A Conversation with Steven Bush

Yvonne Palkowski
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Longtime University College Drama instructor and forty-five year professional theatre veteran Steven Bush recently  added another title to his publishing resume.  His new book, Conversations with George Luscombe (Mosaic Press, 2013), documents the evolution of Canadian theatre through dialogue with the late Luscombe, who cofounded Toronto Workshop Productions in 1959. The book—a series of conversations between Luscombe and Bush, organized by theme and indexed by topic in the margin—is a go-to reference for theatre practitioners  and historians alike. Bush continues the conversation about Luscombe and his far-reaching influence with UC Magazine editor Yvonne Palkowski.


What was your impression of George when you first met him?

I saw a show at his theatre before I met him, and I was struck by how strong it was in terms of politics and social perspectives, but also how beautiful the staging was and how well the actors moved. I showed up the next business day and immediately followed up with an audition; it happened they were casting at the time. I don’t remember what he said me to, quite honestly. Some people have talked about day-long auditions, but I don’t recall that; I think he was starting rehearsals soon and need an actor. He cast me in the role of Abraham Lincoln in his production Mr. Bones.”


The book goes into great detail about training methods and actor exercises.

We wanted the book to be quite detailed, because we wanted it to be useful not only to students and theatre educators, but also to professional actors, directors, and playwrights. The methods described are Luscombe’s own, and some were adapted from Stanislavski or Rudolph von Laban, or his work with Joan Littlewood in England—he did a unique fusion of  those diverse approaches to performance.

A teacher or director working today won’t find everything in the book valuable, but they will find certain things of value.  Sometimes, when you’re teaching, you’re just looking for something to get the actors working together better. We wanted to make sure that exercises are fairly easy to find in the book. And we wanted to make sure that all the training basics from George’s point of view got included. I think the book will be of value to someone teaching a full-year course, but also to someone doing short workshops.


What were your intentions when you started to record the conversations? Did you have a book in mind?

We talked openly about the possibility of a book. There hadn’t been, as far as I could tell, any permanent record of George’s training methods. At first he had hesitations and said, “Do we really need another book on acting?” Over a number of conversations I persuaded him that we needed his book on acting. We have very little on theatre practise, in book form, in Canada. He was so strong and clear in his working methods, and so early on the scene in terms of the development of Toronto and English Canadian theatre, that I thought we needed a record of that work.

The other thing is the historical record. With all the brave efforts of Canadian Theatre Review and other journals, we still don’t have a lot in book form about English Canadian theatre practise. With the speed of modern life and how quickly things become lost, it’s very important to establish as much as possible an historical record of the work that’s gone before. Because of the commentary George makes in the book, there’s quite a bit about the Toronto of the 1990s and the Toronto of the 1950s and 1960s. You get a sense of the city during those times so it’s a bit of social history as well.


How did you approach the conversations with Luscombe?

I would come in with a list of questions. For example, we would know on a given day that we were probably going to talk about concentration of attention or text analysis. We’d have a theme and the questions would come to me. I really wanted a record of George in his own words talking about the process. With respect to the CD that comes with the book, to get to hear George’s voice twenty years later is very emotional for those of us who knew him, but I think for the reader it’s important to hear his voice to get a sense of him. Even with sensitive editing, which I hope I’ve done , you can’t convey the energy of the human voice.


Luscombe contended that “a theatre without opinion is not a theatre.” Can you elaborate on what he meant and his politics?

He absolutely believed that and was interested in theatres that had opinions, and had no patience for those that didn’t. We did the book launch at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which now occupies the building where George worked for 20 years and where Toronto Workshop Productions was housed. Buddies  is a theatre that has an opinion, and I think in that regard, George would approve of it.

George had opinions on politics and social issues, but he also had opinions on art, particularly, what constitutes art on stage. You always knew you were watching a stage production; you would never confuse one of George’s productions with film.  George rarely put a naturalistic setting on stage, as you would find in the movies.


What is Luscome’s legacy in Canadian theatre?

That’s easy and hard. In the book, I’ve reprinted Urjo Kareda’s tribute to George called “Our Father,” which says he is the father of all the other companies in Toronto. He and a colleague started Toronto Workshop Productions in 1959, and I don’t believe there was any other professional company in the city, except for The Crest, which tended to focus exclusively on classics and modern masterpieces. George, on the other hand, worked with scripts, but he also worked with devised theatre, or collective creation. He often developed pieces with a playwright but also with the actors themselves. George was doing this for 7 to 10 years before any of the other companies existed, and his influence is spread among a number of people who worked with him.