30 Years on Alumnus Still Soar

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Billy Bishop Goes to War was first written and performed by alumnus John Gray and Eric Peterson in 1978. Our alumnus are still soaring 30 year later as Billy Bishop wings his way back to Toronto’s Young Centre with Soulpepper Theatre! Creators John Gray and Eric Peterson have returned with the beloved story of the celebrated and irreverent Canadian World War One flying ace.

Photo: Michael Stuparyk - Toronto Star

The play premiered originally at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in Vancouver with Peterson playing 18 different characters, and Gray accompanying him on piano and vocals. This original production toured across Canada, and also was staged in Washington, DC, both on Broadway and off-Broadway in New York City, at the Edinburgh Festival, in Los Angeles and at the Comedy Theatre in London. The libretto was published in 1981 by Talonbooks. The show was produced on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre and afterwards moved to Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The play won the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award in 1981, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award in 1982 and the Governor General’s Award for English Drama in 1983.

In 1998, Gray and Peterson revised the show, presenting events through the eyes of a much older Bishop recalling his wartime exploits. They again toured the new production across Canada. This revised show was produced with the original actors at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre in 2009 and again in 2010 after a second revision was made. Due to the phenomenal success of the show it’s back for the third year in a row as Soulpepper’s entry in Toronto prestigious Lumniato Festival.

Theatre at UBC staged our own highly successful production of the original script a few years back with alumnus Ryan Biel in the Eric Peterson role as “Billy” and John Gray’s son Zachary Gray replacing his father behind the piano and on vocals. [Visit the show site for a look at our handsome production: http://www.theatre.ubc.ca/billy_bishop/index.shtml]

Photo: Tim Matheson

In an interview about the revised version of the script, Eric Peterson stated: “We’ve gone through radical recasting! From a 32 year old to a 62 year old as the actor who’s going to be narrating the show. In a two man play like this, it has incredibly different resonance depending on who’s telling that story. In many cases, we’ve taken some minor rewriting for the production we did when we were 52 and updated them and changed the ending. Now at 62 we’re older than Bishop ever was in the play before.”

We wish these high flyers continued success!

Props to Janet

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Editor’s Note ~ This month’s guest blog post is by our Head of Properties Janet Bickford who is retiring this spring after 19 seasons with Theatre at UBC.

“I got interested in theatre during high school, inspired by a charismatic teacher called Maurice Gibbons.  My other love was writing.  So at UBC in the sixties I did a BA in Theatre and Creative Writing.  Perhaps I’d become a playwright.  Afterward I needed some experience in the business to get me going.  Mustering all my nerve, I applied for the costume job at Holiday Theatre, a children’s theatre group that ran out of the old Metro Shop.”

“There I met Cameron Porteous, a set and costume designer who was to become a big influence on my career.  He convinced me to apply to Wimbledon College of Art in London England for their costume-cutting program.  I was accepted and soon found myself sharing a cramped flat in Camden Town with my boyfriend David, his sister and her boyfriend. David was also going to Art School in London but he decided his program was rubbish and headed to Morocco with a friend from Vancouver.  They didn’t want a woman with them in a Muslim country, so I was left in London where I freaked out. My course hadn’t started yet, so I took what money I had left and returned to Vancouver.”

Photo: Martin Dee

“Broke, I called up Allan Wallis, then production manager at the Vancouver Playhouse, and asked for a job.  He told me he had no openings in the costume department but if I’d work as a props apprentice, he could hire me.  This was a turning point for me. I was working under the late Jack Simon and the designer was my old mentor, Carmeron Porteous.”

“I fell in love with prop making.  Jack was an amazing teacher.  Cameron’s designs were always an inspiration.  When Jack became a fully-fledged designer, I took over as Head of Props at the Vancouver Playhouse.  I have fond memories of my years as a member of the Playhouse team.”

“In 1979, I did the summer Opera Festival at the National Arts Centre and, in 1983, I joined the Playhouse migration to the Shaw Festival, again working with Cameron. But I missed Vancouver and so I returned. From my base in Kitsilano, I branched out into film work as a sculptor in the Construction Department of IATSE and joined All Set Design for the big push toward Expo 86. Here I learned model making skills and some of the tricks of the display trade.”

“After a few years of free-lancing, I found my way to the Freddy Wood in 1992 working with Sherry Milne.  I’ve been here ever since.  It seems fitting to retire after giving something back to my Alma Mater.”

“I’ll never forget being called into Professor John Brockington’s office upon my graduation from the UBC Theatre Program.  ‘You haven’t really distinguished yourself during your time here,’ he said.  ‘ I wouldn’t suggest you go knocking on the door at the Playhouse asking for work.’ Little did he know.”

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