In the summer of 1959 I was coming to the end of my third year of my theatre apprenticeship at the Stratford Festival and feeling increasingly nervous about what the future and life held for me once I was kicked out of ‘the nest …’ In those early halcyon days the Artistic Directors Tyrone Guthrie, Michael Langham and the visionary Tom Patterson had established initiatives to bring artists from around the World to bring ‘culture’ and educate the ‘natives.’ After all the small town of Stratford was situated far from great cities, in the middle of corn fields and the area identified itself as “THE PORK CAPITAL OF CANADA.” I might add we were not particularly welcomed by much of an incredulous Citizenry. Nevertheless I have to say it was and remains the home of my heart.
So into that mix of golden lads and lasses, the wafting odorous smell of pig-poop, and the great Stratford Theatre, arrived from Soviet Russia, the director, actor, producer, Nikolay Pavlovich Okhlopkov. Oh yes he was also—I can’t leave this out—the six time recipient of the very, very very prestigious Stalin Award. He was trailed one assumed by the RCMP (The Royal Mounted Canadian Police). Well we were in the middle of the Cold War so you couldn’t be too careful could you? He said he had always wanted to come to Canada because we had similar winters. He described living as a child in Siberia where birds were frozen and fell mid-flight. He was a storyteller. We were transfixed by this silver-haired giant and the actors and Company fell in love with him.
On his last day he asked us to gather on the lawn outside the Theatre where he would conduct a class. We were all invited from Kings and Queens down to the lowly apprentice including ME! I remember it as clearly as yesterday, our last so to speak, meal with him. It was a warm, mellow, blue sky, quiet afternoon. We sat on the grass in front of him. He gave each individual present several words with which to improvise an unspoken story, no more and preferably no less than two minutes. An eternity. When we finished our tasks he critiqued two of the performances. The highest marks went to Irene Worth whose extraordinary Rosalind in As You Like It he had seen the night before. He had been enthralled by her.
Then he turned to me and said, “One day you will be an Actress.”
He left Canada and disappeared back into Russia. He died eight years later at the age of 67. He had given me the golden key to a kingdom where as a child I had always dreamed of living. The Theatre. “One day you will be an Actress.”