Playwright and cast in Verdun
(l-r standing: Lucie Beaudoin, designer, Charlebois, Marie-Christine Legault,
Ernest Plitong, Jacoba Knaapen, Fennario, Jim Murchison; Bob Barnard)
A young company makes noise even as it says farewell
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
[Ed: This is the first of an occasional series of first-person pieces on moments in Canadian Theatre's past. Anyone wishing to write a memoir for The Charlebois Post, please contact us.]
It was the last big hey-day of English-language theatre in Montreal. It was the end of the 70s and we had two major newspapers (therefore two critics who, it was suspected, despised each other), weeklies in every small town on the Island and radio and television was local and covered the arts. The possibilities, for a young theatre company, were enormous and every kid coming out of theatre school had a place to go (if not a salary to live on).
My company, The Group of Four, was tight-knit (some would say too much so) and dedicated. But we had no money.
I was 18 when I directed and financed my first production; Jerome Kilty's Dear Liar which played John Abbott, downtown, Quebec City and Ottawa and armed us with decent enough reviews to continue. Echoes, What the Butler Saw, The Good Doctor and a Kabuki-style Romeo and Juliet followed. Hit or flop, each show doubled our audience but I had spent everything and was working a day job and rehearsing late into the night and on weekends - simply: burning out. My company, The Group of Four, was tight-knit (some would say too much so) and dedicated. But we had no money.
So I took a gamble. I was working at Centaur, at the time, and our star there was playwright David Fennario. He had come to AD Maurice Podbrey's attention years before as a published diarist with a terrific book, Without a Parachute. For Podbrey he had produced giant (and brilliant) successes like On The Job and Nothing to Lose. However, WaP had never been brought to the stage. So I called Fennario. Miracle! He had seen Good Doctor, liked it, and was open to the idea of a collaboration.
He was working on a new project (Balconville)...
I was terrified when I met him for coffee in Verdun. I was a gibbering idiot. Then he said, "Listen to this," and put some money in the small jukebox at the table in the greasy spoon and out blasted Queen's "We Will Rock You". I knew the song, I loved the song. Fennario said, "That's Without a Parachute. That's me. That."
He was working on a new project (Balconville) and so I suggested my team and I work on improvs around the diary for a few weeks and then present them to him as a first step. He liked the idea and off we went.
God, it was fun! We were doing a fucking new Fennario! The buzz was white hot, spirits were soaring. Then Fennario came back and watched what we'd done. After...silence... Then, "You made my family look like da fuckin' Brady Bunch!" But David has always been so charming, so soft-spoken (despite the rage in his plays) that we took it well...even laughed, I think (my titter an octave higher and considerably more effeminate than usual).
I encouraged the actor playing him, Bob Barnard, to study the playwright and Bob turned in one of the great performances I've seen.
And the work began and went extremely well. Fennario is one of the great theatrical accomplices. He not only was there for every frigging rehearsal, proposing tweaks to his script constantly, but he stayed out of my way as I directed. I encouraged the actor playing him, Bob Barnard, to study the playwright and Bob turned in one of the great performances I've seen. Moreover, everyone loved David. The cherry on the sundae was when he took us on a tour of Verdun, during a street festival there, showed us the sights - all of which taught us bunch o' burbies more about his book than we could have learned in years of study.
Without a Parachute was a smash hit, selling out more often than all our other shows combined. But I (we) were broke. I was saddled with several thousand dollars debt from the ill-advised R&J (and that after I had sunk my prize-winnings from the Clifford E. Lee Award into the enterprise). On the closing night I gave a pre-show speech saying goodbye for the company.
By this time, the Montreal Star was closed by a stike (it would flounder and die) and radio and television was feeling the punch of new media (especially cable) which would eventually hobble them as well.
But Fennario, a true hero of our theatre, and his Balconville, would go on to defy everything.