Remembering Robin Phillips

Morris Ertman
July 29, 2015

A giant of the theatre passed away a few days ago. His name was Robin Phillips, and he was a mentor to many, including myself. I’m compelled to share a bit of his story with you - our Rosebud Theatre patrons and friends - because Rosebud in just a few degrees of separation has been influenced by this man who led the Stratford Festival in what has come to be known as the “starlight years”. He also led the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, where I met him.

I was a young Edmonton director and designer when Robin came to Edmonton. Out of the blue, I received a call from the Citadel Theatre. Robin Phillips wanted to see me. He was looking for designers. So, this nervous Alberta-born country boy went to meet one of the English speaking theatre’s most prominent directors. (Robin Phillips just happened to be a designer in his own right as well. I didn’t know that at the time.) The next week, I was offered a significant number of shows at the Citadel, and thus began a working relationship with Robin lasting 8 years or so that informs my work to this day.

I should mention that the year before Robin began as Director-General at the Citadel Theatre, he came to direct two productions. One was Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A young Nathan Schmidt was among the high school audiences that attended. That show was the beginning of Nathan's fascination with the theatre and resulted in his coming to Rosebud to study. Nathan remembers the experience vividly. It mesmerized him.

Robin was a staging genius, moving actors on the stage in astonishing ways. He was an actor’s director, sculpting a world around the performer that wakened them to the moment to moment reality of a given scene. The performances he enabled were natural and electric, driven from deep within. And he was a lover of beauty, willing to break commonly held aesthetic rules to enable it. He was a lover of humanity in all of it’s colours, helping us all to see and help define it from whatever our particular roles in his productions were. He was specific while being open to whatever it is we had to offer. He only required that we offer all that we had. I’m reminded of the story of the loaves and fishes in the New Testament. I’m not claiming that Robin was Jesus, but there was something about the way he took whatever the creative people gathered around him offered, and then multiplied it’s meaning into a totality of expression that could take your breath away.  

And breath was a big part of it. One of my fondest memories of rehearsals was watching Robin stand in the chorus of a given musical, breathing with them, reacting with them - conducting them in the beat by beat breath of a scene, a maestro standing in the midst of them, reacting to the story. I was his scenic designer when he began his foray into opera at The Canadian Opera Company. I watched as he placed his hands on opera singers diaphragms, helping them to discover how to better act a scene by wakening their breath to the story beats in a given aria.

I used to meet him at the beginning and end of each rehearsal day. The mornings before rehearsal were spent placing furniture onto the taped floor in the rehearsal hall, then on the stage - arranging it in ways that would enable actors to perform naturally because the furniture placed them in exactly the right relationship with each other and the audience. The end of the day was just a check-in to see what had transpired in rehearsals that day - a constant reminder that the work we did together was ultimately focused on the performance of the actor as principle story teller. Rehearsal refined the story. If you weren’t connected to rehearsal, you weren’t connected to the core of the event we were collectively trying to create - hence my habit of daily checking in.

Conceptually there was usually little discussion between us. I remember a day when Robin came into the design office at the Citadel and said “Gingerbread”, abruptly turning to leave the room. I said “clapboard”, and then shouted after him. “We’re talking about Music Man, yes?” … Without turning back, the answer ... “Yes darling”. And so concluded our director/designer conversation about The Music Man. In the weeks following, I designed the show and delivered the white paper model to Robin’s secretary. At the end of that day, I collected the model. A note was attached. “Lovely darling”. And so the process that became our production of The Music Man began.

There were, of course discussions that were more involved. I spent a day at Robin’s house in the country outside of Stratford, working through cuts to the designs for Beatrice et Benedict at The Canadian Opera Company. We were over budget, so had to deal with creative restrictions. Somehow, after the initial indignant bluster, Robin was able to live with limitations. He was creatively fluid. He always found a way to be enabled by the realities of limitation.

Sitting at his dining room table that day, I looked up to a shelf holding hand made books of each of his productions. He shared one with me, and it was an astonishingly beautiful account of the inspirations and creative journeys of that production. There were photos of sets, costumes, bits of fabric and more. It was, in a word, beautiful - a striking visual and written memoir of the show.

His house was also an expression of eclectic beauty. It consisted of an architectural extension around an old log cabin - the old incorporated with exquisite taste into the new, all surrounded by flower gardens, immaculately kept by his partner, Joe.

I’ve often pondered why it was that Robin was able to receive what we offered with such openness. I have come to the conclusion that he could stage a show with any set of variables. He saw the beauty in what was, and if it was inspired in some way, he was able to build it into something glorious - like his eclectic house and gardens. It was part of his magic. His aesthetic was so expansive that it could include any number of disparate expressions.

In our production of Royal Hunt of the Sun, he engaged a First Nations artist named Jane Ash Poitras to act as a consultant on the visuals surrounding the production. Robin was enamoured with her paintings, so wanted to open up our understanding of indigenous South American culture by having someone who practiced the spirituality involved in the expression. The conversations she and I had about white exploitation and Incan spirituality created a rich creative cauldron from which the specifics of the designs for the show emerged. Our conversations were wonderfully honest debates about the nature of Christianity and the nature of First Nations spirituality. One of the props created for that show - a sun wheel - adorns my house/office in Rosebud.  

I don’t know how much Robin knew about my faith. It was not something we had time to discuss. There was always a show to get onto the stage. But I remember a wonderfully transparent conversation with him one evening where he described the church in the village he grew up in. With great fondness Robin shared his memory of Easter Sunday mornings, when the church was filled with white lillies. In that moment, I saw in him the wellspring of his love of the theatre. It wasn’t unlike mine. Something in what we were doing on the stage reflected what we had experienced as divine in our growing up. He remembered a rural church filled with white lillies. I remembered spring mornings with a rural congregation gathered on a river bank - all dressed in white - singing the refrain of “Happy Day” with every baptism that brought a sputtering person out of the muddy spring waters of Pipestone Creek in Millet, Alberta. And I believe with all my heart that we shared a common understanding - the belief that our humanity was connected to something inexplicably divine.

Belief is ultimately what fosters great art. That was, and certainly still is my perspective, and it is the perspective expressed so eloquently by Robin in the following short film about his huge contribution to the theatre called Move Your Mind. I share it with you because his voice has been such an inspiration to me and countless other theatre artists across this country. We collectively grieve his loss while trusting that the Divine spark that inspired him holds him for all eternity - like so much starlight …

Move Your Mind:

Remembering Robin Phillips

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Morris Ertman