Toronto theatre wouldn't be what it is today without Paul Bettis. The 65-year-old director and actor, who died last Thursday, August 4, of lung cancer, was one of the stage pioneers of the 70s, a time when Canadian theatre was beginning to develop its own voice.
Bettis was bright, analytical and always had a twinkle in his eye, even when he was criticizing the local arts scene, as he often did. He never lost his passion for theatre, or for developing works that challenged an audience.
Born in England, Bettis studied at Oxford, taught in Vancouver and performed in Ottawa before moving to Toronto. His most important work in the 70s was as artistic director of Theatre Second Floor, a company that produced works by Shakespeare, Beckett, Sam Shepard and Des McAnuff (who would later co-write and direct The Who's Tommy on Broadway). His company of actors included Patricia Hamilton, Jim Garrard, Steven Bush, Jackie Burroughs, Robert Nasmith and Bruce Vavrina.
He later worked with a number of other companies, among them VideoCabaret, the Shaw Festival and Buddies, but in recent years it was with another of his own companies, Civilized Theatre, that he again contributed to the variety of productions on Toronto stages.
In works like The Freud Project and Svengali he relied on The Rule Play, a type of theatre that allows chance and a set of unspoken directives to determine how each performance takes shape.
The approach typified a theatre artist who never shied away from risk.
A memorial for Paul Bettis is planned for next month.