The Opening Act – Excerpts and Reviews

The Opening Act
Canadian Theatre History, 1945-1953

Excerpt from Chapter Two, Everyman Theatre:

Davies need not have worried about her supposed prudery getting in the way; opening night reviews for Tobacco Road in Vancouver proclaimed that the play was “enacted with realism and convincing sincerity.” The setting was felt to be authentic, and many of the actors turned in outstanding performances. One interesting casting note was that of Jim Peters, who played the female role of Grandma. The play was nearing the end of the first week of its run when one or two members of the audience complained to the police about obscenity in the production. In those days if anyone filed a complaint against a certain show, the police would be obliged to send a couple of officers to view a performance.

The officers attended the production on Wednesday, January 15, and the next morning Everyman received a warning from city police morality officers. The message was clear: clean up the production of Tobacco Road or close the doors.

What was causing the commotion? The setting was a squalid shack where Jeeter Lester lived with his wife, mother and two of his many offspring. It was set in the backcountry of Georgia, on land once used for the profitable raising of tobacco, but which became desolate ground when it was poorly cultivated for the growing of cotton. The various members of the family were dressed in filthy, torn garments as worn-out as the rented land they lived on. The characters sit around lazily, taking verbal, and sometimes physical, pot-shots at each other. Two of the children are still at home. Ellie May is an eighteen-year-old woman with an attractive figure but also a harelip which causes her to talk with difficulty. Most of the time she does not make anything more than animal-like guttural sounds. Dude, sixteen, is a slow-witted boy with nothing but hatred and contempt for almost everyone around him. The only genuine feelings of caring shown are between Ada, Jeeter’s wife, and Pearl, their twelve-year-old daughter who Jeeter married off to the neighbour, Lov, in exchange for $7.00. Another neighbour, Sister Bessie Rice, a somewhat unorthodox preacher of forty, takes it upon herself to marry Dude Lester in spite of their age difference.

The dialogue of Tobacco Road is liberally sprinkled with “go to hell,” “shut up,” “By God and by Jesus,” “goddamn you” and the occasional “son-of-a-bitch”—strong language for a play in 1953. There are also numerous references to various family members sleeping around, especially Jeeter and Ada. Jeeter is informed during the course of the action that Pearl is not, in fact, his daughter. In spite of all these obvious insults to common decency, it was the events that were implied rather than overt that precipitated the obscenity trial. “After the police sent people on the vice squad to look at the show,” Dorothy Davies said, “they decided that Jeeter was urinating on the stage and that sexual intercourse took place on the stage.” While the script does not call for intercourse to take place on stage, it does call for two scenes which involve sexual teasing or, at the most, are a crude form of foreplay. One involved Ellie May and Lov, the sex-starved husband of Pearl. In another incident, Bessie gets Dude sexually aroused during a scene before their marriage. Both of them call for a great deal of rubbing and petting but nothing beyond that. Nevertheless, the detective and the policewoman who viewed the show on behalf of the police department described the show as “lewd and filthy.”

Everyman producer Sydney Risk appeared with a delegation before Vancouver’s mayor Fred Hume to protest the police order of “clean up or close down.” He also met with City Prosecutor Gordon Scott. Risk declared that the theatre would continue to run Tobacco Road, even if it was ordered to close or was faced with prosecution under the Criminal Code of Canada. The night following the visit by the vice squad, Risk spoke to the audience to tell them he thought people should be allowed to decide for themselves what they wanted to see in the theatre. He received thunderous applause. Newspapers, magazine editorials and letters of the day supported Risk’s view. After his speech, it became clear to authorities that Everyman was not going to pay any attention to the police edict and would continue to stage the drama without changing anything. At the time, Risk said, he had been told it didn’t matter if they cleaned up the play; they would be charged anyway. The morning of January 17, Gordon Scott confirmed charges would be laid. The only questions left were who would be charged and when.

The answers were not long in coming. That night police were standing by, waiting to arrest five of the cast members when the first act was over and the curtain came down, but the curtain never came down that night. The actors stalled the action of arrest by merely dimming the lights. Faced with having to make the arrests on stage in front of some one thousand patrons, the police waited. During the second act the cast made entrances and exits through carefully calculated routes, thwarting the police in their efforts. The management asked technicians, stagehands and even reporters, to jam the wings, making it even more difficult for the officers to reach the actors they wanted to arrest. Police called for reinforcements, and at the opening of the third act they marched out on to the stage and made the arrests. The audience screamed and jeered, some shouting “Gestapo,” even as Sydney Risk tried to keep them calm.

Excerpt from Chapter Seven, Radio Drama & Jupiter Theatre:

Toronto was still the Mecca for radio drama, however, because aside from copious productivity, the city also had one thing going for it after the Second World War that no other place in Canada or the world had—a perfectionist by the name of Andrew Allan. It was as producer of the Stage Series in Toronto that Allan will best be remembered. In the beginning, the series was not always popular with a public that was longing for a diet of boy-meets-girl fluff. They certainly did not get that from Allan. The plays he produced made them think, with broad social themes and endings that were anything but standard fare. He was not interested in pat resolutions to plot lines and wanted to show people as they actually lived. Audiences eventually came around, and Sunday night productions were enjoyed right across the country. They were said to have a national audience second only to Saturday Night Hockey broadcasts. The productions were huge in scope and, counting Lucio Agostini and his orchestra, there were often as many as seventy-five people working on one show.

Lucio Agostini wrote the scores for all the Stage Series plays and he was a master at it. Five or six days before rehearsal, Allan would go over the play with Agostini and explain what he wanted from the background music. He would then not hear the score until the first run-through with the cast. Agostini, who also composed and conducted music for other CBC shows such as Wednesday Night and Ford Theatre, gave an explanation for this in the CBC Times for December 24–30, 1950. “Andrew knows music and the mood of the play thoroughly,” he said, “and his explanations are so precise that it’s impossible for the musical director to write a bad score.”

Rehearsals for the Stage Series were generally at night. Betting pools at $1.00 a person were frequently set up around what ungodly hour in the early morning the actors would be allowed to go home. Allan wasted no rehearsal time, however, and started each one by explaining the mood of the play. He often told each actor what clothes his character would be dressed in so they would better understand the physical aspects of the individuals they represented. Allan’s adherence to detail and his expectations of excellence from everyone involved led to high quality performances time and time again. “He was a genius at what he did,” Christopher Plummer said. “I put him in the same class as I do [Tyrone] Guthrie and all the great directors. In his own medium he was, to me, in their class . . . one of the best in the history of radio.”

There was no question Allan was a genius. There was also no question he was a difficult man to be around if you made a mistake. Part of the reason for this was Allan’s desire for flawless productions, but there was another practical reason—everything was recorded live. There could be no going back over parts of a script in which a mistake had been made.

One near miss happened during the final rehearsal of T.S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. It involved Sam Payne. “Andrew had got six silver trumpets for the balcony in this theatre where we were recording it,” recalled Payne. “Every actor had to have his shoes off and there had to be dead silence. . . . That day I had picked up an alarm clock I had fixed. I had a little suitcase . . . put the clock in it and sat it on a seat in the theatre. . . . Yes, it happened. The alarm went off. Thank God it was only a rehearsal but Allan still tore a strip off me from here to there.”

With everything going out live, precision and timing were key. A major disaster, caused by another producer, J. Frank Willis, was narrowly avoided one night by a quick thinking assistant. In radio dramas, the producer was responsible for holding his arm in the air and bringing it down, thereby giving everyone the cue for the production to begin. Willis was a congenial and well-liked man, known for his spontaneous sense of humour, but on this occasion it is doubtful he was trying to be funny, as Christopher Plummer explained:

I wish I had been in the show where he threw a cue out to a massive radio production, where the orchestras were in two studios, a chorus in a third one and the actors in the fourth. One of those massive Wednesday night series. He got so drunk at dinner that he came back and as he threw the cue for this massive show to begin he just fell backwards. He never finished the gesture so Alice, his secretary, quickly finished it for him. But he just disappeared backwards. The poor actors looking up at the control booth just saw nobody there at all.

Considering it was all live, the truly amazing thing was that it did not happen more often.

Willis was not the only drinker in the group and most of them also smoked to excess.

“The radio crowd, we worked for years in radio, they were all, most of those people, heavy drinkers, and a lot of smoking,” Thor Arngrim said. “You would go into a sound stage, and you couldn’t see—it was like a nightclub, a cabaret. And then fluorescent lighting, the worst lighting in the world for reading on white paper. And then all the smoke, cough, hack. How people kept from coughing during a broadcast I have no idea. I look back and wonder how we managed. The musicians also smoked. . . . I guess when Andrew said you don’t cough, you don’t cough!”

What has been said about The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History, 1945-1953?

Susan McNicoll spent the best part of a decade researching early professional companies, and the book is full of surprises. The cliché about Vancouver has long been that culture is underdeveloped, courtesy of the climate. But McNicoll shows that the land of skiers and sailors had a remarkably well-developed theatre scene before the cultural boom of the 1960s.

. . . . The solid historical research on the theatres is punctuated with actors’ anecdotes that read like a mini-series waiting to happen. . . . McNicoll has a nice eye for the details that make the past relevant to a contemporary audience and the book has none of that dry-and-earnest tone that infects too many histories. The problems the actors faced feel surprisingly current — like the shortage of venues in Vancouver, which helped kill Totem Theatre. . . . Vancouver theatre provides some of the wackiest tales, but the balance of the book is equally fascinating, covering professional companies that sprang up as early as the 1920s in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and throughout southern Ontario.

-Shannon Rupp, contributing editor of The Tyee, October 13, 2012

. . . a richly detailed record of a hitherto little recorded period in our theatrical history. . . . Susan McNicoll is correct in insisting that there was in fact much professional theatre happening in Canada during the years preceding that “glorious summer” and that its stories need to be told — and celebrated. . . . This is an indispensable, highly readable compendium of the essential characters of a critical period in our theatrical history. The book is richly illustrated with around four dozen photos, many of them production shots, including some of Floyd Caza, to whom the book is dedicated. . . . A major strength of the book is McNicoll’s letting the players tell their own stories — indeed it was the discovery of theatrical clippings of her father, the actor Floyd Caza, that inspired the book. Accordingly, she interviewed about fifty theatre folk, including major figures like Christopher Plummer, William Hutt, and Amelia Hall, whose testimony alone lends primary credence to her point that significant professional stage work was done in this period, and that it constituted an important training ground for Canada’s subsequent, better known professional theatre.

- James Hoffman, BC Studies, The British Columbian Quarterly, July 2012

As Susan McNicoll details in her beautiful new book The Opening Act, the years following the Second World War saw a blossoming of attempts by enterprising young artists to grow a garden of staged verse on Canada’s West Coast; there were frequent crop failures but no shortage of the chutzpah needed to replant or the fertilizer required for regrowth.

- Peter Birnie, Vancouver Sun, June 20, 2012

In The Opening Act, author Susan McNicoll offers a lively history of Canadian theatre post WW II.

- backofthebook.ca, May 11, 2012

The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History 1945-1953 will delight history buffs as well as fans of Canadian theatre. The author’s passion for her subject is infectious. The book is meticulously researched. . . I took my time with this one, savouring every chapter and relishing each funny and poignant behind-the-scenes anecdote from the pioneers of modern theatre in Canada. Five stars!

-Amazon Reader

This is a delightful trip through a time when English Canada’s theatre scene mercifully turned ‘pro’ and brought all us eager young hopeful thespians some dignity and recognition on our own home ground.

- Christopher Plummer

At last! The missing pieces! It is with great delight and some relief that I welcome this book that tells the story of the passionate beginnings of professional theatre in this country.

- Actress Joy Coghill

The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History, 1945-1953 can be purchased directly online from the publisher at ronsdalepress.comor Chapters, Amazon at http://ow.ly/optC30aleBy and other sites.

Author and Publishers

Photograph by Caitlin Mellor Photography
Author Susan McNicoll (centre) with her publishers Ronald and Veronica Hatch of Ronsdale Press