In our series revisiting 40 memorable NOW covers from the past 40 years, Michael Healey talks about his low expectations for future classic The Drawer Boy
It’s hard to believe now, but playwright and actor Michael Healey didn’t realize The Drawer Boy – his 1999 play about two Ontario farmers in 1972 whose lives are forever changed by a young Toronto actor – was going to be a hit.
“My expectations for the play were low, and I was really surprised that Jon [Kaplan, NOW’s beloved senior theatre writer, who passed away in 2017] wanted to interview me prior to opening,” he says, almost exactly 22 years after the play’s launch at Theatre Passe Muraille.
“I was really, really surprised that we got the cover.” For that February 18, 1999 issue, Steve Payne shot the cover at Riverdale Farm, where the writer gamely posed with some farm animals, in keeping with the play’s setting.
Healey is one of the country’s best known and most respected playwrights (Proud, 1979) and actors (This Is Wonderland, Coroner), but The Drawer Boy marked his full-length play debut. Jon had seen all of Healey’s work and read the Drawer Boy script before choosing to put Healey on the cover.
“I felt reasonably established as an actor, but this was my first full-length play, and first in a non-Fringe circumstance,” he says. “Before opening, we had two previews. Nobody came to the first one. And we had half a house for the second, but that performance went well. [Director] Miles Potter and I looked at each other, and he said, ‘We might be onto something.’ And then came opening night.”
I was lucky enough to be there, and in nearly 25 years of full-time theatre going it remains one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. At the end, the audience literally leapt to its feet.
“I have a very clear memory of being anxious during the first act,” says Healey. “I was sitting on those stairs that lead you upstairs to the back, and I could sort of watch the audience for the second act. I just felt the audience… cohere. It was a really amazing thing to watch and feel. And then there was this explosion at the end – yeah, it was without precedent in my life.”
The play earned universal raves, got extended, remounted, won Doras and the Governor General’s Award. A couple of weeks into the run, Healey heard about interest from other theatres, and he remembers thinking he would probably be able to get his next play produced somewhere.
Coincidentally, a review Jon published in Plays International caught the attention of Frasier actor John Mahoney, who was long associated with Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre. That company eventually mounted a production, with Mahoney in the cast, and it became a massive hit – for a time Steppenwolf’s most successful show. And it was responsible for the play becoming one of the most-produced plays in America. A couple of years ago, it was adapted into a lovely film.
Looking back on The Drawer Boy, Healey says the play provided him with “a kind of middle-class income for seven or eight years,” during which he wrote several plays, adapted others and acted occasionally.
“It gave me the opportunity to explore things while figuring out what a well-structured scene was and how to get to the climax of a show in a way that was inevitable yet surprising – that kind of thing.”
The play received a diverse production at Passe Muraille a few years ago as part of the company’s 50th anniversary season. Healey calls that production “fantastic, and a really great indication of the distance Toronto theatre has travelled.
“When I graduated from theatre school in 1985, Toronto theatre was the whitest place in the world, and so a multi-ethnic production of the play was long overdue and a really great indication of where the art form in the city is going – and is capable of going.”
Today, Healey is hopeful about the future of Canadian theatre. He recalls writing much of the play during the years Mike Harris was premier, with his “fuck culture and fuck the arts” attitude.
“The Drawer Boy, in some ways, is a response to the conversation that was happening right then, which was about why the arts are a public good. I wanted to write a show about somebody being genuinely changed by a piece of art.”
– Glenn Sumi
Check back every Monday morning for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year. Below is Jon Kaplan’s cover feature on Michael Healey, republished from our February 18, 1999 issue.
Michael Healey has perfected a comic style full of hesitancies and explosions of emotion. Whether as an actor or as a writer, he suggests a little twinge of something hiding. Or occasionally he’ll just blurt it out in a comment that maybe should not have been made.
You get that same arrhythmic feeling in an interview with Healey.
On a break from rehearsals of The Drawer Boy, he talks about his new show, weighing his words and giving the occasional humorous flip to his comments. There’s a dryness, a slyness to this comedy, that makes the most of just a nanosecond of hesitation to let a previous remark sink in.
Healey’s third foray into playwriting, The Drawer Boy follows the Dora-winning and Chalmers-nominated Kicked and the Fringe hit Yodellers, co-written with Kate Lynch. It’s the first place he’s written for others to perform, but all three scripts share a seriousness that’s undercut by quirky – and often unexpected – bits of comedy.
In Kicked – a performance tour-de-force – Healey played a policeman investigating the disappearance of a young girl, a school-bus driver who feels responsible for the bad things that happen to children, a stuttering shoe salesman and an ER doctor with a bad attitude. Yodellers cast him as a golf columnist drawn to a lesbian golfer (Lynch) who responds to his advances.
He has also played a jobless, desperate middle-class man in George F. Walker’s The End Of Civilization and appeared in such Jason Sherman works as The League Of Nathans, Reading Hebron and Three In The Back, Two In The Head.
It took the writing of Kicked – workshopped at the Theatre Centre, premiered in the 1996 Fringe and still in his repertory – to show him what kind of theatre artist he might be.
“A couple of years ago I fired all my agents and stopped auditioning for film, TV and commercials,” he says, sitting on the edge of his seat in the Passe Muraille offices. He has a guarded quality as he talks, but that reserve is what gives his moments of wit an extra zap.
“I don’t want that distraction or false notion of being a TV actor on the side, which is what a lot of stage actors think and hope.
“With Kicked, I started to understand what I might do as an artist if I could focus properly on a few goals. And it was just as clear to me that if I waited for others’ work to give me those things, it was going to be a long and frustrating process.”
Though it was Kicked that officially sealed his identity as an independent stage artist, he began writing The Drawer Boy in 1995, before Kicked took off, while he was performing at the Blyth Festival.
On a commission from the festival, he developed an idea about two middle-aged men who “were slightly isolated and whose lives were ruled by myths and ritual. Everything they did they had done a thousand times before, and they created their own myths to sustain themselves in their isolation.”
He decided to marry the idea to The Farm Show, a groundbreaking theatre work created by Theatre Passe Muraille over 25 years ago through an extraordinary process undertaken in the small town of Clinton, Ontario.
Locals still talk about The Farm Show as if it happened last weekend.
In 1972, a group of Theatre Passe Muraille actors moved to Clinton to gather material for the piece. Working with Passe Muraille director Paul Thompson, the performers – including David Fox, Janet Amos, Anne Anglin and Miles Potter – lived with the farmers and their families, listened to their stories and filtered the findings into the script. Initially acted for the locals and later performed around the world, The Farm Show features the actors as actual people, farm animals and even pieces of agricultural machinery.
“If The Farm Show wasn’t the first piece of collective theatre, it was the seminal event. It was genuinely Canadian in a period when the question was what will our theatre be like. Until then, Canadian audiences saw English and American touring shows and plays based on those foreign models.”
That historic production is the kickoff point for The Drawer Boy, which looks at the experiences of a young man named Miles who lives with and works for two older bachelor farmers while he gathers ideas for the collective project. A warmhearted paean to The Farm Show – appropriately staged by Passe Muraille and directed by Miles Potter, with David Fox as one of the two farmers – Healey’s work also deals with the opening of painful secrets and questions about appropriating someone else’s history.
“My attitude to the piece is reverential. I have a huge amount of affection for what I’ve learned about the event and respect for the achievement. But I’d be incapable of describing it without also talking about the fact that everyone had to be ducks and chickens at some point in the production.
“It’s so rich as a setup, such good fodder for humour,” he says of the sometimes hilarious script. “There’s probably no more embarrassing thing that the performers had to do than go to a farm and ask to observe the lives of those who lived there.
“To imagine something that affected people that powerfully, and on top of that was an event of theatre, brought a focus to my writing. I threw out what I’d begun and started thinking about the fact that an act of theatre can humanize someone.”
There’s more than a little irony in the statement, for Miles – the actor who shows up at Angus and Morgan’s farm looking for theatrical rather than barnyard feed – learns a lot about cows and even tries to behave and move like one. Think of it as the character exploring his own inner calf.
And though Healey saw Miles as catalyst and agent in the workshops of the script, it became clear to him that the narrative flow of the evening moved from Miles to the two older farmers.
“Morgan is typical of many people I met in Blyth and while I was researching the play,” remembers the writer. “He’s taciturn, but with a crafty sense of humour that takes the mickey out of a Torontonian at the earliest opportunity. He and Angus are like a married couple, together since childhood and extraordinarily dependent on each other. They have an ordered, insular world that Miles inadvertently upsets.”
Ironically, when Healey left Ryerson Theatre School in 1985 – he admits that he believed he’d be playing Hamlet at Stratford before he was 25 – he didn’t plunge into the theatrical stream but instead moved back home and started writing a novel.
“I’ve always felt the tug between the public event of performing and the internal, private event of writing,” he notes, adding wryly that “the novel failed because I had no sense of self-discipline. If a TV’s in the room, I watch it. I’m becoming more disciplined now.”
Other writers – notably Jason Sherman – have fed him artistically. “Jason is so brilliant at making changes in rehearsal on the fly. A lot of the richness, the layers and depth, in Jason’s plays comes from his working with the actors in rehearsals or workshops. He taught me that you have to be sensitive to what an actor needs.
“And he’s shown me that I don’t have to complete a sentence in order to give it meaning, and that speech can imply as much as it explicates.”
Healey and writing partner Kate Lynch spent last year in the Tarragon’s Playwrights Unit, working on Kreskinned, a companion piece to the Fringe hit Yodellers. The two one-acts about modern romance will be mounted at the Tarragon next year under the title The Road To Hell. Healey credits the unit with providing the propulsion to get a show finished.
“We’re both young writers, and learning how to collaborate while learning how to write was exhausting,” he recalls. “It became a daily matter of putting down on paper fun things to do onstage and giving the characters huge problems to solve.
“It’s true that in the process I sometimes bully her, and she usually acquiesces at the time. But later there’s the suggestion” – he smiles cunningly – “that I might be using up too much of the oxygen in the room.”