Experiences of a Pioneer in Canadian Experimental Theatre

Joan Ferry is the Co-founder of Toronto Workshop Productions. This is an account of her experience in the theatre and the events leading up to the production of Antony Ferry’s play “Hey Rube!

Joan Ferry est la co-fondatrice du théatre Toronto Workshop Productions. Il raconte ici L’histoire de ses expériences dans le théatre et des événements qui précédèrent la création de Hey Rube! Pièce écrite par Antony Ferry.

My early connections with the stage began in Quebec City when I was sixteen years old. The early fifties in that city were active ones in both English and French theatre. I belonged to three different groups: the Patrician Players, the Quebec Art Theatre and a newly formed school- cum-theatre company called Le Conservatoire D’art Dramatique which was conducted by Mademoiselles Francis and Synval of the Comédie Francaise. We worked on the French classics at L’institut Canadien in an old church lined with red plush velvet on Rue Dauphine, within the walls of the Old City. Molière and Racine reverberated through the cavernous high altar. Sitting in the pews we awaited our turn to go on stage as we breathed in the romantically-charged air emanating from both women. Out of it came a passionate, proud, but airless production of Georges Bernanos’ Les Dialoques des Carmelites.

Antony Ferry and I had in the meanwhile developed a nodding acquaintance. He had arrived as a refugee in Quebec City with his family in 1942 on a convoy from England. Although only thirteen, he brought with him experiences and tales of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. We both attended the same school, Saint Patrick’s High School, though he was a few years my senior. I joined the Quebec Oratorical Club in 1948, the year he matriculated. He left for Philadelphia to take a course in journalism at Temple University; then he returned to Quebec in 1949 to work as a reporter at the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph.

The small parts I played at the Quebec Art Theatre subsequently allowed me to play leads with the Patrician Players at the Palais Montcalm in D’youville Square When I was eighteen my father, Jack Maroney, became Artistic Director of the Quebec Art Theatre. This meant that theatre replaced drink, food and sleep in our lives, a fact which displeased my mother, mainly because the theatre became the only topic of conversation between my father and me. My mother’s world was the free floating world of film. ‘Live’ theatre seemed static to her by comparison. Neither did she like the over-large personalities. She was a simple, direct woman who expected to be related to in kind.

Because of space problems in the theatre my father would bring the cast of a play home with him since our house on Boulevard St-Cyrille was fairly large. It was easy to move the dining room furniture into the living room to make rehearsal space for the actors. Sometimes I was asked ‘to hold the book’. In this way I saw the actors working at close range. I saw the rehearsal of Death takes a holiday, directed by James Peacock, with René Arthur playing ‘Death’ in the acting tradition of ‘le grand théatre francais’, and Quebec-born Posy Cannon creating her part in the best English tradition, relying on technique. It was an incredible mixture of French and English styles which worked remarkably well in that production. I saw See how they run and Arsenic and Old Lace, comedies which revealed to me the difficulties of delivering one-liners. Complete relaxation was needed to allow the line to have its own ‘life’. When the actor ‘tried’ to be funny the line died. But when it was delivered with abandon, it came alive with belly-laughs from the audience. Night must fall with Jeanine Beaubien playing the lead was also a memorable experience in teaching me of the need for concentration in bringing together technique and feeling. She required silence while she was working in rehearsal. Up to then I had seen no one think to ask for it. Acting ceased to be a game for me at this point. It was the work which I had decided to do, and I started to take it seriously.

Both my father and my husband were to play important roles in my chosen career. My father threw himself with great passion into directing and acting. Though it was in the context of amateur theatre – there were no permanent professional companies in Quebec City during the forties – his love and respect for theatre were total. His acting manner had something of the magician’s in it. He could draw you into the drama of a situation, then with a glint in his eye: ‘Did you get that? Do you understand how the effect is accomplished?’ I didn’t for a long time. The mystery of acting held me in its enchanting grip.

While still in this state of enchantment, I met Antony Ferry again at the Quebec Art Theatre. Standing tall with a play tucked under his arm, he smiled very much like a father with his first baby. I fell in love with this man who so loved the theatre. He had many stories which reflected his already full life and his passion to translate childhood experiences into written form. At that moment he was submitting his first script ‘Lethe and Haruspex’ to the Artistic Director of the Quebec Art Theatre. It was a dark play, bold in its attempt to shock the reader out of  lethargy. I admired his courage in giving such a play to the director of an amateur Canadian theatre.

In the autumn of 1951 Antony and I acted in Synges’s Playboy Of The `Western World, playing Old Mahon and Widow Quinn respectively. We entered the Dominion Drama Festival where Richard MacDonald, the Chairman of the Festival, brought Pierre Lefevre to adjudicate Hal Walkley’s production. At the end of the evening I sat in the last row of the hall, listening to his criticisms of the direction and the actors. He mentioned each one of them by name. To my embarrassment he did not mention me. I sat quietly, commiserating with myself over the terrible performance I had given, when I was suddenly jolted by the words, ‘Now I have saved the best for the last. I didn’t hear a word of what he said about my performance, convinced as I was that it had been poor. Consequently at the social gathering later I was not sufficiently composed to be able to approach and to thank him. The incident served as a good early lesson in detachment to me.

I started to work with the Department of National Defence in September 1951 as a chronograph operator, computing the velocity of ammunition. My plan was to work there for two years save $2,000 and to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Antony, meanwhile, had been working with the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph. In September 1952 he went to work on the Winnipeg Tribune as  film critic for Eric Wells.He was alsowriting short stories for Maclean’s magazine. One of these stories was picked up by the Hitchcock series on the NBC network a few years later while we were living in Majorca. Majorca, an island off the coast of Barcelona was the idyll place to start both our writing careers.

In the winter of that same year, I finally saw my first professional production. Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renault arrived from Paris with three plays: Les Fourberies de Scapin (Molière), La Repetition (Anouilh), Christophe Colomb (Claudel). I promptly applied for and got the job of selling programmes in the foyer of the Capitol Theatre. The productions were memorable on every level: the richness of the costumes, the subtly-colored hues of the lighting, the precise timing, and, of course, Barrault’s unforgettable vitality and style. The exposure to his work became one of the cornerstones on which I began to build the dream of belonging to such a company. I saw that the company’s dedication to the theatre as an art form was so complete that the team of actors was able to create magic from their work together.

At this time I was applying for a grant to study acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. The requirement for theatre applicants was to be auditioned by a professional actor. The only professional actor I knew in Canada was Gratiën Gélinas, who was working too far away in Montreal. On the last night of the Barrault company’s performance I mustered up all of the ‘hutzpah’ at my command and accosted an actress whose performance I particularly favoured. It was Marie-Hélène Dasté, daughter of Jacques Copeau. She agreed to audition me the next day in her suite at the Chateau Frontenac and promptly thereafter wrote to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (the CAHA was curiously the only agency able to offer support to students interested in furthering their career in an art form). Nothing came of my application. However Marie-Hélène Dasté, who is now over eighty and still acting in the Barrault company, has remained a close friend of mine.

In September 1953 we left on the Empress of Scotland for England. I was to study theatre and Antony to write for Odhams Press. In April 1955 I auditioned for Joan Littlewood in East Stratford. She remarked favourably upon my freedom of movement but went on to say that she was doing Quare Fellow with an all male cast. In the lobby Gerry Raffles, her Stage Manager, introduced me to Howard Goorney, Maxwell Shaw and George Luscombe … “Meet a fellow Canadian”, he said. George and I talked briefly. I felt his presence and sense of urgency. He had just spent two years training with Theatre Workshop and had toured the Scandinavian countries in the production of Volpone which won first prize at the Paris International Theatre Festival.

Born in Toronto, George began his career as a commercial artist. His first contact with theatre was through politics: an amateur club associated with the union movement. In 1948 he toured with a small company, People’s Repertory Theatre, run by Sterndale Bennett. It lasted one season. He arrived in England in 1950 and joined a repertory company in Wales, playing everything from melodramas to West End successes. Seeking better experience and training, he moved on to Manchester and into pantomime. He was lucky enough to be introduced to Joan Littlewood and to join her workshop in 1953. Her productions which he had seen in Edinburgh overwhelmed him by the excitement of the writing and of the plays’ content.

I invited George to our apartment in Kensington the following week. The three of us talked of his work with Littlewood and our work with Encore magazine, a theatre magazine which we had founded to reflect the renaissance of playwrighting which was evident during the era of ‘the angry young men’ in London. At this first meeting George said that he wanted to start a theatre in Toronto. “How will you do that?” I asked – we all knew there were no funds in Canada for theatrical enterprises. I’ll go to the unions”, he replied. He asked what our plans were. We told him we would be staying on in London indefinitely as our magazine was growing rapidly. We were deluged with work and loving it. We shook hands, wishing each other luck. George left for Canada shortly afterwards.

As events would have it, we found ourselves back in Canada in autumn 1958, and in Toronto. Antony placed a newspaper advertisement announcing a meeting to be held in the Parliament Street Library for anyone interested in forming a ‘Group Theatre’. He went to the meeting. I stayed home with our new son Christian. The response was astonishing: about 18 people showed up. When Antony finished speaking, a hand went up in the audience. A man stood up and said that he would give ten years of his life to such an idea.

“Who said such a wonderful thing””? I asked.

‘Do you remember the actor you invited over to have tea with us while we were in London?’, he responded.

‘George Luscombe?’

‘Yes, him’.

‘Well, let’s have him over for tea again’, I fairly shouted with excitement. It was almost two years since we’d first met him in London.

George came to our house in Winchester Street. I asked him what had happened with his plan to approach the unions. He told us that nothing had come of it, but that he was working with a small group of interested people at the Central Library. There was a sense of excitement in the living room as we talked theatre.

A few weeks later we had a reading with some of the actors from the meeting at the Parliament Street Library. We chose Shakespeare because, to use Priestley’s words, there were ‘no royalties’. This served to bring us together without cost. We had all worked on our selections, singly or in groups, and gave the readings without even a dress-rehearsal.

Wesley Murphy, Berna McNeil, Douglas Campbell, Heidi Hunt, George Sperdakos, Tony Partridge, Michael Loubser and I were among some of the actors present. The small audience was appreciative. The experience bouyed our spirits. We knew that a seed had been planted.

On 1 February 1959 Antony ran an ad in the Toronto Star:


February 8, at 2:30 am, Powys Thomas phoned us to give a definite commitment to be the Artistic Director of Theatre Workshop. The project was taking shape. All we needed now was the place, since we had the people: Powys, George, Carlo Mazzone (the Italian mime artist), and possibly even Carl Weber from the Berliner Ensemble.

February 27 the place finally materialized in the form of a basement underneath a printing shop in the heart of Toronto’s industrial zone at 47 Fraser Avenue, several blocks west of Spadina Avenue’s garment district. Toronto Industrial Leaseholds offered us rent free a space large enough to build one hundred seats.

March 21 Dennis Braithwaite ran a comprehensive article in the Star on Theatre Workshop. Soon we were jammed with actors and would-be actors. Initially George, Powys and Antony each gave classes one night a week. With George we worked on the Laban method of movement and studied a few one-act plays using Stanislavski’s method of breaking the action down into units and objectives. There were no professional actors in the company with the exception of myself and, later in 1961, George Sperdakos. Antony continued writing briefs in an attempt to find financial support for the group.

June 4 Powys was appointed Director of the National Theatre School. Although we were disappointed by this turn of events, our first professional Theatre Workshop went ahead on schedule. It was held in Haliburton, Ontario. Antony, George and Carlo gave classes in playwriting, acting and mime respectively.

The love of the theatre we all experienced that summer, together with the spartan living conditions (many lived in tents) and the pooling of our monies for food, fostered a community spirit. This was the spirit we brought back to Toronto with us in September 1959. In December we mounted Chekov’s The Boor and Lorca’s Don Perlimplin. We played the program for almost a week and promptly went into rehearsal for The Proposal and Len Peterson’s Burlap Bags. The latter was an adaptation from a radio script that worked well in our small enclosed space. It opened 6 May 1960 and played for a week. The plays were well received in the Star and Globe and Mail, although Nathan Cohen observed that the acting still left something to be desired.

Improvisations began in earnest during the summer of 1960. Until then we had been working with several different texts, one of them Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters. The commedia dell’arte style of acting combined with the richness of the language were not within the scope of our inexperienced actors, despite their talent. Nevertheless, these readings inspired our ‘off’ moments of improvisational fun.

Increasingly, we came to trust our own resources for improvisation. At one point a dusty old trunk got pulled out of a dark corner. Eleanor Beattie claimed it as a kitchen table and mimed serving us food on it. Discussions about food and where we’d got the money to buy it ensued. Then other topics arose, including that of the circus. One of the actors silently broke away from our dialogue and began to mime a juggling act in a corner. Gradually our attention was drawn away from the dialogue to the action, and one by one we worked out through mime our own personal circus acts.

During this time we received a notice from Toronto Industrial Leaseholds to vacate the premises by 30 November 1960. They had found a paying tenant. Despite this concern, Antony and Jo Provan, an architect from London, England, continued to build the bleachers for the circus play which was taking shape. Monday evenings were spent scavenging in the garment district’s wood-rich garbage. Jo’s design for the seating made brilliant use of the small space we had. It was a simple construction of bleacher-type movable stairs that surrounded the acting area on three sides. We built it this way out of economic necessity, yet it is interesting to note that some of the newer theatres in Toronto are built on this model.

Finally, it became obvious that however good we were at improvising, none of us actors had the over-view required to develop a story-line. We needed a good circus script badly. A writer friend from our days in London, Jack Atack, submitted his circus play. But George didn’t like it. He felt it did not suit the action that was already happening ‘live’ on the floor. Because he wanted to foster the original creative process that was developing so purely in the improvisational work, George asked Antony to sit in the bleachers and to watch the work of the actors. He was to copy our words and actions, cutting out what was extraneous and filling in as necessary in order to develop a strong story line: a tailor-made script, as it were. Despite many difficulties, Tony succeeded in building the play around our most successful scenes and our circumstances, including the real fact that Toronto Industrial Leaseholds were evicting us. The play was woven around his own sense of personal artistic doom.

We opened 21 January 1961. Hey Rube! was a great success. The collaborative process whereby it came into being was a first in Canada. It was loaded with rich symbols which could have drowned in the ‘fringe horseplay’, as Ron Evans called it, but somehow managed to survive. We played for six weeks. Nathan Cohen from the Star came to see us at least twice and once brought Harold Clurman backstage to meet the actors.

The ‘new boy’ of Hey Rube! played by Alan Watanabe with the enigmatic style appropriate to the part, appears in the final scene. He is an accomplished acrobat, the great hope of the tired and hungry troupe. He will boost sales at the box-office. At the end of the play he climbs the pole to perform his death-defying leap. But someone inside the tent switches the lights off. When they come back on we find him dead at the foot of the pole amid screams of Hey Rube!. Blackout. For some reason my voice left me every night at just that point. I could not fill in the choral sound with the other actors. Luckily my silence went unnoticed.

George Sperdakos, who played the Ringmaster, and I remained the only professionals in the company. In his direction George Luscombe succeeded in infusing into the company his own vibrant sense of urgency. The lighting by Derek Fields was done with great ingenuity. The costumes by Diana Harker, who had worked with us in London on ENCORE, were colourful, capturing exactly the feeling of circus.

My improvisational work inspired Tony to write Hey Rube!. He wrote the role of Josy for me. He saw her cynicism as a cover for her generous spirit. Having caught a glimpse of my internal reality ‘on the floor’, he was moved to re-produce this dynamic range giving it form and structure on paper. We discussed my improvisational work every evening after rehearsals for six months. His text assisted me to move in the creative mode I had already established.

It was through this experience that I began to develop my own personal brand of improvisational work which I developed further while training actors with le Théatre du P’tit Bonheur in 1977-78 and again more recently at the University of Victoria. (81-82)

Through my work I have grown to understand that each individual is a ‘gold mine’ of unique creative talents stemming from the unconscious, which from personal experience can, at the same time be a dark and fearful place. Coming from the realm of my own inner experience of the individual, I assist him through these places into the creative direction that he is already moving in.

At the end of the run we were each given an envelope containing $37.83. Toronto Workshop had proven that a small theatre group operating on a non-existent budget could have a vital impact on the theatre scene. We had combined all our energy and talents to make a break-through in Canadian theatre. Our dedication had paid off! We were successful.

For myself however the co-founding of Toronto Workshop Productions was much more than that. The experience provided me with a new mode of tapping the creative resources of the actor by nourishing him from the safe place of love, trust and non-competitiveness. A circle of group-sharing. The only place creation begins.”‘

This article is a segment from the book Joan Ferry is writing, entitled ENCORE AND AFTER on the origins of Toronto Workshop Productions.