Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Sunday Read: Barbara Ford Profiles Quincy Armorer, Black Theatre Workshop AD

Just Hitting His Stride
It begins with a conversation in a kitchen...
by Barbara Ford

Like many parents, Quincy Armorer’s hoped their sons would become successful lawyers, doctors and businessmen and Armorer gave it an honest shot. Though he was excited by the text and language acting in MacDonald Cartier High School Shakespeare productions on the South Shore, he made good use of his high school math and science scores to register in Health Sciences at CEGEP, with the intention of eventually becoming a doctor. After a year, “I just knew it wasn’t me.” So as not to lose the time he had already invested and the credits he’d accumulated, he pragmatically switched to commerce, which allowed him to take a few minor courses in arts and still finish in the usual two years.   

Armorer jumped to get into classes with professors like Joel Miller and Bryan Doubt, whose techniques he continues to draw from today.

He immediately applied to Concordia’s 3-year Theatre Performance Program, presenting a Shakespeare and contemporary monologue, as well as a song, for his initial audition. He was asked to come back for the group call-back, a grueling 2-hour affair, and was accepted. Armorer’s dad, rather than say something he’d regret, said nothing when his son informed him of his change in studies but over the years he eventually came around and both parents have been very supportive.  
Armorer’s appetite for Shakespeare wasn’t directly satiated at Concordia, (no classes were dedicated to classical theatre at the time), but he did have a chance to pursue the Bard in some of his voice classes and one acting class. Armorer jumped to get into classes with professors like Joel Miller and Bryan Doubt, whose techniques he continues to draw from today. 
Before Armorer started his acting studies in earnest, he worked with Lyric Theatre and performed, mainly as a dancer, in three of their community theatricals in ’91, ’92 and again in ’95. “I called myself an actor/dancer at the time until I went to an open audition for the Toronto production of The Lion King and realized what real dancers did!” Armorer also tried out for Canada’s Wonderland one year but was so demoralized when they assigned Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings as his audition song that he more or less closed the door on musical theatre. 

In 1998, Armorer landed a ‘day job ‘ as a Box Office clerk at Centaur Theatre.

After graduating in the spring of ’95, it didn’t take long for Armorer to land his first gig playing in Repercussion Theatre’s autumn school tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the likes of Rick Miller, Stephanie Baptist, Sean Devine, and Helen King among others.  From ’97 through ’99, he also worked with Tricycle Productions in such plays as James and the Giant Peach, Beethoven Lives Upstairs and Jumping Mouse, all directed by Dean Fleming, now the Artistic Director of Geordie Productions.  
In 1998, Armorer landed a ‘day job ‘ as a Box Office clerk at Centaur Theatre. Over the years, he held several positions there including Front of House usher, Assistant House Manager, Receptionist and Assistant Box Office Manager. 
Armorer met and befriended Ryan Hollyman at theatre school. Through Hollyman, Armorer found out that Halifax’s Shakespeare-by-the-Sea was looking for a Black actor to play in Titus Andronicus. Armorer leaped at the opportunity, sending a demo reel and landing the 6-month non-Equity gig. From the beginning of rehearsals in May until the last performance at the end of October, Armorer was in heaven, acting in three Shakespearean plays in repertory using some of the most evocative outdoor sites for the east coast’s walkabout theatre: King Lear at the Halifax Citadel, The Taming of the Shrew at Cambridge Battery and in Point Pleasant Park, a harrowingly realistic rape scene from Titus in Martello Tower. 
The following year, 2000, Armorer had the good fortune to travel with the same company to England to perform in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare-by-the-Sea’s director, British ex-pat Patrick Christopher-Carter, had put in a proposal, and had been negotiating with the world renowned Minack Theatre in Cornwall for some time; Armorer was lucky to be on board for a company first. It is an open air theatre built into a cliff where the actors play with the open sea as their backdrop and the audience is seated, coliseum style, in the cliffside. “When we first arrived to see it, it was so breathtaking that most of us were in tears.” Click here for a panoramic view
Another highlight of Armorer’s career was the summer of 2002, which he spent with husband and wife team, Douglas Campbell and Moira Wylie, veritable acting royalty, putting up Twelfth Night and The Fantasticks at The Piggery in North Hatley. That summer marked his arrival as a full Equity member. “That was a wonderful, wonderful, time,” Armorer recalled, adding that the only other time he had the privilege of working with Wylie and Campbell was about five years later when Wylie assembled a small Equity co-op to present three Shakespeare readings. Armorer was in Julius Caesar, which Campbell directed, Peter Hinton (still in Montreal at the time, not yet ensconced at the NAC) directed another and Wylie the third.

With Neil Napier in Condoville 
(photo: Yanick Macdonald)

Though he was now treading the boards at his place of work, there was little chance for Armorer to put on airs as he still had his day duties to attend to once the show was up and running.

In 2004, Armorer came out from behind the wicket and coat check to play in Centaur’s Tiger’s Heart, written by former playwright-in-residence, Kit Brennan, and directed by Greg Kramer. Set in England in 1815, it is the unusual story, based in fact, of Dr. James Barry, a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to study medicine and eventually became the military doctor to the British Governor in South Africa. Though he was now treading the boards at his place of work, there was little chance for Armorer to put on airs as he still had his day duties to attend to once the show was up and running.
Once Armorer cracked the Centaur nut, you couldn’t stop him.  In 2005, a career high note, he played in the world premiere of Condoville, David Fennario’s sequel to the wildly successful Balconville, a 1979 world premiere at Centaur.  It was a charged experience with Fennario re-writing in rehearsals right up until the second preview!  “We were part of the process, discovering the characters, watching them fill out and grow and David was finding out who they were too.”   
In 2007 Armorer played the Centaur again, this time in the Shakespeare favourite, Romeo and Juliet, directed by Gordon McCall, Artistic Director at the time. He prolonged his Shakespeare high by heading up to Ottawa to audition for the 2008 St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, presented annually in a gorgeous open-air amphitheatre in Prescott, Ontario. On the bill that year were As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice with Armorer playing major roles in both. 
2008 saw Armorer in the Geordie production of The Jungle Book and later that autumn Armorer was accepted into the Stratford Conservatory, an intensive classical theatre training program where actors are paid to learn. Under the Stratford Festival umbrella, it is currently run by the experienced hand of legendary actor, Martha Henry. When Armorer attended, it was a twenty-week program consisting of 8-hour days, six days a week from mid-September to mid-February, covering the soup to nuts of classical acting, right down to period movement (walking, sitting, and bowing). Armorer then played in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar and Bartholomew Fair for the 2009 Stratford Festival. “I was a ballad singer in Bartholomew Fair and got to sing original music by Steven Page,” (musician, composer and founding member of Barenaked Ladies).

"I got to watch two masters [Seana McKenna and Tom McCamus] work."

Though the program was originally designed to be a one-time offer, in February 2009, Henry allowed first year students to return the following season to further upgrade their training, thereby enriching the experience for both the newcomers and the returning trainees. Armorer seized the day and returned for a second year, performing in Dangerous Liaisons and Peter Pan for the 2010 Stratford season. It was a bi-polar season for him, as he played the over-the-top pirate Mullins in Peter Pan, and then the ever-present yet silent footman for the manipulative Marquise de Merteuil in Liaisons. Armorer shared one of his most cherished memories that season describing how he had to be on stage for a full ten minutes, standing at attention without a word or gesture to himself. “I got to watch two masters [Seana McKenna and Tom McCamus] work. They were amazing. Some may have thought it boring to just stand there for so long but for me, it was like a master class: I learned something every night.” 
I asked Armorer why film didn’t seem to interest him.  “I’ve never actively pursued it, even though there’s more money in it. I still don’t have an agent, which makes getting film roles tough. I love the theatre and I’ve moved around a lot stage acting, but now that I’m more firmly rooted, I’m thinking more seriously about film.” Armorer’s talent and good looks certainly make him a shoe-in if he decides to go in that direction … move over Denzel!

Armorer with Elena Juatco in Twelfth Night
(photo: Ronald Zajak)

Armorer’s career continued to climb. In April of 2011 he was back at Centaur in the Geordie production of Beethoven Lives Upstairs.  Then off to Prescott for another summer at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival (Twelfth Night and All’s Well That Ends Well) which was quickly followed up with his new job in late August: the Artistic Directorship of Black Theatre Workshop (BTW).  
BTW’s 2011-12 season had already been programmed by Benskin before he left to take his seat in Parliament as an MP for the New Democratic Party, freeing Armorer for his summer stint in Prescott and his upcoming role in Centaur’s winter production of Intimate Apparel, with rehearsals for that beginning at the end of February 2012. “I had worked with the company and was Tyrone’s Associate Artistic Director his first season there; we have a really good relationship. He left me a lovely note saying the door was always open to me for questions or advice.”

"My ideas aren’t necessarily about change so much as about growth but it will take time to figure out exactly what that will be."

With the current season mapped out, it gives Armorer time to find his sea legs but what about the future of BTW? “My ideas aren’t necessarily about change so much as about growth but it will take time to figure out exactly what that will be. I already have a working history with Adele Benoit (BTW General Manager) so we didn’t have to ‘find’ our relationship. Now I have a business card and a Board of Directors … it’s new for sure and as close to a 9-to-5 job as I’ll ever have! I actually dreamt of it years ago but never imagined it would happen.”
As a new AD, Armorer is looking forward to directing the school tour and main stage productions, though not immediately, and to directing outside the company as well but this year is the adjustment period. “BTW has been around for forty years – that wasn’t me – and I want to honour that.” Armorer feels a deep loyalty and responsibility to BTW. “I love this company and I wanted them to choose a person who could continue to build the company. This has come to me at the right time in my life when I feel the connections, experience and passion I have are the right fit for BTW. 
Benskin’s focus was new Canadian works about the Black Diaspora and Armorer has every intention of following in those footsteps, but perhaps expanding to include the brilliant works about the Black experience coming from artists outside of Canada. Armorer is also toying with the idea of having more than one main stage production a year though he knows there are many factors to consider before making that a reality. 
Looking back at that fateful conversation in the kitchen all those years ago when Armorer announced he was going to study theatre, neither his concerned parents nor Armorer himself, could have anticipated the route or the accomplishments that following his bliss would yield. In talking candidly with him about his career, his dreams and his artistic sensibilities, it is clear that there is much more to come from him, and we, the audience, cheer him on, eager to discover how he will surprise and entertain us next.
You can applaud Armorer in person from March 27 to April 29 at Centaur Theatre in the ragtime-era production of Intimate Apparel, directed by Micheline Chevrier. For tickets call the Centaur Box Office at (514) 288 – 3161. And why not plan a short hop getaway to Prescott this coming summer to see him in the title role of Othello at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival. Call (613) 925-5788 for info or visit them online.

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