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Friday, June 14, 2024

Barrymore’s ghost takes up residence in White Rock

John Barrymore is about to haunt White Rock’s Coast Capital PlayhouseSentenced to a purgatorial existence as penance for his abandonment of the theater and the squandering of his talents, in Barrymore’s Ghost the stage and screen icon disputes these assertions, taking the audience on the twists and turns of his Hollywood and personal life, spilling family secrets along the way.

The Page Theatre, in a co-production with White Rock Players, presents Barrymore’s Ghost in July. We find out more in this Q&A with The Page Theatre’s artistic director Alexandra Wilson, actor John Cousins, and the show’s director Dale Kelly.

Q[/dropcap] How did you come about to choose Barrymore’s Ghost?

Alexandra Wilson responds:

Dale approached me with the script for Barrymore’s Ghost. He and John had wrapped up I Hate Hamlet for White Rock Players and the Barrymore magic had stuck as Barrymore was a central character in I Hate Hamlet. They were both eager to see this script come to life.

For me, it was easy. I’ve worked with both John and Dale before and know how talented they are. I already knew about John Barrymore. Tthanks to my parents, I was the only eight year old who knew about John’s greatness in theatre and drunkenness everywhere else, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine’s sibling rivalry and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s Pepsi vs Coke wars. But how could you not love old Hollywood?

The only question that remained was, how good is the Barrymore’s Ghost script? I started reading it and couldn’t put it down.

Q[/dropcap] What was it about the play that excited you?

Alexandra Wilson responds:

Hollywood icons fascinate most of us, but movie stars of the 20’s and 30’s with well kept dark family secrets is especially intriguing.

Barrymore is a standout in a family of standouts; an immense talent on stage, silent films and ‘talkies’. But there are so many layers to this man. Through his quick wit and often drunken state, you can see the rawness and sad memories, the longing for love and stability when it was within reach the whole time.

Family members dying alone, one by one, in sanitariums. A father with Syphilis, a brother who was a closet heroin addict and a sister a closet drunk. A vulture as a favourite pet. Marriages, divorce and bankruptcy. At 14 an affair with his step mother. Remarkable family history.

Everything about this story and this time is exciting. The world was changing rapidly, for the good and the bad. Hollywood studios kept a tight reign on their stars, but underneath the glitz and the glamour was more struggle and desperation then most of today’s Hollywood. Oh to be able to go back in time.

Q[/dropcap] Most people today won’t know who John Barrymore is – did you see that as an issue when choosing a show about him?

Alexandra Wilson responds:

There is a risk with every production theatre companies must take. One audience will only want to see the well known or classics, another audience will only want to see new plays or rarely done productions. It’s a difficult balance, but theatre is risk. All art is risk.

With Barrymore, there is still a current connection as everyone knows of his granddaughter, Drew. Everything you hear in Barrymore’s Ghost is part of Drew’s family history.

But the thought popped into my head that what if not enough people know who John Barrymore is? What if people didn’t make the connection between Drew and John? But that’s why we are here. To introduce people to the past or new ideas or remind them of a classic story. Taking the risk is vital. And this is one truly amazing man with a very fascinating past. There is so much to take in.

Q[/dropcap] Did you know of Barrymore before the show? Did you have any doubts about playing someone based on a real-life person?

John Cousins responds:

This actually is not my first performance as John Barrymore.

This whole journey began in February 2015 when Dale Kelly was auditioning for I Hate Hamlet. In the play a TV commercial actor is given the theatrical role of Hamlet and to assuage his nerves he receives a visit from the ghost of Barrymore. I won the role of Barrymore but was cautioned of the heavy criticism every actor who played this role had received. This scared the hell out of me but I was not one to run away from a challenge so I researched and did the best I could to capture Barrymore’s spirit. I was very relieved and happy to have received many positive responses to performance.

Before this, I had known of Barrymore but not to the extent I do now. I knew portraying someone of his stature, especially as an actor in theatre and film, was a huge responsibility. And this time around, opening the door to all the aspects, thoughts and feelings of this man did make me nervous. I wanted to “do right by him.”

Q[/dropcap] Did you find any similarities between yourself and Barrymore in helping to prepare for the role?

John Cousins responds:

Actually the similarities are what helped make it simplier. Being an actor, I could relate to many of his struggles, especially the memorization of lines. When I first read this play I found I was nodding my head in agreement to many of his observations.

Q[/dropcap] Do you play the role as an impersonation or an approximation? How did you prepare for the role as Barrymore?

John Cousins responds:

I will try my best to look and sound like Barrymore, which I’ve been told I do. I did do extensive research. Read his history. Looked at pictures of him, his family, his wives and the Vice Squad. I watched interviews and several of his movies. My favorite, the one that made me a fan was The Man Who Votes.

My main focus is to just tell his stories with truth and sincerity. Be as real to the text as possible. I believe if I do that I will capture his spirit and the audience will see and hear John Barrymore.

Q[/dropcap] How do you help prepare an actor to play a real person?

Dale Kelly responds:

Basically research, research, research. Books, movies, online interviews. The actor does research and I do research. We compare notes, and decide what characteristics we wish to highlight.

Q[/dropcap] What is that the playwright Jason Miller trying to say?

Dale Kelly responds:

That even the most charmed life has it’s share of trials and misfortunes. It’s how we deal with these tribulation that defines us.

Barrymore’s Ghost plays the Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston St, White Rock) from July 13-23. Visit for tickets and information.

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