Robert Gill

TN
Position:
Artistic Director
Tenure:
1946 - 1966
Select Productions:
• Saint Joan
• The Tempest (1957)
• The Servant of Two Masters

Robert Gill (1911-1974) was the seventh artistic director of Hart House Theatre as well as an actor, theatre and opera aficionado, and teacher. His twenty-year reign is not only the longest among all of the artistic directors at Hart House Theatre, but it also witnessed a new growth of Canadian talent that had not been seen since Bertram Forsyth. His plays were noted for their high quality despite the fact he used University of Toronto undergraduates almost exclusively.1

Although he is now considered a famous Canadian for revitalizing Canadian theatre, Robert Gill was born to a Canadian father in Spokane, Washington on July 19, 1911 and eventually moved to Pittsburgh. After Gill graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1933, he ended up winning the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation scholarship, which allowed him to do what he always wanted—studying acting, stage production, and singing at the Cleveland Playhouse.2 Gill’s first forays into the theatre were not limited to the things he did at the Cleveland Playhouse, however: he directed plays at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, participated in the Opera Society, and did more directing in the Woodstock New York Summer Playhouse. Indeed, he directed some 30 plays with a semi-professional company over the course of 30 seasons at the Pittsburgh Playhouse alone.3 As a result of his incredible work ethic, by the mid 1930s, Robert Gill had become a recognizable name within theatrical circles in the United States.4 Yet in 1942, Gill enjoyed a more relaxed involvement with the theatre since he returned to the Carnegie Institute to teach drama in an arrangement that only lasted four years. After the unexpected death of his fiancée, Gill decided to start over and responded to an advertisement that ushered him into becoming the next artistic director of Hart House Theatre.5

At the time, Hart House Theatre was directorless and directionless: for nine long years, the once proud, independent little theatre did not produce any plays of its own and instead became a venue larger production companies would rent. 6 As such, the announcement that the Board of Syndics had appointed a new artistic director was greeted with much anticipation in the press, an anticipation that crafted, for better or for worse, a mythology around him. For instance, when Gill was announced as the new artistic director on September 6, 1946, The Globe and Mail mistakenly referred to him the next day as “Canadian born” and having been raised in Orillia before residing in the United States. Gill, however, only became a Canadian citizen in 1956.7 Despite the excitement that greeted his arrival, Gill did not initially intend to revitalize Hart House Theatre and revolutionize Canadian drama. In the end, Gill got caught up in the historical moment as Canadian nationalism, arts, and professionalization boomed as the post-war economy did.8

Gill’s philosophy for running Hart House Theatre was not unprecedented or unexpected: like his predecessors Edgar Stone and Nancy Pyper, he sought to increase student involvement within the theatre. His vision for Hart House Theatre as “a student theatre for student audiences” triggered a deluge of response among an enthusiastic student body.9 Before starting out, Robert Gill pledged he would base his selection of plays based on the talent of the student actors available, saying that “No play will be presented which cannot be cast accurately from available players, so that all productions will offer to the city and the campus the best possible performance of actable plays.”10 Gill’s perception of “actable plays,” though, deviated significantly from many of his predecessors: experimental theatre and Canadian theatre were axed in favour of modern European or American classics, such as William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, over the course of twenty years and some eighty shows, only two Canadian-written plays were produced.11

Robert Gill’s decision to deemphasize experimental and Canadian plays did not preclude success. His directorial debut came with Shaw’s Saint Joan on January 27, 1947 with the then-unknown Charmion King playing the title role.12 “When I decided that we had so much talent here that we could stage Shaw’s Saint Joan as our first production,” Gill reminisced, “a line for tickets formed that went up the stairs and right across the front of the building. Within a week of the announcement, the house was sold out.”13 Gill’s debut was an instant smash hit, foreshadowing the things to come. Roly Young of The Globe and Mail called the production of Saint Joan “a tribute to his [Robert Gill’s] abilities as a director and instructor” and its performers “rose completely to the occasion” something that took Young completely by surprise.14 Gill’s talent for staging undergraduate productions never lost steam, and by Hart House Theatre’s second season, drama critics would be justified to claim that Gill “established a first-rate theatre which is a credit not only to one city, but [to] the Dominion.”15

By 1964, Gill had personally directed about 66 plays at Hart House Theatre, some of which he had to relinquish to promising undergraduate directors because of bouts of illness, or long overdue sabbaticals.16 For instance, the 1956 production of The Troublemakers was directed by Leon Major (the same person who would become artistic director after Gill) because Gill was incapacitated by illness.17 Gill’s love of alcohol and illness led him to take a sabbatical year in 1963, compelling Hart House Theatre to replace him with four guest directors at least two of whom—George McCowan and David Gardner—were Gill’s former students.18 The last play Gill staged as an artistic director was The Servant of Two Masters in February 1966 a play written by Carlo Goldoni in 1746. That play marked the transition period from direction under Gill to a long awaited incorporation of drama into the University of Toronto curriculum and it created a new body to manage Hart House Theatre: the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, a body to which Gill was invited.19

In retrospect, however, it may not seem so surprising that Gill’s Saint Joan was a hit. The main cast reads like a directory of Canada’s best theatre practitioners. It starred Charmion King, David Gardner, Donald and Murray Davis, William Eliot, John Walker, and Norman Fitzpatrick, all of whom benefited under Gill’s tutelage. These names are, of course, just the beginning of the actors, actresses, and comedians who begun their careers at Hart House Theatre under Gill. They include players such as Kate Reid, William Hutt, Donald Sutherland, Barbara Hamilton, Eric House, Arthur Hiller, Ted Follows, Mia Anderson, Don Harron, Leon Major, George McCowan, Araby Lockhart, Martin Hunter, Anna Cameron, Barbara Chilcott, Hal Jackman, Martin Brenzell, and Henry Kaplan.20 Because of Gill’s experience in theatre as a sort of jack-of-all-trades, he was able to train backstage crews as well. According to Marion Walker, Gill “had done everything in the theatre, including lighting and design. He did an incredible amount of training all sorts of people, much of which didn’t show. He trained Ron Montgomery, Roy Befus, designers like Les Lawrence and countless others.”21

Gill’s efforts to revitalize professional Canadian theatre went beyond Hart House Theatre, often teaching or directing other theatre or opera productions in his spare time. He taught at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts, and his love of opera inspired him to teach at the University of British Columbia Summer Opera School, becoming the school’s artistic director in 1958. Robert Gill also collaborated frequently with the Davis brothers: together, they founded the Straw Hat Players in Muskoka in 1948 and Toronto’s Crest Theatre in 1954 and directed the Davis brother’s revue There Goes Yesterday, which toured across Canada in 1950. For his efforts in Canadian drama, Robert Gill became the first Chairman of the Canadian Guild of Drama Adjudicators and won the Canadian Drama Award in 1952, and the Centennial Medal in 1967.22

Though Robert Gill was making theatre history, his health invariably deteriorated. On August 10, 1974, a Robert Gill finally succumbed to the illnesses that had plagued him for so long and died in Toronto. Although he was survived by his twin sister, sister, Mary McIssac of Glen Burnie, Maryland, no formal funeral service was announced. Consequently, Hart House Theatre organized a tribute to on October 28, 1974 by restaging a Saint Joan that featured the people Gill taught and inspired throughout his twenty-year tenure: Charmion King, David Gardner, Murray and Donald Davis, Eric House, Alan Earp, John Walker, and Norman Fitzpatrick.23 In 1985 the Graduate Centre for Drama named their studio theatre after him. After his death, the Robert Gill Award for Direction was established, an award given annually at the University of Toronto’s one-act drama festival, which in part celebrates Gill’s achievements and his loss from Hart House Theatre.24


Notes

 

Show 24 footnotes

  1. Richard Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” in A Strange Elation: Hart House: The First Eighty Years, ed. David Kilgour (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 98-99. David Gardner, “Robert Gill,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12/04/07, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/robert-gill/.
  2. Anonymous, “Robert Gill: Hart House head had major force in Canadian theatre,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Aug. 12, 1974: 12. David Gardner, “Robert Gill,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12/04/07, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/robert-gill/.
  3. Herbert Whittaker, “Theatre: Hart House Director Gets Back to Work,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), May 29, 1964: 11.
  4. Colin Sabiston, “Hart House Theatre Looks to the Campus,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 19, 1946: 8.
  5. David Gardner, “Robert Gill,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12/04/07, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/robert-gill/.
  6. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 97. Roly Young, “U. of T. Theatre Comes Alive: Wide Scope Promised In Hart House Revival,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Jul. 27, 1946: 17.
  7. Anonymous, “Robert Gill New Director At Hart House,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 7, 1946: 8. David Gardner, “Robert Gill,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12/04/07, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/robert-gill/.
  8. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 98.
  9. Herbert Whittaker, “Hart House again a student theatre,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 18, 1972: 17.
  10. Colin Sabiston, “Hart House Theatre Looks to the Campus,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 19, 1946: 8.
  11. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 98.
  12. Anonymous, “Gill to Produce Shaw’s St. Joan At Hart House,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Jan 18, 1947: 8.
  13. Herbert Whittaker, “Hart House again a student theatre,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 18, 1972: 17.
  14. Roly Young, “Rambling With Roly,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Jan. 30, 1947: 19.
  15. Colin Sabiston, “Hart House Production Of Comedy Is Knockout,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 27, 1947.
  16. Herbert Whittaker, “Theatre: Hart House Director Gets Back to Work,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), May 29, 1964: 11. Anonymous, “Four Guests Replace Gill at Hart House,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 12, 1963: 16.
  17. E.G. Wanger, “The Troublemakers: Tradition Broken at Hart House,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Jan. 23, 1956: 12.
  18. Anonymous, “Four Guests Replace Gill at Hart House,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 12, 1963: 16.
  19. Herbert Whittaker, “Goldoni-Gill Servant Marks An Era’s End,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Feb. 28, 1966: 15. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 96. 37th annual dinner of Hart House committees 14 March 1966 “Address by E. Arnold Wikinson, B.A. Acting Warden of Hart House,” pg 5 UTA, Office of the President, A1975-21/048(04).
  20. Roly Young, “Rambling With Roly,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Jan. 30, 1947: 19. Anonymous, “Robert Gill: Hart House head had major force in Canadian theatre,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Aug. 12, 1974: 12. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 98. David Gardner, “Robert Gill,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12/04/07, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/robert-gill/.
  21. Anonymous, “Robert Gill: Hart House head had major force in Canadian theatre,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Aug. 12, 1974: 12.
  22. David Gardner, “Robert Gill,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12/04/07, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/robert-gill/.
  23. Anonymous, “Robert Gill: Hart House head had major force in Canadian theatre,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Aug. 12, 1974: 12. Herbert Whittaker, “A vivid tribute to Robert Gill,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 29, 1974.
  24. David Gardner, “Robert Gill,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12/04/07, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/robert-gill/.