Festival Artistic Directors, theatre veteran pay tribute to David Fox
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
David Fox, a legend of Canadian theatre and a veteran of the Blyth Festival and theatre in Huron County, died in Toronto late last week after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 80.
Fox had a history with Huron County that reached back to the early 1970s when he was part of Paul Thompson’s group of Theatre Passe Muraille artists who travelled to Goderich Township to create what would become The Farm Show. That show, according to many, was instrumental in the evolution of Canadian theatre and its success led directly to the creation of the Blyth Festival just a few years later. He would also star in Theatre Passe Muraille’s production of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, another seminal Canadian theatre production.
Fox was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2018 for his contributions to Canadian theatre. In addition, he has won many theatre awards, including a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1999 for his work on Theatre Passe Muraille’s The Drawer Boy and a Sterling Award for his role in The Invention of Poetry at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton.
In Blyth, Fox has performed in some of the Festival’s most revered productions, like Quiet in the Land, Another Season’s Promise and Garrison’s Garage to name a few. He first appeared in a Festival production in 1979, the fifth Festival season, returning in 1980 and 1981.
More recently, Fox was in Blyth in 2014 for St. Anne’s Reel and 2015 in Seeds and Fury, marking his last season with the Festival.
In 2014, when the Festival celebrated its 40th season, Fox shared his most cherished memory of his time at the Festival, which was what he called “livestock management” as an actor in Ted Johns’ He Won’t Come In From The Barn. The play featured live animals on the Memorial Hall stage and, at the end of the night, Fox and the other actors would have to walk them down the street and back to the farm.
He would perform extensively across the country over the course of his career, which spanned nearly a half-century, including the Stratford Festival, the Tarragon Theatre, North Bay’s Watershed Shakespeare Collective at Theatre Passe Muraille and the Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto. Fox also had over 100 film and television credits to his name, including a recurring role on Road to Avonlea.
In a 2015 interview with The Citizen, Fox said he always felt that he had a special relationship with the audience members of the Blyth Festival; the kind that could only be built over decades of being part of the community one summer at a time, especially with farmers. He said that while he didn’t grow up on a farm, he said he felt as though he had been accepted by that community, which likely could be traced back to The Farm Show. In that 2015 interview, Fox said he felt a responsibility in getting the stories of the community right.
“We were there for six weeks and we were going to show them what we’d learned,” he said. “These are their stories, so would they like what they see? The stakes were so high.”
Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt shared his thoughts on the impact Fox had on Canadian theatre over the weekend, when he notified Festival fans of Fox’s passing on social media.
“With his imposing stature, his incisive mind and blown-glass heart, Fox was possessed of the kind of power on-stage that pulled all of us deeper into the dream,” Garratt said. He also detailed creating Death of the Hired Man with Fox and others through improvisation and writing St. Anne’s Reel specifically for Fox and J.D. Nicholsen in 2014.
He added that the Blyth Festival has been blessed to be home to decades of Fox’s “singular” performances. “Fox had an inexhaustible ability to go deeper and richer than any actor I’d met, and the gift of struggling to keep up with him is one I will forever cherish,” Garratt said.
Eric Coates, who served as the Blyth Festival’s artistic director from 2003 to 2013, shared a recollection with The Citizen of working with Fox in the late 1990s.
“During the 1997 season, David was in a public reading of a particularly under-developed script and I was puzzled by the audience’s positive response to the event. The play simply wasn’t strong, but Artistic Director Anne Chislett explained that this was the problem with casting David Fox in a play reading: he was so riveting that people didn’t pay attention to the play, they just basked in his magnetism,” Coates said in an e-mail to The Citizen. “As a teenager, I was inspired by David’s work in The Farm Show to such a degree that I often point to it as the moment that I decided to pursue a career in theatre. And, even once I was established in that career, whenever I was fortunate enough to be in David’s presence, I was humbled, terrified, encouraged and inspired, often all at the same time. A giant in every respect.”
Katherine Kaszas, who served as the Festival’s artistic director from 1984 to 1991, said she remembers Fox as being a gentleman to everyone from his fellow actors to all of the crew members.
In an interview with The Citizen, Kaszas said she looked up to Fox and many of his Theatre Passe Muraille colleagues as gods and hoped to one day aspire to their level.
As an actor, Fox held such a commanding presence on stage, Kaszas said, with charisma and gravitas that it was hard to take your eyes off of him.
As far as her time at the Festival is concerned, Kaszas says her mind goes to when Fox starred in the 1988 Festival production of Bordertown Café. He so embodied the role and produced such a beautiful performance, she said, that that is the role she will always remember Fox playing.
Anne Chislett, one of the three founders of the Festival, its artistic director from 1997 to 2003 and the playwright who penned some of Fox’s most well-known roles, said Fox was eager to learn and the perfect person to bring Huron County life to the stage.
“David Fox was in the original workshop leading to the first production of Quiet in the Land at the Blyth Festival. He was always open and supportive of me as a young writer, and indeed of everyone involved. He eagerly engaged in our research visits with the Amish community and brought back dramatic and relevant insights, which greatly enhanced the final script,” Chislett said in an e-mail to The Citizen. “When Keith Roulston and I were creating Another Season’s Promise, we turned to David to bring Huron County farmer Ken Purves to life. David was so true to the character during that run that a farmer he met on the street reached out to him and attempted to advise and comfort him as if he were really the character he portrayed.”
James Roy, co-founder of the Festival and its first artistic director from 1975 to 1979, said Fox was imposing on stage and “amiable, generous and an excellent storyteller” off of the stage. He called Fox’s death a sad day for Canadian theatre.
“The first time I saw him, he was playing a John Deere tractor in the very first Farm Show presentation in Ray Bird’s barn. Not your typical role and hard to forget,” Roy said of Fox in an e-mail to The Citizen. “I saw him many times on stage and I was never disappointed. He was a mainstay of the Blyth Festival company for a number of years and we all benefited from that, fellow company members and audiences. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Christy in Quiet in the Land with as much power and tragedy as David.”
Roy also praised Fox’s range as an actor, saying he was as at home in collective creations in the early days of Theatre Passe Muraille and George F. Walker plays as he was in American classics and Shakespeare.
He also recalled a story that has become famous among Huron County theatre fans in the days before the creation of the Festival.
“When David was rehearsing 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt with Paul Thompson in the bottom of Memorial Hall... one of the characters he was creating was Colonel Van Egmond, who had walked from his home (in Egmondville) to Toronto to fight with the rebels in the uprising,” Roy said. “David decided that to fully understand the man, he needed to understand what such a long walk entailed. So, he set out one morning from the Brussels area, where he was staying, to walk to rehearsal in Blyth.
“Along the way, a farmer stopped and asked him where he was going. ‘To Blyth,’ said David. ‘Then can I give you a ride?’ said the farmer. ‘Oh no, thank you,’ said David and then explained, in detail, as only an actor rehearsing a character could, how this walk was an important part of him understanding the character of Van Egmond and that he had to do it. The farmer looked a little perplexed, but nodded and drove off. Some time later, David realized that he was walking in the wrong direction.”
Keith Roulston, co-founder of the Blyth Festival and The Citizen, also first came into contact with Fox in the late summer of 1972 when The Farm Show was first performed in Ray Bird’s barn. Roulston had met Fox, Paul Thompson and the rest of the group creating The Farm Show earlier that summer as they were rehearsing.
“The Sunday afternoon performance [of The Farm Show] was not intended to be a preview of the entire show, but simply an outline of what the cast had come up with as a result of the stay in Huron, but the audience of most of the local farmers loved what they saw,” Roulston said in an e-mail to The Citizen. “The play opened in Toronto mostly unchanged. It was a smash hit and Paul took it on a tour that included many locations, including local auction barns and the old exhibition barn at Brussels.”
Among the tour stops was Memorial Hall in Blyth. There, Roulston told Thompson about the theatre and how it had fallen into disrepair. These meetings would lead to the creation of the Festival. Through Thompson, Roy came to know about the theatre in Blyth and, with Chislett and Roulston, would go on to create the Festival.
The Theatre Passe Muraille group would reunite in 1980 when Janet Amos took over as the Festival’s artistic director and the Festival produced Ted Johns’ He Won’t Come In From The Barn. At that time, Roulston became the first-ever full-time general manager, though he noted that neither he nor Amos were paid for the full year at the time.
Roulston would go on to introduce Amos to local artist Jack McLaren of Benmiller, which would eventually bring Fox back to the area to tell McLaren’s story in The House That Jack Built.
“Among David’s iconic roles was his role as Christy in Anne Chislett’s Quiet in the Land, which was first staged by Janet and then toured in Toronto and was produced all around North America. He returned time and time again to the Blyth stage, memorably in Another Season’s Promise, written by Anne Chislett and me,” Roulston said. “I was privileged to know [David] and to write for him.”
Renowned director Miles Potter was a member of the group that created The Farm Show with Paul Thompson, working alongside artists like Fox, Anne Anglin, Ted Johns, Fina MacDonell and Alan Jones. In an e-mail to The Citizen, he said that, in the wake of Fox’s death, he had been thinking of many stories about Fox, most of which he couldn’t tell.
“I’ve been thinking about Fox a lot, of course. I have many stories, most of which I can’t tell, however, in thinking over out 50-year relationship, one particular thing struck me: I’ve acted with and directed a host of actors over the years, and sooner or later they will get mad at you,” Potter said. “It’s kind of normal. But not Fox. Now, he had a reputation for being cantankerous and possibly grumpy, but I can’t recall a single time he got mad at me. Maybe I was lucky, or the fact that I called him Foxy and he called me Milesy made arguing impossible. I will miss him terribly.”
Johns also relayed his memories of working with Fox for nearly 50 years, from the creation of The Farm Show to later Festival productions. In an e-mail to The Citizen, Johns said he had spent hundreds of hours with Fox in rehearsal rooms. Most recently, Johns directed Fox in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which proved to be his final role.
“David was an extremely generous actor on stage. It was said that if you couldn’t act with David, you couldn’t act,” Johns said. “He was very intense in rehearsal, as well as on stage. Raymond Storey (writer/producer of Road to Avonlea and Wind at my Back) said, “Never let David read your play in a workshop. He’ll make it sound so good that it’s only later you’ll see all its many flaws.’”
Johns said that, the week before Fox passed away, he and Amos had invited him over for dinner. Unbeknownst to them, he was already in the hospital at the time and didn’t get the message. Fox’s son Gavin then called Johns, inviting him to see Fox for one last visit, but he would pass away before they could get together.
Alison Lobb, long-time Central Huron councillor, was there when Fox, Thompson and the group created The Farm Show.
“My memories of David Fox will always be tied to the summer of The Farm Show (1972). He arrived along with Paul Thompson and Anne Anglin, Janet Amos, Miles Potter and Ted Johns and my favourite photo of the group has them enjoying lunch on the lawn at the Bird place - sitting on a blanket, as there were no chairs,” Lobb said in an e-mail to The Citizen. “What a summer it was... for all of us! We had never been exposed to actors and they knew nothing about farming. Several of them were currently teachers and this must have been a real stretch for them too... living in an old farmhouse with little or no mod cons. What a pleasure it was to become friends and remain so for decades.
“David’s booming voice, enthusiasm and creativity were captivating. He thrived on the challenges of creating a play about the neighbours who were to become friends. He had an undeniable talent and that summer clearly changed the direction of his life. His talent developed by leaps and bounds and soon we were seeing him regularly on the stage at Blyth and elsewhere. Yet, every time we met, the discussion ended up circling back to those summer memories,” Lobb said. “David will be missed both on stage and among those who considered him a friend. My sincere condolences to his family.”
Fox, named Charles James “David” Fox, lived in Toronto and passed away peacefully on Nov. 13, 2021 at the age of 80. He is survived by his sons Jason of Arthur and Gavin of Toronto, his brother Bob and sister Susan and his grandchildren Liam and Henry.
A private service was set to be held at Graham A. Giddy Funeral Home in Fergus with a public celebration of life to be held at a later date.