Canadian stage and screen great Colm Feore honours the late novelist Richard B. Wright, the teacher who breathed life into his dreams of pursuing a career in the arts.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photos: Raina & Wilson; Location: Hart House Theatre
When Richard B. Wright died this past February, at the age of 79, not only did the Canadian literary scene lose one of its finest novelists but 25 years’ worth of Ridley College alumni also lost the man who helped them discover their true potential.
“He shook things up in a way that made us think all kinds of things we had never considered possible,” recalls award-winning actor Colm Feore, from his home in Stratford, Ont., overlooking the historic Festival Theatre where he has spent much of his time since 1981.
The 58-year-old thespian is one of this country’s most celebrated stars of stage, film and television, having played everyone from pianist Glenn Gould and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau to Hamlet and King Lear. Canadian audiences will no doubt recognize him from his latest portrayal of the wryly comic senior RCMP officer in Bon Cop, Bad Cop 2. There is some irony in his playing this particular role, since back in 1977 — when he was a high school student at Ridley in St. Catharines — he was headed in that professional direction. But then along came Richard Wright.
It was around that time that headmaster Richard Bradley was looking for someone to replace Ross Morrow, the school’s retiring English master — and not just anyone, someone out of the ordinary. “Wright was just the ticket,” recalls Feore. “A real working writer, someone who would light a fire under all of us Tom Brown’s School Days types.”
He lightheartedly reminisces about a particular style of English teacher whose approach, back in the day, largely consisted of puffing on their pipes and playing a Cædmon recording of John Gielgud reciting the Bard.
But Wright was different; using a distinct style that Feore fondly channels: “Do any of you know about birding? You’ve trained hawks? Good, bring one into class! Have you ever seen a real wineskin? Bring one in! Let’s make this play come alive!”
"He helped students discover that they were more intelligent than they imagined."
The 17-season Stratford veteran may have shared a stage with the likes of renowned Shakespearean leading men, but the performing skills of his former professor still claim pride of place in his memory. “The man had a truly galvanic effect on all of us.” But there was much more to Wright than flash and panache. “He was good at teaching literature because he knew what questions to ask,” says Colin Brzezicki, a longtime colleague at Ridley, “and he was especially good at it because he knew there was never just one answer.
“Richard liked asking open-ended questions because it would increase student collaboration.” As for his ultimate secret — it was a simple one. “He helped students discover that they were more intelligent than they imagined.”
The acclaimed writer was born in 1937 in Midland, Ont., and although he spent most of his adult life in Toronto — prior to settling down in the Niagara region in 1976 — small-town Ontario cast a long shadow over his life. Clara Callan, which was published in 2001 and considered by many to be Wright’s greatest literary success, was in fact his attempt to understand the women who taught him as a child. The novel sold about 200,000 copies and won him three major Canadian awards (the Giller Prize, the Trillium Book Award and the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction).
The veteran teacher wrote 13 novels, but he wasn’t considered successful until nearly 65, however, “Richard never compromised his integrity as a writer,” says Brzezicki. “He wrote for himself, on his own terms.”
Wright was serious about literature, but those closest to him insist that he wasn’t a solemn individual by any means. “He was an elfin kind of guy with a real twinkle in his eye,” says Feore. “When I saw the film The Luck of Ginger Coffey, I thought of Wright. You’d think, ‘Oh, he’s been through some scrapes.’ He was so full of life.”
The Gemini Award-winner may not have pursued a career in literature, but he firmly believes that it was Wright who awakened him to the power of his craft, which led him to acting. And it was Feore’s introduction to a trio of books that sealed the deal: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
“Richard would just take hold of us. He’d sit on the edge of his desk, and read a passage and it would just come to life,” recalls Feore. “Suddenly it was James Joyce talking to us and we were the young artists.”
Brzezicki’s memory of the minimalist approach remains vivid: “A piece of chalk, the blackboard and the book he was teaching.” But Brzezicki is convinced that it was the students who really drove his friend. “What he wanted, more than anything, is that they would become lifelong readers. He didn’t expect them to become English teachers or writers. He just wanted them to read.”
And so they did. And they remain grateful, some 40 years later. Feore still recalls the famous acid-throwing scene from Brighton Rock and how Wright made it electric. “There was nothing academic or pipe-smoking about it. It was sheer visceral engagement. I remember thinking ‘He knows how to grab hold of an audience and gain their attention, that’s what I want to learn.’ Richard made the life of an artist seem viable because he was living it himself while teaching us. I realized that I wanted to be an actor.”
By the end of the school year, when the young man’s parents shared their worries about their son pursuing acting with headmaster Bradley, he shook his head as though the train had long left the station. “Colm wants to do this,” Feore’s parents were told. “He couldn’t stop doing it if he tried.”
It all came full circle years later, when Brzezicki went with Wright to Stratford, to see the former student play the title role in King Lear. “I was thrilled that he came,” admits Feore. “I remember Wright saying that he thought it was good. That was enough for me!”
The late talent who divided his life between writing and teaching students to appreciate the writing of others, loved to quote Lear, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” For those who knew him, there was never any question.
“He did double duty all his life; a true teacher of English and a real Canadian novelist,” says Feore. And when Brzezicki looks back at Wright’s life, he delivers a moving epitaph. “His strategies were simple but his outcomes were enormous.”
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.