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BWW Interview: Lynne Griffin

The Lark

Lynne Griffin is what director David Ellenstein describes as "a heavy-weight" in the industry. Her credits span more than 5 decades and include print, film, television and theatre. She was a child model and actor, appearing in multitudes of commercials and even hosting a children's television show in Toronto. Lynne went on to become a stalwart of Canadian television and a formidable presence in the theatre, where she was a regular at the Shaw and Stratford festivals and myriad other important companies throughout the country. Her diversity is awe inspiring - she starred with Peter Ustinov in King Lear at Stratford, and only a few years later with Max Von Sydow, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis in the film, Strange Brew. She was gruesomely murdered Black Christmas along with Margot Kidder and others. That film starred John Saxon and Olivia Hussey. Her IMDB page is a who's who of world cinema.

I first met Lynne at Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre after a performance of The Lark, in which she played Saint Joan. Lynne met teenaged me and my drama school friends backstage once she was out of costume and makeup. Though only a handful of years older than we, Lynne was all grown up, lovely and encouraging - lovely in the extreme, in fact. Both on and off stage she was luminious - alabaster skin, bright eyes and an impossibly infectious smile. I held her up as an example of the kind of actor I wanted to be, and followed her fabulous career in theatre, film and television. A lifetime later, we worked together in Nevada Shakespeare Company's 2001 production of Romeo and Juliet in which she played the nurse and I was Lady Capulet. It was a deeply troubled time - marked by the horror of the destruction of the World Trade Centers two days before we were set to preview. That experience is the departure point for our conversation today.

Courtesy of Lynne Griffin

JS - I have such bittersweet memories of R&J and the aftermath of 9/11. I remember struggling to stay focused on the huge impact on the country of the attack and not so much on the devastating effects it had on our theatre company. American theatre took a huge hit, in general. But I mostly remember feeling helpless in the face of such enormous tragedy and devastation. When we previewed at the outdoor aphitheatre, I felt that it was such an arrogant act to stand before human beings and presume to reflect back to them a human experience. Do you remember how you felt at the time?

LG - Of course the entire company was devastated. I was staying at the local rectory and some of the cast would always be popping in as I had a "my door is always open" policy. The actress playing Juliet was still asleep when my husband Sean rang me from Toronto and told me what had happened and to turn on the TV. I woke her and we were watching live coverage when the second plane hit. Of course, Jeanmarie, I spoke to you shortly after that. I was not truly aware at that time the impact it would have on the company, the show, your finances and the emotional toll, it whollped us. But my first thought was, the show MUST go on. Even though the tale of Romeo and Juliet is a tragic one, there is something about the simple act of sharing and storytelling in times of great grief. The shared humanity of experience. The extraordinary cast of the show wanting to continue despite whatever, despite everything. We were full and the emotion was spilling out of all of us as one entity. The few performances that followed - we did keep it going a little while didn't we? - were powerful in my memory.

The Voice of the Prairie

Yes, we managed to run a week after opening. Our audiences averaged 12 people.

We stayed together as a group at the rectory, someone or other in the cast cooking up meals for all of us, watching the horror filled aftermath on TV. I was miles away from home, my husband had been scheduled to fly down to be with me and see the show, but he couldn't get to me and I couldn't get home, there were no flights and I didn't want fly.

Yet you were the rock that held us all together. Stranded so far from home, but you kept smiling and comforting everyone, playing music, and, yes, always there was food. It was extraordinary.

I eventually drove myself to San Diego where I could get on a direct Air Canada flight to Toronto. I kissed the ground when I arrived.

That's quite an image. You never voiced your fear around us. You stepped right in as the mother to us all.

Black Christmas

In hindsight, that day impacted my whole world, every single aspect of it and some things that took years to surface and manifest the deep tears and scars.

But I also remember the family I had in those dark days in Virginia City, my theatre family of the Capulets and the Montagues, warring families in the play, but loving, caring, supportive, and insightful warm bodies that shared a heart and gut wrenching experience with an abundance of grace at a time of soul shattering shock to all our beliefs.

Here we are, fourteen years later. You went on to play the Nurse three more times.

I feel the role is inextricably linked to me, and I don't think I'm done with her yet.

You managed to make her so sexy - with her interractions with all the boys. It was a revelation, as is so much of your work. For instance, your Bianca at Stratford was uniquely feisty. I've never seen her done that way before or since. Obviously the director let you go there, but how did you arrive at the choice to make her that way, and how did you find justification for it in the text?

Courtesy of Lynne Griffin

It probably started when I played Ophelia for Harold Baldridge at Theatre Calgary. He told me he had a lot on his plate directing Hamlet and could I come up with some ideas on my own for the mad scene and surprise him. I saw a lot of repressed sexuality in the scene and decided to make the most of that in my take on where her madness took her. I showed him my ideas and he went for it. ..Bless him!

And so it was true with Bianca. Being the younger sister myself in my family, I found the text supported her being the pretty chosen one, adored by her father and so...spoiled and getting away with it. In my life the same was true and my big sister took it out on me. I told the director how she would trap me on the floor and sit on my stomach and bounce to get even with me, and we decided that would work for the scene and my dear friend to this day, Sharry Flett playing Kate, was game. I was always flirting with my sister's boyfriends when she would bring them home and seemed to get away with it, so again I added that flirtatiousness to Bianca.

Little Lynne with her older sister, Kathy

A lot of the directors I worked with in those days capitulated to my ideas, ( I could be pretty cute and persuasive) but also they were strong choices for what might ordinarily have been standard vapid ingenue roles.

The same held true when I played Laura in The Glass Menagerie. I liked to think that Laura came out of that period we share of her life at home and became a writer like, say, Carson McCullers. I never wanted her to seem defeated but in that final moment in her mother's arms she looks up brightly to the future with possibilities of making her own way in life inspired by her brother Tom.

I am vocal to young actresses I work with and encourage them to find the strength in these roles, even when they have directors who cast them only to be pretty and weak and submissive and cry a lot. These characters have been written by playwrights and have stood the test of many interpretations because the are interesting and have depth. They are not just there to be decoration or props, no matter how pretty and frilly the frock the costume designer put you in.

Another great opportunity came my way with Man and Superman at the Shaw Festival playing with Ian Richardson and Carole Shelley. I played Violet and she has that great indiginacious (Is that a word?) scene where she tells them all off and then the delicious scene in the last act of the play where she manipulates the men and twists them around her little finger. I loved her! In fact Shaw wrote GREAT women's roles! They have sass and balls and yet remain incredibly feminine. I am dying to do more Shaw - maybe Mrs. Warren's Profession.

The Seagull (with Sean Sullivan)

You would rock that role! You were born to the breed, lady. Do you think your identity as a person is extricable from your identity as an artist?

Yes. but I used to say "I know who Lynne Griffin is professionally but I don't know who I am." I am more interested now in being an authentic being and letting that authenticity inform my work. I don't like celebrity very much. I would rather be known for my collaborations with other artists than for my work alone. I believe in the ensemble and the relationships that prove to be honest, trusting and truthful both onstage and off. If the offstage relationship is real and true, the one you have with your scene partners onstage will reflect that.

Have you ever considered doing anything else with your life, longterm?

Absolutely NOT! But as a little girl I toyed with the idea of being a stewardess, veterinarian or maybe following in my father's footsteps as a photographer.

How do you work? When you decide to take on a role, how do you approach it?

I am not very choosy as I like to be constantly busy and pay the mortgage. But I always played ingénues and was determined to give them strength and spine. As I got older the roles I was offered got much more interesting and now I like a good challenge when I decide on a role. There are some roles I still really want to do. I just played Gertrude in Hamlet which was a role I had always wanted to play. I am still so eager to learn and I have been working with a lot of Indie theatre companies lately with terrific young actors, directors and playwrights. There is a wealth of talent emerging now and I am still learning and mentoring at the same time.

How do you think the American "method" informed your work in your emerging years?

I have had the best of many disciplines as I grew up with a very British way of working (at Shaw and Stratford), as well as doing many plays with a brilliant Polish director named Marion Andre at Theatre Plus in Toronto (A Doll's House, The Lark and Antigone). I believe most Canadian actors have had the benefit of melding many disciplines and creating a wonderful hybrid.

When did you know you were there - as a professional actor? When did you feel you had arrived?

My first Equity contract was for a production of The Importance of Being Ernest playing Cecily. It was in a lovely little professional theatre in Toronto at The Colonade. I got to wear a beautiful frilly pink frock and I received some lovely notices calling me Gish-like (after Lillian Gish who was a favorite of mine). I had arrived and was hooked. My mum saw the play possibly 17 times!

You did some 15 roles at the Old Globe in San Diego, California. That's one of the US' most significant regional theatres. How did those years shape the work you're doing now?

They most significantly shaped my life as I met my wonderful husband there in a play called The Voice of the Prairie by John Olive directed by Tom Bullard. That was a match made in heaven, we have been together now for 27 years and have had the luck to have worked together many times.

I direct his solo show Baby Redboots' Revenge. We have just been offered The Merry Wives of Windsor playing Falstaff and Mistress Quickly and will possibly also we will be doing The Threepenny Opera as the Peachums.

Can you tell us about other regional theatre experiences in the US and Canada? Who are some of your favorite directors, what do you think is the state of theatre now, will it survive, etc.?

I worked in many regional theatres across Canada and the US. Some of my favourites were the Vancouver Playhouse, Theatre Calgary, the National Arts Centre, Theatre New Brunswick, the Mark Taper Forum, North Coast Repertory, South Coast Repertory, Ensemble Theatre (Santa Barbara), Arizona Theatre Company, but my favourite of all is the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where I really felt like I was part of a magnificent theatre family, and got to play some extraordinary roles with actors like Richard Easton, Jonathan McMurtry, Sada Thompson, Don Sparks, Kandis Chappell. Some of my favourite directors were Craig Noel, Jack O'Brien, Malcolm Black, Marion Andre, Harold Baldridge, Christopher Newton, Paxton Whitehead, Robin Phillips, Tom Bullard and Andrew Traister.

As to the state of the theatre - I think it is precarious. I love the fact that there are so many wonderful store front theatres popping up in Toronto, and also numerous excellent smaller companies in San Diego. However the struggle continues to entice audiences and to get financial support when we're battling against blockbuster movies, on-line viewing, mega channels on TV. I still believe a live theatre experience is unlike anything digital. I hope the influx of these smaller innovative companies, with their unique work and reasonable ticket prices will continue to lure audiences into the live theatre experience. Having worked in film, TV and theatre, there is nothing that compares to the art of live storytelling.

Sean Sullivan in Baby Redboots Revenge

You and Sean have an unique theatre company - you've done some tremendously innovative things (you mentioned Baby Redboots).

Baby Monster Productions is dedicated to creating and presenting fiercely theatrical storytelling, which fuses the theatrical disciplines of virtuosic acting, puppetry, dance, mime and vaudeville, supported with powerful visual media artistry.

I love that description - "fiercely theatrical." In my view, that's what is missing from most of what we see onstage today. Too much cinematic realism. Theatre can never do that as well as film, so why not do what cannot be done on screen - theatricality. Peter Schaffer told me that the reason he hates his plays being made into films is that everything that makes them great on stage is impossible to translate to the different medium. Can you talk about some of your greatest moments with Baby Monster Productions? You've won Fringe Festival "Best of" awards - actor, show, director, no? How does it feel when that kind of acclaim comes to work that is so deeply, originally yours? It's different, isn't it, than winning for an established play, film, or whatever.

Baby Redboots' Revenge really is our baby. It has gone through several reincarnations and continues to develop through its adolescence to middle age and beyond, with more resonance and depth. I first saw an archival video of it when we were newly a couple and I wanted Sean to do it again. He had put it aside when the playwright Philip-Dimitri Galas, who had written the piece for Sean, died of AIDS. I submitted it to the Toronto Fringe where we presented it, with me directing this time. Sean and I work so well together and I just guided him back and allowed the show to breathe again. The momentum this show has is unstoppable. We were getting unanimously great reviews and a producer from Poland saw the show and two years later we were touring it in Poland and Czech republic. Then we took it to the first New York Fringe where it won Best of the Fringe award and a subsequent run at P.S.122.

We have since taken it many places, most recently to the first San Diego Fringe Festival where Sean won the Best Solo Performance of the year 2013 (also known as the Craig Noel award) awarded by the San Diego Critics Circle.

Lynne Griffin and Sean Sullivan in Performance Hell

We are so proud of this piece and we are dedicated to keeping the work of Philip-Dimitri Galas alive. He was a brilliant San Diego playwright who died far too young. We have performed another piece of his together called Performance Hell, which we also took to Poland, which included our favourite scene as Punch and Judy railing against performance art.

What are the joys and challenges of working with your husband so closely?

Working with Sean is such a happy collaboration, whether I am directing him or vice versa or whether we are co-directing which we have been fortunate to do several times. We have a shorthand and can be very passionate and vocal about our ideas which might intimidate others until they get to know us and that we ignite each other and sparks can fly. But they are sparks of creative imagination that keep the fire burning between us and hopefully, purposefully, light up the stage.

Courtesy of Lynne Griffin

I hate for this interview to end - I wish it could be an ongoing dialogue for the rest of our lives. Somehow, once we work together, we are sisters - we theatre folk have such a huge family, with all the bliss and frustrations of a traditional family. You know what I mean?

You know working so intimately with a group of people for shorts spurts of time push you to make close connections quickly. And yes, you do feel like a family dynamic starts to form, with it's strengths and weaknesses.

We worked together, Sean and I, on a production of The Seagull for over a year. The love, the hates, the break-ups, the make-ups, the united front, the divided sects, the trust, the fear, the support, the loyalty, but in the end result the feeling of comfort of just being, living with these people onstage was so joyful. Feeling so known and protected by these 'family" members was something we both treasure. We seek and find that comfort in every experience now and have worked with so many new groups and if you enter into the project with respect and trust you will be rewarded and the work will flourish.

Do all you can to support the project... mentor, listen, run lines, sew a missing button on a costume for someone, share your lunch with someone who's broke, lend them a bus token, be totally present with them when you are onstage together.

At the end of the run, you'll stay in touch with the ones that have moved into your heart. You'll know who they are. Many will come and go, but some will remain always even if years pass between connecting with one another. Jeanie, you know what I mean. And there is always a chance you will get to work together again.

Well. Hope springs eternal. If not, darling friend, we'll always have Verona.

See Lynne Griffin interviewed on YouTube.

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From This Author Jeanmarie Simpson