(Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager)
By Shawn DeSouza-Coelho
Nora Polley’s very long tenure as a Stage Manager at the Stratford Festival was a distinguished one. Daughter of Vic Polley, administrative director for the Festival, she certainly had an easier entrée into the organization than many others, but she proved her mettle and deserved all the praise and special honours she eventually received. Polley evidently kept a diary, from which portions are used in this rather peculiar biography. Not strictly an “as told to” book, it presents a challenge to readers who need to persevere through many unnecessary devices and flat passages to reach a few valuable revelations.
After a Prologue in 1969, in which she breathlessly recounts how she fetched coffee for Nathan Cohen during his visit to Trinity College Drama Society, followed by an offer from Jean Gascon to become stage manager, the narrative wobbles and staggers for a long time. Overly generous quotations from Shakespearean scripts (sometimes repeated three times in one fell swoop) with parallel descriptions of technical cues for sound, lighting, and scene changes slow the rhythm. In one instance, the quotations run for the equivalent of six full pages, succeeding in little other than trying a reader’s patience.
There is a great deal of name-dropping (which is, perhaps, inevitable in a long career), but only trivial information as to why many of the dropped names are important. Polley’s capsule comments are frequently restricted to trivial adjectives about looks and coiffure: Leo Ciceri is called a “handsome actor from Montreal”; Barry MacGregor “a handsome British actor with lush black hair”; Rory Feore (brother to Colm) is described as having “short wavy hair and a constant vibration,” though it is not at all clear what he is vibrating to. Often only first names are used, and, for instance, only real theatre fans or scholars can determine who the visiting American actress (simply called Kathleen) was who walked out of a production because she couldn’t cope with Robin Phillips’s way of working. (It was Kathleen Widdoes.)
The narrative is highly idiosyncratic in other ways, exposing the lack of good editing for this book. Sometimes allusions are made to a character in a play without reference to the play’s title. There is also a strong sense of death that lingers as Polley recalls the passing of many family and theatre figures. There is a dramatic instance when Eric Donkin drops dead during a rehearsal, but there is also one strange episode where Leo Ciceri’s death is recounted in the middle of a description of a family turkey dinner, without any family member apparently having second thoughts about pausing over a wing or leg or gravy.
Fortunately, there are nuggets in the book. These are not usually the photos, which are generally too small and indistinct to be of much value to anyone other than an earnest archivist. What is of more interest is that Nora Polley reveals her vulnerabilities and antipathies on and off the job: a failed marriage; the deaths of relatives, friends, and colleagues; her triumph over breast cancer; some special friendships; a distaste for theatre politics (especially as manipulated by John Hirsch, who exacted his revenge against anyone who liked Phillips); her love-hate relationship with actors over their “bullshit political games” (to which I can relate with deep-down sympathy, knowing as I do that the bullshit has a whole lot to do with unjustified egomania); her genuine sentimentality for respected or beloved artistic directors (such as Phillips, David William, John Neville, Richard Monette); and her true feelings (not all positive) about her vocation and the direction of the Festival.
The best parts of the book are the glimpses into the sometimes quixotic, perplexing, unsettling natures of genuine artists. We learn that Maggie Smith wears only custom-made sable fur false eyelashes. We get to spy on Robin Phillips banging on timpani to pace actors or his fiddling with sliders on a dimmer board to set the mood. We also learn how he elicited marvellously spontaneous discoveries from actors in rehearsal. We discover the professional loyalty and consideration of Martha Henry and Seana McKenna who refused to sign new contracts unless Stage Managers had their own issues settled first. We learn yet again of William Hutt’s dry humour, Richard Monette’s early shyness about his body, and John Neville’s first duty as artistic director to rehire company personnel who hadn’t been asked back by Hirsch. Each reader will probably have his or her own favourite moments. Mine include Polley’s shocking discovery of and her pathos for the physical and, perhaps, mental deterioration of Robin Phillips shortly before his death, and, more tenderly, a vignette of Sara Topham reciting lines from Juliet as she sits beside Richard Monette’s grave.
While far from truly coherent, the book is the product of Nora Polley’s love for her vocation. A propos her career, she claims that “If anybody notices you doing your job, you’ve just made a mistake.” Polley is hard on herself for one big mistake she once made years ago, but she missed only two performances as SM all her career, and never through her own fault. She calls herself “stupidly lucky” to have worked with Phillips. She is too modest. The Festival has been stupidly lucky to have had her services for over half a century. And, ultimately, theatre lovers may feel lucky to have a book of some of her cherished memories.