Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
John Neville was remembered by friends and family Sunday morning as a practical artistic director, but also as a bold and innovative leader who wasn’t afraid to take a risk.
It was the late stage and film star’s strong convictions, no matter how many eyebrows he raised with his artistic and commercial decisions, that would lead each of the theatres he directed to flourish under his care.
In his first season at the helm of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1984, Neville staged three of Shakespeare’s last romances – a tremendous box office risk at the time. He would also bring other lessen known classics to the stage like Titus Andronicus, The Shoemaker’s Holiday and The Changeling.
He mounted matching productions of plays that had characters in common, twinning Hamlet with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Henry VIII with Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.
And in 1986, he staged the first musical to ever be performed in the company’s marquee venue, the Festival Theatre.
“John was ahead of the curve on this,” said Des McAnuff, the Festival’s present artistic director, at Sunday’s memorial, held in the same theatre where Neville broke new ground 26 years ago.
“The musical was just beginning to be recognized as a legitimate and important part of the classical repertoire. That John had the vision and the gumption to take that daring step in the face of no small opposition is something for which he deserves great credit.”
Neville died this past November at age 86. He had suffered with Alzheimer’s in his later years.
Neville’s grandson, Sam Dinicol, remembers his grandfather as an unapologetic defender of ordinary people who never forgot his working class roots in northwest England.
For instance, he instituted free performances in Halifax for taxi drivers and their families, “a move that proved a prude marketing technique as well, as cabbies would talk up shows they like to their passengers,” noted Dinicol, who noted Neville brought the same philosophy to Stratford.
In his four years in Stratford he returned the company to profit, which he achieved in contradictory fashions, reigning in spending while making bold artistic decisions.
He had the same positive impact on the Neptune Theatre in Halifax during his tenure from 1978-83, eliminating the company’s deficit and doubling its subscription base.
He was also the artistic director of the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton from 1973-78, overseeing the opening of its new complex.
McAnuff said he regarded Neville, along with the late Michael Langham, the Festival’s artistic director from 1956-67, as a significant role model, a man who was never distracted by the stinging criticism that comes with the position.
“John stayed focused on the big picture, his vision for the Festival, and refused to let the rivalries and grudges that can be so common in the theatre get in the way of that vision.”
Neville’s position as a leader in the theatrical community was solidified by his steadfast belief in the importance of nurturing young actors.
Among the fresh faces Neville brought to Stratford were Antoni Cimolino, who next season will follow in Neville’s footsteps becoming the Festival’s new artistic director, and Festival stalwart Lucy Peacock.
Dame Judy Dench, who worked with Neville as a young actress in the 1957 production of Hamlet at the Old Vic in London, said Neville had been an “extraordinary influence” on her career and many other’s.
“John taught us all how to behave. How to show up on time, do your homework, don’t waste another actor’s time during rehearsal,” she said in an audio recording.
“It’s very rare that you get somebody who leads a company and plays all the main parts who has the time for everybody else – but John did.”
Dench added she has tried over the years to impart what she learned from Neville onto other young actors.
“His legacy is very much that a lot of young actors and actresses have benefited from what he taught all of us.”
Similar sentiment was shared by actor Eric McCormack, who worked with Neville in all four of the director’s years at the Festival.
He said nobody was more encouraging – and whose encouragement meant more to him – than Neville.
“I can honestly say he nurtured a self confidence that carried me through the next 20-25 years of my life.”
Sunday’s memorial concluded with a performance of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah by actors Lucy Peacock and Ted Dykstra.
Neville’s wife of 62 years, Caroline, said it was her husband’s favourite tune from the Canadian artist.
“If he’s anywhere around he’ll be singing,” she said.
Neville’s contributions to the arts in Stratford will forever been remembered. This past Canada Day his family was presented with a bronze star from the city.
The plaque will be placed on the sidewalk in front of the Keystone Alley Café on Brunswick Street, a restaurant where Neville celebrated his 80th birthday with friends and family, and just across the street from the stage door of the Festival’s Studio Theatre.