Guy Bannerman takes delight in chatting with the people he meets when he’s getting groceries in Valu-mart.
He appreciates, likely more than they’ll ever know, his neighbours who are also friends, and the lasting friendships he and his wife Marian made when their daughters, now adults, were in nursery school.
He is grateful, but also surprised in a wonderful sort of way, to have lived in the same house in the same neighbourhood since 1997, longer than he ever dreamed possible. He is aso grateful to be part of a community that is larger than the community of the theatre, that is about more than showing up for 50 years of performances on stages across the country.
Bannerman has been acting since he was 12, and was accustomed to feeling “like a bit of an outlaw” as a young man. But he has always believed in the importance of education, and earned a master’s degree, assuming acting might not be a full-time job. He recalls a conversation with a friend whose ambition was to work for a theatre group in a town like Niagara-on-the-Lake, while he thought he might end up as a teacher. His friend, he says, is the teacher, and Bannerman has spent three decades, with more than 4,000 appearances, on local stages for the Shaw Festival Theatre. At the same time he was building a life for himself and his family he didn’t ever dare to hope he would have.
For such a content family man, when he takes to the stage this season, it will be at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre for his role in a premier for the Foster Festival, one that will challenge his acting skills. He plays a husband and father with an abrasive personality that drives his wife from him and damages his relationship with his son.
What suits him perfectly is playing a character of an appropriate age — at 73, Bannerman is portraying a 68-year-old over a five-year time span, ending, coincidentally, he says, when he’s 73.
“All I’ll have to do is remember what it was like to be 68,” he jokes.
The play is The Writer, and Bannerman’s character is renowned playwright Donald Wellner, who has a difficult, complex relationship with his son Blake, a travel writer. The father can’t let his son forget his success, and measured against it, his son falls short.
“He is very disparaging of his son’s efforts,” says Bannerman, and in his self-aggrandizement is disappointed with his offspring’s lacklustre career.
As many performances as Bannerman has behind him, and as many plays as Norm Foster has written, the Shaw ensemble member has never performed in a Foster play.
“I’ve met him socially,” he says, “but I’ve never been in a rehearsal with him.”
He can imagine, he says, sitting down with the writer of 60 plays to discover some biographic details and decipher whether there is a speck of Foster in Wellner. “I’d like to ask him a few pointed questions, and get details. This is a luxury for me to have the opportunity to sit with a playwright and have that conversation. It might provide some clues as to the depth of the character.”
Although on the surface The Writer seems to be made of serious stuff, it will have Foster’s trademark “humour with heart,” says Bannerman.
“If it’s Norm Foster, it will be entertaining. He’s known for one-liner after one-liner.”
And while that might seem incongruous given the nature of the father’s treatment of his son, which Bannerman says is harsh to the point of being uncomfortable, “it’s our job as performers to humanize the situation.”
His job also, he adds, involves looking at why the father feels the abusive language he uses as a parent is necessary, in an effort to make him believable.
It’s possible, as Norm Foster progresses as a playwright, he is looking for more depth in his characters, and responding with humour to the life crises they encounter, says Bannerman.
“Jokes can make light of dark, an uncomfortable situation more comfortable. This is life scripted. All the things we wish could be said, are said — that’s the point of a play, especially when the character doesn’t have as much self-knowledge as he thinks he does. My job is to get beneath the surface to see what happens when that character is alone in the dark.”
While Bannerman is known locally for his work with the Shaw, he has had a varied career on stages across the country, and is delighted to have the Foster Festival offering interesting roles in his own backyard. He also lectures with Shaw colleague Sharry Flett, offering a course for Queens University students in its School of Drama and Music, specializing in Victorian costumes and customs. It’s a subject they’ve taught to several theatre groups in varying formats, including at the Shaw, and is just one more opportunity that has allowed Bannerman to stay close to the community that has become home.
He recalls the move to Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1997, then working for the Shaw while living in Toronto. Deciding to buy a house was a daring move for an actor, who never knows where his next play is coming from. Shortly after settling on a little street considered a part of the Chautauqua neighbourhood, steps from the lake, there was a flood in the basement of their home. Neighbours pitched in to help as the water rose — including one man who was riding by on his bicycle, and seeing what was happening, leaned his bike against a tree and pitched in.
Neighbour and NOTL native Hope Bradley, looking out her window, saw the water rising in the hollow, and called to Bannerman to bring his family to her house.
“This is the longest I’ve every lived anywhere, through marriage, babies, and kids who have grown up here — it’s a real advantage, to be able to grow up in a community like this,” he says.
“People are saying the town is changing, but people were saying that in the 80s. Is it really changing?”
Bannerman makes sure he is part of the community — he volunteers with Wine and Words at the library, meeting authors and dining with them before introducing them to their audience. He never misses an opportunity to go into schools to read stories to the students — listening to him read Roch Carrier’s Hockey Sweater is an experience they’ll not likely forget — and is ready and willing to speak any time he’s asked. “Anything I can do to give back is very, very satisfying,” he says.
Marian is now a program manager with the Niagara Region. Their daughters are 24 and 28, have left the nest but know their rooms are waiting for them at the family home, and Bannerman is reaping the benefits of technology — if he wants to audition, he can “self-tape” and send it in, and has been cast that way from a distance, without the need of a trip to Toronto.
He and Marian are both drawn to the water, he says — they love hearing the sound of lake waves on the nearby shore at night, and spending time with friends and neighbours, some of whom “have roamed the world and chosen this place as their home.” They make for interesting dinner conversation, he says, but more than that, “they’re people who know how to make things work and who help to make this town a better place.”
When he first came to NOTL to work in the theatre, he says, “what I never expected was that we would discover it was such a caring and supportive community to raise our family. It’s really been a miracle for us, and for other families of Niagara artists as well. And the work opportunities keep expanding, especially with the founding of the Foster Festival.”
The Foster Festival runs from June 19 until Aug. 17. The Writer premiers June 19 and is on stage until July 5 followed by Hilda’s Yard, July 10 until July 26, and then another premier, Beside Myself, a musical by Norm Foster and Steve Thomas, July 31 until Aug. 17.