Canadian stage and screen actor and director R. H. Thomson joins the HPO at our Hometown Holidays concert as a narrator on the piece Making Light, written by HPO Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte and Canadian librettist, playwright and translator Alexis Diamond.
Originally from Richmond Hill, Thompson notably portrayed Glenn Gould in the stage production Glenn (1992 and 2000) and has earned many roles in historical dramas for television and film, such as his recent role as Matthew Cuthbert in CBC’s Anne with an E, available to watch on Netflix. Thomson is also known as an advocate for diversity and inclusivity in Canadian arts and culture, initiating his own projects to highlight Canadian history. For example, his project The World Remembers / Le Monde se souvient, is a wall projection of names and nationalities of Canadians fallen during the First World War, later expanded to include names and nationalities of all WWI fallen soldiers internationally. Click here to learn all about R. H. Thomson’s career, projects and other appearances.
Ahead of his performance in Making Light, R. H. Thomson took the time to answer questions about his career and legacy, some of his favourite Canadian artistic gems, and his thoughts about Abigail and Alexis’ musical holiday tale. Here are Thomson’s insights and insider takes on the Canadian arts scene and his place within it.
HPO: What is the personal significance you feel in your role as a narrator for Hometown Holidays and how do you see this performance fitting into your vision of highlighting the way Canadians represent our nation’s cultural mosaic?
R.H. Thompson: I love good stories and good orchestras. Music is the deepest form of narrative of all. Abigail and Alexis’ piece is about the emergence of light from the darkness. The celebration of light is in all cultures. Light is part of the magic, the mystery and the apprehensiveness of being human. We sometimes forget how much darkness there really is. Abigail and Alexis have brought together stories of light from many traditions which is especially reaffirming at this time, the darkest time of the year.
HPO: Can you tell us about your relationship to music?
RHT: Well, if I was forced into losing either my sight or my hearing, I would lose the visual world and keep my connection to the acoustic world. That’s the world where music lives. It predates language. Music can out-express language. It is a profound communication. Music has power and gives such pleasure. When I hear the soundscapes that NASA recorded from our solar system, the solar winds, the planetary magnetic fields, our sun’s radiation storms, the rhythms of the moons of Jupiter, in these soundscapes I hear music, of the cosmic kind and often of the violent kind. Our universe didn’t emerge with language, that’s something that humans made up. But the cosmos did come with music.
HPO: In your 2018 keynote address to the Canadian Senior Artists Resource Network (CSARN), you stated, “Formula is a plastic bag that you pull over your head and the two hands that hold the bag around your neck are fear and ambition. I hate formula, as I say it’s a plastic bag in which creativity suffocates to death. So anywhere, anytime, I try to push against it, which means I basically work the margins, so to speak. I don’t live in the center of the industry; I live on the margins of the industry.”
Can you tell our audience a bit about your own concept of formula, fear and ambition during your career?
RHT: Formula is the kryptonite of creativity. I am working less since there are fewer parts for older actors but I want to do projects that tell great stories. And let’s not confuse spectacular stories with great stories. That means initiating projects of my own sometimes. That means searching out artists, actors, writers and producers who are doing interesting and innovative work. An example is Against The Grain’s production of the Messiah Complex last year. I would do anything to work for that company, but since I am not an opera singer there isn’t much chance. But the Messiah Complex – which I think you can still see online – continues to inspire me.
HPO: What does it mean to you to ‘live in the margins’ as a Canadian actor?
RHT: TV and film formula productions occupy the centre of the highway. The projects that excite me are usually on the edges, the margins of the arts highway. So, I look for work large or small happening in communities large or small, with budgets big or tiny, that offer parts large or small, that take creative risks. I like innovation. At the same time, I like to make a living, so it’s a balancing act. Big careers, with big salaries and big audiences usually don’t exist in the margins. But playing Marshall McLuhan in Jason Sherman’s The Message at the Tarragon Theatre in 2019 was playing the margins. The production ran for five weeks, playing to perhaps 140 people a night. Jason’s script was difficult and daring. Richard Rose’s direction was inspired. The Message contains an important story about a fascinating and remarkable Canadian, but the production took place in the margins. Go figure.
HPO: Knowing that you are a strong advocate for Canadian culture and arts, could you share some of your favourite Canadian artists or productions either that you have been a part of or that you enjoy?
RHT: There are many. The writers range from Thomas King to Margaret Atwood. There are composers such as Murry Schafer, directors such as Atom Egoyan and so many others. The remarkable Jeanne Lamon of Tafelmusik who has just died. Actors? Well the remarkable Martha Henry and David Fox have also just left us but there are hugely talented younger actors coming along. Our greatest sculpture, The Spirit of Haida Qwaii by Bill Reid is a huge bronze canoe crowded with earth’s creatures. There are two copies, neither of which are in locations that do us proud – one is installed in our embassy in Washington and the other in Vancouver’s airport. Oh, Canada. There are productions such as Inexpressible Island by David Young, that people still come up to me on the street and want to remember, even though it was staged 15 years ago. With Anne With An E, I am approached by people from Iran or Peterborough or Mexico who have seen the series and been impacted by the story that was told.