Donald Harron died over the weekend. I met him and worked with him at a strange turning point in both our lives.
(I get so mad at the predicted text service! The name is Harron, not Harrow.) Ah well. We go on....or back, to 1976.)
I had just moved into Toronto to live, to try to make a living after my husband had died, just recovering from major surgery (five-eighths of my stomach removed for a bleeding ulcer) and very short of energy, funds and hope. Don had just separated from his (second?) wife, Catherine McKinnon, the singer. He was very unhappy, and had taken on an acting assignment new to him, for all his experience. He had agreed to star in a new Theatre Pase Muraille production, The Horsburgh Scandal. It was new to me, too.
I had been researching the life and career of the reverend Russell Horsburgh, the United Church minister who had been arrested, tried and convicted on some 27 counts of contributing to juvenile delinquency in his church. He actually served time (90 days) in the Kingston prison until he was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Canada, because he had been convicted on the uncorroborated evident of juveniles.
Theatre Passe Muraille, as you may or may not remember, was making waves with its new, award-wining approach to play production. It was called collective theatre: a company of actors would set out to collect information and scenes connected with their subject material, and come back and present what they had learned. No one had a role assigned; each actor had to earn his or her spot, playing a character he more or less "created." Improv was the action of the hour. I actually chose the theatre because Horsburgh seemed to be such a chameleon. I thought PM's approach would capture the man in all his unpredictable variety. It did, too.
What was new to me and new to Don Harron has to do with PM's method. They would not allow me to write a script. I gave them research information and facts but they wanted to "do" the people themselves. No paper. And Donald was not given a script to work with. He was accustomed to ad lib but not improv. No script?? Pretty terrifying. So we were both struggling.
Every day the company gathered and played and it was fun and we laughed a lot. but no one had any idea what to do, where to go with the material, though we knew that the poor man had to face a trial by the end of the play. I'll get into that some other time. Right now, it's Don Harron I'm concerned with. He was floundering and so was I. We were both graceful about it. He was always polite and patient and he kept on making jokes. He had a quicksilver associative mind given to puns and word play. Someone was talking about Christopher Fry, the playwright. I guess a Fry play was on in Toronto. Anyway, Don said, "I haven't seen him too frequent," referring, of course, to another of Fry's plays, "A Phoenix Too Frequent". I looked around at blank faces. I said to Don quietly, "No one got it." He said,"You did."
The quick mind and the constant need for an audience are, I think characteristic of a born entertainer. I've seen those traits manifested in other players. Jerry Lewis and Robin Williams come to mind, and oh, Victor Borge. Perhaps that gives us an insight into what drove Don Harron.
He had enormous energy but along with that, he could let go, and relax at will. I was short on energy at that time, still not very strong with my remaining stomach unable to take on much sustenance. (Don took me for lunch once day and commented on the minuscule amount of food I ate, saying that I was a "very cheap date."). But after the group lunches each day, both of us would sneak back to the rehearsal hall and flake out for 15 to 20 minutes, to tap into a reserve of energy somewhere. I can still do that: cross my arms across my chest like the Lily Maid of Astolat and snooze. It's a talent worth cultivating. We played out of town on our way to opening night in Toronto. I remember in Waterloo, Ontario, we each, unnoticed by each other and the others, crept into the theatre before the doors opened and disappeared. I lay down on the floor in a row between seats, and slept for 15 minutes. Don did too, in some other aisle - we only discovered each other when we rose like Venus from the seats. Apparently he did this, too, anywhere he toured. He had a driver and he could sleep in a car or van or anywhere.
At one time Don actually suggested that we take the play elsewhere, do something more with it - not sure what - a movie? But it was not to be. Shortly after the play opened in Toronto, Catherine returned to him and they were reconciled. So The Horsburgh Scandal was an interlude in his life, and it was the beginning of my post-mortem career.
God rest his soul.