Articles

How a teen-ager’s dream came true at Stratford

For fourteen hours a day, six days a week Roberta Maxwell did everything from running backstage messages to making props as the Shakespeare festival groomed its first apprentice. Now TV and stage are providing the payoff

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN October 12 1957
Articles

How a teen-ager’s dream came true at Stratford

For fourteen hours a day, six days a week Roberta Maxwell did everything from running backstage messages to making props as the Shakespeare festival groomed its first apprentice. Now TV and stage are providing the payoff

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN October 12 1957

How a teen-ager’s dream came true at Stratford

For fourteen hours a day, six days a week Roberta Maxwell did everything from running backstage messages to making props as the Shakespeare festival groomed its first apprentice. Now TV and stage are providing the payoff

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

Ever since girls have been able to dream, some of their loveliest visions have been about Going On The Stage. The dream is usually accompanied by the imaginary sound effects of applause, bravos and a clamor for curtain calls. A few who seek the shimmering goal actually attain it. They go to London, New York or Hollywood, some to develop their art seriously, others to ride their luck in a dazzling world of fame, mink, night life and gossip columns.

Last May a somewhat more sober version of the dream came truc for a fifteen-year-old Toronto schoolgirl named Roberta Maxwell. She was chosen as the first apprentice to the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. An apprentice is someone who is willing to do odd jobs around the theatre in return for the opportunity of working with professionals and the chance of eventually getting a small walk-on part. Roberta's job olfcred neither fame, fortune, nor social life. It offered a chance to work, to learn, and only an outside chance to succeed. “In a way,” Tom Patterson. the festival’s director of planning, told her, “you're being thrown to the wolves.”

Roberta regards it. however, as a rare bit of luck, and she made full use of it. She attended, at no expense, the same festival drama school that gave refresher courses to such masterful Stratford players as Christopher Plummer and Siobhan McKenna. She understudied a part in one of this generation's great productions of Hamlet. She has heen invited by the Stratford Festival Players to appear in their first TV show. Peer Gynt, and to accompany them on their winter tour of eastern Canada and New York. But. by far most important, she has had a season working among some of the world’s finest actors, directors and designers, in the middle of one of the most unusual and exciting theatres in the world.

Roberta’s experience as a Stratford apprentice differed vastly from that of a newcomer going through a Hollywood starlet factory. Nobody groomed her. gave her a personality, or told her how to hitch a horse to a rail, as fledgling actors are taught at most Hollywood studios.

She worked, rehearsed and attended classes six days a week, from ten in the morning until after midnight. She

delivered mail for the actors. She took tickets, dusted dis-

plays, answered visitors’ questions in the Exhibition Hall

display of books, costumes, sculpture and paintings. She

helped in the wardrobe and prop departments, and, if

there was nothing she could help with, she watched the

prop and wardrobe people at their own work.

All this may appear a long way from learning to act, but to Michael Langham, artistic

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Once a day Hamlet and his father’s ghost trotted past Roberta as a king pondered on a murder

director of Hamlet, who loosely supervis'd Roberta's curriculum, it was important.

‘A finished actress should know how a prop is made,” Langham explained. “The way a brooch is made influences the way it is handled."

At the same time, the routine gave Roberta a chance to learn something of the many operations that go into a theatrical production.

“If everyone understands everything about the theatre.” Langham told her, “ii the box office understands the prop maker's job and the prop maker understands the wardrobe maker's job, the organization is speaking with one voice. It's a valuable thing for a company to have.”

During every performance Roberta worked backstage as caller with Jack Merigold, the stage manager. She went about her chores with professional concentration. moving quietly around a shadowy nether world in sandals, cardigan and green slacks that had already become too short for her. Half an hour before show time she went to each dressing room, knocked, opened the door aid announced, “You ve got halt an hour till curtain-up.” From then on. consulting a red clock on the concrete-block wall above Merigold's chest-high table, she announced the time at all the dressing rooms every five minutes. With five minutes to go. which, for the evening performance, was at 8.25. she announced. “Beginners for scene one. please. At 8.30 she announced, “Curtain up. For variety. Merigold occasionally let her trigger the bomb in a metal barrel that signaled the entrance ot Francisco and Bernardo on the ramparts of the mist-shrouded castle of Elsinore.

Empty eggs for Sir Toby

One of her jobs, in between calls, was to blow eggs. These were used in Twelfth Night by Amelia Hall who. as the maid Maria, broke one every performance into a nauseating pick-me-up for Sir 1 oby Belch, played by Douglas Campbell. They had to be empty. Otherwise Campbell would have had to swallow a real egg.

Roberta and Merigold worked in an oddly silent and orderly backstage. The performance took place on a bare stage, so that there was no commotion of scene shifting. There was only the rustle of robes and whispered remarks of the actors as they looked themselves over in the many full-length mirrors, hiked harnesses and adjusted trains. The Stratford Festival Theatre is unusual in that the stage can't be seen from backstage, but Roberta found a spot on a stairway where she could curl up and listen to the performance, letting it. as Merigold put it, “get into her ear." She asked permission to be an unofficial understudy for Ophelia, played by Frances Hyland. This was her own idea and for her own training. W/hen there was a free moment and Merigold signaled his permission, she would hike upstairs, the way most girls move when they hear the phone ring. She would find a spot somewhere out in the theatre to watch Frances Hyland s performance.

Thus she became accustomed to the strange world of backstage. She got used to the ghost of Hamlet's father,

pale, ghastly and looking about fifteen feet high due to masterful costuming and make-up. peering down at her with a preoccupied expression as he waited for his cue: or the king, in golden tights, staring at her in silence, as if he knew

that she knew that he had just poured poison down his brother's ear. Once a day Hamlet and his father's ghost trotted past her in single file, with bowed heads and serious mien, and trotted right out another entrance in time for Hamlet

to shout. “Speak, I'll go no further.” She learned that some actors are ready in plenty of time and others run around with their wigs in their hands, asking frantically. “How many minutes have 1 got?” It became routine for Ophelia, in

mad disarray, to sit behind her in the dark, humming her crazy song and dragging intently on a cigarette, as she waited to go onstage.

Roberta learned that a certain amount of silent horseplay backstage is regarded as a good sign. It means that the players aren’t overly tense. She saw Polonius, when he was supposed to be dead, put on a sports-car driver's cap and make passes at strolling back onstage with a walking stick. She watched skilled performers cut their stage characters off as if with a knife when they came backstage. Christopher Plummer, for instance, could come off from delivering a tender soliloquy that held two thousand people outside in a spell, trip on a step, snap, “Son of a bitch!” light a cigarette, take a few thoughtful drags, grind it out beneath his heel and go back onstage to again become a moving and impassioned H amlet.

One of the most fascinating sights backstage was Merigold, a jaunty man in natty white vest, who was able to keep on top of every line and action in the play without appearing to take the slightest notice of it. During long speeches he would go into his office and do some typing. During every performance of Hamlet he made a single, unique contribution. In the part where a group of players offstage call, in ear-splitting crescendo, “My lord! My lord! Lord Hamlet!” Merigold would come out of his office, join the group, yell at the top of his lungs, “Lord Hamlet!” and then return to his desk and carry on with his work.

“A good spine is a good life”

In the mornings Roberta attended understudy rehearsals, which, during the first part of the season, were held four times a week. Later on a complete show was run through once a week. Roberta understudied the fourth player in Hamlet, a non-speaking part played by David Sniderman. To the audience, a walk-on part seems something that requires little more than the possession of two feet. Roberta learned that nothing could be further from the truth, particularly at Stratford, where the actors can be viewed from all angles. If the player doesn't get the feeling of the part, he can look as extraneous as a drunk who has wandered onto the stage for a better look. He can hold a spear in a way that looks as if he’s on his way to rake the leaves out of the driveway. He can stand in such a way that he looks as if he is standing in a hole. One bewildered actor, during rehearsals, was told constantly by Langham to get his buttocks higher.

At the festival drama school, Roberta was taught voice by Iris Warren, movement by Norman Ayrton. She was taught the yoga precept, “a good spine is a good life,” and learned to be aware of her spine, to use it, to uncoil it like a snake, to stand up and wriggle and feel herself grow taller. Roberta, who is five foot two, says, “1 felt that I was the tallest person in Stratford.”

Roberta was taught that she must project both her voice and her personality. She was told that it is better to start off large with voice and gesture and cut them down later if she needs to for movies or television, than to start very small and try to build up. She was taught that the voice is not just an instrument for making sounds, but the best means mankind has to convey what he feels inside. At an early class she had to stand up and say. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” while Iris Warren put her hand on Roberta's stomach to see how she was breathing. Her verdict was a noncommittal, “Well, it

helps us to find out.” Roberta says selfconsciously, “She probably wondered why I was breathing at all.”

A shy but astute girl, Roberta feels acutely uncomfortable about being even referred to as an actress so early in the game and in such company. It's an attitude that automatically puts her in another league from hundreds of stagestruck teen-agers who haunt the summer theatres. To many girls, working around a summer theatre is just a super-glamorous w;ay of spending the summer. One veteran of these productions told me, “A stock figure around summer theatres is the girl in a halter a bit too brief, and shorts a bit too tight, having herself a ball.” When Dennis Sweeting, administrator of the Association of Canadian Radio and Television Artists and Canadian representative of Actor’s Equity Association, made a recent trip to a summer theatre in Quebec, he noticed a flashy sports car parked outside the theatre and asked the manager who owned it. “That belongs to an apprentice,” he was told. He asked who owned another one that was parked nearby. “That belongs to another apprentice.” The theatre had seven apprentices. Four of them drove expensive sports cars, including one J aguiar.

“ l dI her to stay out of it”

Roberta is a serious thoughtful girl, w'ho is wide awake to the fact that she has taken on one of the toughest professions. If she goes to New York she’ll face a situation where out of ten thousand members of Equity, eighty-five percent are normally unemployed. It she goes to London she’ll pit her talents against even higher odds. In Canada she would have a better chance. Almost half of those registered find work, although the chances are four to one in favor of male performers. Wherever she goes she will face a life of waiting for the breaks, a life that's often a lonely one. Actors tire always on the road. Many have to perform under the handicap of homesickness. Robert Motley, the prominent British actor and a friend of Roberta's uncle in Ireland, wrote about her decision to go on the stage: “Tell her to stay out of it. Actors arc starving all over the world.”

She’ll face a life capable of dealing peculiarly wounding blows, but she has made up her mind she'll have to be prepared for knocks, turn-downs and the high stick-handling of some fellow players. She’ll need what Christopher Plummer termed a "care—less—ness,” meaning that she should (1) be serious about her work, not selfishly intense (2) that she should try to preserve a certain brash courage to take criticism, failure and success—all three—without being hurt by them. It’s terribly important in the theatre not to take these things personally.”

Roberta is what her Irish father (if the Irish talked the way they're supposed to talk) would call a broth of a girl. She’s not quite a young woman, and definitely not a child, but, like Cesario, according to the definition of the steward Malvolio, like “a squash before ’tis a peascod, or a codling when ’tis almost an apple.” Her manner is a mixture of schoolgirl demonstrativeness and instinctive dramatic gesture. She punctuates her speech with sound effects like “Bam!” and “P-r-r-rt!” closes and opens her fist as if releasing a bird to give a key word muzzle velocity. She has a mature feeling for words, which makes her grimace when she lets slip an expression that teenagers have worn into a groove. She wears

no make-up. has a respectful manner to adults that would automatically win her a roomful of Oscars from today's liplashed parents, and comes out with things that would make mothers of most teenagers pinch themselves, such as, "People should wear things that suit them. They shouldn't wear anything just because it’s a fad." She also has a full quota of youthful vitality. After a four-hour interview, during which she drank an Orange Crush to my three coffees, she still looked fresher than I have at any time since I wore a scull cap.

Roberta sees the problems of the life ahead with an understanding rare at her age, but it hasn't changed her conviction that her job at Stratford was a passport to a magic world. It’s a world she intends to make her own, and she moves toward it with a quiet young independence and an air of knowing just what she’s doing. She was taking ballet at eight, with such promise that she was chosen to dance on the CBC-TV show. Howdy Doody. She studied voice, paying for her lessons herself by a strategy currently out of vogue with teen-agers: walking and pocketing

her bus money. She took drama lessons and joined a group of students who were particularly interested in studying Shakespeare.

She began trying to get a foothold in the theatre while she was attending private school. She began dropping in cold on people she thought might help. It was what she called “getting in and bashing around.” She dropped in on Equity representative Dennis Sweeting once a week, still wearing the blue tunic and beige stockings of Villa Marguerite Bourgeoys school. She'd leave with a list of people

Sweeting wrote down for her. She would see everyone on the list and next week be back for more.

The first acting job she landed came through an audition with CBC. She did a commercial for Westinghouse, in which she played the part of a little girl going blind doing her homework till they put in more bulbs. She next played the part of a lonely maladjusted child on Open House, a program for housewives. She got a part at Toronto’s Crest repertoire theatre as the maid in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Most of her classmates at Villa Marguerite Bourgeoys were pleased at Roberta’s progress; some dutifully showed horror at her interest in Shakespeare, which she began reading as a child. “They were afraid they might be called squares,” she said. Her parents reserved judgment, a bit amazed at their only child’s determination and at her mild success. Her father, who manages a firm of importers in English leather goods, received the news with something less than enthusiasm. An ardent horseman, he would have been more pleased, at that

lime, if Roberta had become a good rider. The idea of an actress conjured for him visions of a curly-haired Junior Cutie surrounded by ballyhoo. His hopes about her riding were permanently dashed by the discovery that she was violently allergic to horses. At the age of four, when he first sat her on a horse, Roberta had developed such an alarming flush that her father had cooled her in a creek. Further experiments confirmed the fact that she had a definite allergy. The objection to her becoming an actress vanished when her father realized that she meant business. was not after fame and fortune, but a career as a serious actress.

Roberta's mother, reviewing Roberta’s brief career, concluded. "The girl seems to br loaded,” and began chauffeuring her to auditions and performances, picking her up when the performance was over, and staying in the background in between. People around Stratford consider Mrs. Maxwell one of Roberta's assets, as they've seen many child actors' chances scuttled by actively aggressive "stage mothers,” who prejudice everyone against theii kids before they have a chance.

Roberta auditioned for a part in Uncle Willy at the Circle theatre, wore bangs to make herself look younger, took off her shoes to look shorter than Sammy Sales, who played the lead, and got the job. She played the part of a nasty little girl so well that during one performance a nun in the audience shouted. “Why in hell doesn't that brat get off the stage?”

"I'll even sell popcorn”

When Michael Langham interviewed people at Toronto's Hart House for the Stratford Festival, Roberta w’as there. Langham told her kindly that she was too young, and to write again when she was older. Roberta made a last desperate attempt by telling him that she would do anything, "even sell popcorn,” and went home feeling the way we all do when we come out with something idiotic when what was called for was something deft and effective.

Langham, however, had been struck by her lively personality, her enthusiasm and her serious attitude toward the theatre. He thought of the apprentice job after she had left, talked it over with Tom Brown, the assistant artistic director, and decided to create the job for her.

The job of apprentice, although it was brand new to Roberta, has a long tradition. In Shakespeare’s day, boy apprentices were indentured to individual players. to take the parts of both boys and women. Today apprentices are coming back into vogue, largely because of the gradual disappearance of the great theatrical families who brought along their

own new young talent. In the United States apprentices often pay three hundred to five hundred dollars a season for the job. In England they sometimes post premiums with repertoire theatres and are frequently taken on more to help shaky budgets than to advance their careers.

Apart from attending the official reception at Stratford in the spring, being handed a glass of ginger ale and introduced to the people she would work with, she attended no parties and went out on no dates. Occasionally she went swimming in the Stratford pool, but Roberta’s single-minded interest in the theatre hasn’t left much time for athletics. Once when her mother anxiously asked one of Roberta’s girl friends about her swimming. the girl told Mrs. Maxwell that Roberta was perfectly safe, that when she swam she looked as if she were drowning and people were always rescuing her.

Roberta lived in Stratford with a CNR worker's family. It was her first time away from home, and when she arrived in Stratford she thought, with teen-age relish, that she would be free to follow her own whims for the first time in her life. The first night, when she announced with career-woman briskness, ‘Tm late— I’ll just get a bite downtown,” she felt a calm motherly hand on her shoulder and her landlady shoved her into a chair with, “Sit down and eat your supper.” She walked to the theatre every day along the river road, past Stratford’s famous swans.

Since the season at Stratford ended, Roberta has been offered a TV job as counterpart to John Clark, the master-ofceremonies on Junior Magazine. The Howdy Doodv show wants her to come back. She will probably leave school and be tutored privately.

Nobody knows how Roberta will make out. Michael Langham told her when she first went to Stratford, "You're young. People will probably make a fuss over you. But don't let it go to your head. We're experimenting with you to see what you're like, and you're experimenting with us to see whether you like us. You’re still young enough to change your mind.”

The experiment thus far has been successful. If Roberta turns out as popular on the stage as she has backstage, her career is assured. As for her changing her mind, to anyone who has talked to her. listened to her speak of the stage, Shakespeare and Stratford, it doesn't seem very likely. Like Cesario, she seems well fortified against refusal, and gives the impression that she will “stand at the door like a sheriff's post, and be the supporter to a bench, but she will speak.” ★