Mr. Campbell was one of the founders of the rightly renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. Long-time readers of this journal may recall that CC and I attended the festival two years ago, and I’ve attended it a couple other times as well. In general, you would be hard-pressed to find higher quality theater anywhere else on this continent, but I will dispense with any further analysis or description of the festival today.
Campbell directed many shows and performed many roles at Stratford over the years, from the festival’s inception in 1953 right up until very recently. Although I never saw him perform, this story still has a very personal angle for me, because I had the pleasure of participating in a 2-day workshop run by him in the late 1980s, and it was one of the most important and memorable moments in my theatrical education.
I’d signed up for the workshop on little more than a whim and the encouragement of my acting teacher at Lansing Community College. I’d never heard of Douglas Campbell but I’d been told that he was a respected Shakespearean actor, so I figured “what the heck.”
We were told to prepare a 2 to 3 minute classical monologue, which we would perform for Mr. Campbell and the group, and which would be the basis of our individual work. I chose the opening speech from Richard III: “Now’s the winter of our discontent…” etc. It was only at the end of the first day that one of my fellow actors gently informed me that this role had been one of Campbell’s most celebrated successes at Stratford. I must admit that if I’d known that going in, I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to use that particular speech. In fairness, though, Campbell’s notes and advice to me were restrained and genuinely helpful; he displayed no trace of ego or proprietorship over that particular role.
The speeches used by the class covered a wide variety of classical roles, from Shakespeare to Greek tragedy to late classical comedy. We were not asked beforehand to write down what speech we were going to do, so Campbell didn’t know what our selections would be until we were standing before the class. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that any time anyone would go up on their lines or get a line wrong, Campbell would immediately correct them off the top of his head! That was my first clue that we were dealing with someone very special.
As invaluable as Campbell’s acting notes were, the greater value of the workshop for me was in his running commentary on his own artistic philosophies. This side of the man came out in a lot of different ways.
At one point, Campbell was discussing a particular Shakespearean speech, and he was going over it line by line, word by word, parsing it for every last clue and innuendo that might be utilized by the actor. I’d heard people analyze Shakespeare by this sort of method before, and I had a question.
“Why is it,” I asked, “that I only hear classical roles being dissected to this level of detail? Why don’t people do this with contemporary plays?”
“Well they ought to!” Campbell’s voice boomed with contempt, and a trace of brogue from his native Scotland began to show itself. The contempt was not directed toward me specifically, but rather to a certain type of actor with which he was obviously quite familiar. “These tools are applicable to any script you’re trying to understand, and if more people would use them, they would craft far better performances!”
I had a few other such exchanges with Mr. Campbell in the course of the workshop, and I was aware that a few of my fellow actors were beginning to frown in my direction. The clear implication was that they felt I should be more respectful of this living legend, and that I shouldn’t be asking for clarifications and justifications. To which I would have said this: Stuff it. I’m not here to genuflect; I’m here to work and I’m here to learn. I mean no disrespect whatsoever in my questions. Quite the contrary; I regard this as a rare opportunity. But if this experience is going to be of value to me, then I must pursue issues as they arise.
It was gratifying to me, I must admit, that Mr. Campbell not only understood my approach but seemed to approve of it as well. At the end of the last day’s workshop, after Campbell had said his goodbyes and dismissed us, his very first action was to make a beeline to me, where we continued to discuss acting and artistic philosophies for several more edifying minutes.
The most lasting message imparted by Campbell during the workshop came during his comments about the state of the Stratford Festival. Campbell was a classical purist when it came to the Festival, and he bemoaned the introduction of contemporary plays and (shudder!) musicals into Stratford’s season. For the record, I don’t share his distaste for these elements at Stratford; their production of Death of a Salesman, for example, was far and away the best and most moving production I’ve seen of it, even outstripping the celebrated Goodman Theatre production of a few years back that cleaned up at the Tony Awards.
But back to Campbell’s comments. He was pushing 70 at the time of this workshop, and he was talking about going off with his actor son and starting up a theater somewhere. He felt that Stratford had followed a certain creative arc and was now increasingly irrelevant artistically. He put it this way, in words that I have quoted and paraphrased many times since: “Sometimes, institutions need to die so that they may be reborn by the hand of a new generation. The people who inherit an institution tend to have a very different attitude towards it than the people who built that institution. The people who create such a thing know that the world can get along well enough without it, so they treasure it in a way that their children cannot appreciate.” He further suggested that we should not bemoan the death of artistic institutions, but rather, view their demise as an opportunity to create something more vibrant.
One might have expected to hear something very different from a person in his position. One might expect him to be very protective of his beloved Stratford, to turn a blind eye towards its flaws, considering that it was his artistic home during the most theatrically productive years of his life. But no; this was a man to whom age was little more than an inconvenience as he kept his gaze turned ever forward, to the next production, the next project, the next theater company. For insights and inspirations such as these, I will always be grateful to Douglas Campbell.