michael langham (from the guthrie theatre archives)
Once again the Canadian theatre community has suffered a loss with the death of influential director Michael Langham, who passed away, succumbing to a lingering chest infection contracted before Christmas, at his home in Cranbook, Kent, England, on January 15th 2011.
Born in Bridgewater, England on August 22, 1919, Langham went on to study law at Ridley College and the University of London before enlisting in the army in 1939. During World War II, Langham was captured by the Germans and spent five years in a Prisoner of War Camp. Upon his release, his interests had turned toward the theatre and he began running regional theatres in Great Britain, including Coventry (1946-48), Birmingham (1948-50) and Glasgow (1953-54).
He was brought to Canada, and more specifically to the Stratford Festival, by its founding Artistic Director, Tyrone Guthrie, in 1956 and became the Festival’s second Artistic Director. While Guthrie was the inaugural director of the festival, it was his successor, Langham, who is credited with guiding it beyond its humble beginnings as a summer theatre series held in a tent. According to Des McAnuff, Stratford’s current Artistic Director, “Michael Langham was one of the true giants of 20th Century international theatre… while great credit rightfully goes to Tyrone Guthrie as Stratford’s founding artistic father, it is important to recognize Michael as the intellectual architect of this theatre’s artistic policy.” Stratford’s General Director, Antoni Cimolino, echoes these sentiments saying, “For so many of us, for so long, and for the Stratford Festival as a whole, Michael was our father. It was Michael’s vision and attention that enabled Stratford to stand and grow as an institution of international renown.
Indeed, it was Langham who oversaw the building of Stratford’s permanent home, the Festival Theatre, which allowed the company to extend its season beyond the summer months. He also pushed for the purchase and renovation of the festival’s second building, the Avon Theatre, and established the Stratford Music Festival.
Throughout his eleven years as Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, Langham was also instrumental in “discovering” and fostering the talents of performers who have become Canadian theatrical legends in their own right including Kate Reid, Bruno Gerussi, William Hutt, Martha Henry, Christopher Newton, Richard Monette and Christopher Plummer. Of his relationship with Langham Christopher Plummer says, “Michael Langham more than anyone – even Tyron Guthrie – solidified, matured and transformed the Stratford Festival into the finest theatre company in North America. He also gave me, quite literally, my career. Without his talent, taste, intellect and wit, God knows where I might have gone with my life. I owe him buckets for his wisdom, his deep friendship and astonishing loyalty – and so does North America, whose culture he so enriched.” In 1957 Langham directed Plummer in a production of Henry V, which has now become the stuff of Canadian theatre legend.
Langham was also instrumental in founding The National Theatre School of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts. He also served as Artistic Director of California’s La Jolla Playhouse in the 1960s before heading to Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre where he served as Artistic Director from 1971 to 1977. At the Guthrie Theatre, Langham mounted his signature productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Taming of the Shrew and Oedipus, the King. In the Minnesota Theatre History he is remembered for stabilizing a floundering eight year old company. According to Sheila Livingston, a longtime staff member at the Guthrie, “”Michael said he would raise money, and direct Cyrano and Taming of the Shrew and open them one night apart,… and that was a phenomenon, a turning point for the Guthrie that brought it back to what it had been in the beginning.” Under his directorship the Guthrie season was extended to forty-five weeks by 1975, and the touring program grew from small regional productions to national endeavors. A second space was opened, originally called Guthrie 2, and Langham brought in many of the actors and directors who defined that era of the theater — Len Cariou, Helen Carey, Stephen Kanee and Barbara Byrne among them. He directed nineteen shows as Artistic Director before leaving to head the drama department at the Julliard School from 1979-1982. His last production at the Guthrie was A Doll’s House in 1996. (Minneapolis StarTribune Obituary)
John Neville brought Langham back to Stratford to direct in 1983 and his involvement with the festival would be a continuous one until his final production of Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2008, which, fittingly was also the first production that he directed for the company back in 1961. According to Richard Ouzounian of The Toronto Star, “Langham always looked on Stratford as the central experience of his professional life and remarked that ‘When Tony (Guthrie) asked me to come to Stratford, I thought “What am I going to find there? … Well, I found enormous love and creativity.’”
Langham also directed Two Gentleman of Verona (1958), The Broken Jug (1958), Andorra (1963), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968), Saint Joan (1993), Timon of Athens (1993), The Government Inspector (1994), The Molière Comedies (1995) and Waiting in the Wings (1999) on Broadway. British actor and Stratford Festival veteran, Brian Bedford, who was in that acclaimed production of Timon of Athens in 1993 says, “We’ve lost a great man of the theatre. Michael Langham was a great influence on me. He was a meticulous director and was relentless in his pursuit of an interpretation of a play. He put productions together like a sort of mosaic, paying tremendous attention to what we might think of as minutiae. It drove some people crazy but I don’t think I worked with him on a single production that wasn’t a tremendous success.” Langham also directed for the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company in England.
Stratford officials, who had previously honoured Langham by establishing a workshop in classical theatre directing in his name, announced they have dedicated the 2011 season to his memory. The festival will also hold a memorial at a later date.
Mr. Langham is survived by his wife, actress Helen Burns, his son, Christopher, daughter-in-law, Christine, two grandchildren, Emily and Harry, and three grandsons from Christopher’s previous marriage.
Listen here to Christopher Plummer speaking with R.H. Thompson about Michael Langham (from the Canadian Theatre Museum).