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- Mass Appeal in the Stage Write Series at Theatre Aquarius
VIEW Magtazine - June 2000
by Kerry Corrigan
When Mass Appeal opens this Friday, there may be people there to see the actor who starred in the 60’s soap opera cult hit, Dark Shadows. But Jonathon Frid, who made the vampire Barnabas Collins a household word, hopes that his audience will see past that momentary shot of glory, and enjoy the classically-trained actor whose years of study, and performances on stages all over England and North America, make him perfect for the role of Father Tim Farley.
“A highly charged comedy-drama” in Frid’s own words, Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis features a young priest who questions the motives and methods of an older, more traditional priest, who acts as his mentor.
First produced off-Broadway in 1980, directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald, with Milo O’Shea as Father Tim Farley and Eric Roberts playing the young Deacon Dolson, it was later filmed with Jack Lemmon. Now Theatre Aquarius’ assistant artistic director Paul Rivers directs, and Dean Hollin co-stars as the upstart young priest.
“This is a nice little group that we have. Dean is marvelous; he has such a sense of humour,” Frid offers, during a relaxed break from rehearsal in the Player’s Guild upstairs workroom. “We are very much like the characters in this play.”
They had originally hoped to produce the play six years go, that fell through, and then Hollin ended up doing the show last summer without Frid. This new production has a two weekend run at the Studio Theatre in the DuMaurier Centre before moving on to the Stirling Summer Festival.
Although it covers some controversial issues, Frid doesn’t feel it will offend churchgoers. In fact, when Hollin did the show last summer, “there was a group who came over from a seminary across the lake in the States, and they howled!” One such controversy is the issue of women in the priesthood – a debate that still rages today.
I had cheekily opened my interview with Frid by playing a tape of the spooky opening orchestral keening of Dark Shadows, taped off a website devoted to the daytime soap opera which ran from 1967 to 1972. It almost made him jump out of his seat, with such a negative reaction that I immediately apologized for any offense.
It turned out his reaction was more surprise than offense, but he explained that the vampire show which made him famous, and that purportedly inspired Anne Rice to pen her infamous Vampire Chronicles, is not his favourite subject.
Barnabas Collins “is old hat, that was thirty-five years ago!” Echoing sentiments he expressed to his close friend Nancy Kersey who is up from NYC to help him with his lines, and who sits in on the interview to offer back-up in his reminiscences, about the website she has devoted to him, “I’ll cooperate if you won’t belabour Dark Shadows”.
Frid has plenty else in his curricula vitae of which to be proud, from his schooling that included Hillfield-Strathallen and McMaster University, (he headed the dramatic society at McMaster in 1948, the year he graduated) and a number of roles at the Player’s Guild.
Then it was on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England – he “took a wing” at auditioning with hundreds of others and was the only one selected from his group. But Frid found the atmosphere stultifying after a couple of terms, leaving for repertory work in Cornwall, which he describes as “horrendous”, grinning at the adjective. “Boy, you pitched in and did everything,” he recalls. “It’s the best and the worst training you can get.”
He says it wasn’t really fun, and neither was Dark Shadows, with a new show to learn every week. Dark Shadows was a soap opera with a twist, with the darkly tortured vampire Barnabas in the lead. After returning to North America where he enjoyed a varied career on stages throughout the U.S. and Canada, Frid headed to Yale University for a Masters in Directing which, ironically enough, he never really put to use.
Ron Sproat had been a playwriting student at Yale when Frid was there, and he involved Frid in the soap he was writing, filmed in a sound studio in New York City.
“Some people thought it was high camp but I played it very seriously. I played it like it was Hamlet. If you’re going to do it, get into it, do it well.”
“My Reader’s Theatre is what I’m pushing these days,” he admits unabashedly, although since returning to Canada and semi-retirement, he only does two or three shows a year.
In its heyday, though, Frid traveled “all over the United States. I’d get into a rental car and find this damn college in some remote place.” He’d unpack his two black boxes “that looked like they had needles and dead babies in them” but in reality were his lights and props for the evening’s performance. “I’d get somebody at the college to help set up and I’d do my little thing.”
The irony lies in the fact that, just a year earlier, Frid had been touring the largest theatres in America with a block-buster revival of Arsenic and Old Lace that had him and his co-stars, Jean Stapleton, Marion Ross and Larry Storch, feted in the finest hotels and restaurants. “We were treated like princes.” Yet just one year later he’s happily enlisting the help of students to unpack his gear for his traveling readings. But he loved it a lot more, having the opportunity to play diverse characters.
The Story Theatre comprises readings from an assortment of authors, names like Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe, whose The Tell-Tale Heart is one of the few actually spooky bits. Since settling back in his native Ontario, Frid now sells his Story Book Theatre purely as a charity fundraising opportunity.
“I just love a roomful of people, maybe fifteen or twenty. That gives me more satisfaction, to read stories, than to be in a big huge movie house, or a big theatre or television . . .well, I could care less!”
Kersey researched the genealogy of the Frid name, which dates back much further than the Frid’s of Hamilton. All the way back to the 11th century in England, where Frid meant either “freak” or fright”, and the perfect irony of this tickles Jonathon to no end.
“A fridian, or frid for short, is a supernatural creature who lives under rocks, in the highlands in Scotland,” explained Nancy, and she has written a story about Frid’s name that is included in the readings, which are divided into three shows - Fools and Fiends, Shakespearean Odyssey and Fridiculousness.
Interestingly enough, the impetus for the Story Theatre sprang from the Dark Shadows conventions he used to attend. He admits he found the whole thing quite boring. Adoring fans would be drilling him for plot details that Frid couldn’t have answered when the show was current, let alone all those years later.
“Even when I was doing it I didn’t know the plot, and I didn’t care! … Oh for God’s sake, will you let me do something else but answer your dumb questions!” he pleaded. One night, he launched into a reading of Washington Square that just continued, chapter after chapter, until 2:00 in the morning, and the germ of the Story Theatre was born.
Playing the priest in Mass Appeal comes easily to Frid, he’s played them many times before. His role this time reminds him of another, that of Thomas Beckett, in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. The line he remembers could just as easily have been uttered by Father Farley.
“I was doing all the right things, for all the wrong reasons.”
// tie dye