BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
John Neville was a star of the London stage during the 1950s, excelling both in Shakespearean roles and in productions of contemporary plays. Though known primarily as a classical actor with impeccable diction, Neville surprised critics and audiences with his pitch-perfect portrayal of the title character in Alfie, the play about a Cockney womanizer that made Michael Caine a star when turned into a movie. “They didn’t know that I grew up with a Cockney accent and had to get rid of it when I went into acting,” Neville told me years later.
From acting Neville moved into the artistic management side of theatre and spent six years as director of the Nottingham Playhouse. He briefly returned to London as an actor and freelance director and then, at age 51, packed up and moved to Canada. He had played Montreal and Toronto as an actor with the touring Old Vic company in the 1950s, and now he wanted to take advantage of the new professional opportunities Canada had to offer. “I’m beginning to hate London,” he said when he arrived in Ottawa to direct a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals at the National Arts Centre in 1972. “It’s become so big and overpopulated, it’s a sordid world.” Neville wanted to get to know Canada better and “see something of those regional theatres.”
In 1973, he was appointed artistic director of the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. That’s where I caught up with him in 1976 when the Citadel moved from an old Salvation Army hall to a new $6.2 million three-theatre complex. The opening night was originally planned as a gala affair with attendees dressed to the nines, but Neville quickly changed that. “People should go to the theatre dressed as they please,” he said. “I don’t want to have people outside with noses pressed against the glass, thinking to themselves, ‘it’s for them, not for us.’”
Neville wanted to dispel the notion that theatre was only for a select few. To underscore that point, he issued invitations to the final preview of the new Citadel’s opening production of Romeo and Juliet, not to his friends in the theatre community but to the construction workers who built the playhouse. “Most of them had never seen a professional production of a Shakespeare play before,” Neville said. “They told me they quite enjoyed it. I think some might even become subscribers.”
Neville said the best way to persuade people to become subscribers was to make theatre as accessible, exciting and challenging as possible. That was his mission in Edmonton. “There’s no point in promoting rubbish,” he said. “First, you must try to produce quality, and then remember that you are competing with people who are selling soap. Theatre has to be marketed in the same way.” Of course, he added, there were no hard and fast rules for success in the theatre. “If there were, I would be living in a penthouse in New York.”
I asked him about the difference between theatre in Canada and in Britain, where Neville had worked for 25 years as a professional actor and director. I was surprised to hear him answer that Canadian theatre at its best could hold its own with theatre produced anywhere in the English-speaking world. But Canadians were “inhibited by a lack of confidence,” Neville said. “The prevailing disease is the feeling that we can’t do as well as New York or London.” He pointed to the Stratford Festival as an example of Canadian theatre at its shining best.
Neville had two years left to go in his Citadel contract when I spoke with him, and he didn’t know if he would look for an extension when his term was up. But he had every intention of staying in Canada, where the audience for professional theatre was clearly growing. In Edmonton, during his three years at the helm, Neville had seen the subscription base jump from 1,500 to 14,500 patrons, and he had every reason to believe the same growth could happen elsewhere. “As long as you produce quality, that’s the key.”
He left Edmonton after his contract expired. “I felt that if I stayed there any longer, I would go stale.” In 1977, he took on the challenge of running Halifax’s money-losing Neptune Theatre. The Neptune, like the Citadel, was in need of a new building. But unlike the Citadel, Neptune didn’t have the corporate or private funding to make it happen. It would have to get the money from the city and province. And Neptune hadn’t received anything from those sources – with the exception of a one-time only provincial deficit-reduction grant – during its 15 years of professional existence.
Neville never attracted any government money for a new theatre in Halifax. But he did erase Neptune’s $200,000 debt and doubled its subscriptions using the canny device of dispensing free tickets to cab drivers. “They’ll tell their customers about it,” he explained. He left Halifax in 1982, denouncing Nova Scotia politicians as “a bunch of philistines.” One of them responded in kind by calling Neville a “pompous prig.” It would take another 15 years for Neptune to get the new theatre it badly needed.
In 1985, Neville took on the biggest challenge of his career when he assumed the artistic leadership of the deficit-plagued Stratford Festival. He described it as “the best job in Canada” but the theatre was in arrears to the tune of $2.78 million. Neville spent his first year attending more to cost cutting and revenue generating than to artistic duties, and did eventually manage to eliminate the deficit and increase the box-office take. One of his keys to financial success, for which theatre critics censured him, was to take some of the less popular Shakespeare plays off the main stage and replace them with cash-generating Broadway musicals.
The Stratford job, which he left in 1989, was Neville’s last gig as a theatre director. He was then 64 years old and wanted to return full-time to his first love, acting. Based in Toronto, he did most of his subsequent work on the screen At the time of his death, in 2011 from Alzheimer’s disease at age 86, Neville was best known, perhaps, for his role as the Well-Manicured Man in The X-Files on television. “My greatest fear is being out of work and being out of work for some time,” he had told me once. “One becomes frightened that one is never going to work again.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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