Anne Butler, the tireless actor, teacher, director, and producer has decided, after almost 60 years in the business (37 of that in the Beach), to take a well-deserved retirement. The 75-year-old announced that this summer’s production of Julius Caesar will be her last with Bard in the Park, the Shakespeare company she founded in 2004. Anne sat down with us to reminisce on her career.
She was born in England, and by the time she was 16 she was studying acting at the famed London School of Dramatic Arts on a partial scholarship. “I studied for two years and was a working professional by the time I was 18,” she said. Her first big performance was in the musical, Kismet.
She came to Canada in 1965, and joined the Canadian Players, the winter touring company of the Stratford Festival Theatre. Other performances included the role of Eliza Doolittle in a Shaw Festival production of Pygmalion. “During one of the performances of Pygmalion, the set began to fall down during one of my speeches,” Anne recalled. “I had to hold it up with one hand while I continued with my lines.” Butler also performed as Epifania Parerga, the lead in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, also at the Shaw Festival.
One of her favourite roles was the lead in A Lesson from Aloes, by the South African playwright, Athol Fugard. About the problems of apartheid, A Lesson from Aloes tells the story of a woman’s descent into madness. It was a challenging and rewarding role that she took on the road to Montreal. During her time in Montreal, Butler performed in musicals and revues, including The Boyfriend and No Strings Attached, directed by Brian MacDonald. Then it was out west to appear with the Manitoba Theatre Company (Winnipeg) in Private Lives, and Scenes from Macbeth.
“We flew all around Manitoba in a plane so tiny it was like a Japanese Zero,” she said. “We flew out to Flin Flon and places up north. Once we played on table tops laced together to form a stage.”
When Butler landed in the Beach, though, she knew she had found her home. She began teaching through the former Beach Arts Centre, but soon branched out on her own, teaching through Community Centre 55. The idea for Bard in the Park was a natural. “I knew I always wanted to direct Shakespeare in the open air,” Butler said. “Nancy Culver and I came up with the idea… all the support came from Bob Murdoch.”
Often when trying to launch a new project it is difficult to find people – in this case, actors – to sign up for roles. But not for Butler.
“Once they heard what we were doing the phone started to ring,” she said. “The actors just kind of appeared. And they are all volunteers!”
That first summer production of Macbeth was nearly a washout! “It rained almost every night,” Butler recalled. “And yet people came and sat under umbrellas to see it, and we still made enough to keep going.” Of all her productions here in the Beach, that first Macbeth remains one of her favourites.
“All my years as a professional actor have not been as satisfying as this,” Butler says of Bard in the Park. “It’s been wonderful seeing all the actors I have been working with become consummate professionals. I also get a lot of spiritual support from others in the business.”
This year’s production of Julius Caesar begins June 16, and runs for seven days consecutively. All the participation is done by volunteers, including the costume creations by Beacher Andra Bradish who has been a loyal supporter for years.
“I can’t walk anywhere in the Beach without bumping into someone I know,” Butler said. These days Anne is most often seen with her constant companion, Whiskey, her precious beagle. “Whiskey is about as well-known in the Beach as I am!” she laughs. “He comes to every performance [of Bard in the Park] and sits quietly.”
Butler feels that Bard in the Park is in good hands as she passes the torch to Sean Killackey and Keith Williams. “Sean and Keith were both born in the Beach,” she explains. “And have been with me since they were seven years old.” Anne wanted to stress, however, that she is not going to stop working. She hopes to go back to directing musicals over the next few years. Of the production of Les Miserables she staged at St. Patrick’s High School some years back, Butler said it was “absolutely phenomenal!” She is also hoping that Bard in the Park will find a kind hearted and generous sponsor to help keep the company and it’s summer productions going for the foreseeable future.
“In closing I would like to wish the young actors in Bard in the Park all the best,” Butler says. “I hope that this wonderful project continues.” Considering the exceptional talent that created and nurtured it, it’s easy to see that Bard in the Park will continue as Anne Butler’s legacy to the Beach for many, many years.