As posted on the Stratford Beacon Herald website, May 4, 2015
By Laura Cudworth, The Beacon Herald
Brian Macdonald could fill a theatre.
The musicals he produced at the Stratford Festival are legendary and perhaps that is why fans streamed into the Festival Theatre to pay tribute to his extraordinary talent on Sunday afternoon.
Macdonald died at his Stratford home in December at the age of 86.
During his illustrious career he had an undeniable impact on the arts. He was a prolific director and choreographer and unforgettable teacher. His accomplishments and awards are far too numerous to list.
He created about 100 ballets and directed 24 in operas in Canada and abroad. For Stratford audiences though he will be best remembered for his musicals. His Tony-nominated production of The Mikado (1982) toured Canada and went to the United States and England. He was behind 19 productions at the Stratford Festival, and the Gilbert and Sullivans, among others, are still fondly remembered.
“Brian Mcdonald lived the life he wanted to live. He only ever wanted to be an artist and what an artist he was,” said Peter Herrndorf, CEO of the National Arts Centre.
The celebration of his life was almost as spectacular as the plays he directed and choreographed. The tribute was called Brian's Greatest Hits and included numbers from The Mikado, Madama Butterfly and a bring-the-house-down version of You Gotta Get a Gimmick from Gypsy performed by the original Stratford cast.
His wife and collaborator of 50 years, Annette av Paul, stood up at the end of the celebration and gave her heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated.
“I'm overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of love and memories and joy,” she said.
Among those who shared their memories was actor/director Martha Henry.
She first met Macdonald when she was a young actor at the National Theatre School. He was tall, glamourous, charismatic and terrifying, she said.
“He had discipline unlike anything we had experienced before. We were scared to death of him,” she said.
But in six weeks he had transformed the class and got the best out of the students including Henry who saw her non-speaking role expand into a lead cameo.
Macdonald was a founding member of the National Ballet of Canada and worked with Karen Kain when she was a young ballerina. She lauded his ability to show a too-serious ballerina how to express her silly side.
For Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, Macdonald was a kind mentor. Cimolino remembered Macdonald's generosity toward him when he was a young actor.
“I had just been soundly panned by critics and I didn't know how I was going to get through the rest of the run,” he recalled. “Brian gave me a generous compliment. It meant so much to me.”
Macdonald urged him to take the criticism as an opportunity to go further with his work. Cimolino said it changed the way he saw criticism after that.
Had it not been for Macdonald, it's possible a young dancer named Donna Feore would never have found herself at the Festival. He brought her in as a dancer to work under his direction on Guys and Dolls. He promised her great things to do, with great piles of fruit on her head, she said.
She later worked with him in other capacities, including choreography, which she likened to working as an apprentice to a magician.
“An occasion like today is a terrific opportunity to acknowledge a debt, a debt that can't be repaid,” she said.
Macdonald spent many years at the Banff Centre of the Performing Arts with av Paul. During a video presentation, many of the dancers he worked with there spoke of the influence Macdonald had on their lives and careers.
Dancer Johnny Wright said he was a father figure.
“How do you thank someone for that? You just keep dancing.”
The tribute ended with a standing ovation as photos of Macdonald were projected on a screen and a spotlight shone down on an empty stage.