Brian Richmond's pencil diet

By Linda Rogers, July 2011

Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s founder explains why the show must go on.

The Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s tiny office next door to the Conservatory of Music is, apart from a few other necessities, almost entirely furnished with gnawed pens and pencils

“Do you have rats?” 

“No,” Darcy, Blue Bridge’s Girl Friday laughs, “It’s Brian!”

Some of us smoke, some bite our nails, but Brian Richmond, whose long life in Canadian theatre includes chewing up a lot of scenery, also chews pencils. His mile-long resume includes many acting credits, his recent chairmanship of the UVic Theatre department, founding artistic director of Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre, artistic director of Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, Thunder Bay’s Magnus Theatre and Montreal’s Playwright’s Workshop. He has directed over 100 productions. 

Delusion, obsession, and self-destruction are febrile nouns we might choose to represent Richmond’s willingness to plunge into his post-apocalyptic vision for a cultural community strangled by our arts-unfriendly government in Ottawa. When the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre raised its first curtain three years ago, the city already had several struggling live theatre companies. Why did the artistic director and his board think another was necessary, especially in challenging financial times? 

“I was watching well-trained young actors disappear from view after a few seasons of spear carrying because there weren’t enough opportunities for them to work and grow as artists. I saw creating career opportunities for them as an adjunct to my work as a university teacher.” Richmond wanted to give his young performers a chance to play major roles alongside established theatre artists.

His macerated pens and pencils bear witness to the fact that Richmond’s mission is formidable, but he and his board recently had a pleasant surprise. On June 11, the company announced a $25,000 professional development endowment by legendary drama teacher and former town crier Tommy Mayne, now a philanthropist enjoying the theatre of seeing his money work.

“It happened completely by surprise. Tommy invited us for dinner and presented us with a large cheque for dessert. It was just what we needed. We are naming our young artist development project for him.” That is as it should be in this climate of fiscal austerity, I tell him. “Yes, philanthropy is the new reality. We can’t depend on government and seem to be heading toward the American model of private endowment.”

As the disparity in personal wealth grows with tax laws that favour upper income people, angels are more essential than ever to the cultural community. I ask Mr Richmond how we train people to recognize the value of giving?

“Once again,” he replies, “we look to the Americans. US tax incentives encourage giving, more so than in Canada.”

When I ask what he and his theatre company are doing to educate audiences about this responsibility, Richmond laughs. “I am putting it out there right now that I will have dinner with anyone willing to put a large cheque in the pêches Melba.”

Get out your cooking pots, ladies and gentlemen of means. The rest of us can drop our small change in the McPherson lobby as part of the Blue Bridge Penny Drops campaign. When asked where the impetus for the latter came from—and if he rolls up his sleeves to roll the money after the last curtain—he replies: “The Penny Drops campaign is board driven and it is immensely popular. We have volunteer rollers, and a coin collector has offered to go through all the donations and find any that might be valuable.”

Richmond insists that the Blue Bridge is a metaphor and, apart from the obvious attractions of our city landmark, the company is a bridge that brings meaningful language from the past to the present and carries actors and production staff from amateur to professional status. For example, Wren Handman, recent UBC MFA and Creative Writing graduate (and daughter of Marcus, former POV and symphony manager), along with UVic student Courtney Butler will be stage-managing and assistant stage-managing the Albee classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in July. What better way to begin a career in the theatre?

The Blue Bridge itself is now synonymous with a citizens’ revolt. I wonder: Did the theatre company benefit from the civic controversy around its namesake? 

“It didn’t affect us one way or the other,” says Richmond. “We had our mandate and we stayed with it. The bridge is a lasting symbol, whether or not it is still standing.”

When the City of Victoria Arts Scan report was made public, it was clear that all parties agreed there was unnecessary duplication of services and a need for cultural organizations to work together on infrastructure. Richmond says the Blue Bridge is already living that reality.

“We share Pacific Opera’s production team, rehearse at The Phoenix and are squatting on Conservatory land [and performing at the McPherson]. The operating staff is already co-operating ex officio.” While there is overlap in Victoria’s theatre-going demographic, there are also, he notes, niche audiences for experimental writing, new Canadian plays, and traditional theatre servicing the dialogue essential to healthy community.

The theatre company has chosen to focus on theatrical masterworks of the past. Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, directed by the irrepressible Glynis Leyshon and featuring actor Brian Linds in a skirt part as Madame Arcati (over by the time you read this); Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (starring author and actor Meg Tilley as Martha, July 5-17); and Fire (Aug 2-14), the Paul Ledoux and David Young musical collaboration that examines the overlap between popular music and Pentecostal Christianity that gave us Rock & Roll.

Given that theatre is the art form that is most political, reflecting the social mores of our times, what fresh news can Blue Bridge bring to a contemporary audience when it mounts traditional productions rather than new theatre? 

Richmond answers: “I can only quote the articulate but despicable Ezra Pound, who said, “Great literature is news that stays news.”

The truth rests in proverbs. Actors come and go, but the word endures. That is the gift Blue Bridge brings to Victoria audiences. Having proven itself in stellar past productions like Death of A Salesman, Hank Williams—The Show He Never Gave, and As You Like It, Blue Bridge has legs. Richmond can give his stressed pencils a break.

Another penny drops. It is time to go, and we can only hope that the protean man of the theatre, with his phenomenal luck, will find a bag of money on his way to the next rehearsal.

Linda Rogers, Victoria’s Poet Laureate, is looking for pre-orders and private sponsors for Framing The Garden, an anthology of poetry and visual images by Victoria poets and artists. Write the publisher at ekstasis@islandnet.com.