For thousands of years, the theatre has changed opinions, changed lives, changed our perspectives on the world and ourselves. And we make its practitioners — actors — into lions. Into giants. And rightly so.
Brent Carver was one of these lions, one of these giants. It seems strange at first thought, even unreal, that someone from Cranbrook, this little town so far from Broadway, could set out into that world and make such a mark, achieve such heights.
But after all, such genius as was his, rare as it may be, can come from anywhere. What’s for sure is that a talent like that has to make its way out into the world. Brent was certainly recognized for it, and honoured for it, in his lifetime.
Brent passed away in 2020, but it feels like he is with us still — the body of work he created is lasting.
A tribute — “Walk Me To The Corner” — organized by Brent Carver’s family, was held in October at the Key City Theatre, and showcased this remarkable body of work.
A stage actor’s career is more ephemeral, and less accessible to posterity, than, say, cinema, or music. A stage production is not automatically recorded. This fact made the Brent Carver tribute at the Key City Theatre that much more remarkable. Never before has there been presented such a compilation of the actor’s career. A compendium of the work of Brent Carver like never seen before. It was a portrait of the late, great artist, as told through his acting, that spanned genres, media, and decades. Music, comedy, his command of Shakespeare … hundreds of hours of video from sources from all over the world, from every stage of his career, which were compiled, collated, and edited into an hour and a half of sheer magic.
There are also tributes from some of those who worked with him, and were influenced by him — and everybody was. Directors, producers, fellow actors. Messages from friends and colleagues especially recorded for the occasion via zoom.
These included theatre heavyweights like Garth Drabinsky, who spoke of how producers’ and directors’ jaws dropped when Brent went down to Broadway to audition — for the understudy role — in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” The producers changed their casting plans, to make him the lead. Brent, of course, won the Tony Award for that role.
Or Broadway legend Cita Rivera, who appeared in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” with Brent.
A young actor, Krystal Kiran, appeared on stage to speak of Brent’s mentorship and support when they were both in the musical version of “Lord of the Rings.”
Fellow actor Mike Nadajewski, who appeared with Brent in one of Brent’s all-time favourite productions, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”
All of them spoke warmly and movingly of Brent Carver’s humanity, humility, friendliness, humour, and most of all, his astounding, transcendent talent.
Best of all, in my view, was Nora McLellan, who came out to Cranbrook especially for the occasion. A long-time colleague and long-time friend of Brent’s, they were involved in many productions together, and shared many secrets of the theatre world. (McLellan can currently be seen in the series “Son of a Critch”). McLellan told stories of Brent’s humour, camaradrie, and courage, that brought him to life, and made it seem to everyone in the theatre that they knew him well.
Out in the lobby of the Key City Theatre were the physical memorabilia — the legendary awards, the posters, costumes from famous productions, the jacket he wore when he sang the national anthem at the 1993 World Series (Blue Jays vs. Phillies).
Brent Carver was born in Cranbrook in 1951. He graduated from Mount Baker Secondary School in 1969. He studied theatre there, under the instruction of Paul Kershaw (who died earlier this year), another individual, who, like Brent, is responsible for Cranbrook being a theatre town. Brent gave the valedictory address at his graduation — in the form of a Broadway show tune, before going off to UBC to study theatre arts, and launching a career as an actor, that reached heights of international renown with his winning the Tony Award in 1993 — for Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Toronto was Carver’s home for many years, but his roots in Cranbrook were deep. He always said how he appreciated the vibrancy of the local theatrical communities, students and adults. “It’s a vibrant acting community, with lots of passion,” he said. The inspiration of his example is a large reason for this.
Not just Cranbrook, but the whole country was inspired by Brent’s career, which culminated in a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award For Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2014 — a proud moment for Brent’s entire family, but for Cranbrook as well.
And the tribute at the Key City Theatre, Oct. 21, brought this actor from Cranbrook — Canada’s greatest — back to life for all of us, and made us proud of him again.
I had the honour to be involved in the evening. I want to shout out to Frankie Reekie, Vicki Stanley, Jim Cameron, Sarp Kenarci, Brenda Burley, and all the others who put together the tribute to the great Brent Carver.
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The performance of “Casting Off,” an acrobatic trio from Australia, at the Key City Theatre on Nov. 5, was like the Fates, or the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, Grandmother) taking human form as a circus troupe — three generations of women bringing death-defying feats and wisdom to the stage.
Spenser Inwood, as Knit, Sharon Gruenert, as Pearl, and Debra Batton, as Slip (the stage names are knitting terms), combined acrobatics and tumbling, comedy, and spoken word theatre — poetic and political — that examined the experience, the vicissitudes and the expectations and stereotypes of womanhood. It was a performance of startling originality — as a spectator, the text drew you in and expanded your mind; at the same time you were tense with dread as the three of them stacked themselves three high on top of each other, and on chairs, or launched themselves in space, or defied gravity throughout.
At only one hour, the show was short by most standards, but so intense that you really had no sense of time passing.
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These are desperate times we are living in — savage war in the Middle East and Ukraine, soaring inflation, Trump ahead in the polls, an overall mood of despair around the world.
So, when I got around to watching and listening to the new Beatles song, of all things, I was surprised at the message of warmth, hope and love that it seemed to offer. It was like, “the Beatles, now more than ever.”
“Now and Then” is the name of the song. It was written by John Lennon as a demo in 1977. The three surviving Beatles attempted to record it in the ‘90s, but it wasn’t until this year that the technology was available to extract Lennon’s voice from the low-fi cassette he had left (he died in 1980), and also incorporate the parts recorded in the ‘90s by George Harrison, who died in 2001. The Beatles, living and dead, have reunited to tell us, once again, that all we need is love.
You can check out “Now and Then” and various streaming services, and YouTube. What an age we live in.