THE STRATFORD STAR EVERYBODY KNOWS —UH, WHAT’S-HIS-NAME
Canadians have seen him more often, in more roles, than any other actor, yet never recognize him off stage — a tribute to a performer who’s best at being somebody else... His name, by the way, is Douglas Rain
THE ACTOR WHO HAS probably been seen by more Canadians in more roles and more performances than any other (including one hundred TV network plays) is a man who can walk down the main street of any Canadian city without drawing so much as a second glance. And that includes theatre-minded Stratford. Ont., although this oddly anonymous celebrity, by name Douglas Rain, is the only performer to appear in every Shakespearean Festival since it began.
There's no point in trying to explain the phenomenon on the grounds that all Canadian performers tend to be unrecognizable anyway. Just last summer Bruno Gerussi. supping with a friend in a Stratford restaurant, was besieged by women playgoers.
After signing a dozen autographs,
Gerussi introduced his companion:
Douglas Rain. The women became red-faced with embarrassment at failing to recognize the title-role star of that night's performance of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Rain w'as amused.
Rain's public invisibility is, indeed, a tribute to what critics on both sides of the Atlantic praise, and Rain's fellow performers envy, as a rare form of thespian virtuosity — the ability to become the character he is performing to an extent that extinguishes his own appearance.
Without costume or makeup he can assume different faces, different voices, even different shapes.
For this ability. Rain has been called "the Canadian Alec Guinness." The comparison is derided by Gerussi. who will be playing Mark Antony in Julius Caesar while Rain is playing Prince Hal in both Henry IV and Falstaff after Stratford opens June 14. Rain, Gerussi feels, is capable of greater heights and depths than Guin ness.
"Doug completely submerges himself in every part he plays," says TV director Eric Till, for whom Rain at various times has depicted a revolutionary Irishman, a schoolmaster-spy, an idealistic young Hutterite. an English boy of seventeen, and a mad antiwar fanatic.
Says actress Frances Hyland, "He has an extraordinary range. He makes everything look so easy that I'm afraid audiences often don't appreciate him."
No Stratford “original" but Rain has returned to Stratford year after year without a break, yet even his name is constantly misspelled as Raine or Rains. The correct spelling helped one editor who punned AI.I.'S RIGHT AS
RAIN AT STRATFORD in a heading over a review lauding the actor.
Rain is five foot ten. In mid-April his weight was one-sixty; but, like a fighter who has let himself get slightly out of condition, he was planning to trim off seven or eight pounds before the Stratford opening. Watching the calories is not easy for him: one of his hobbies is cooking, with lots of butter. His parents, James and Mary Rain, were both from Glasgow, and his father was a CNR switchman at Winnipeg until he retired.
Instead of giving Douglas the usual piano or violin lessons, they put him at the age of four in a course in elocution. “Even now.” says Rain, "whenever I hear the word ‘elocution’ it makes me shiver, but in a way it was the start of everything. I’m not a ‘born’ actor, but an example of the Conditioned Response. While 1 was still a small boy it had become second nature for me to stand up in front of audiences and recite such very minor dramatic master-
works as A Knothole In The Fence."
But the future lago and King John and Cardinal Wolsey of Stratford was not always immune to stage fright. When he was six, after being introduced he often walked onstage and simply stared at the audience, unable to utter a word.
But at eight, in 1936, he was acting in CBC radio plays in Winnipeg. At ten he w'as representing Manitoba in the Dominion Drama Festival. By the time he was in the University of Manitoba, his radio earnings helped to finance his education.
Scholarships enabled him to go to the Banff School of Fine Arts in the summers of 194.3 and '49. "You can’t learn much in six weeks." Rain recalls with a grin, “but the scenery was marvelous, especially the girlwatching.’’
In the spring of 1950, newly graduated. Rain had the acting fever. An English director suggested that he go to London and audition for training at the Old Vic School.
“There was no professional theatre in Canada except the Straw Hat Players in Ontario, so I had nothing to lose,” he says. “I paid my way to London at the end of May — and had to wait until September for an audition. I got a job as a porter unloading fruit and vegetables at Victoria Station from ten at night until six in the morning.”
Rain’s audition was successful. He found the school a place where “they weren't looking for geniuses but for people who could emerge as professional actors ready to work in a professional theatre.” Rain, at twenty-two, was five or six years older than most of his British colleagues, among them Joan Plowright, now the wife of Sir Laurence Olivier, and Clive Revill, who won renown as Fagin in Oliver!
One of Rain’s classroom assignments was to pantomime a playlet based on a single word: “breakfast.”
"I decided I would try to portray a young man who has lost his virginity the night before through an excess of alcohol. He gropes his way down to breakfast suffering from guilt, plus a crashing hangover — and finds himself facing a bowl of porridge, which he hates. The whole thing had to be done without any announcement or explanation. The only prop I was allowed was a chair, not even a table. Evidently the ideas came across the way I had hoped. I was told later that my face literally changed from white to red to green as I confronted that invisible porridge.”
In 1952 he was / continued on page 41
“There is no honest drama criticism... most critics just exalt themselves”
continued from page 14
accepted as a member of the Old Vic Company. Six months later he heard thit a group of visionaries in Canada were planning a Shakespearean festival unJer Tyrone Guthrie. Rain wangled an audition with Guthrie in London.
The towering Irishman asked him to “do a couple of pieces.” One was the introductory speech in Henry V:
"O', for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”
Guthrie pointed out that Rain's reading of the speech had been “designed to hit the audience right between the eyes.” What would happen if ihe director preferred a more subtle approach? Would Rain care to try it? He did, and after eight lines Guthrie stopped him and said. "Fine — we can use you.”
Rain's roles were minor in 1953 plays, but he had to learn the major part of Richard III as understudy to the man with whom he is now often compared. Alec Guinness — another star whom the public seldom recognizes.
Guinness' system of tuning up for action. Rain recalls, consisted of repeated backstage incantations of the word “now.” Like an opera singer vocalizing in the wings, he would rehearse the pitch and timbre of his opening line: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
Guthrie and his successor as artistic director, Michael Langham, each year shrewdly offered Rain roles that tested his expanding versatility. In 1962 he did not care for two of the parts he was offered and turned them dowm — a thing almost unheard of in the precarious theatre of Canada. His only Stratford role that season was that of Ragueneau, the lovable pastry cook in Cyrano de Bergerac, but he was busy on TV. including a six-episode CBC serial called The Other Man.
Rain had a part he and the customers enjoyed in a modern-dress production of Timon Of Athens at Stratford in 1963 and again at England's Chichester in 1964. He appeared as Apemanthus, a “churlish philosopher” whom Rain played as a cynical newspaperman in a snap-brim hat. The performance won from the London Daily Telegraph a tribute for “fine world-weary contempt and just a hint of Lee J. Cobb.”
Even before the beginning of this year’s rehearsals of Henry IV and Falstaff under Stuart Burge’s direction, Rain was certain that the Prince Hal he will depict in both plays will be different from the Hal he embodied in 1958: “I've had seven years to get older and maybe just a bit wiser.”
Although the critics have almost invariably acclaimed him, the outspoken Rain has a low’ opinion of their taste and capacity. “As I see it,” he
says, “there is no honest drama criticism in Toronto, nor indeed probably anywhere. Most critics continually exalt themselves at the expense of the theatre. Some of them unwisely become involved in a personal way with actors, directors and others in the profession. Anyway, the Toronto critics are fatuous if they imagine they
really have much influence on the Stratford box office. To a large extent the box office is determined by the public before the season even begins."
Rain criticizes the Canadian government's attitude toward theatre and the other arts. "Stratford brought glory to Canada at Chichester in '64
and had to spend one hundred thousand dollars to get there and back. Ottawa gave us one quarter of that amount, six weeks after we returned. We should have been sent on from Chichester as Canadian cultural envoys to Europe, Russia and Australia. This year we can't even afford to go to Winnipeg, but Russia had the
Moiseyev dance company there in the spring. That means central Canada is more accessible to Moscow than to Stratford.”
Rain is caustic about Ottawa's proposed multi-million-dollar Centennial Centre for the performing arts. "The splendid Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg has had to drop some of its staff this year because of governmental lack of interest and of funds. Yet all those millions are being made available to erect a building in Ottawa which could easily become one of the biggest white elephants of all time. Even if the thing is finished by 1967 -— and from recent accounts that looks unlikely —nobody seems to know what productions will be done in it, or even if there'll be enough Canadian actors left in this country to fill the acting staff.
“And you know why they're doing it, in my opinion? Snob value, nothing else. In '67 we’ll have our big national hoohaw about the hundredth anniversary of Confederation, and we’ve got to have something to convince visitors that we're a cultured nation.”
On Broadway and in London's West End, matinée audiences generally are dreaded by actors. At Stratford, according to Douglas Rain, they are the best audiences of all. "The people who come on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons are usually prepared to see two plays in a single day. They’re keen, but relaxed, ready to do battle with the classics. What's more, they’re wide awake; they haven't had a heavy dinner and three or four martinis.”
The special matinées for students are also among Rain’s favorites. He feels sure that millions of people have been given a lifelong aversion to Shakespeare by the dusty pedantic way it was taught at school, but even teenagers ordinarily attuned to the
Beatles respond to Stratford’s professional glow.
Opening nights, he has found, are a trial. “The people come to see each other, not the play: to ogle, not to partake.”
But Rain is convinced that the cast rather than the customers often can he blamed when things go wrong. "Whenever I hear an actor say. That was a lousy house!’ 1 can't help suspecting that a rotten performance may be at the root of it.”
In his experience, moments of “absolute communication” between the play and the whole audience are seldom attained and never last more than three or four seconds. "It's a strange kind of eerie thing — a total rapport. For an actor, there are few greater thrills in life.”
Despite his background of Methodlike improvisations at the Old Vic School, Rain snorts sardonically when asked about Americans from New York's Actors Studio who go through agonies of self-searching and "identification” every time they play strongly emotional roles.
“Laurence Olivier, who is probably the greatest actor in the world, can crack a joke in the wings after strangling Desdemona, and then walk right back and continue to tear the people's hearts out.”
There are many long speeches in Shakespeare, and several of Rain's Stratford roles have placed tremendous burdens on his memory. On that open stage, there is no prompter, because there is no place where he can be both hidden and audible. What happens when an actor forgets a line?
"Well.” says Rain, “the Stratford gang has worked together so long we can all tell instantly when one of us is heading into trouble — long before the voice begins to falter, the eyes go ‘dead.’ A crisis like that has a way continued on pape 44
of somehow pumping adrenalin into your mental apparatus, so you rush to (he guy's help by jump-cutting to a place a hit further on in the text where you think he'll be able to pick up the cue. It usually works. Incidentally. for me life holds no more hideous moment than that which comes when watching an actor whose eyes go dead on television during a great big close-up. You sit there, unable to help, and you die while he sweats through it.”
Rain says no imaginable amount of money could tempt him to accept either a long TV series or a prolonged stage run if it would force him to play the same role more than a single season. "I’d stagnate. I'd lose my mind. I'd go screaming into the streets.”
He differentiates between “personality” actors, who basically portray themselves in every role, and “character” actors, who try to get under the skin of a role by studying it as an individual human being.
“Richard Burton, for example, was a character actor and a fine one at the Old Vic. He played the monster Caliban, and he and John Neville used to alternate lago and Othello. Today Burton is making a lot of money in a hurry and he has to play a specific type of role in terms of Hollywood. When he's made enough money and is getting bored with it, he may go hack and do whatever he wants.”
Rain's diverse enthusiasms include, besides cooking, hockey, curling, bridge, poker, gin-and-tonic, and — when he has time for it — the delicate and demanding hohby of petit-point needlework, which "demands total concentration” and thus is “totally relaxing.” He is fond of music and has a library of recordings, “classical orchestra mostly hut including some good Fats Waller jazz.” Rain lives alone since his marriage broke up. His wife and two sons are in Vancouver.
In conversation, the actor’s chameleon face and flexible voice constantly change. If it's a Guinness or a Guthrie he's quoting, out comes a Guinness or Guthrie sound. Rain has a Scottish reserve despite his hearty laugh and his zest for a lively story. He doesn’t call people by their first names as soon as he meets them, and he chooses his close friends with discrimination. But he cannot long conceal even from casual acquaintances the warm bonds that still link him, at thirty-seven, to his mother and father in Winnipeg. They have traveled to Stratford every year since 1953 to see him perform.
He says his annual income has leveled off in recent years to “a bit over fifteen thousand dollars.” Stratford has never revealed what it pays ta actors, so Rain won’t say how much of his total comes from the festival. It's not a fortune, but it’s enough to make him recall, with a grin, a piece of sensible and untyrannica! advice his Dad gave him. like a ScottishCanadian Polonius. when the son was leaving home at age ol twenty-two.
“Doug,” said the parent mildly, “if you're . . . uh . . . really not making any kind of a living by the age of thirty, I think you should seriously consider going into another profession.” ★