Author Tags: Theatre
Born in Montreal on February 25, 1949, Susan McNicoll worked as a reporter for the Ottawa Journal for five years in the 1970s. Inspiring by newspaper clippings kept by her father, Floyd Caza, she received a Canada Council grant for a project she initially called Everyman: Canadian Theatre History (1945-1953). After many years of research and interviewing theatre personnel from that little-documented post-war period, she compiled an invaluable national summary called The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History, 1945-1953. It contains many splendid photos from that era, with B.C.-related chapters on the touring company Everyman Theatre; Theatre Under the Stars in Stanley Park; Totem Theatre and Island Theatre (Bowen Island), York Theatre and the Vancouver Stage Society.
"From the day I decided to write The Opening Act," she writes, "or it decided I was going to write it, this book took thirty-four years to be published. How the book came to be written is a story in itself. My father, Floyd Caza, was a professional actor from 1946 to 1952, ironically almost the exact time frame of my book. Only days after dad’s death at 55, I was sitting on the floor of their living room going through his papers when five yellowed newspaper clippings dropped out onto the floor. It is still a marvel to me that those few pieces of paper actually evolved into this book. There was a small bio on dad and four reviews from plays he appeared in with the Everyman Theatre and the Ottawa Stage Society, circa 1946-48. I thought perhaps they were amateur productions but I looked at the names from the reviews and was stunned to see actors that I recognized well – Christopher Plummer, Arthur Hill, Ted Follows and Murray Westgate. I was immediately intrigued because I knew they were all professional actors. Dad had never talked much about his time in the theatre. He did not seem to think it was a big deal. It took his death for me to find out that it actually was. It happened in a split second as I sat there on the floor with the clippings in my hand. All these fireworks went off in my head and I KNEW instantly not only was there a book in there somewhere, I was going to be the one to do it. That is how The Opening Act was born."
Her non-fiction summary Jack the Ripper describes the murders of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. At least three other women are presumed to have been victims of Jack the Ripper.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History 1945-1953
The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History, 1945-1953 (Ronsdale Press, 2012) $24.95 978-1-55380-113-9
Toronto Murders (Lorimer Publishing, 2009)
Jack the Ripper (Altitude Publishing, 2005)
Ontario Murders (Altitude Publishing, 2004;
republished: Lorimer Publishing, 2009)
British Columbia Murders (Altitude
Publishing, 2003; republished Heritage House,
[BCBW 2012] "Theatre"
The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History, 1945-1953 (Ronsdale $24.95)
Soon after her father died, at age 55, Susan McNicoll was sitting on his living room floor, sifting through yellowed newspaper clippings about his acting career in Canada from 1946 to 1952.
The reviews arose from her father Floyd Caza’s stints with Everyman Theatre in Vancouver and the Ottawa Stage Society.
“I thought perhaps they were amateur productions,” she says, “but I looked at the names from the reviews and was stunned to see actors that I recognized—Christopher Plummer, Arthur Hill, Ted Follows, Murray Westgate and Joy Coghill.
“I knew instantly not only was there a book in there somewhere, I was going to write it.”
Susan McNicoll scoured archives across Canada for years, and interviewed dozens of veteran actors such as Joy Coghill, Dorothy Davies and Thor Arngrim.
Now Christopher Plummer has provided a jacket endorsement for her unprecedented The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History 1945-1953 (Ronsdale $24.95)
“It was 1945,” said McNicoll, launching her book on Father’s Day, “there was this huge blast of energy from all of these young people emerging from wars and universities and little theatres around the country.”
In the ‘olden’ days, as The Opening Act makes abundantly clear, actors painted their own sets, dreamed up their own publicity stunts—and, yes, once had to pee into a car’s radiator on a frozen winter night to literally keep their show on the road.
No doubt Floyd Caza would have much to say about the failure of the heavily subsidized Vancouver Playhouse in a city that wants to present itself as world class.
Everyman Theatre struggled financially from day one, in 1946, but by Christmas 1952 things were getting desperate. According to director Dorothy Davies, that’s when they decided to do Tobacco Road, leading to the biggest censorship case for post-war theatre in Canada.
“Tobacco Road was a Jack Kirkland adaptation of a novel with the same title by Erskine Caldwell,” McNicoll recalls, “It opened on Broadway in New York to poor reviews in 1933. Censorship problems seemed a certainty with its gritty and earthy depiction of poor tenant farmers in Georgia.”
But the stark realism of the play eventually won over New York and played for more than 3,000 performances, a record at that time. It still ranks in the top 20 non-musical plays of all time on Broadway.
The Niagara Barn Theatre staged the play in September 1951 and the International Players of Kingston in the late spring of 1952. The Everyman production in Vancouver opened to capacity crowds in January 1953.
“The play was nearing the end of the first week of its run,” McNicoll writes, “when one or two members of the audience complained to the police about obscenity in the production.”
In those days if anyone filed a complaint against a certain show, the police would be obliged to send a couple of officers to view a performance.
Officers attended the production on Wednesday, January 15, and the next morning Everyman received a warning from city police morality officers: clean up the production of Tobacco Road or close the doors.
“Everyman producer Sydney Risk declared that the theatre would continue to run Tobacco Road, even if it was ordered to close or was faced with prosecution under the Criminal Code of Canada.”
On the morning of January 17, city prosecutor Gordon Scott confirmed charges would be laid. The only questions left were who would be charged and when.
“That night, police were standing by, waiting to arrest five of the cast members when the first act was over and the curtain came down, but the curtain never came down that night.
“Faced with having to make the arrests on stage in front of some one thousand patrons, the police waited. During the second act the cast made entrances and exits through carefully calculated routes, thwarting the police in their efforts.
“The management asked technicians, stagehands and even reporters, to jam the wings, making it even more difficult for the officers to reach the actors they wanted to arrest. Police called for reinforcements, and at the opening of the third act they marched out on to the stage and made the arrests.
“The audience screamed and jeered, some shouting ‘Gestapo,’ even as Sydney Risk tried to keep them calm.”
While some actors were arrested and taken to the police station, patrons were given free coffee and there was impromptu entertainment with the help of two fellow actors in the audience—John Emerson and Bruno Gerussi.
Close to midnight, those who had been arrested arrived back at the theatre to finish the third act. They were greeted with a screaming ovation from the audience, only a few of whom had left.
“Sadly most of the actors and directors I interviewed years ago are gone now,” says Susan McNicoll, “but their stories are not.” 978-1553801139