By Diana Tamblyn, March 24, 2023
If you’re a theatregoer in London, Ontario, it’s likely that you have seen a production that Art Fidler has been involved with.
That’s because Fidler has been actively involved in the local theatre community for over 50 years now, in a wide variety of roles, from teacher and educator, to acting, directing, producing, marketing, designing, costuming and even set building and props.
Fidler taught English and Drama at Oakridge secondary school for 34 years, “retired” briefly – then became the Artistic Director of the Original Kids Theatre Company (OKTC) in 1996.
Over the next 18 years, Fidler helped build OKTC up to be the powerhouse it is today, then he “retired” again in 2014.
In 2016-2017, he was Co-Director, Marketing of Calithumpian Theatre Company, whose mission it was to present top- rate, award-winning adult plays that had never been produced before in the London area.
Art Fidler’s Spotlight Theatre
Now, at the sprightly age of 83, Fidler has taken on yet another new role, this time as founder of Spotlight Theatre – a theatre group featuring and produced by senior-aged performers and staff 55+ with a mission of presenting full-scale Broadway musicals.
Silver Spotlight is a new branch of London’s Musical Theatre Productions (which Fidler helped to found in 1988). The first production from the group is “Babes in Arms,” which Fidler is also co-directing with Rick Smith hits is onstage now at the Auburn Stage at the Grand Theatre.
1. Art you’ve had a long and varied career and you’ve been a profound influence on such artists as Tom McCamus (Gemini award-winning Canadian theatre and movie actor and Oakridge grad), Rachel McAdams (Hollywood star of such films as Mean Girls and Dr. Strange and OKTC alumni), Kyle Blair (Stratford and Shaw actor and OKTC grad), Amber Mitchell (star of CBC’s Heartland and OKTC alumni), Alexis Gordon (Stratford and Grand Theatre actor and OKTC alumni), and countless others over the years, how do you feel when you watch these young
people bloom and grow into the world-class professionals they are today?
One of my biggest life pleasures has been following the careers of fine, accomplished performers I knew and worked with when they were young and eager.
Always as I watch them, I see the young person I first knew.
Every one of them had a special quality that illuminates them in my memory, not just a general memory , but specific images of specific moments in which they seem glowing in a spotlight. With Tom McCamus, I still see him in my Drama class production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women as a brutal Greek soldier with his face covered by a nylon stocking.
I never worked directly with Rachel McAdams, but I still remember her, standing in the long-gone outdoor amphitheatre at St. Thomas’s Alma College in an OKTC summer camp production of a collection of classical scenes, and her poise, beauty and astonishing eyes are still alive to me.
So many memories of Kyle Blair, but the one that springs to mind always, is of Kyle showing up to a late rehearsal of Annie Warbucks with his head shaved to play Daddy Warbucks, and I hadn’t even suggested that he should!
Amber Mitchell was just a tiny little girl when she was in my production of The Ragged Child. When I saw her sad little face as she huddled on the floor, abandoned by society, wrapped in an old gray blanket, she became the emblem in my mind, and still does, of all the children marched over by human history.
Alexis Gordon is always in my memory in the Original Kids production of The Pajama Game in the smallish supporting role of Mae, performing the soft shoe duet, I’ll Never Be Jealous Again and being stunned by the warmth and relaxed, playful presence she projected. Her eyes!
Simon and Garfunkel told us to preserve our photographs, and that is what these wonderful artists and a host of others too, have left me as their cherished legacy, mental photographs.
2. And I’m going to cheat and follow this up with a second part of the question.
People tend to focus on “stars” that have come out of London and OKTC, but I really don’t want to discount the hundreds if not thousands of young people who you instilled with a love of theatre, as well, as helped equip them with skills they use in non-theatre-based jobs today.
I have to believe that opening up the hearts and minds of kids to the arts has to have been incredibly rewarding. Can you touch on this, and also, how often do you see your students when you go to see a play not just on the stage but also in the audience?
Working with kids in the arts, and in my chosen profession, theatre, has always been far down the list for me about creating “stars.”
For so many youth I’ve known, drama classes and theatre productions have been where deeper values happen naturally and without being forced, as we all work together to create something beautiful and memorable to hold in our hands and to reach out and offer to our audiences. I’ve always hoped that, later on, they could look back on those youthful mutual efforts, and think, “Boy, we all really gave it all we had! What a time we all had together! What fun! What effort we gave!”
And, you know, I can’t tell you the number of kids, grown up, who’ve told me a very simple thing – how much drama and theatre started their well-earned confidence in speaking in front of others in their personal lives and in their professions.
3. After your two or three retirements, what made you want to start up a brand-new theatre group? And can you also tell us how Silver Spotlights partnership with Musical Theatre Productions (MTP) came to be?
I grew up in a sports family.
My dad pitched baseball professionally but also loved performing. For example, he delighted the nurses in Strathroy at the nurses’ residence annually with his Santa visit and was a mean Elvis too. So sports and theatre were always connected to me, and when I saw the growing split, even antagonism in the teen years between “jocks” and “artsies,” I tried my best to bring them back together.
What I could see was that sports seemed to offer more involvement, competition and that valuable team formation than most local theatre, and “community” theatre was in danger of becoming less about the whole community, and more about younger, trained “triple threats”.
I got thinking about all the Oakridge kids in my big school shows telling me how they came as little elementary school kids to see one, and thinking, “that’s what I want to do when I get to high school,” an exciting vision for the future. And then it struck me! Where is my theatre loving generation’s exciting vision for the future? Is it just to sit in our theatre seats and watch mostly younger people perform for us, or could we do it ourselves and inspire those coming to see us, just as my students had inspired those young kids?
I’ve always loved getting new things started, and one of those things was London Musical Theatre, our own community musical group (now named Musical Theatre Productions, that’s MTP) back in the 80’s with a small group of organizers. We had nothing but the idea, but we made a huge decision right at that first meeting. We determined not to spend time and effort in having meetings about it, but to pick a show, announce it, find money, and put it on.
And so that first production, EVITA sprang to life out of nothing but an idea! And it went crazy! A huge cast assembled out of thin air, and the run sold out in advance in a big theatre well in advance of opening.
So I knew it could be done.
The second LMT show was 42nd Street done in Centennial Hall to packed houses. I got to play the Director character in it, Julian Marsh. I played opposite Stratford Festival star, Deborah Hay, then a high school student at Regina Mundi Catholic High School, and that’s also where I met Rick Smith. I’ve known Rick ever since and admired his vast contribution to the MTP organization. So when I got the idea for a seniors’ theatre company, I went to Rick, recently having entered his senior years, and proposed my idea as a wing of MTP. And the iron was in the fire!
4. I’ve heard you quoted as saying that “Musical comedy” are the two most glorious words in the English language. What is it about the musical that you love so much, and what made you want to focus solely on musicals for Silver Spotlight Theatre?
That quotation “Musical Comedy, the two most glorious words in the English language,” is spoken by Julian Marsh in 42nd Street, and every time I uttered them, I could feel a warmth in my chest, and so they’ve become a mantra to me.
So, in forming a seniors’ company, there was my message to myself!
And one of the things I love best about good old musical comedies is the cast size, and the need for multiple backstage people. I even managed to have casts of over 150 in some of my high school shows. The Ensemble is so important to musical comedy, and the Ensemble has such important and significant things to do in big shows, far more cast and crew accessibility than straight dramas and comedies. And what a thrill for amateur theatre people to have a chance to GO BIG and for their audiences to share in the excitement that going big displays. And so Silver Spotlight was born as an idea.
5. The first production from Silver Spotlight is “Babes in Arms,” and it already seems like it’s a massive success as all performances are already sold out! What made you select “Babes in Arms” as the first show from Silver Spotlight?
The idea of doing Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Babes in Arms was just more luck that fell from the sky.
For a long time, I’ve been interested in vintage musicals, rarely done anymore, considered old-fashioned and irrelevant to our more ‘sophisticated’ tastes, and Babes was one of them. But when I read it, I realized that preconception was a misconception, and some of these old shows like Babes were packed with value and even relevance (as well as great songs), without being in any way dour. Why, when Babes opened on Broadway, it had a cast of 50.
While Rick and I were talking one day, I mentioned it and said a few things about it. Rick said,” Let’s do it!” I replied, “OK! And we can co-direct!” So there you go!
As it turned out, the choice of a musical with characters who are almost all under 21 was a perfect choice, for a simple reason. We all have a kid inside, and there ready to emerge for a brave bunch of people, experienced or not, in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and giving them a chance to think, Let’s show “em”!
EITHER / OR
From each pair below, pick one and explain why briefly with no more than two sentences:
1) “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Pirates of Penzance?”
Pirates of Penzance.
Gilbert and Sullivan started my love of performing when I was in HMS Pinafore in Grade 9 in 1953. And, huge busy ensembles!
2) Paper book or ebook?
I’m now a Kindle guy!
Easy carry. Lights up in the dark.
3) Ketchup or salsa?
Gotta say Ketchup.
I go back to when it was “Catsup”! Who remembers that? As Stompin’ Tom put it, “Ketchup loves potatoes.”
4) “Dick Van Dyke Show” or “Mary Tyler Moore show?”
I would never presume to make a choice between two perfect sit-coms like these. And the brilliant casts in both of them.
Babes in Arms
Auburn Stage at the Grand Theatre
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Book by Rodgers & Hart, Adapted by John Guare
Co-Directed by Art Fidler with Rick Smith
Produced by Kelly Holbrough
Music Direction by Janis Wallace
Show runs through April 2, 2023
All performances are completely SOLD OUT
Details and poster: https://www.grandtheatre.com/event/babes-arms
What did you think?
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