Puttin’ on the Glitz

Date posted: April 5, 2016

Veteran Artistic Director Glynis Leyshon remains one of the brightest stars in the Belfry’s crown

By John Threlfall

If the Belfry had a face, it could well be that of Glynis Leyshon. Indeed, it’s not hard to image Leyshon’s bright, bubbly face looming large over the building like some kind of benevolent theatrical deity as depicted by longtime season artist Grant Leier. And justifiably so, since her involvement goes back before the Belfry even existed as a theatre company, in the days when it was still the Springridge Cultural Centre.

“My very first memory of the Belfry? Naming it!” Leyshon says, breaking into her trademark laugh. ”I was actually in the room when people were kicking around ideas for the name. It was a woman named Gina Hume who said, ‘What about The Belfry—you know, because of the tower?’” She pauses for a beat, displaying the bang-on timing for which she’s known. “Obviously, we all thought that was a great name.”

As well as being one of the less than 10 people in the room for that decision, Leyshon also had a hand in inaugural co-director Don Shipley coming on board, and her husband—Creative BC president Richard Brownsey—was the Belfry’s first general manager. She directed her first professional show here (1978’s Dames at Sea), helped stage the original production of Puttin’ on the Ritz, mounted the 20th anniversary version and is now reviving it 40 later. As an actor, she’s been on the Belfry’s stage numerous times and, with 11 years under her belt, she reigns as the longest-running Artistic Director (to date), beating Roy Surette by a season. Just don’t ask her to name her favourite show. “Oh, no—no, no, no,” she laughs with mock horror. “Honestly, I couldn’t. There were so many good shows that meant so much to me.”

Despite her success leading the company from 1986 to 1997, Leyshon takes no credit for creating the Belfry we know and love today. “We weren’t trying to convince people to come to Fernwood to see theatre—that had already been developed,” she says of the Springridge days. “It was a beloved space before we even bought the building; people like the intimate space,  seeing theatre here. It didn’t take much for the community to embrace the Belfry; through good times and bad, they were always the pulse.”

And Leyshon makes no bones about the bad times. “The Belfry was having a tough time when I came on board,” she recalls. “I’m not kidding, we really didn’t have a lot money. It was literally week-by-week for a lot of it . . . it was such a tightrope to try and make an actual season on the little we could afford. That was the dance we did: find something that would appeal to the audience and still work within our budget. But it wasn’t enough just to survive: we had to believe in the piece we were doing. And I think that’s why we did survive—because we so wanted to make it happen.”

It was under Leyshon’s tenure as Artistic Director that the Belfry bought and renovated the building, reduced the accumulated debt and helped refine the company’s artistic mandate by focusing on contemporary and Canadian work by the celebrated likes of Joan MacLeod, Morris Panych, Dan Needles, Michel Marc Bouchard and Sally Clark, amongst many others. “You have to reach, you have to have ambition,” she says. “Victoria is a small city on an island off the continent and we wanted to connect it with what we believed was the most interesting work in the country. It was essential that the company supported its own community while at the same time being part of the larger Canadian theatre scene. You always have to be working to provide the audience with the best live theatre you can.”

Always known for walking her talk, Leyshon was never shy about pitching in to make things happen—especially after the 1996 renovations. “We were re-opening the building with this grand gala and there we were with hairdryers literally blow-drying paint a few hours before opening so that people didn’t get paint on their clothes while they were celebrating this magnificent achievement with us. It was amazing!”

Following her Belfry years, Leyshon spent a decade as Artistic Director of Vancouver’s Playhouse Theatre Company and has since remained one of the country’s most in-demand directors, mounting productions at the likes of the Shaw Festival, Bard on the Beach, Tarragon Theatre, Alberta Theatre Projects and the National Arts Centre—to say nothing of the operas she’s staged across the company, including 25 for Pacific Opera alone. Yet she’s thrilled to return to the Belfry for the re-remounting of Puttin’ on the Ritz, the original production of which she has many fond memories.

“It really was a magical event,” she recalls of the 1976 Irving Berlin revue. “It was so improbable, it didn’t make any sense: there was no money, we didn’t have a business plan. But we did have synergy and we had a theatre. It was absolutely a case of ‘Let’s just make it happen!’. And we did!”

Leyshon shakes her head when asked if she acted in the original, noting that she helped out behind-the-scenes by reupholstering a couch and painting . . . a piano. “Our designer, Ken MacDonald, had this black-and-white deco-style set and he really, really wanted a white baby grand—but all we had was a black piano. So Ken said—and this is how dumb we were—‘Why don’t we just cover the piano with rubber cement and then paint it white?’ Then we can just peel it all off.’” She laughs uproariously at the memory.  “And thank god it did peel off! The Belfry probably would’ve folded right then if we’d had to buy that damn piano.”

Clearly, Leyshon is thrilled to have been asked back for this, her third Ritz. “It’s a timeless show and a terrific celebration—it’s Irving Berlin!—and it’s such an integral part of why the Belfry survived and even exists today. It’s a wonderful way to end an anniversary season.” And does she plan on doing anything different this time around? “Well, if we really want a white piano this time, we won’t have to cover it with rubber cement!”