Often heralded as a “theatrical force” and “an icon in the London theatre community,” award-winning director John Gerry is quick to wave off his contributions to the local arts scene.
“It’s like summer camp. It’s just a job,” he said. The Western alumnus and former staff member’s reaction is typical of his self-deprecating style, and the approach he takes to his work.
“The director has to be the least important person in the rehearsal hall – just part of the team.”
Despite Gerry’s desire to remain behind the scenes, he’ll be in the spotlight May 1, when Music Theatre Productions (MTP) opens Show Off: 30 Years of Musical Theatre, a dinner-theatre cabaret running until May 4 at The Wave.
Gerry will be presented with a Lifetime Membership Award for his dedication and vision in founding MTP, which started as London Musical Theatre 30 years and 75 productions ago.
“I am truly honoured,” he said. “I don’t think I deserve it. It’s pretty easy to pick up the phone and get people over to your house, let them drink your beer and then have them do all the work in creating a company.”
Turns out there was a little more to it – and a lot more required of Gerry.
Aware of funding available to support a local arts project, and recognizing an unfilled niche in London’s theatre realm, Gerry rounded up a passionate and talented troupe, including Art Fidler, Don Fleckser and Stephen and Deborah Mitchell. They quickly laid plans to form the first community theatre organization dedicated to producing Broadway-style musicals.
“We were smart enough to invite local business people with connections to the London theatre circle, including Art Ender, Alec Richmond, Roger McCauley and Noreen Shane,” Gerry said. “And Art had us all over to London Life for our first big meeting.”
Gerry made a stop at The Ceeps beforehand, prompting nature to call at a most inopportune time.
“I had to leave the room and came back to discover they voted me president of the board, and while they were at it, they had me directing the first show.”
The company premiered with Evita in 1988, with Gerry directing Elaine Overholt, BMus’75, one of North America’s most respected vocal coaches.
With a reputation for excellence and bringing the best out of his performers, it’s not surprising Gerry attracts top talent.
He’s always had a passion for theatre, acting throughout elementary and high school, crediting mentors – be it teachers or others through London Little Theatre – for encouraging him, and making suggestions to help him improve.
In 1978, a year after graduating from Western, Gerry was hired to direct Cabaret for the University’s Purple Patches theatre company.
“It was terrible,” Gerry said of his directing debut. “Wesanne McKellar, in the faculty of music, god bless her, she took me under her wing and got me through it.”
He continued, “I was lucky when I went to Western. I thought about law. Or teaching. I had come out of the system going through summer camp, working with kids. I enjoyed it. I also thought I could go into acting. I ended up taking general arts and science first year and then decided to go with Phys. Ed. They call it Kinesiology today – I can’t even spell it. I’d never get in now.”
After Evita, Gerry returned in the second season to act in 42nd Street before co-producing Music Man the following year.
He had to step away and give up his role on the board when his job in Western’s liaison services became more demanding, but was never far away from the stage for long.
He started Fountainhead Theatre in 1999 and today is the artistic director of Calithumpian Theatre Collective, a company he formed with his wife, Evelyn Graham, executive director.
They are currently rehearsing Angels of America, an ambitious two-part, eight-hour production largely about the impact of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. With younger cast members unfamiliar with the devastating loss and hopelessness of the time, Gerry said it’s his job to help them understand the weight of the time with words.
“I was taught at an early age, ‘Text is bible.’ You have to glean from it what you are doing and work with actors to understand what they are saying and why. I just try to get them in a comfortable zone.”
It’s a method that works, said Nicole Newell, current MTP member and part of the cast of Calithumpian’s award-winning production Fun Home. “John demands a lot from his actors – focus, respect, teamwork, bravery, the list goes on. But whatever is asked, he returns tenfold,” she said. “He creates a safe space to explore characters and discuss different points of view. He also makes you rehearse – a lot. But that’s why his shows are of such high quality.”
As a past winner of the prestigious Chris Doty Award for his contributions to theatre in London, Gerry also knows how to connect with his audiences.
“We have no control what an audience thinks. They are entitled to their opinion and we can’t worry about that.” At the same time, he adds, “You never under estimate your audience. As soon as you think you know more than them, you’re ‘effed,’ and, you’re in the wrong business.”
On receiving the MTP Lifetime Membership Award, Gerry reflected, “We just formed the company because there was a need, we weren’t thinking of any repercussions. I’m 65 and completely different from who I was 30 years ago. I’m at that stage where I just want to be in rehearsal and create.”
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IF YOU GO
SHOW OFF: 30 Years of Musical Theatre plays May 1-4 at The Wave in the University Community Centre. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for dinner, with the show beginning at 8 p.m. Tickets are available in person at the Grand Theatre Box Office, 471 Richmond St., by phone at 519-672-8800, or online at mtplondon.ca. All proceeds benefit Musical Theatre Productions, a not-for-profit organization and registered charity.