Theatre Talk With Art Fidler

Theatre Talk With Art Fidler
With Art at the DISH Awards in 2013

It’s hard to put into words exactly what Art Fidler is. He’s an educator, an actor, a director, a company creator… the list goes on and on. Theatrically, he’s a jack-of-all-trades, and master of all of them. In London, Ontario, he’s a legend. I’m privileged to be able to call him a colleague, mentor, and friend.

I first met Art in August 2010. I had just been hired on to direct Annie Warbucks at Original Kids Theatre Company, and was being given a tour of the facilities by the current artistic director, Dale Hirlehey. I was shown the Art Fidler Rehearsal Hall, and then was taken to meet the man whom the rehearsal space was named for. We found Art in the theatre, fixing the carpet on the stairs. Having directed Annie Warbucks himself at OKTC in 1996, he took me, this rookie director, under his wing, and gave me so much guidance and encouragement. I didn’t realize at the time what an influence he would become in my life!

Read on to find out more!

Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m Art Fidler, currently (sort of) retired and open to new ideas. (Let’s call it “considering my options!!) My professional life was as a high school teacher of English and then Drama, and finally and most emphatically, of Drama only. After 34 years of loving that, I had my first retirement in 1996, and took up as Artistic Director of Original Kids Theatre Company in London, Ontario. Over time, it was my privilege to build the company and to share in establishing many of the patterns and traditions that still animate that wonderful youth theatre company. I reached the age of 75 in December 2014, and retired from OKTC. Over my life, I’ve been engaged in all aspects of live theatre: acting, directing, producing, marketing, designing, costuming, building sets and props, the full slate. Now, I’m thinking new thoughts, and looking for new theatrical chances to come along. So hurry up, new chances, I’m running outta time!!

What made you want to do what you do? How did you get to where you are today?

It is disturbing to have to look back so far to discover the culprits who set me on this bizarre life path. Like many of you, I’ve gotta blame my mom, first of all. Annie Fidler got me into the church junior choir in the late 1940’s, and then into the Strathroy United Church Sunday School concerts. She rehearsed me in long poems that she would then sign me up to perform. One of them, Casey at the Bat, I still have locked in my deteriorating memory, and can trot it out for performance at a second’s notice. (Any takers??) If I’ve still retained a restless inner energy, that’s mostly from mom. But my dad, big Art Fidler Sr., the baseball pitcher and nurseryman, is far from guiltless, and it is from him that I received the curse of my “Ham Bone” acting style. He had the funniest, most over-the-top Elvis Presley routine in history, and the nurses at the local nurse’s residence couldn’t wait for Dad to show up as a maniacal Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. He was a brilliant singer (“I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles, My Mammy!”) and an hilarious jokester as an End-man in local minstrel shows (funny then, but seriously politically incorrect now).

Marguerite Johnston was the church choir director, and also taught music at Colbourne Street elementary school, and as my piano teacher, she took me pretty much by the throat one lesson, and forced me to abandon my monotone voice, and to practise the amazing gift of the matching of my human voice to notes on the piano. Who wudda thought! A whole new world discovered, thanks to little Marguerite! Then Strathroy District High School, and another new world! Gilbert and Sullivan! Another mentor too, although that word had not then been invented. Phil Sparling, the Latin and French teacher, a cool jazz musician in big bands in his spare time, spearheaded annual productions of these brilliant, charming, witty operettas. I was completely hooked from the moment we first sang “We sail the ocean blue, and our saucy ship’s a beauty.” G&S became totally my bag (that’s 60’s talk). Western U. had a Gilbert and Sullivan Society, and the huge theartrical thril for teenage Art was to go into the big city and see the shows they presented. They were my heroes, and the big reason I went to Western was to try to get into that group. And I did, by golly! Still one of the triumphs of my life! In the 1950’s, frosh had to take – and pass – a health course, and I skipped every lecture for rehearsals. (I passed anyway. With True and False questions on the exam like “For severe chest pain, heavy exercise is highly recommended. T or F?”, it was a bird!) In that group, I made my best friends, advanced from chorus to leads, then into producing. My first directing assignment was with the G&S Society: H.M.S. Pinafore, with the opening song beginning, “We sail the ocean blue, and our saucy ship’s a beauty…” (Mere coincidence… or secret powers at work??? Hmmmm…)  Meanwhile, I also got roles in weird and wonderrful plays and Broadway musicals at university. Then on to teaching and amateur theatre and youth theatre and the rest of my life!

My high school English teacher, Marion Cummer, gave us the chance to act out everything that we possibly could, Shakespeare, narrative poems, scenes from novel and short stories… such great stuff! So when I started to teach English, I did just what Mrs. Cummer had done, while trying to be pretty much the same teacher-guy as Phil  Sparling. They were my models. So drat you, Mom, Dad, Marguerite Johnston, Phil Sparling, Marion Cummer and the U.W.O. G&S Society!!! You all bent the twig, and now I’m the tree!

When the late 60’s transformed the world, along came Dramatic Arts! And there I was at exactly the right time! My buddy Mike Pooley and I got a chance to teach it. There was no training, no course of study, just an idea, an opening! We were free! I like to think that we were there before the training was in place, and that were inventing the training day after day. Remember, kids! Somebody has to be first. Yep! There are wonderful times before experts come along to pretend to own it all!

I’ll confess that somehow we stumbled on the right book at the right time, and it is still the best book ever to keep your head straight about teaching creative drama: Improvisation for the Theatre by Viola Spolin.

By now, the term “mentor” had finally been invented, and it was my turn to find out how to be one. The drama studio would be my place of business!

Theatre Talk With Art Fidler
Art performing in “The Fantasticks” in the London Fringe Festival, 2012
Photo Credit: Ceris Thomas

What has been your favourite past project/performance so far, and why?

My favourite performance opportunity was in the Sam Shepard play, The Unseen Hand (why aren’t you guys doing his plays??). The universe is threatened and somehow a gang of old Western desperados, the Morphin Brothers, are summoned from eternity to fight the unknown forces of modern international deadness of spirit. We put it on in a warehouse and the set was the broken-down wreck of a Chevy convertible on the side of an inter-state highway. This was back in 1973, an era of wild experimentation, and this play was the most spectacular example of that I could have imagined. And two of the cast had just been my drama students, as actors in my high school drama classes and drama club. That was real theatre!
As a director, I’m most proud (but a very tough call!) of The Ragged Child, a musical written for the English Youth Music Theatre  that I discovered on a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The significance of the production which I directed for Original Kids in Spring 1999, was not its level of artistic triumph, nor the significance of its themes, although, looking back, I’m happy about both of those. It was that we managed to get it on at all. We didn’t have a theatre, having left our home in Museum London, but not yet being able to move into our new home theatre which I had designed in the Covent Garden Market. We performed the epic play/musical in a warehouse in St. Thomas in an industrial mall, and the cast and crew went back and forth by school bus (which turned out to be a big part of the fun!). The cast of 45 had rehearsed winter weekends in an unheated elementary school gym. To keep some body warmth, all the actors had brought old blankets to wrap up in while on the sidelines, and I incorporated those old wraps, and the shivering characters underneath them, into the show. My lasting image is of those young actors, in the vicious heat and fierce humidity of a brutally hot show week in a windowless warehouse, pathetically huddled under woolen rags and shivering with the cold… believably. To me that is a lasting image of what actors (bless them!) can do, and of the gallantry that a good company can display.

 

Do you have a “war story” from your performing past that you’d be willing to share?

I’ve got a thousand! The one that pops out first has to do with one of my very early productions at Oakridge Secondary School, back in the late 1960’s, The Fantasticks, a small-cast musical that I was in love with and that spoke directly to my heart and mind. There is only one female character, Luisa, and Becky was playing her as her first role in a musical. After school on our opening, I was in the office. A girl, a friend of Becky, came to me and said that I’d “better find out about Becky,” that she had gone home early. I drove right over to her house and into a whirlpool of chaos. She was frozen in anxiety, her tongue rigidly curled up in her mouth. She couldn’t talk. Present were her mom and her boyfriend, a bearded, ironic M.A. physics grad student. Let’s just say that they were the opposite of helpful. For over four hours, I tried everything I could think of for Becky (that is another war story of its own), trying not to show alarm or concern that 650 people were about to get into their cars to go to the show, nor did I utter a single complaint that cell phones had not yet been invented. At 7:45pm I was with Becky in St. Joe’s Emergency, trying to sweet-talk the triage nurse into bumping Becky up the list, and desperately explaining what an opening night meant in live theatre. She was a “tough sell,” as we say. As well, I was borrowing her phone to talk to the custodian at the school to get the principal to the phone. He told me that the principal was busy…greeting the audience. At 8pm (curtain time) Becky got a relaxant shot and we headed back to the school, me doing a brilliant portrayal of a guy with it all under control. She began to relax, and started to talk a little! Then as we turned into the school driveway… “SPROING!” went the poor kid’s tongue again. The principal met me at the front doors. Behind him I could hear the loud muttering of an audience that has waited 20 minutes for a show to start, and has DAMN WELL RUN OUT OF SYMPATHY.

“Is it a go?” he said.
“Nope. Not a chance.”
“Then do you want to go out and tell them?”
“Nope, I don’t. Sounds to me like a job for the principal.”
“Then what’s your job?
“I’ve got three jobs. Take Becky home. Buy a bottle of Scotch. Drink it.”
And that’s what I did.
And with those three jobs, I’m happy to tell you that I succeeded. Brilliantly.

(Yada… yada… yada… Finally the show must go on. And it did.)

Theatre Talk With Art Fidler
Art performing in “Oklahoma” at the Palace Theatre, 2013
Photo Credit: Ross Davidson

What’s coming up next for you? Do you have a project on the go, or one coming up in the near future?

Lately, I’ve been creating a theatre company. It is a fantasy theatre company, but it is a really good one. I know what it is called, I’ve got a clear definition of what it is, and what it does – a solid, credible identity, and a production style that emphasizes the material and actors over the tech stuff. Sort of the way grassroots theatre was before all the gimmickry took over. OK, I hear you: That was then, Art. Great challenges for local directors and performers, and a built-in audience demographic. I think… Best thing is that nobody has thought of this idea yet! Just me! I’ve got it on paper. I’ve got a partner.
Thing is I don’t know if I’ve got time. I know that five years is the minimal time to establish and root a theatre company (if you are lucky and incredibly diligent). It ain’t  just the great idea, but the work and endurance, that give it a shot. That’s my fear, I guess.
As Andrew Marvell put it, “And at my back, I always hear,
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”
(That’s a bit of a pin in the balloon!)
But then he says later in the poem,
“Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life.”
So you never know! We’ll see! Maybe there will be some “rough strife”! Believe me, that’s a constant in theatre!

 

What are your goals for the future?

To stay young in mind and imagination, and share that with others. To share richly in the lives of my 6 grandchildren.

 

What words of advice would you give to a young person who would like to do what you do and follow in your footsteps?

Remember that we call it “play” to keep our heads straight. Give it all you’ve got and discover what it means to play for real and have fun with those who have shown up to play with you. Don’t let bitter experience and overly-serious people and know-it-alls spoil your curiosity, your joy in discovery, your fun. Your life, your body, your creativity, your desire to make your mark on the wall of time, to share in the bounty of existence, BELONG TO YOU!
OWN THEM!!
GO FOR IT!!!
LIVE IT!!!!
And tear your pleasures through the gates of life. 

Thank you so much for sharing, Art!

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