Celebrated director, actor and author Greg Kramer – currently co-starring in Oliver! at the National Arts Centre – on being out, challenging himself, and working with living legend Christopher Plummer and Hollywood director Todd Haynes
by Richard Burnett
Greg Kramer calls me during a break from an 11-hour all-day rehearsal for the NAC English Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, the musical adaptation of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. “We’ve been rehearsing for four weeks!” Kramer – who knows this musical inside out because he co-starred in a previous production – says not unhappily. “And for a musical that’s good. And this time I play the nice guy [Mr. Brownlow]!”
When it comes to the arts, Kramer knows of what he speaks. The 30-year theatre veteran immigrated to Canada from Britain in 1981 “because of Maggie Thatcher,” he says. “[Funding for] the [Incubus Theatre] company I was with got axed completely after being in existence for 13 years, so I went to Vancouver.”
So began Kramer’s distinguished career performing on stages right across the Great White North, from the Vancouver Playhouse to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa where he currently resides and works for The NAC English Theatre Company (whose artistic director Peter Hinton, by the way, steps down in August 2012 after seven seasons as head honcho).
If you haven’t seen Kramer on the stage – “Notable performances include the title role in Richard III (Firehall Theatre, Vancouver, 1984), Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew (Ottawa Shakespeare Festival, 1994), Gollum in The Hobbit (YPT, 2000), The Devil-dog in Peter Hinton’s otherwise all-female production of The Witch of Edmonton (Harbourfront, Toronto, 1993), and a dying sailor in the Chalmers Award-winning Ditch (1994) by Geoff Kavanagh, the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia notes – then surely you’ve seen Kramer appear regularly on such TV shows as Forever Knight, John Woo’s Once a Thief and Tales from the Neverending Story. Or you’ve heard him voice characters in cartoons like Arthur.
I finally got to “see” Kramer’s work when he directed Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Montreal’s Segal Theatre back in 2008. In the play – as only Williams could write it – former star athlete Brick and his wife Maggie return to Brick’s father’s Mississippi cotton plantation to celebrate the ailing Big Daddy’s birthday. Daughter-in-law Maggie fights to save her marriage to the alcoholic and despairing Brick, who blames her for his best friend Skipper’s suicide. Except, of course, the histrionics are really all about Skipper and Brick’s homosexuality – they had an affair, a subject suppressed in the original Broadway production by director Elia Kazan, and again missing in the Oscar-nominated MGM film adaptation starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.
Homosexuality and cancer – those are words we [still] whisper.
But Kramer put the gay subject matter back front and centre where it belonged. “The issue is right up front,” Kramer told me at the time. “It’s the sissy fucking queer version. We deal with [Brick’s] homosexuality, as well as cancer. Homosexuality and cancer – those are words we [still] whisper. But they’re both important in this play and balance each other.”
For his directorial work – the Segal’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also boasted a gorgeous set designed by John Dinning – Kramer won a Best Director MECCA award.
It was also at this time that a couple of young up-and-coming gay actors told me how much they respected Kramer’s unflinching frankness about sexuality, and that if Kramer could be openly gay in this business, then so could they. So on this day I ask Kramer if he believes being out has slowed his career and with characteristic good humour he replies, “What career are you talking about?”
If you want to be in the commercial end of the entertainment industry you’d best stay in the closet. But I have no regrets.
Kramer laughs, then continues: “If I had wanted to be a film or TV actor I would have probably thought more carefully about being openly gay. If you want to be in the commercial end of the entertainment industry you’d best stay in the closet. But I have no regrets. There’s nothing wrong with advertising!”
Then Kramer adds more seriously, “You can still make money in theatre. You can. Just obviously not quite so much.”
But if younger actors look to the 50-year-old Kramer for inspiration, Kramer himself is also inspired by other actors, like Montreal-born living legend Christopher Plummer, with whom Kramer worked on The Tempest at Stratford in 2010.
“He’s incredible,” Kramer says. “He is an unbelievable professional. If something would go wrong one night it would be corrected the next. And you could see that he had corrected it in a way that it could never go wrong again. He’s also got antennae out to every part of the room. He knows what everyone in the room is doing. But it [also] wasn’t intimidating working with him [because] he was really friendly and very open. Given his age and how well he has kept himself, he is an inspiration.”
There was so much respect and good feelings on the set [because] we were doing [that film] for the art and not for the money...
Kramer also acted in American director Todd Haynes’ Montreal-shot 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. That film boasted an incredible cast: The Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, Ben Wishaw, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger (who would die just two months after the film was released), Richie Havens, Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams, Christian Bale, Kris Kristoferson (as the narrator), Julianne Moore and Richard Gere. Not to mention Montreal actors Mark Camacho, Kyle Gatehouse, Tyrone Benskin (the onetime Black theatre Worskshop artistic director, now an NDP MP in Ottawa), Paul Spence (of Fubar fame) and Kramer (who lived in Montreal for a decade before moving to Ottawa in 2010).
“There was so much respect and good feelings on the set [because] we were doing [that film] for the art and not for the money,” Kramer says.
This week the NAC English Theatre Company’s production of Oliver! opens on December 9 (previews are Dec. 7 and 8, and there is a PWYC night on Dec. 6) just in time for the holiday season. Directed by Dayna Tekatch and dramaturged by Paula Danckert, Oliver! features 17 singers (including Holly Gauthier-Frankel – a.k.a. burlesque star Miss Sugarpuss – fresh from her crowd-pleasing role in Schwartz’s: The Musical at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre) and three musicians under the musical direction of Allen Cole (whose sister is singer Holly Cole).
And Kramer – who during his off-time (!) has also penned a collection of short stories and three novels, including his 1995 debut The Pursemonger of Fugu – says the NAC’s Oliver! is a high-energy production that will please kids and adults alike. There is plenty of buzz surrounding this new production and tickets are selling so well that the original December 6 – 24 run has already been extended to December 31.
But what I really want to know is what it’s like for Kramer (who returns to Montreal for Centaur Theatre’s May 2012 remount of the 2009-2010 MECCA Award-winning play Haunted Hillbilly) to be back on the NAC stage. “Well, you’re an old pro,” I tell Greg, who good-naturedly quips in reply, “Oh, thanks, love!”
“But are you not intimidated playing the NAC?”
“No, it’s a lovely little cabaret space!” Kramer laughs. “I’ve been here a few times, yeah.”
Lionel Bart’s Oliver! plays from December 6 through 31 at the NAC.
Visit the NAC website at www.nac-cna.ca