Actor and producer Ross Petty was in the house when Dame Edna, the scathingly funny alter ego of Australian comedian Barry Humphries, performed for the last time in Toronto. Petty describes the moment when the octogenarian performer greeted the Princess of Wales Theatre audience after the final curtain call during his farewell tour.
“Barry Humphries came out very nattily attired in a suit. He was saying yes, I’m indeed leaving the stage as a performer. Here I am as a real personality. I found it very, very moving,” says Petty, who confesses to being “pretty emotional.”
Like Humphries, Petty has honed a theatrical genre that has long delighted audiences. In Petty’s case, it’s English Pantomime, a modern incarnation of which he mounts in Toronto every Christmas season.
Petty’s coming up on 20 years of panto at the Elgin Theatre—the first few productions were done at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. The 2015 anniversary will mark his last turn as a performer in the production.
Petty always plays a deliciously devilish villain. These are equal opportunity baddies—frequently the hero or heroine’s nasty nemesis is Petty in full drag. But after one last turn as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, he’ll confine himself to producing the annual show.
At 69 years old and in “pretty good shape,” Petty admits that doing eight shows a week for six weeks “physically takes its toll.” But he’s not giving up performing because the flesh is no longer willing.
“Performing is where I live,” says Petty. “It’s visceral, to be out on stage in front of a live audience.”
Nor is he hanging up his fake bosom so that he can spend more time with wife Karen Kain, Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada. “Karen only has three weeks off during the summer, so there’s still not going to be a lot of time to chill out.”
Giving up performing, however, will allow Petty to focus on the always daunting task of finding funding for the production. “I needed to make a business decision to focus on producing. Because that to me is the important thing, to keep the legacy going,” he explains.
As a producer of for-profit theatre, he gets no government funding, relying instead on his ability to “intrigue corporate Canada to come on as sponsors to my show.”
At that Petty has succeeded, creating a financial model that relies on ticket sales and sponsors, whose brands are incorporated into the show. He has consistently attracted big names, which he says have “been extraordinarily supportive and generous, in part because they see the business benefit.” Currently, he‘s in the middle of a three-year deal with CIBC.
Given the show’s high profile and favourable reviews, Petty is surprised at how many people don’t know about it, despite a million-dollar marketing campaign.
“There are so many families looking for the things to do (with kids) after you’ve taken them to The Nutcracker. And you know I love The Nutcracker,” says Petty, referring to Toronto’s other annual Christmas confection, mounted by the National Ballet.
Petty says his Canadian panto differs from a more “simplistic” English version. “I think ours are pretty layered,” he explains.
“We always make sure a heroine is not there solely because she is going to fall in love with the hero, and be happy ever after. We like to give her a through line. We want female children to understand that there is a real future waiting for them in which they can lead the way, that they are not just someone’s love interest. “
There are also topical references—commentary on everything from Toronto waterfront development issues to Big Food—which may account for the high percentage of adult ticket buyers. Youngsters and oldsters alike join in the hearty hissing, booing, cheering and clapping; enjoying the saucy jokes, broad gags and conspiratorial asides to the audience.
Petty is not worried about finding a replacement villain. “There are many wonderful actors in this country and a lot of them can do what I do, which is to be a buffoon, but let the audience know that you are not really dangerous,” he says.
Petty thinks letting children experience this raucous spectacle primes the country’s cultural pump. “We need to cultivate the love of art and culture in children of that early age. They are the audiences of the future. It is such a European thing for the family to take their kids to arts, symphony, and ballet. Here, it is very sports oriented.”
It’s especially important to Petty that his audiences get to experience the Elgin Theatre, which he calls “probably the most beautiful, the most historic theatre in this province. I would go so far as to say in Canada.”
Built in 1913, The Elgin was designed by architect Thomas Lamb as a “double-decker” theatre, with the Winter Garden Theatre above. The decline of vaudeville saw it close in 1928. It stayed shuttered for more than 50 years before being renovated and reopened in 1989.
“We are so lucky to have it restored to its original elegance. The city received a rare gem, and I am so grateful that I’ve been able to perform there for 20 years,” he says.
|“We need to cultivate the love of art and culture in children of that early age. They are the audiences of the future. It is such a European thing for the family to take their kids to arts, symphony, and ballet. Here, it is very sports oriented.”Peter Pan runs at the Elgin Theatre from November 27 until January 3, 2016. For more information, go to rosspetty.com|
Gratitude seems to be a habit with Petty. “I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” he says. “It’s a tough business—this business of show—and to be able to have a fruitful amount of work, and diverse work, over so many years makes me feel very grateful.”
Saying goodbye to a life on stage will, he says, be a moment more bitter than sweet. “My final bow, or as I like to say, my final boo, will be very emotional. There will be no sense of relief. It will be very tough to get through that performance.”