4 min

Douglas Campbell’s love affair

Fifty years of Canadian theatrical accolades

Credit: Capital Xtra files

Douglas Campbell has been involved in the theatre for practically his entire life, and has received numerous awards as an actor and director. But he says receiving the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award on Nov 7 was a special thrill.

“What else could it feel but a great honour?” Campbell says in a telephone interview. “To be named by one’s peers as someone who has done enough in the theatre to warrant such an expression of confidence?”

Recognition is familiar to Campbell, after a love affair with Canadian theatre that has lasted 50 years and counting. In 1997, Campbell also received the Order of Canada.

“When one gets old, as I am now,” Campbell says, “people tend to honour somebody for what they’ve done, before you pass onto the next field of endeavour, wherever that may be.”

Confident, sardonic and outspoken, Campbell recently returned home to Montreal after playing the Voice of God in Noye’s Fludde. Fludde is a church opera, based on the 15th century miracle play about Noah’s Flood, with music by composer Benjamin Britten. This is only one example of Campbell’s work.

“The theatre is my life,” Campbell says. “I’ll do anything that I’m called upon to do. I’m 81 years old, so perhaps I should stop and put my tootsies up.” Campbell laughs heartily.

The love affair with the stage began in Glasgow, Scotland, where Campbell was born on Jun 11, 1922. The young Campbell entered theatre early.

“I was on stage when I was three or four,” recalls Campbell. His mother, a keen amateur actress, thought theatre was a good way for ordinary people to publicize their opinions. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t being cajoled or bullied into going on Sunday.”

As a young man, Campbell tried his hand at painting and, a self-described big, strong lout, he drove trucks and carried heavy weights.

“I was hired to drive a truck in the theatre,” Campbell says. “I was caught, trapped! I never got back to my painting and never got back to anything else. I went into theatre when I was 19 years old and here I am, 81, still at it, trying to find a way out.”

Campbell came to Canada in 1953 at the invitation of Sir William Tyrone Guthrie. Guthrie, a British theatrical actor and director, had worked in Glasgow, Cambridge and London before becoming the founding artistic director of the first Stratford Festival in Ontario. Guthrie’s outstanding 1953 productions included Shakespeare’s Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well.

“Old Guthrie asked me if I would come to Canada,” says Campbell. “I said I would be delighted to do so. And when I got here, I liked it so much, I stayed.”

At the time, Campbell was a leading actor with London’s Old Vic Theatre, which specialized in Shakespearean productions. Canadian theatre, though, was quite different.

“There wasn’t any theatre here!” says Campbell. “That’s why I stayed! I wanted to help to make it.”

He caught the attention of audiences by performing in Guthrie’s Oedipus Rex (1955) and Michael Langham’s celebrated Henry V (1956). Later on, Campbell performed with Guthrie several other times at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where he succeeded Guthrie as artistic director.

Canadian theatre was growing. In 1957, director John Hirsch and Tom Hendry founded Theatre 77, which joined Winnipeg Little Theatre in 1958 and become the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Canada’s first regional theatre. Hirsch was the company’s first artistic director. Other companies started in Calgary and Edmonton.

“They all toured their provinces, but stopped because it was too expensive,” Campbell says. “The provincial or federal governments are not putting nearly enough money into theatre to make it possible. Pitiful that this country, as wealthy as it is, puts so little into the arts – to the painters, musicians. We should have touring arms.”

Campbell did. As artistic director for the Canadian Players, which he founded with Tom Patterson to keep Stratford Festival actors employed during the off-season, Campbell hit the road. The company took professional classical theatre to communities across Canada, giving many up-and-coming actors a chance to develop their craft and build careers. The first tour opened in Ottawa in 1954, with a performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, and visited 23 centres in Ontario, Quebec and New York State.

At Stratford, Campbell became known for more than 50 roles and, later on, interpretations of Falstaff and Lear. Campbell guesses the total number of his personae is higher.

“One hundred and fifty, I think,” says Campbell. “It’s very difficult to count because that doesn’t seem an awful lot when you think of the 60 years it’s taken.”

“There are things that I can’t do anymore. I used to play all kinds of athletic parts, but that part of life is gone now. There’s this old saying – if you can’t carry Cordelia, don’t play King Lear. I don’t think I could carry Cordelia – I should hope she’d be very thin and small. It used be easy, but it isn’t anymore.”

Directing has also brought Campbell recognition, for such works as the Stratford productions of Julius Caesar (1998) and The Alchemist (1999). He starred in CBC Television’s The Great Detective which aired weekly from January 1979 to March 1982. Campbell has worked in Los Angeles and Great Britain and taught at universities and schools across Canada and the United States.

The actor and director has few regrets about his choices in life.

“I’ve enjoyed my life,” Campbell says. “I’ve made sacrifices in that I have not pursued a career that would’ve paid a lot of money. I’ve done the work that I wanted to do, but also had some sense that it was my duty. I didn’t come into the theatre to make money. I came in to serve literature and art, although I did make a living out of it.”

The call of duty continued earlier this month. After a brief respite in Montreal with his wife of 12 years, actress Moira Wylie, Douglas Campbell began rehearsing for the upcoming National Arts Centre production of Hamlet. He plays the first player and gravedigger.


January 8 to 24.

Preview January 7.

Directed by Marti Maradin.

National Arts Centre, 947-7000.