AD EMERITUS - INFINITHÉÂTRE
Studying for a BA at McGill, Mr. Sprung bought a specially priced $10 student season ticket to the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. Productions like Faut Jeter la Veille (Dario Fo) and Le Marquis qui Perdit (Ducharme), in contemporary parlance, “blew his mind”, opening his imagination to the possibilities of theatre. His fate was sealed. A life in the theatre was ‘incontournable’. For the 1968-69 school year, he ran the McGill Players Club, facilitating over 50 productions playing to a total audience of over 12,000 in the small studio theatre that seated only 100. Many of his McGill contemporaries, actors such as Fiona Reed, Dixie Seatle, and Sherry Flett, or filmmakers such as Lazlo Barna, are today pillars of the Canadian cultural establishment. All left Québec to pursue their career. Mr Sprung chose to make Québec his home despite the inherent hurdles of creating theatre in English in Québec.
At McGill, he also founded his first professional theatre company, Theatre XV (named in homage to Michel Saint-Denis’s theatre, La Compagnie des Quinze) and presented a summer season in Moyse Hall. The repertory included the North American premiere of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. By total serendipity, one of the actors in the company was David Mamet, the now world famous Pulitzer-prize winning American dramatist and film director.
Having paid his rent as a drama critic for the Montreal Star while also working as a member of IATSE, the stage hands' union, Mr Sprung embarked on what he calls his "wandering apprenticeship years” in Europe. After a brief sojourn in Berlin as an Assistant Director at the Schiller Theatre (in German), in 1971, Mr. Sprung traveled to England and spent four formative years founding and running the Half Moon Theatre, a left-wing community theatre in the East End of London. Under his leadership, the converted former synagogue quickly became a highly respected contributor to the London theatre scene. Five decades later, the Half Moon continues to thrive as one of the most important, high-profile, and best-subsidized Theatre in Education/Community Theatres in all of England. His repertoire mixed new work by local writers with innovative productions of the classics. The artistic, critical, and box office success of the Half Moon was extraordinary. His production of Will Wat, a play about Wat Tyler and the 1381 Peasants’ Uprising, which he conceived and co-wrote, was hailed by John Mortimer in the London Observer, as “one of the best things I have seen as a critic”. The Half Moon was listed in the tourist guides as the “hot”, not-to-be-missed alternative theatre.
A career in British theatre was beckoning, but then, in a London cinema, he saw Mordecai Richler’s film, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. The adaption of the iconic Montréal novel made him so homesick he got on a plane and returned to Québec.
The next six years were spent as a freelance director working out of Montreal. For the Centaur Theatre, he conceived and directed plays like Les Canadiens and The Leonard Cohen Show. He also struck up an important working relationship with playwright David Fennario. Nothing To Lose played at the Centaur (twice) and ran in Toronto and toured Ontario. It was a time when Québec theatre was having a huge impact on theatre in Canada. Mr. Sprung’s production of Fennario’s, Balconville (1979) remains one of the seminal plays of Québec. It branded the Centaur Theatre as a genuine Montréal establishment. Remounted numerous times, his production toured Canada and then the British Isles. When Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, and the entire Montreal Canadiens hockey team attended a Saturday matinée of Balconville at Theatre Maisonneuve in Place des Arts in 1980, Mr. Sprung witnessed his two obsessions, the Habs and the theatre, come together.
During this period, Mr. Sprung was also dramaturging and directing plays, such as the national tour of Paper Wheat, out of Saskatchewan; two world premières of plays by W.O. Mitchel in Calgary; the premieres of Sharon Pollock’s play, Doc, in Calgary; and Ann Chislet’s Quiet in the Land in Blyth, Ontario. The two latter plays both went on to win Governor General Awards for drama. By 1983, his freelance work was receiving such public and critical acclaim that he was head-hunted to run the Toronto Free Theatre. Seven highly creative, exhausting, but extremely successful years followed. Production activity and box office at the Free soared. With productions such as Brecht’s In The Jungle of the Cities, RH Thompson starring as Hamlet, and Trafford Tanzi, TFT pretty much set the standard for quality, exciting theatre in Toronto. During this period, true to his fundamental belief that theatre should reach a large popular audience, Mr. Sprung also founded the outdoor Shakespeare in High Park. Every year, to this day, more than 50,000 Torontonians experience high quality, low cost Shakespeare, al fresco. During this period, he also found time to direct award-winning productions at the Stratford Festival, such as Brien Friel’s Translations, and he was named an Associate Director at the festival. In 1987-88, he was, for one season, also the interim Artistic Director of the Vancouver Playhouse.
With Bill Glassco, he founded the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto. One of Mr. Sprung’s lesser-known legacies is his strategic coup in convincing of the City of Toronto to lease the Berkeley Street Campus, one of the most exciting theatre and production venues in the country, to the newly formed Canadian Stage Company in perpetuity for a token rent. In 1990, as the first sole Artistic Director of the new company, Mr. Sprung programmed a season entirely of Canadian plays, the majority of them new works. It was a principled decision intended to cement the mandate of the Canadian Stage with a distinct vision. The Board of Directors blocked his vision, triggering a public scandal that have consequences to this day on the Toronto theatre scene.
In 1990, he was invited to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Russian at Moscow’s fabled Pushkin Theatre. The production ran for eleven years in repertory. Hot Ice, his memoir documenting that adventure, is in most English libraries across Canada. Mr. Sprung came home to Québec to direct, write, and act, even working as a literary columnist for the Montréal Gazette. He made three major documentaries in both French and English for Radio Canada/CBC/Télé-Québec. He acted on screen opposite stars like Gene Hackman, John Malkovich, Rhys Ifans, and Sophie Lorain, and on the stage in productions at the Compagnie Jean Duceppe, in French, in Daniel Denis’s That Woman and Rahul Varma’s Bhopal in English.
He also travelled to Winnipeg to direct Oscar-winning American actor William Hurt in Richard III at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, bringing with him a cohort of nine of the best Montréal actors, including la regretée, Marthe Turgeon.
In 1999, he took over Theatre 1774, changed its name to Infinithéâtre, and revamped the mandate to reflect and explore issues of contemporary Montréal by developing, producing, and brokering only the work of Québec writers, occasionally permitting himself to attack significant adaptations of classics deliberately tailored to be relevant to contemporary Québec. This mandate change was Mr. Sprung’s conscious attempt to show that English-language artists can be proud citizens of Québec, participating in the evolution of Québec society and speaking to all Québeckers. One of the early successes of the company was a unique (unauthorized) Montréal bilingual adaptation of Beckett’s Endgame/Fin de partie in the Darling Factory in Griffintown. Other notable productions include Trevor Ferguson’s first play, Long, Long, Short, Long (which he also directed for La compagnie Jean Duceppe as Le Pont), and an adaptation of Yann Martel’s Helsinki Rocammatios. David Sherman’s play The Daily Miracle initiated an important discussion on the decline of the newspaper print industry. The same writer’s Joe Louis tackled the whole discussion about racism and was attended in significant numbers by Montréal’s Black community. Jason Maganhoy’s play GAS was a devastating anti-war drama set in Iraq. Alyson Grant’s play, Trench Patterns was a moving portrayal of a Québec soldier’s post-Afghanistan’s PTSD. Ms. Grant’s play Progress! played in the vacant former Royal Victoria Hospital and was another huge hit with the public.
Oren Safdie’s play Unseamly exposed the sexual harassment in the garment industry and was, so we understand, part of the discussion which led the Board of Directors of American Apparel to fire Dov Charney, the company’s founder and CEO. Recent productions include a contemporary Montréal dramatic interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets in conjunction with McGill Department of English, which was deemed “extraordinary”, “powerful”, and “startling” by David Schalkwyk, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, Queen Mary University of London. His epic play Fight On!, about the 19th-Century European settlers’ occupation of the Prairies, was four days from opening when the COVID-19 pandemic closed all theatres in Montréal.
Infinithéâtre productions created in Montréal have toured around the Island of Montreal, around Québec, Ontario, to the NAC in Ottawa, and even as far as Scotland, New York, Cairo, Tokyo, and Beijing. Plays developed and brokered by Infinithéâtre have also been produced by other theatres, in New York (on two occasions), Toronto, and Tokyo. Infinithéâtre, unfortunately, has no home venue. Its primary residence, Le Bain St. Michel, was closed for renovations by the Ville de Montréal in 2014. Since that time, Infini has lived a nomadic existence. For the past two seasons, Infini has been grateful for the hospitality of the Rialto Theatre and Kin Experience. Sprung’s own adaptation of a Kafka short story, Kafka’s Ape, has been touring the world on and off for four years and has been performed over 150 times.
Over nearly 50 years of devotion to the art form, Guy Sprung’s commitment to theatre as a unique symbiosis of entertainment and social and political discourse has never wavered. Mr. Sprung has also devoted considerable time and energy attempting to pass his craft and passion on to future generations, working with the Stratford Festival Young Company, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre School, the Ryerson University Theatre School, the National Theatre School, and the Conservatoire d'art dramatique, as well as teaching bilingual directing courses at the University of Ottawa. The following is David Fennario’s testament: "...theatre comes first to Guy Sprung, even before his own self interests, because of his love of our chosen art form. It's this commitment to theatre that is the source of Guy's talent as a director, teacher, and producer. It's what makes him special. It's what makes his productions special. He will always serve the artist first."