I first encountered David Ferry as an actor, even though he’s also a director, a dramaturg and a great teacher with extensive experience in theatre, television, film and radio. In that production of Othello Ferry created the most astonishing Iago, a likeable friendly fellow whose latent seething anger propelled the entire tragedy.
Ferry has played in most of the country’s major houses including the Stratford Festival , the National Arts Centre , Centaur Theatre , the Royal Alexandra Theatre , Tarragon Theatre , Toronto Free Theatre , the Citadel Theatre , Vancouver Playhouse , Theatre New Brunswick and the Banff Centre for The Arts . He has also worked Off-Broadway and in Los Angeles.
An intense actor? Believe it. And Ferry has also served with Actors’ Equity as vice-president, and ACTRA as the national chair for the Performers section. He has taught at George Brown College and the National Theatre School, and has served as dramaturge on many new Canadian works. Recently he has edited playtexts for Playwrights Canada Press, including He Speaks, a collection of monologues for men, and a collection of plays by James Reaney.
In January Ferry will be Romeo in Talk is Free Theatre’s new production of The Last of Romeo and Juliet. In anticipation, I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more about the upcoming project.
A pretty balanced mix.
Humour and imagination wise, and emotively, more leaning toward my mother. Intellectually and discipline wise, my father. Both my parents were in creative endeavours (theatre) when I was growing up,and were both very supportive of my going to theatre school. My mother had a zany sense of English humour and was great with my friends. She used to phone the swimming pool where I worked summers as a lifeguard and play practical jokes on my fellow pool workers…doing things like booking private parties for Queen Elizabeth. My dad had a very Stoic kind of philosophy and was very even handed with me….made me question myself in a good way. He was in broadcasting and every summer as a child he would take me along to the St. John’s regatta where he would do boat race commentary love on air from his car with me there. He also introduced me to radio acting (I got my ACTRA card at 15) and gave me my early acting input.
Both my parents had lived through the war…met in London during the blitz, and that was hugely important in terms of the framework of the world I related to through their eyes. The parties they had with their friends were fabulous…jazz on the turntable. Pretty frocks and smart suits. Cigarettes and martinis and scotch on the rocks (Dewers and Johnny Walker…pre single malt fashion) real Mad Men aesthetic.
I grew up in a great neighbourhood in St. John’s with dozens of kids on the street and open doors. St. John’s is also probably the coolest city in Canada and very unique with a strong creative life. The school system was denominational and made for a very intriquing class structure. I came to creative discovery at a fantastic time of cultural nationalism there and elsewhere in Canada.
2- What is the best thing & worst thing about being an actor?
The ‘freedom’ of the creative life..in terms of no real ‘nine to five’, same boss world is certainly an attraction. The pure variety of experiences and worlds that it offers to explore.
Of course it is also an illusionary freedom in a sense. One is always within the decision making hands of someone else for the most part. The jobs are hard to come by and the money terrible.
In Canada there also tends to be a strong sense of actors being frivolous or elitist in the minds of other parts of society. We don’t have a real star system or powerful economic infrastructure with the incentive that success in other cultures can offer.
Many theatres are very lacking in the sense of taking chances (Talk is Free is an exception among small town theatre companies in this sense by the way.)
Emotionally the hardest thing is probably the best thing. To be good at acting, one has to constantly be willing to be vulnerable and curious. To take life and death chances in front of a room full of strangers (the audience.) This can be painful. But the rewards in terms of living an “examined life” are grand.
3- Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I have a lot of younger colleagues with young children right now. I love watching those children. They all seem so bright and alive and playful and joyous. And I love watching their parents going through the joys of first time parenting. As a man whose daughter is long an adult, I feel removed from the worries of early parenting…I know those kids will grow up just fine.
I loved my dog Blue for somewhat similar reasons when he was alive. Every morning he would greet with a sense of “wow, another great day to explore, let’s get going man!”
I love watching Peggy Baker dance. We are about the same age, and she really is extraordinary…her ability to keep dancing and getting better as she ages is an inspiration. I love listening to Andrew Burashko (Art of Time Ensemble) play the piano and to him when he speaks at his concerts…he is so smart and I dig his eclectic taste. I love John Pizzarelli and his guitar playing and vocalizing and his sense of humour. I think Chris Abraham (CROWS) is a very smart and inspiring theatre artist. As is Brendan Healy (Buddies in Bad Times.) I love watching their productions, even if I don’t always get them. I think Tom Rooney is a boss actor. As is Yanna Macintosh, Seana Mckenna, Karen Robinson, Tom McCamus and a slew of others. I love some of our young theatre entrepreneurs and artists…Mitchell Cushman, Jordan Tannahill, Claire Armstrong to name a few. Working with them is the hope of my future creativity.
I love watching musicians play. I love experiencing the work of so many of our visual artists. I find art galleries really inspirational.
I think Katie Mitchell’s book on directing “The Director’s Craft” is very right on.
I like reading plays.
I love watching quarterbacks in football games….they have to have such a view of the whole field and game and its second by second evolution of the play….it’s what good leading actors have to learn to do.
I am a good cook. Cooking is love. It is creativity. It is communication.
Guilty pleasure: I am hooked on some cooking shows and watch them while I am on the bike or elliptical machine at the gym.
Music is the key to so many creative impulses for me.
I like listening to financial gurus and stock pickers. They are like really entertaining tea leaf readers.
I love novels and poetry and non-fiction…especially when it’s a real physical object I am reading and not an electronic reader.
I love libraries/ especially older ones with the smell of wood polish and old books.
I love the sea. It always has ideas to wash ashore to my imagination. Speak “To be or not to be” from a rock where the Atlantic waves break. I dare you. There is nothing like it. Exhilarating.
Oh yeah…I love chick flicks. What would Xmas be without “Holiday”?
4- What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
To play the saxophone like Sonny Rollins. To dance like Gene Kelly. To sing like Frank.
5- When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Cooking. Bicycling. Travelling.
Five more about the upcoming show.
1-Please talk about the challenges in undertaking your role in The Last of Romeo and Juliet.
Learning and speaking the text well. So that it sounds natural and musical at the same time. Spontaneous and not “acty”. I am fascinated by the challenges (physical,mental, emotional, spiritual) of ageing in an ageist, sexist and consumerist society. Even (perhaps especially) in our theatre world, older artists are disposed of for the most part like so much used Kleenex. I see so many of my contemporaries simply disappear from the work place…and yet, they have so much to offer younger artists…especially those who are taking over the establishments that produce art. In a society where so many people are entering their sixties and seventies, it should behoove us to tell more stories that reflect the reality of that to the public…not just the youth market take on society.
So I feel a real responsibility in having a smart and sexy and passionate discussion (though this production) of elders and their reality regarding love, loneliness, abandonment, sickness and becoming invisible.
All the actors on stage with me have particular resonance in my evolution as an actor. Jennifer Phipps was in my first professional production while I was still in theatre school (Electra) and was so generous in sharing with us students the ‘stuff’ she knew, the sisterhood/brotherhood of actors. And several years ago we again shared the stage in a wacky production I starred in of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. Diana Leblanc (Lady Capulet), Clare Coulter (The Nurse) and I (Mercutio) acted in a great production of Romeo and Juliet starring Paul Gross 30 years ago. Alex Poch-Goldin and I have acted together several times and I directed his fine and bold play Life of Jude this past summer. Layne Coleman and I recently worked together on a new play which he was directing and we go very far back as colleagues. Luke Humphrey is the son of actors I have worked with on TV and the grandson of the fine CBC producer Jack Humphrey who produced and directed a cool movie I acted in. Its safe to say I first saw Luke when he was a babe in his father’s arms. Sandi Ross and I were both elected union presidents at ACTRA and lobbied in LA for our film industry together. And John Gilbert and I know each other going back 40 years to my first jobs as a Toronto based actor at Tarragon theatre. We are all part of the extended family we love being part of called The Theatre.
I have been Artistic Director at a Shakespeare Theatre (Resurgence in Newmarket) and directed a good many productions of Shakespeare as well as having acted in his plays many times including some of the greatest parts (Hamlet (twice), Puck (twice), Leontes (twice), Iago, Prospero, Mercutio among others) and I relish working on his plays. I was fortunate to have been in Michael Langham’s company at Stratford some years ago. He is the source (along with the writings of Northrop Frye and many other learned critics) of my professional love of the Bard’s work.
2-What do you love about The Last of Romeo and Juliet?
I love what Mitchell [director Mitchell Cushman] has done in terms of deconstruction of the Shakespeare while using the language of Shakespeare. I love his investigation of ageing, loneliness and memory as well as of ‘love among the ruins’. I love his use of other sources within Shakespeare’s writings to explore themes of madness and loss. I love the setting. I love how he has conceptualized his version to sit within a contemporary retirement home..using the age honoured tradition of a preface/part dumb play to set the scene.
It is the kind of play I wish my grandmother could have seen when she was in a retirement home.
3) Do you have a favourite moment in The Last of Romeo and Juliet?
Romeo’s first sight of Juliet.
His recovery from depression via love at first sight.
His moments at the beginning with the Friar when he is planning suicide.
His discovery of Juliet and his own death because he has lost her.
4) How do you feel about The Last of Romeo and Juliet as a citizen of the sandwich generation?
I am not really Sandwich generation. My daughter is 41. My parents both dead some time…and I never had to care for them.
I do however remember hitch-hiking to Toronto from Nfld when I was 16, long hair, looking for love and peace amongst the hippies in Yorkville. I visited my grandfather, who I only knew by phone calls at Christmas. I remember mid conversation he somehow lit the filter end of a cigarette and immediately lost where he was, who I was. It was scary. He had Parkinson’s and was developing a troubling dementia. My first intimation of a fate that could await me one day. I have based my take on Romeo in this iteration of the story in many ways on the inspiration that moment has offered me.
5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?
Michael Langham. James Reaney. Keith Turnbull. Douglas Campbell. Marshall Mason. Landford Wilson. Joe Dowling. Katie Mitchell. Deborah Warner. John Hirsch. Martha Henry. Seana McKenna. Leah Cherniak. Anne Bogart. Douglas Rain. Maureen Forrester. Twyla Tharp. Peggy Baker. Mark Rylance. Kyra Harper.
Talk is Free Theatre presents The Last of Romeo & Juliet running January 9 to 18, 2014 at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie. Click picture below for more information.