Sitting down on the job has become a way of life for Canadian actor and board game devotee, Jonathan Crombie. While in the thick of a twenty-seven city touring production of The Drowsy Chaperone (cross-reference below), JWR caught up with the versatile actor in Pittsburgh.
JWR: I understand you’ve been involved with this “musical within a comedy” wearing a number of hats. What’s the history?
JC: My first part was sculpting a paper mâché hat to play “Chef” at a bachelor/bachelorette party in Stratford prior to Bob Martin’s [who co-wrote the book with Don McKellar] wedding. In the New York production I played Gangster No. 2 and had a blast. At one point I was offered the role of Robert Martin (the fiancé of Janet Van de Graaff) but turned it down—I was having too much fun. Then, when the show played simultaneously in Toronto and New York, I took over Bob’s role of Man in Chair while he did it in Canada. And I’ve been slipping on my cardigan and observing the proceedings since our tour opened in Cleveland last October.
JWR: Didn’t Martin, essentially, launch your career?
JC: Towards the end of high school I was in a production of The Wizard of Oz. One of the performances was attended by Don McKellar and Lisa Lambert [composer] who were working with Bob but needed a replacement when Bob accepted another gig. It was great! At seventeen I was being paid to perform and we’ve been together one way or another ever since. Along with Paul O’Sullivan we started Skippy’s Rangers and have tried to perform our sketch comedy whenever we can fit it in. So far, we’ve only played Toronto, but if I decide to move to New York after the tour winds up in San Francisco, we’ll be able to use that material more often.
JWR: There are several Stratford credits on your list. How was that experience?
JC: Stratford was the best experience of my life. Being in the Young Company gave me not just stage time, but expert training in voice, movement and text. I soon learned another meaning for “folio!” I’ve never been to formal acting school; I’ve always learned on the job.
JWR: With eight shows a week for over a year, how do you keep fresh when the curtain goes up?
JC: Luckily, I just have one costume and don’t require make up [Man in Chair observes his favourite musical come to life in the living room of his simple New York apartment from the comfort of his favourite chair], but I’m on stage practically the whole time. I get wrapped up in the show as soon as the orchestra begins. There’s a new audience discovery every night. Reaction changes audience to audience—even in the same city; some prefer the slapstick others the more subtle humour and wordplay. I’ve also got to know Georgia Engel [quietly brilliant as Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show], as we share the same tastes in food and tend to arrive at the theatre at the same time for our prep. She’s been supportive from our first meeting—“Oh, you’re one of the Canadians”—[It could be argued that this is Canada’s best American musical.] and you can feel the crowd wants to embrace her from their seats every time.
JWR: Not just an actor, but filmmaker too? Tell us more about your upcoming new venture.
JC: (laughs) John Mitchell [also in the New York production] and I both love our guilty pleasures. One of those is Waiting for Ishtar [Elaine May, 1987], whose popularity continues from either bomb lovers or its real fans. When John was challenged to write a piece about his love, he discovered it would take months to get a copy from the Toronto Public Library—the waiting list was huge. He decided that this unexpected interest was a story in itself so brought me on board as cameraman and our documentary began. We’ve already shot over 40 hours of interviews with others on the waiting list and a wide assortment of critics, writers and directors including Elaine. We’re not quite done, and the edit remains, but it will have to stay on hold until the tour is over.
JWR: Sounds like a fascinating project and one more example of a varied career that’s been established and maintained by on-the-job training. JWR