Atom Egoyan remembers David Bennett, Colin Skinner and Dougal Fraser
Born in Cairo to Armenian parents who immigrated to Canada in 1962, Atom Egoyan was acutely aware that he and his family were unusual in the very English west-coast city of Victoria. Like the children of most immigrants, he wanted nothing more than to learn to speak English and assimilate as quickly as possible.
“I was perfectly fluent by the time I entered Grade 1 at Glenlyon Preparatory School, which is really where my love of drama was instilled in me,” says Egoyan. “Glenlyon had fantastic teachers and a very active, lively ad hoc drama club that met a couple of times a week – on the no-sports days.” The teachers wrote and directed plays in which the boys then performed. “An early inspiration and highlight for me was my wonderful Grade 5 classroom teacher, David Bennett, who wrote and directed No Hope for Canaries. The play was based on an idea I had about boys trapped in an abandoned mineshaft somewhere in British Columbia. It was really thrilling for me.”
Bennett taught at Glenlyon from 1970 to 1978 and recalls that in the assigned creative writing exercises there was no holding Atom back. “He would produce three to four full sheets of highly readable, engaging material with only a few minor grammatical errors. It was very inspiring for me as a teacher.” Bennett says he was fortunate to have had many wonderfully gifted students. “When I hear of their success, it really comes back to me how much impact we can have on our students.”
The most active playwright among the Glenlyon teachers was Egoyan's Grade 6 teacher, Colin Skinner, whose play Robot included a character called Atom who was played by Atom. “This really changed my world and I started writing my own plays.” Skinner wrote plays that were performed within the school and mounted student productions for the annual Victoria Student Drama Festival.
“The plays were real events for us and they produced a high level of excitement,” says Egoyan – in part, perhaps, because they brought contact with the students of Norfolk House, a private girls' school and sister institution that later amalgamated with Glenlyon to become the co-educational Glenlyon Norfolk School.
“Colin was able to convey his total enthusiasm and joy in the creative process. He made us feel an integral part of the process.” Egoyan goes on to add that, “There was no evidence of ego in Colin. It was extraordinary to be involved in something so rare. There is a persistence in that kind of inspiration that becomes part of you and stays with you.”
“At one point,” says Egoyan, “Dougal Fraser, a trained actor who had graduated from London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, took over the drama club. He introduced me to George Orwell, whose work became a significant influence in my own writing and thinking.”
Egoyan adds that Fraser particularly focused on performance. “I learned a lot about directing actors from him. He always made sure that the actors precisely understood the author's intentions. That way they would be comfortable with what they were saying and what the subtext was.”
Fraser taught at Glenlyon from 1975 to 1978 and taught Egoyan in Grade 10. “I was immediately struck by a wonderful paper Atom had written about Animal Farm,” he recalls. “He had a keen intelligence and was an exceptionally clear critical thinker. I directed several plays he wrote and was amazed at what a quick writer he was.”
Egoyan spent his final high school years at Mount Douglas Senior Secondary – affectionately known to the students as “Mount Dog.” Mount Douglas also had an active drama program and Egoyan happily continued to write plays, several of which were produced and directed by Dougal Fraser, with whom Egoyan had stayed in touch.
“At that time,” says Fraser, “Atom was also influenced by the plays of Ionesco, by the terseness of the dialogue and the spare settings. Yet he was never derivative. What I've noticed in almost all of Atom's films is that first impressions are often wrong, and that may be something he learned from Ionesco, whose plays are open to many interpretations – some more valid than others.”
Since his public and high school days, Egoyan has become one of the most celebrated Canadian filmmakers on the international scene. Although he studied international relations and classical guitar at the University of Toronto, he found his calling in the art and language of cinema and began his professional filmmaking career by writing and directing short films and directing television series before making his debut feature film, Next of Kin, in 1984. Egoyan's films reflect “very personal thematic obsessions, delving into issues of intimacy, displacement and the impact of technology and media in modern life.”
In 1997 his film, The Sweet Hereafter, which he adapted from the Russell Banks novel, won three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival: the Grand Jury Prize, the International Critics' Prize and the Ecumenical Award for Humanist Filmmaking. The film also received two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Director and the other for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“The debt I owe to my early teachers is monumental,” says Egoyan, who has stayed in touch with several of his teachers. “I always wanted them to know how important they were in my life. I wanted them to feel a part of my career, so I kept in touch and visited with them whenever I was in Victoria. Dougal Fraser comes to Toronto once a year and we always see each other.”
When Egoyan received an honorary degree from the University of Victoria in 1998, many of his teachers were invited to the ceremony.
“What teachers do is heroic,” says Egoyan. “To me, theirs is a sacred calling. It's essential to how society will be formed and yet is not often acknowledged. It's so important that teachers preserve a sense of how significant and important their work and their enthusiasm is.
“You just never know when you can change the life of a student.”
Atom Egoyan was knighted by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, received the Anahid Literary Award from the Armenian Center at Columbia University, and was inducted into the Order of Canada. He has received honorary doctorates from universities across Canada.
Lead photo by Anthony Woods. Additional photos courtesy Glenlyon Norfolk School.
Atom Egoyan -
Selected feature films
Selected theatre and opera (as director)