The trip from Hamilton to Stratford takes less than two hours, now that the new leg of the 403 is open.
It took Jeffrey Renn and Evan Buliung a tad longer to make it from the stage of the Theatre Aquarius Summer School to the Stratford Festival. Both actors are adamant, however, that it was the training they received at the hands of Lou and Pauline Zamprogna which gave them the discipline and the incentive to make it onto the famous thrust stage with the likes of William Hutt and Martha Henry.
The two actors first met four years ago at a Firecracker Day party in Lou’s kitchen. Sitting in an interview together in the newly renovated offices of the Festival, they now share an easy and friendly camaraderie.
Renn, the older of the two, has established his career both in Ontario and as a founding member of Bard on the Beach, in Vancouver, where he concentrates more on directing. Last year at Stratford he had featured roles in Coriolanus and Taming of the Shrew, and then returned off-season to the Gastown Actor’s Studio, back on the west coast, to direct.
This season, Jeff is Lepidus in Julius Caesar and Justice in Moliere’s comedy The Miser. He is also the darkly conniving Borachio in Much Ado About Nothing, a sumptuous Shakespearean romp that Artistic Director Richard Monette practically turns into a musical.
The actors refer to it as Much Ado About the Boyfriend, as the costumes and set are reminiscent of the musical, The Boyfriend, which played in the Avon a few years back. It has the same Art Deco feel, in opaque columns leaded in black, with substantial faux sculptures and statuary to give a rich artsy feel. Costumes contrast crisp linen summer suits and morning coats with lavish Turkish fabric, with yards of gold and red lame.
Jeff loves all facets of theatre life, including directing and teaching.
“I got into acting because of service. It’s a way to serve my country, and the gods, and it’s a way for me to celebrate life.” He warm-ups with his personal physical regime, borne out of movement classes and Tai Chi.
Evan Buliung, making his Stratford debut in minor parts, is at an earlier stage in his career. He’s philosophical about the supporting roles he plays in Much Ado About Nothing, The Miracle Worker and The Cherry Orchard. “I’m happy doing what I’m doing, having fun. Who could ask for anything more?”
He says it’s great being an apprentice and earning his equity card, understudying, what he calls “soldiering. But I didn’t want to come in here with the opinion that I was beneath anyone else, I’m here working with my peers.”
Originally from Brantford, Evan played Tony in West Side Story for the Theatre Aquarius Summer School, and appeared in Chess, Into the Woods and Jekyll and Hyde. He even graduated to the mainstage to play Louis Loser and Mr. Fox in Jacob Two Two Meets The Hooded Fang. Evan loves musicals but went to George Brown to study acting, to broaden his horizons.
He doesn’t feel he has the patience right now to direct, or enough confidence in his skills to “impose himself” on others. He’ll go a long way to picking up that confidence if he keeps sharing the stage with the Stratford veterans.
And the big names are respectful of the novice actors. Jeff Renn cites Martha Henry in particular as “benevolent” to the careers of others, writing letters to further other actor’s fortunes. In fact, asserts Evan, the “horror stories” about the acting life at Stratford, about the hierarchy, that make the rounds in Toronto are untrue. “The idea that everyone here is disrespectful and mean, and everybody’s sleeping with everybody else, that’s what you hear and it’s not true.”
“Well, the disrespectful and mean part is untrue,” countered Renn, “but not everyone here is celibate, Evan!”
Get on to the subject of Hamilton’s Zamprogna family, and both actors can’t praise enough.
Jeff readily offers, “I owe a lot to him. He’s the guy who recognized the stuff in me that I was afraid of. You know, it’s not easy to be an artist in our society, especially growing up in Hamilton!”
He calls Zamprogna “a brilliant teacher” and credits him and Pauline with recognizing the actor in Jeff. “He made me realize that it was alright to do that.”
Jeff lived with the Zamprognas on-and-off for seven years during his “wayward” youth, as he was kicked out of all the best schools, including Sir Allan McNab, Westdale and HCI. Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for the theatrical couple to help young actors with a roof over their heads.
“Theatre Aquarius is one of Canada’s best kept secrets. People in Hamilton have no idea of the gem that little theatre is, in the middle of that city,” Jeff asserts. “It’s such a resource to the people of Hamilton and I wish they knew what they had there.”
Sums up Evan, “Everyone in this business knows Theatre Aquarius, and knows its reputation.”