Veteran actor takes on new role

Marvin Youden
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After three decades on the stage, actor Bryan Hennessey is tackling a new role at this year's Stephenville Theatre Festival.The St. John's native is co-staring with Mark Bradbury in Staircase, a play by Charles Dyer about an elderly couple reminiscing about their past and future relationship.

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"One of the challenges is in that I had never played a gay character before and so I thought, 'Well, what have I got to lose. I might as well tackle it and see how I do.'"

Apart from that, he sees it as no different from any other role he has played. "You do the research and get to know the character. No matter who he is, the job is still the same."

The play is both funny and sad, he said during a recent interview.

"It is one of those plays that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time."

Mr. Hennessey is also appearing in Proof, the award-winning play by David Auburn. The role is one he has performed previously in St. John's.

"It is interesting to get a chance to do it again and see how you can approach it differently," he said.

While he admits it doesn't present the same challenge as doing it for the first time, it still presents a challenge.

A great experience

This is Mr. Hennessey's fourth season with Stephenville Theatre Festival. His first run was in 1999.

"I really enjoyed myself then and I've enjoyed myself every time since," he said. "The standards have always been very high with good actors and directors, and working here has been a great experience."

Mr. Hennessey came to theatre in mid-life after spending about 20 years as a professional musician playing in bands - including the Wonderful Grand Band, whose debut album is being re-released this summer on compact disc.

His stage career began in 1984 when Mary Walsh asked him to be in a play she was working on, High Steel. He was ready for a new challenge at the time.

"I tell you the truth I was tired of the musician's life," he said. "It was just wearing me out and I was really looking for something new to do and did not know what it was."

As soon as he started working in theatre, he knew it was the right move for him.

"I thought, 'This is what I want to do,' and I never looked back."

With little previous acting experience and no theatre training, Mr. Hennessey looks back at those early years of his career as his education in the field.

"My school was the working stage," he said.

Another memorable role he played was Cat Lover by Janis Spence, in which he played an elderly man with Alzheimer's disease.

"It was a formidable challenge," he said, "much more so than a lot of other acting parts I had had up to that time [1990]. But I did my research and hung around the Alzheimer's wards of the hospital. The role was very exhausting but a really satisfying experience."

Mr. Hennessey did a number of other plays directed by the late Ms. Spence. "I loved working with her because she always brought out the something in me that no other director had done. She gave me opportunities to do things that I had not been asked to do before. It would be safe to say that I did some of my best work for her."

His most significant television work, he said, was Gullages, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series that aired about 15 years ago for two seasons.

"I was working with great actors and a great director, Bill McGillivery, and I loved working for the camera day after day."

He was disappointed when the show was cancelled.

"I would like it to have gone on for another few years."

Changes

During his tenure as a musician, actor, writer and director, Mr. Hennessey has seen a lot of changes in the industry. One of the most significant things is the sizeable coterie of professional theatre personnel that has built up during the past 20 plus years.

"There is no shortage of film crew people in St. John's," he said. "If anything, there are more actors and professional crew people than every before. I just wish there were enough work to keep all of us fully employed year-round."

Mr. Hennessey has directed a number of productions, mainly plays he had written himself.

"As you get older, acting parts become harder to come by and so I have done a fair amount of directing in recent years. But the reality of getting older is that the number of directing jobs become scarce as well."

As to the transition from actor to director, he said the roles are very different. The biggest challenge for an actor is learning the lines and being aware of where he or she is on the stage at all times. A director has to look at all the parts and be aware of how they fit together and where everyone is all of the time.

Being a director gives opportunities to pass on some of the experience an individual has acquired over the years. Mr. Hennessey has worked with much younger actors in his directing projects.

"It is always interesting to see just what they can bring to it. I certainly don't set out to teach anybody but if you are directing actors, there is a certain amount of passing on of experience to them."

His best advice to young actors is to keep on acting.

"Don't give up. The more you work, the better you get."

Organizations: Stephenville Theatre, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Geographic location: St. John's

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