Graham Abbey on the Bard and Brussels sprouts

Prior to delivering the annual Shakespeare Lecture on Nov. 15, Canadian actor Graham Abbey talked to the Reporter about the power of Shakespeare and the importance of finding a healthy work-life balance.
Canadian actor and director Graham Abbey will deliver the annual Shakespeare Lecture on Nov. 15

In 2011, Abbey founded Groundling Theatre Company whose mandate is to, “present imaginative productions of Shakespeare’s plays that are accessible, entertaining, inspiring and relevant to today’s audiences.” In 2016, Groundling Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for “Outstanding Production” in the indie theatre division.

Friends of the McGill Library in collaboration with the Stratford Festival will present the annual Shakespeare Lecture featuring Graham Abbey on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 6 p.m. in the Leacock Building, Room 232. RSVP required: by email or (514) 398-5711. In his talk titled “A Muse of Fire: the enduring power of Shakespeare’s history cycle”, Abbey will explore the first half of the history cycle (Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V). The talk will include some readings featuring Abbey and Michelle Giroux and will be followed by a Q & A. Get more information.

Is there one moment or memory in rehearsal or on stage [at Stratford] that has stood out for you?

If I had to recall a single moment over my 20 years at the Festival, it might be the one I recounted at Brian Bedford’s memorial this past summer. I was in my second season at the Festival and had been cast by Brian as Florizel in The Winter’s Tale. In an early rehearsal, I was determined to impress Brian with a particularly emotion scene. I finished my monologue in a fury of sweat and tears collapsing to the floor in dramatic fashion and waited anxiously for Mr. Bedford’s response. There was a long agonizing silence which Brian finally pierced by saying, “Well it’s alright, but we simply can’t charge people money for this!”

This past summer your adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s history plays called Breath of Kings opened at the Stratford Festival. What was the inspiration behind this enormous project?

The Breath of Kings was a pet project of mine for many years, but it really received its impetus on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was returning to Stratford from a few days off with my fellow actors in upstate New York when we heard news that the first plane had hit the tower. We immediately raced towards the border as we were scheduled to do two performances that day of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V.

The late, great, Douglas Campbell was playing Falstaff that afternoon and after the matinee of Henry IV, Part 1 he spoke to the audience about the importance of holding the “mirror up to nature” and the wisdom and value of Shakespeare’s great poetry as a much needed sermon for the congregation of audience members that afternoon.

That evening I tried to follow suit, and after our production of Henry V I held a moment of silence with the cast, crew, and audience. Moments later, I received a knock on my dressing room door and a man was standing there in tears explaining that he was from New York and he had spent the entire day trying to make contact with his family back home. He said the only thing he could think to do that night was to “turn off CNN and come and listen to Shakespeare.” That was the moment I understood the true lasting resonance and power of Shakespeare’s history plays.

How can theatre practitioners make Shakespeare relevant to young audiences?

It is one of my great hopes and passions to ignite a love of Shakespeare in future audiences. I have this idea I like to espouse that I call “the Brussels sprout theory of Shakespeare.”

We all know Brussels sprouts are good for us and that we must, often despite the taste, consume them for the good of our health. The same can often be said about Shakespeare, particularly in our high school programs.

There is this old school way of boiling the Brussels sprouts until they are soggy and tasteless which seems to me what we regard as our grandparent’s Shakespeare.

You can also smother the Brussels sprouts in sauce so that they don’t taste like Brussels sprouts, which can often be a popular approach when it comes to delivering Shakespeare to younger generations.

But I remain committed to continually searching for a way to cook the Brussels sprouts (and the bard) in just the right amount of flavourful oil and spice to accentuate and help appreciate the true taste of the vegetable.

This is the approach I am trying to bring to younger generations at Groundling Theatre by presenting intimate, affordable, stripped down productions of Shakespeare with some of this country’s finest actors. And hopefully they discover a lifelong love for a previously tasteless playwright.

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring theatre creators?

The only bit of advice I would pass along to any aspiring creator is to continuously exercise your creative muscle. When the business gets you down, which it will invariably at one point or another, pour your energies and frustrations into your creativity.

I started Breath of Kings during a particularly uninspired time in my professional life. I would return home from work each night and bury myself in my office surrounded by scenes and characters from Shakespeare’s history cycle taped to my walls . At the time it was a creative exercise for me, without any sense of monetary or financial goal attached to it. Years later, that work was rewarded, but I have found that simply being creative for creation’s sake often births the purest results. It may be many years before a financial gain is attached but if you keep throwing things at the wall, they often find a way of sticking.

Bonus question: How do you create a work-life balance for yourself? 

An effective work-life balance is always a struggle for me. I tend to be a bit of a workaholic so finding time to unwind and turn my brain off is difficult. I have always been fairly active in my life however and continue to find time for sports and the gym as much as I can. We have a weekly hockey game up in Stratford with many of the crew guys and I find that a welcome break from the rehearsal halls. I have also recently discovered Crossfit which I love and finding time to play hide and seek with my two-year-old daughter is always one of the highlights of my day.