-set for a private moment just to pinch herself- double-check her good fortune.

Local Hollywood star, Jay Baruchel co-wrote Goon, still in post-production, in which David had a role and she just finished working with Geneviève Bujold and Christopher Plummer on Sarila, an animated feature based on an Inuit tale ten years in the making, directed by Nancy Savard.  With visible awe, David confided that Bujold showed up to the voice-over studio with the script memorized “These people are the real deal, true professionals and craftsman.” 

Bujold and Plummer are just some of the heavy hitters that David has worked with:   Gordon Pinsent, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti also make the list.  You would think that working with such high-powered celebrities would be intimidating but David says there’s no time to gush or be self-conscious. The work takes precedence and getting to collaborate with seasoned pros is not only a great privilege but a valuable learning experience.  However, David has been known to sneak off-set for a private moment just to pinch herself- double-check her good fortune.

David (l) working it in 18 to Life
Working with Dustin Hoffman on Barney’s Version was just too good to be true and David had to have a record of it but asking him to pose with her for a photo at the end of a take didn’t exactly convey the appropriate professional behaviour. Can you say groupie?  One day Hoffman’s wife Lisa visited the set and struck up a conversation with David, who confessed her photo fixation.  To David’s horror (but eventual delight) Lisa shouted across the set, “Dust … Ellen will DIE if she doesn’t get a picture with you!”  It now hangs in a very special place of honour.

With Keleghan
Pinsent also stands out because of a synchronistic set of circumstances, one of many meaningful occurrences in David’s life.  She played Pinsent’s secretary on Street Legal and years later, Pinsent’s daughter Leah made an appearance on CBC’s 18 to Life, in which David had a starring role. She reconnected with Gordon at the launch of the series’ second season where she reminded him of their first meeting and how he had impressed her.  “What’s amazing about Gordon is the enthusiasm and joy he has for his work.  He’s like a kid; he’s a non-stop fountain of creativity.  What a national treasure.”  18 to Life dished up a second blast from her past with Peter Keleghan, fellow student at Concordia, playing David’s husband on the series.  Very apt, since they dated in university!  

Surviving My Mother
That’s nothing. 

Follow this tangled web of six degrees of separation if you can.  David played Clara (wife to Colin Mochrie) in the movie Surviving My Mother, produced by Denys Arcand’s wife, Denise Robert, who also produced Mambo Italiano. Years before Surviving My Mother was made, David was vacationing in Italy one summer and took a day to visit Pompeii.  She was enjoying a quiet picnic in the amphitheatre when she spied Véronique Le Flaguais with husband Michel Coté.  Le Flaguais later ended up as David’s mom in Surviving My Mother and the group photo they took that day in Pompeii was used in the film as a prop mother/daughter photo.  And (that’s not all) Michel Coté had been in the French television series, Omerta, in which David’s husband also had a role.  Such coincidences are not unusual in the Canadian acting community, but to run into the couple in a Roman ruin, now that is bizarre but commonplace in David’s cosmos.

The circumstances under which David met her husband also have a soupçon of the preordained.

The circumstances under which David met her husband also have a soupçon of the preordained. They were hired as actors for the 1997 Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui production of Si j'avais la seule possession dessus le jugement dernier (If I Had the Sole Possession Over Judgement Day).  Instead of going out with the cast on their breaks, she and fellow actor, Stéphane Demers, preferred to use the free time to work on their scenes.  David loves to bake and Demers loves to cook … it was love at first bite. “We bonded over food” admitted David.  And what were their roles in the play? … husband and wife of course.  Demers is best known for his role as Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the television mini-series, Trudeau II: Maverick in the Making. He is also the co-founder (with Jean-Frédéric Messier) of the French indie company Momentum.   

David and Demers have a twelve-year-old son, Raphael, who exhibits an aptitude for the performing arts (quelle surprise), but an even stronger bent for architectural design, turning abstract ideas into three-dimensional constructions since he was a toddler.  

Book Club Cast
So what is David up to now?  For starters, she just finished directing the new Ned Cox comedy, Book Club, now playing at the Freestanding Room featuring four of Montreal’s best actresses: Paula Costain, Alexandria Haber, Paula Jean Hixson and Johanna Nutter.  She will be in the Centaur production of God of Carnage in November 2011 and is slated to direct the English translation of Francois Archambault’s hit, The Leisure Society, for Infinitheatre in the early spring of 2012.  

“I love acting but I want to be selective about where I put my energy.  That doesn’t mean I’m only going to take big, lucrative contracts; whatever I choose is going to help me grow as an artist, challenge me, put me outside my comfort zone.”  The award-winning David (one Les Masques and multiple ACTRA and Gemini nominations, with an award for outstanding female performance for Surviving My Mother from ACTRA) has started writing and wants to get into film direction as well.  “Writing and directing just seem to be natural progressions,” and for someone who came from a family of high-achievers, why should she impose a ceiling on her aspirations?  “When I read a script I can hear the score for the opening sequence, see the camera angles I would use, the lighting. Right now it makes sense to get a good foundation directing theatre and when the circumstances are right, progress into film.” 

Recently she rented her own studio space.  “I had an aunt and uncle living in New York who were like my artistic surrogate parents growing up.  He represented visual artists, eventually retiring to become one himself, and she was a successful photographer for Time and Life magazines. I remember visiting the studio and how it felt and I wanted a place like that for myself.  A white box to fill with positive things (like a prized photo of Dustin Hoffman per chance?); where everything in it is steeped with positive energy and meaning, it would just pull the creativity out of me. When I’m in my studio, I treat myself well, drink beautiful teas from a special mug, listen to my favourite music. Everything I do there is joyful, has an aspect of ritual to it. It’s like being inside my head – just being there opens the portals of creativity.” Though at the moment nothing is confirmed, David is juggling various projects that incorporate her abilities as a writer, actor, director and business woman. Suffice to say that the juices are flowing like crazy with several possibilities on the horizon.  

"I’m getting to realize my own ideas."

Who is really in charge? Are the fabrics of our lives predetermined according to some unfathomable higher power’s design or do we truly weave our own stories? Far be it for me to attempt answering such a timeless and complex question, but as far as Ellen David’s journey is concerned, her drive and determination, along with the odd unforeseen hiccup that deals her the occasional royal flush, she will undoubtedly continue to polish her craft and be the very best that she can wherever she sets her sights. “I’m getting to realize my own ideas.  Slowly but surely my dreams and goals seem to be coming to fruition, unfolding organically.”  Sounds ‘bashert’ to me.  

Book Club is playing at the Freestanding Room until May 15th.  For tickets call (514) 759 - 4671

Next week in Ford’s Focus: Artistic Director Diane Brown of Vancouver’s Ruby Slippers Theatre.

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