0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 Google+ 0 0 Flares ×
Susan Douglas Rubeš, courtesy Young Peoples Theatre

Susan Douglas Rubeš memoriam courtesy Young People’s Theatre

Susan Douglas Rubeš, founder of Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre, died in Toronto at the age of 87 on Jan. 23. I didn’t know her name until I read Ron Csillag’s excellent obituary in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. I didn’t know what a profound influence she had on my life.

My loss. I grew up in Toronto in the 1970s, and my mother thought it was important for her children to have culture. We always had season’s tickets to YPT, which was located on Front Street, just around the corner from a child’s culinary paradise on the Esplanade known as The Organ Grinder.

I didn’t know how good I had it. I didn’t grow up thinking children’s theatre was an amateur-hour last resort for respectable thespians. I didn’t grow up being patronized and condescended to in a theatrical setting.

photo by Nina Leen courtesy Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

pictured with Richard Simon in 1947 — photo by Nina Leen courtesy Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

I grew up loving the ritual of the dimmed house lights, the hush befalling the assembled crowd, the mysterious possibilities of the set pieces, the power of emotion conveyed by skilled actors sweating before my eyes.

My memories of YPT are more generalized; I’m hard pressed to remember many specific shows. But here goes: I remember a powerful performance by Peter Donat as Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men. I remember a show-stopping Karem Malicki-Sanchez, not much younger than myself, in a musical version of Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang. I remember Brent Carver – not yet a Broadway nor even a Stratford star – breaking character and cracking up during the opening night of The Prince and the Pauper, and seeing director Robin Phillips visibly fuming at intermission. (I was the dorky kid who also studied each evening’s program, so I actually recognized the director.)

I remember a play about the mystery of Oak Island. I saw Eric Peterson and R.H. Thomson numerous times (as has anyone who’s ever been in a Toronto theatre more than twice). I’m pretty sure I never saw Megan Follows there; I would definitely have remembered that. (1984’s Hockey Night, swoon.)

These were – and are – some of the finest actors in Canada. And they were performing for me and my cohort before we were even in high school. Susan Rubeš’s most famous quote, which appears in every obituary and on the home page for the theatre she created is: “Only the best is good enough for children.”

It was simple common sense for this Czech refugee, who came from a country where puppet shows for children had the same level of rigour and serious production as a show at the Tarragon or Factory Theatre, and still do. Children, more so than jaded parents, have a high bullshit detector. If they don’t like what’s happening on stage, everyone is going to hear about it.

Creating art for children is undoubtedly more difficult than for adults: there’s a reason why we still listen to Raffi records, why we still read Dennis Lee, and why we trust the same cultural institutions – like Young People’s Theatre. It’s because they understand something intrinsic about stimulating a child’s mind. According to the Globe obit, the legacy of Rubeš is the fact that “there are some 80 theatre companies in Canada targeting young people.”

Sleep well, Ms. Rubeš. The kids are all right, thanks to you.

(This is a multi-part interview with Susan Rubeš conducted by R.H. Thomson, made for Theatre Museum Canada. It’s fascinating and worth watching all eight episodes.)

Michael Barclay is a journalist and co-authored the Canadian music tome Have Not Been The Same. He works as a dad and a copy editor in Toronto. Read about records he likes here and here.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 Google+ 0 0 Flares ×