Spotlight - Art Fidler and the performing life
- Written by Susan Scott
Even if you are marginally involved in London’s theatre scene, sooner or later you will hear mention of Art Fidler.
For over 50 years, Fidler has been involved in and an avid supporter of local theatre – as an educator, an artistic director, and an actor, singer, and director in numerous community-based plays and musicals.
This passion for everything theatre started early for Fidler, who turns 75 this December. Born and raised in Strathroy, he was taking piano lessons when his teacher noticed he couldn’t carry a tune. She coached him then cast him in elementary-school musicals and encouraged him to form a musical trio that lasted from Grade 7 through high school.
In high school another teacher, Phil Sparling, ignited a zeal for Gilbert and Sullivan when he placed Fidler in the chorus of HMS Pinafore. It was mainly because Western University had a Gilbert and Sullivan Society that Fidler undertook his BA in English and History there. From his second year on, he also participated in other university-produced musicals.
“At that time (university productions) were big cultural events in London,” explains Fidler. “Apart from The Grand Theatre, which then was London Little Theatre, there wasn’t much else theatrically except for plays done through the university. And because there wasn’t a lot, the audiences were huge.”
With teachers having had such an influence on his life, it was perhaps inevitable that Fidler would choose teaching as his profession. In those days teachers were in short supply and before he even graduated he had a job at Oakridge Secondary School, where he taught for 34 years.
“I loved it (at Oakridge). I had a chance to build a program and a tradition,” says Fidler. “I was never eager to move up the ladder. I loved teaching; that was my thing. I loved working with my students.”
Fidler found his first 20 years teaching to be a heady time. The 1960s social revolution encouraged creativity and the 1968 Hall-Dennis Report on education compelled schools to become student-centred. Low-profile subjects like Theatre Arts became mainstream and Fidler started teaching Drama. This dovetailed nicely with his theatrical interests and the English classes he taught.
By the 1990s, Ontario’s educational system was under siege by the Harris government and Fidler decided to retire in 1996. He had been volunteering with the Original Kids Theatre Company for three years and the day after retiring he became its Artistic Director. Fidler’s impact was far-reaching. He was a very hands-on director – building sets, designing costumes, writing and directing plays – and he worked closely with founder and Managing Director Dave Conron to grow the company.
When Fidler joined Original Kids, there were 35-40 children in the company. Today there are 320, representing all ages. In between, its programs shifted from weekends-only to include weeknights, the quality and number of shows increased, and its summer camp became an immersive experience with a theatre emphasis. In 1999, Original Kids moved from Museum London to Convent Garden Market, where the aptly named Spriet Family Theatre still resides.
After six years, Fidler resigned to become the company’s Marketing Director, where he handles promotion and special projects. This kept him involved with the kids while allowing a younger generation to take the creative reins. But what has remained constant is how Original Kids encourages children of all ages and talent to blossom and feel empowered.
“A lot of kids, what they really need is someone they can look up to who will take them seriously and give them a pat on the back for what they do well,” says Fidler. “We’re doing that for generations of young people. We’re giving them a microcosm where things work well on a human basis.”
Fidler’s career includes 10 years as an advisor at the Faculty of Education, 2 years directing shows for the PUC’s Recreation Department, freelance-directing at Western, and co-founding London’s Musical Theatre Productions. All the while, he has been heavily involved in London’s community theatre by acting in or directing numerous shows and musicals.
While he finds several shows to be memorable, Oliver, which Fidler directed in 1975, is perhaps the most noteworthy. The cast was huge – 85-90 people of all ages – and it was held at the old Victoria Park bandshell with “thousands and thousands” watching. But more importantly, he met his wife, Min, during that production.
Last year, Fidler was diagnosed with cancer and underwent radiation and chemotherapy. As he had sailed through both, a rapid recovery seemed assured. But within 24 hours of completing his treatments, Fidler was at death’s door. His two weeks in hospital over Christmas provided a profound reality check.
“I know now that at the time I did a lot of what’s called Magical Thinking,” says Fidler. “I had all kinds of big plans of what I was going to do because my treatment was going so well. And I found out that most of those dreams were dust; they weren’t going to happen. (Recovering) was going to be a process.”
For the first time, Fidler’s theatrical involvement geared down as he reluctantly shifted from participant to observer. Then Oklahoma director Ceris Thomas asked him to take a small role in the production’s chorus. Not only did he get back-in-the-saddle this November, Min shared the experience by joining him onstage as his character’s wife.
With his long career as an educator and his passionate support of local theatre, Art Fidler has shaped a lasting legacy in the minds and hearts of thespians young and old. Now he finds himself in a new phase in life.
“Every once in a while, I’ll read a play or a musical and I’ll say, Ah, that’s a Fidler show, man I’d love to do that. And then I come to my senses,” he says with a laugh. “I’m happy now. I’m not ambitious anymore. It’s just great to be back where I started in the chorus and not have the great burden of the lead on my shoulders. To just have fun.”
Susan Scott is a London-based arts writer, reviewer, and visual artist. Her drawings can be viewed at www.londonartists.ca.
Postscript: Art’s last word
Art Fidler has a unique view of London’s theatre scene, old an new. He hails from a time when there were few theatrical productions, so each one garnered a large audience. Today, he says the opposite is true. There are a large number of highly creative theatrical groups, but he believes the audience hasn’t grown in lockstep with them. This leaves many groups struggling.
“It’s good for us to know that there are young people that are taking brave and foolish risks out of a love of what they do,” says Fidler. “But I think there must be a lot of people without a lot of money that are risking what they’ve got to put on their shows.”
Fidler believes there are relatively easy measures that the theatrical community as a whole could take to help mitigate some of the risks. They could, for instance, form ad-hoc alliances and work together instead of in isolation or in competition with each other. The Fringe Festival and The Arts Project’s 24-Hour Rush are examples of when the theatrical community beats as one heart. But still, the theatrical groups can cooperate even more. For example:
• When two or more groups are putting on plays or musicals during the same, say, two-month period, they could do a joint advertising blitz, which would increase exposure and reduce their individual costs.
• Instead of searching for an audience on their own, theatrical groups could offer mutually beneficial deals. If an audience-member attends one production then shows the ticket stub when buying a ticket for another, he or she can see both shows at a reduced rate.
• Theatrical groups could cooperatively fundraise by holding a gigantic garage sale or some other event. Those that participate get an equal cut of the proceeds.
• Various theatrical groups could get together every Monday night (like they do in New York) at a specific location to do a scene from their show or sing a song or play the piano or do a comedy act. This would serve to build an audience for their individual shows and to create a sense of camaraderie amongst the groups.
• Theatrical groups could hold a benefit concert featuring performances by different groups. A well-known charity or cause would introduce a whole new crowd to London’s theatrical community.