jackie burroughs
I think for most little girls growing up on the East Coast, there is something quite mythic and irresistibly alluring about Avonlea. When I was very small, before I knew the name Lucy Maud Montgomery, every Sunday evening, at 7:30pm just after bath time, I would watch Road to Avonlea while my mother brushed the “tangles” and the “knots” out of my wild mop of curls. The next morning at school my friends and I would discuss the newest escapes of Sara, Felix and Felicity with ardent admiration. As soon as I could read I memorized their names as they were printed across my TV screen. Sarah Polley. Zachary Bennett. Lally Cadeau. Gemma Zamprogna (I could never pronounce Zamprogna, so we were always on a first name basis). Mag Ruffman. Jackie Burroughs. These were my heroes. My celebrities. I was too young to understand that it was significant that this was a Canadian television show, and that these actors that I so passionately idolized and cared about with my whole, small heart, were also Canadian, just like me and that this made a difference. I just knew that they were stars like anyone else I loved on television, Carol Burnett, Betty White, Angela Lansbury, Cricket from The Young and the Restless… they were all just like them.
In hindsight, Hetty King, the stubborn, pompous, traditionalist, strict old schoolmarm, was not an entirely likeable character, but Jackie Burroughs made her the most fascinating one in all of Avonlea. Even at six years old I know that I was riveted by Hetty; Jackie knew how to milk her for comedy, she knew how to be devastatingly vulnerable and she knew how burst out of the television, in a way that I think those trained for the theatre often do, with the power to really communicate and connect passionately with her viewers, as though her performance were really unfolding right before our eyes, and not just a trick of the camera. Jackie had a way of saying everything with just the curl of her lip, the glint in her eye, a hint of a smile, the subtle movement of her hands. She had a way of melting Hetty, like in the Christmas Special Happy Christmas, Miss King, that could reduce an audience to a puddle of tears. She had a way of expressing joy, this childlike exuberance that even as a small girl I remember finding utterly contagious, in a way that most “grownups,” even the ones on TV and in the movies, I think had forgotten how to experience. There was more than a hint of mischievousness in Hetty King, which, from what I have read, must doubtlessly have been inherent in Jackie. Her feistiness always triumphed over her stern facade and I still delight in watching that.
Jackie must have been formidable to watch in the theatre, when she performed at the Stratford Festival under Artistic Director Robin Phillips and in the contemporary theatres of Toronto in the mid 1970s. I recently was mesmerized by this clip from the 1987 Canadian film A Winter Tan in which she played troubled author Maryse Holder; her performance, even in this two minute clip, is one of unmistakable genius and a radical departure from the world of Hetty King.
It is interesting to reflect on the giants of our childhood as it is impossible for me to know exactly how Jackie Burroughs inspired me or specifically shaped the woman that I would become because I was too little to be aware of the impression that Avonlea was leaving on my young soul. I think that ultimately growing up watching Jackie every week, and later every day in reruns, from the time I was five or six until I was eleven was that from the very youngest of ages I was watching performances of the very highest calibre. I came to expect that actors would be formidable, whether they were on my television set, in the movies or on the stage in front of me. While I wouldn’t say these high expectations made me a critic even in elementary school, I did not have twelve year old Kenneth Tynan’s penchant for tirelessly crusading against mediocrity, but I do feel like I have always been attracted toward the people, in all mediums of the arts, who are exceptional and exquisite in their talents. I think that I believe in Canadian artists so passionately because how can you not believe in the community out of which Jackie Burroughs emerged? How can you deny our brilliance as Canadian actors when Jackie Burroughs exists? How can anyone dismiss the concept of the *Canadian star,* which Jackie Burroughs undoubtedly was and deserved to be just that?
I’m not sure how old I was when I learned that Colleen Dewhurst, who played Marilla Cuthbert in the Anne of Green Gables films had passed away in 1991. I must have been quite young, young enough to see anyone over fifty as being liable to die of “old age,” because I remember continually taking quiet comfort in the knowledge that Jackie Burroughs was still alive. I know that I always had an unspoken wish, one I think I felt, but perhaps had never even put it into words even in my own mind, but I know that I wished to someday meet Jackie because I felt like she was important to me. As Hetty King was a teacher, she was my teacher, as she was Sara Stanley’s austere aunt with the heart of gold, so too was she my aunt with a heart of gold. I guess, as Lucy Maud Montgomery would say, I could tell, even at six, that we were kindred spirits. Even as I got older, I kept taking quiet comfort in knowing that Jackie Burroughs was out there… in Toronto somewhere… Jackie Burroughs was there.
My heart cracked when I heard that Jackie had passed away last Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 from gastric cancer at her home here in Toronto, surrounded by her family and friends. She was only seventy-one years old and I know that she will be eternally missed by the film and theatre communities of Canada and by everyone who has ever been touched by her magnificent talent. There is a wonderful article that chronicles Jackie’s fascinating life in The Globe and Mail, which I urge you all to read. She leaves behind her loving family: daughter Zoe Yanovsky and her partner Greg Ball; 2 grandsons Max the Pearl and Henry Zalman; their babba Anna; her brother Gary, his wife Sarah and daughters Josie and Alex along with their children; her goddaughter Maggie. She will be dearly missed by many devoted friends in Canada and in Mexico. A funeral service will be held at 2p.m. on Wednesday, September 29th at the Cathedral Church of St. James on the northeast corner of Church and King Streets in Toronto. All are welcome to attend.
There is a line that Jackie Burroughs spoke as Hetty King on Road to Avonlea, “Now as I gaze out upon those same sparkling waters, I realize that youth is never left behind, just carried always, gently, in the heart.” So much of my youth was spent gazing out at the ocean, standing on red beaches in Prince Edward Island with clean, cold, salt air filling my nostrils and pouring into my lungs, and that period of my life will always be intertwined with my love and belief in Avonlea. So with my childhood tucked up with care, Jackie’s memory and Hetty King, will live on in there in my heart forever. I don’t know what I believe happens after we pass on, but I like to believe in this, “wherever you wander, whatever glorious adventures lie ahead of you, you can rest easy knowing you’ve a place to come home to; the dearest spot on Earth, our Avonlea.”

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An Ode to Canadian Television

sarah polley and pat mastroianni
I grew up watching Canadian television. For me, as a child in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was not making a political statement, nor was I choosing to be patriotic, nor did I know that I was, in my own tiny way, helping to foster and support the careers of hundreds of artists who were enjoying a lucrative acting career working in our country. No, I was just watching the shows that I liked.
When I was very young, I strongly preferred Mr. Dressup (Ernie Coombs) to Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers). It was not because Coombs was Canadian (at least after 1994) and Rogers was American (I had no idea), but because I responded far more ardently to Mr. Dressup’s creativity; his singing and dancing, his theatrical stories, his amazing drawings and of course Casey and Finnegan, as opposed to, what seemed to me to be, Mr. Rogers’ more stoic house of cardigans.
I have vivid memories of Sunday night bath time as a child because I remember having to insure that, as much as I loved playing in the water, I was in and out of the tub before 7:00pm because that was when Road to Avonlea came on, and it would be a temper tantrum travesty in our house if I by chance missed even a moment of Road to Avonlea. All the girls at my school watched this show religiously. How we wanted to be Sara Stanley (Sarah Polley) and to have her charming old fashioned adventures. We idolized Felicity King (Gema Zamprogna), despite the fact that she was kind of snobby, because she was older than we were and had such beautiful grace about her. Lally Cadeau and Cedric Smith became our beloved TV parents of Sunday night whose authority we respected with the sort of solemnity that only grows in the heart of a child. And, even at six or seven years old, I knew that Jackie Burroughs’ magnificent performance as Hetty King would be something I would remember and cherish for the rest of my life.
Of course I knew that Road to Avonlea was set in Canada; my grandparents were born on Prince Edward Island and I loved Anne of Green Gables and Lucy Maud Montgomery and of course I felt a connection to her because I knew that my great grandparents had lived on a farm quite similar, and that my own family had grown up very much alongside the mythical town of Avonlea. But as a child I had no idea that it mattered where a television show was made, and I had no idea that the fact that this one was filmed mostly in Ontario, with actors who were Canadian, was any different than Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, which I also liked, or Who’s The Boss and Growing Pains which I also watched every week. The point is, though, that I could not tell the difference. To me, Road to Avonlea was just as wonderful, just as sophisticated and filled with talent as any other show on television.
As slightly older elementary school students my friends and I discovered Degrassi Jr. High and we quickly found ourselves immersed in pure teenaged drama, while also being confronted with (and educated about) issues of racism, sexism, drugs, alcohol, smoking, sex, homophobia and AIDS. At eight and nine years old I watched Degrassi to be cool, but I remained unaware of the strong impact the show had on shaping the decisions I would make later in life and the sorts of people I would choose as role models as I grew older. Only Full House made a larger impression on me in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, but I held Degrassi’s Caitlin Ryan (Stacie Mistysyn) in every bit as much esteem as Full House’s DJ Tanner (Candace Cameron). Unable to put it into words at the time, I realize now that as a child my goal was to grow up to be as smart, beautiful and full of light and integrity as they were. In hindsight, as maudlin and cheesy as it may seem, I am so grateful that I grew up at a time when there were such wholesome, yet strong and clever female protagonists on television; characters who were continually challenged (ethically, intellectually and physically) in the same way that young girls are challenged in schools all over the world. Of course my friends and I each had crushes on Degrassi’s Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni) with his boyish charm and penchant for mischief and fedoras, and we adored Spike (Amanda Stepto), who seemed the ultimate in cool with her amazing hair and her devotion to baby Emma. When Degrassi Jr. High was rebroadcast in syndication in 2000, my entire tenth grade class watched all the episodes again, relishing in its hilarity, its humanity, and all of its brilliance and terrible fashion choices. We watched it alongside Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and didn’t think twice about it.
I never thought about Canadian television or the “quality” of Canadian television until Canadian television as I knew it was practically extinct. While I was watching Mr. Dressup, Babar, The Big Comfy Couch, The Raccoons, Sharon, Lois and Bram, Road to Avonlea, Degrassi Jr. High and You Can’t Do That On Television it never crossed my mind that these shows should be considered “inferior” because they came from my country and not the home of Hollywood. It would have seemed absurd if someone had said that to me at six years old and it seems just as absurd to me now.
In short; I don’t buy the argument that I hear from the Broadcasting Companies, from the Cable companies, from our government and from every apathetic Canadian citizen who is content to simply absorb what is being fed to him. I don’t believe that Canada is incapable of creating television programming that is just as proficient, just as intellectual, artful, funny, sophisticated and socially relevant as that which is concocted in LA. What is more, I KNOW it isn’t true. Therefore, why should I stand by and watch as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the local and national Canadian broadcasters and the Canadian cable companies sidestep and blatantly ignore the issue that Canadian citizens deserve to have more Canadian content on their televisions, in their communities, in their homes and in their lives.
The truth is that when the CRTC, the Broadcasting Companies, our government and other citizens of Canada choose to pay a small proportion of the cost of American television programs, rely on Hollywood to popularize the shows and reap the rewards from advertisers, they are sending Canadians a message that our art, our culture, our artists, and our voice just DOESN’T MATTER. The fact that we as a country are not outraged by this infuriates me. We are Canadians, and our stories and our unique perspective on the world is essential to this country, and it is about time that we all stood up and asserted the fact that we are proud of who we are, and we are proud of the talented people who live here, the artists, the humanitarians, the athletes, and the local heroes who are championed by local News Stations. The immediate issue may be whether or not we are willing to pay a TV tax for local programming, but the long-term issue needs to be how absurd the immediate issue is. Why are we paying to see Charlottetown while we get New York for free?
Imagine if tomorrow we woke up and all the American broadcasting stations had been taken over by Tokyo. Imagine if the American people were given the option: they could adopt Japanese television as their own, or pay a special fee if they wanted to watch shows created in their own country. How do you think such a situation would be accepted in the Land of the Free? When will Canadians stop tolerating the quiet subjugation of its culture? I say enough is enough. It is time that we DEMAND that the CRTC find a resolution to the “Canadian Content on Television” debate that includes fostering and supporting Canadian television. Someone invested in Road to Avonlea, and Mr. Dressup and Degrassi Jr High. Someone allowed these shows to succeed and to thrive and to take on a life beyond Canada. It is that investment, that belief and faith in Canadian artists that makes all the difference between creating work that is world-class and that which feeds into the under-funded, under-developed, Canadian television stereotype. We have what it takes to compete and thrive in the creation of televised programming, one that can stimulate our economy and provide much needed jobs for thousands of Canadian citizens. We cannot allow this potential to be snuffed out by some lazy broadcasting tycoons who are content to continue to leech off America’s success.
After all, beavers do not leech; they work together, they create, and before long, they build something intricate, sturdy and beautiful that benefits them all. So should we.

Heartfelt Playing in Chester

If you had told me a year ago that in August 2009 I would be reviewing the iconic Canadian theatre superstar Lally Cadeau, I would have accidentally spit my drink in your eye. Lally Cadeau!? The Lally Cadeau?! There aren’t enough exclamation points to adequately describe my exhilaration. I think that Lally Cadeau performing at Chester Playhouse opposite none other than Nigel Bennett (one of my favourite local actors) was the event of the Nova Scotia Summer Theatre season. Truly, if you managed to catch Heart to Heart in its whirlwind two week run, you witnessed a treat.
Of course, I grew up watching Cadeau as she entered my home every Sunday night as Janet King on Road to Avonlea, whose cast, along with that of Anne of Green Gables had a profound effect in the early fostering of my interest in Canadian film, television and theatre. Beyond television, however, Cadeau has had a brilliant career onstage, including nine seasons at the Stratford Festival, and roles across Canada and the United States. Most recently she played Sister Aloysius in Doubt at the Citadel Theatre for which she was nominated for a Sterling Award. I’ve known of Lally Cadeau since I was five years old, and yet I was entirely unprepared for how utterly hysterical she is.
I am of course familiar with Nigel Bennett’s extensive resume, having grown up in Halifax. His portrayal of King Claudius in Linda Moore’s Hamlet at Neptune’s Studio Theatre in 2000 remains my favourite nine years (and a trip to Stratford) later. His outstanding portrayal of Gus in The Dumb Waiter was the best introduction to the work of Harold Pinter a future theatre critic could have asked for. Nigel Bennett is also hysterically funny. Ergo, to put Nigel Bennett and Lally Cadeau in a witty romp through the splendours and perils of modern relationships creates a recipe for an excruciatingly fun time.
Heart to Heart is a light, fun, little Summerstock play written by Felix Medina and it received its North American premiere July 22nd-August 1st at Chester Playhouse in gorgeous Chester, Nova Scotia. Frequently these sorts of frothy bits of theatre leave me craving something more substantial, but I was continually impressed with the wittiness of Medina’s vernacular and the freshness of the characters and relationships he explored in this play. Reminiscent of Shirley Valentine and I Love You, You’re Perfect Now Change, two shows that I have issues with, I found that Heart to Heart had all the nostalgia and charm of the aforementioned and yet a sharper, less stereotyped perspective. The jokes were not tired celebrity stand-up routines, but delightful and unexpected. It was the first time in awhile that my mum and I went to the theatre and were both giggling for the same reason.
Bennett and Cadeau played five pairs embroiled in a heightened moment of their lives: an older couple who met via personal advertisements in the newspaper, an affluent gay man and his secretary desperate for companionship, a married pair of actors in their golden years, siblings on Angela’s third wedding day and a recently divorced couple sharing one last vacation. Medina’s writing provided a sturdy foundation upon which Bennett and Cadeau were able to create these rich, zany characters and to hone hysterical moments of subtle interplay cavorting in their own inspired silliness. And yet, through it all, came the heartwarming truth, the love or at least the potential for love, without becoming too syrupy or melodramatic. Director Mary Lou Martin provided ample space for Bennett and Cadeau to play, while creating a tightly mechanized space out of which these stories could emerge.
Heart to Heart is a play rooted in hope and the strength we find in others when the world, absurd and arbitrary, seems adamant to tear us all to shreds. And after the performance, as the sun streamed across Chester and the flowers shone and the ocean sparkled, the world seemed a little sweeter and I didn’t mind loosing myself in the beauty of it. Sunshine, giggles, and two magnificent performers; what a gift indeed.

Coming soon to Chester Playhouse is Trudeau Stories, running August 5th-8th written and performed by Brooke Johnson. For more information about the Summer Season, including live music and Allen Cole’s critically acclaimed production of Rockbound, please visit this website.