The veteran actor Antony Holland has delighted audiences up and down Vancouver Island recently with his performance in Tuesdays With Morrie, first at Nanaimo’s Western Edge Theatre, and then on tour with Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. Holland sat down at his home on Gabriola Island to discuss his life and career with More Living contributor and Western Edge Theatre artistic producer Frank Moher, who reports: “After 50 years in theatre, Antony knows how to hold an audience, whether it’s 500 people or just one. So, if you’re smart, you don’t interview him in the usual way. You just turn on your tape recorder, and listen . . .”
ENGLAND AND EGYPT
“I was born on the 28th of March, 1920 in Tiverton, Dorset, England. I loved acting in school, it was my favourite thing. And when I was 18 or 19 I went to drama school, the Labour Stage drama school in London, a few yards away from where Shakespeare’s original theatre was. I had won a scholarship to RADA, the Royal Academy, but it only carried the fee, and no maintenance. So all of a sudden this socialist type of thing surfaced where you paid according to your income, and you also went five nights a week for three hours a night. So I did that so I could do a day job and pay my way through.
“But then the Second World War interrupted. I was put into Signals because they said, ‘If you’re an actor, you should be able to communicate.’ And I was waiting around to go for my technical training with nothing to do, so I found an amateur group in the local village where we were. Got some guys together and we put on this play, Night Must Fall, because it had a wonderful leading role for myself.
“When I was transferred to the north of England I did the same thing. And I got this reputation for being able to do this kind of stuff, so my commanding officer said, ‘We’re going on a troop ship soon to Egypt and it’s going to be a long voyage around the Cape. Could you do some stuff on board ship?’ So I did a show a week for six weeks.
“When I got to Egypt, we came upon an opera house that wasn’t being used because we were at war with Italy and the Egyptians had always used Italian opera companies. The director of the opera house was more than keen to have our play, and we shared our box-office with a local charity. It was called “Lady Lampson’s Christmas Stocking Fund,” and her husband was the British ambassador.
‘So on the opening night of the show along comes the British ambassador with his wife, and they ask to see the company. After the pleasantries are over, he says, ‘Of course, you know the Chief, don’t you?” and out from the wings comes the Commander in Chief of the Middle East forces. And he said it would be very good if we could take the play around to some of the camps, and he set up a three month tour of the entire middle east area.
“As soon as I left the army, I sought a professional career, and I was very fortunate in that within a matter of five or six weeks I was offered a job in a little company stationed in a seaside town. And we went out to the all the various little towns and villages every day. Sometimes we’d do one night stands, sometimes we’d do two.
After working as an actor, director and theatre school administrator in England for a number of years, Holland decided in 1957 to move with his young family to Canada. “In England, there’s more rigidity. By then I had been ‘tagged’ as a theatre administrator, not an actor. I had acted twice in seven years. I was tired of the whole situation, so I thought I’d go somewhere where there were no theatres. That was western Canada, where there wasn’t much at the time.
“I brought a tent, because I had seen that there were parks in B.C., and I thought the parks would be like Hyde Park, and we’d just camp in them. But of course they were big wilderness areas. So we lived in Abbotsford, where I had an uncle who gave us accommodation.
“I got a job driving a taxi in Port Moody. Then, by sheer accident, I saw an ad for the Haney Correctional Institution. They wanted somebody with expertise in drama to be part of the social program. Fortunately, the business manager was an Englishman, and the personnel manager happened to be David Barrett, before he became a politician and the Premier. And he said to the business manager, ‘Hey this guy says he’s done something at something called the Old Vic. What’s that?’ And the guy replies that that’s one of the most important things in England, and so I was hired.
“And then, again by accident, somebody pushed a newspaper through my mailbox that said they were starting a new college and they wanted to start a drama program. So I got that job, and that was what started Studio 58. [Editors’ note: Studio 58 at Langara College has evolved into one of the nation’s most respected theatre training schools.]
“I started to work as an actor again pretty early on when Joy Coghill [another B.C. theatre pioneer] asked me to participate in some of her stuff. At that time I wasn’t an Equity [union] actor in Canada, I was in England but not here, so I was expected to do this for free. I wanted to get out of it as best I could, so when an opportunity came for me to work with an Equity company, which was at the Arts Club, I took it. And then I was able to go back and say, “Well, unfortunately, I’m Equity, so I can’t work for you.’ But it got me started.
“My first big feature film, though I only had a small part in it, was McCabe and Mrs. Miller, directed by Robert Altman. Altman was so opposite to the star, Warren Beatty. Altman liked to improvise and shoot it and get it. Beatty, who was also executive producer, insisted on many, many takes. And I had one scene where I had to listen to some awful story that he told. Now I actually couldn’t see the point of the story, but because of Warren Beatty, we did 20 fucking takes. And my character was supposed to be displeased with him anyway, so Altman used that. You can see it in the movie, me grimacing. That’s real.
“And I told you about Katherine Hepburn. No? Well, this was another movie, and I only had this one scene to do with her, and I was standing outside her dressing room, and I suddenly panicked. I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ I mean, this woman, I had her picture on my wall when I was 12 years of age.
“And just at that moment she comes out of the dressing room, and she says, ‘Would you mind running lines with me?’ So we ran lines twice, and I felt much more relaxed. So then we rehearsed the scene, and she said to the director ‘George, do you think he could bring me in instead of just sitting behind the desk?’ So we extended the scene a wee bit. And then she said, ‘What do you think of the dialogue?’ and I said I wanted to change one of the words, but the writer didn’t agree. And she said, ‘Well, what did you want to say?” and I told her and she said ‘Oh, that’s much better.’ So she got the line changed.
“And then we were waiting to shoot and she leaned across the desk and she says, ‘Look, I know what you’re doing here, I know what the character’s feeling, but don’t you think he might try to hide the feeling?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ So it ended up that she extended the scene, she got the line changed the way I wanted it, and gave me an acting lesson. All in the space of half an hour!
“I came to Gabriola 16 years ago. There was a building on the property that had been an upholstery workshop, and at first I didn’t know what to do with it. I began to do the odd production, but I found it hard to get commitments from actors, especially professional actors, so I switched to doing readings and script-in-hand stagings instead. No lights, no sets. And I became intrigued by the whole thing.
“I saw a play in Vancouver where the actors spoke to the audience, with pin-point lighting and all that stuff. And then the actors brought it here, and they themselves said ‘This is much better,’ because here they could see their audience when they talked to them. And I began to realize that the Elizabethans could see their audience too, because it was in daylight, you know. Nowadays we’re separating the audience all the time, with the lights and so on, and our job as an actor becomes to push through the barrier. But I thought: ‘Why can’t we do it this way more often?’
“And also I’m really pissed-off that writers are being constrained now commercially to present plays that have just one or two characters, because otherwise they’re not going to get a look-in. What we’ve got now is all this money being spent on marketing, and the actors not even being put on the poster, for godsakes. And the two most important ingredients are the writer and the performer, beyond everything. If you don’t have those two good things, then you ain’t got nothing.
“So that’s what I’m playing around with now. And I have hopes for the future. Because I think there are so many possibilities.”