Acting our best

Antony Holland 1920-2015

by Bruce Mason

portrait of Anthony Holland
Anthony Hollandphoto by Victor Anthony

• He was the oldest working actor in Canada, if not the world. Certainly, he was one of the busiest – at 95! – and probably the most passionate and endearing as well, both on-and off stage. Antony Holland’s legacy is important. He is credited with creating the most successful theatre school in the country and pioneering the profound idea of casting prisoners in plays – in and out of their cellblocks. His films include scenes with Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Warren Beatty and countless others. His legendary live performances are innumerable and inventive and his one-man shows, a revolutionary theatrical concept. Above all, they were lessons for living well.

As the Globe and Mail recently observed, Antony Holland’s “insatiable lust for life – most especially the theatre life – kept him running full-speed for nearly a century.” The tribute was re-published and shared widely around the world.

Antony once told me, “I am finding many more roles in my mid-80s; there is far less competition and I can assure you that I am getting very good at coughing a lot and dying on stage… Among other things, theatre provides an opportunity to hold out a mirror on the world for those who choose to look, and in some cases, lives have been changed mightily by the experience.”

Antony Holland – who referred to me as his “unpaid publicist” – was a raconteur, par excellence, with more than nine decades of memorable stories, tucked way in a mind that could recall entire plays of his beloved Shakespeare, at will. In WWII, he was conscripted into Britain’s Royal Corps of Signals and shipped off to fight in the Egyptian desert. For entertainment and to boost morale, he staged makeshift theatre on the troop ship and later at the famed, abandoned, Royal Opera House in Cairo. The hit show so impressed the brass and their wives that afterwards, backstage, he was promoted to sergeant – and eventually, a spy – and reassigned to tour North Africa, performing for tens of thousands of his fellow soldiers.

Returning to England, he landed a job as vice principal of Laurence Olivier’s Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, inspiring young actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Jeremy Irons. His speciality was stage-fighting and he taught a legion of students to fence, including a grateful Gene Wilder.

Tired of an actor’s hard life and hard knocks, he emigrated to Vancouver to indulge another passion – growing vegetables – and a dream of becoming a successful market gardener. Instead, he drove taxi in New Westminster, supplemented by gigs on CBC radio until a call came from the Haney Correctional Institution in Maple Ridge to establish a theatre program. “I created it because, as someone suggested, people put in prison should be rehabilitated,” Holland noted. He recalled numerous award-winning shows starring reformed inmates from solitary confinement.

In 1965, he turned his attention, obsession and expertise to founding another theatre program – the future Studio 58 at Langara College – as the city developed into a TV and movie hub. “I wanted to train actors to earn a living, not just read scripts or go on to university, including dance and musical courses and performances, lighting, costumes, publicity and cleaning up afterwards. And I hired theatre professionals as part-time instructors.”

His successor Kathryn Shaw (1985) explained, “All his actors had to work backstage before they could work onstage and grads became known for being well-rounded theatre people, the ones who start companies.” The founder and director of the highly successful Bard on the Beach, Christopher Gaze, adds, “At least 50% of our casts come from Studio 58 and we couldn’t have achieved what we have without it.” The school now receives hundreds of applications from across North America and, sadly, Holland will miss acting in the celebration of its 50th anniversary this month. In July of 2014, Holland was awarded Membership in the Order of Canada for his achievements as an actor and teacher and for founding Studio 58 to cultivate the next generation of Canadian performers.

“Care to purchase a pavlova?” Holland had enquired, pointing to a basket suspended on his arm at our first of many meetings, often to discuss Common Ground. Holland was selling wares fresh from the baker’s oven he had installed back-stage to help finance the theatre revolution he was staging and waging, from his charming clapboard theatre in a forest on Gabriola Island. He called it “No Bells and Whistles.”

“No need to rehearse endlessly or fuss with lights sound and costumes,” he explained. “Theatres are trying to compete with the movies for God’s sake – sit back, chat, eat your popcorn, don’t really get involved. Costs are killing live theatre; no one can afford large casts. We must get back to the ‘gist of the thing,’ the language, good scripts. I’ve got hundreds upstairs for when I need them.” And just as uncharacteristically, he promised the audiences, “Guaranteed to be wonderfully entertaining or your money back!”

He left us with definitive portrayals, such as Lear and Shylock and his award-winning, late-life triumph, Tuesdays With Morrie, a dramatization of Mitch Albom’s bestselling memoir about the wisdom of a dying professor. Some worried that Holland, in his late 80s, lacked the stamina to sustain the rigorous schedule of the 2006 Arts Club production, but he thrived and it was held-over and taken on an extensive tour.

He always had good news to share, including this: “I’ve got a role – National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Family Reunion. My character suffers from flatulence, but I’m only required to make the gestures; the sounds will be added by the technical department, later. It could create a whole new audience for me: 10 to 14-year-olds who like that sort of thing.”

Antony Holland wasn’t granted his final wish: to die – literally – on-stage, but he was performing enthusiastically just days before his final exit in a Nanaimo hospital.

Anthony Holland

Celebration of Life for Antony Holland

Sunday, September 13, 3pm

Unity of Vancouver, 5840 Oak St.

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