Frayne McCarthy is one extremely busy artist.
He and his partner, Kevin John Saylor, are co-owners of the Royal Theatre Thousand Islands in Gananoque, Ontario, one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the late spring, all of summer and fall. I just discovered this theatre online last summer and am hoping to check out the space this summer, fingers crossed.
After two invitations with no response from Frayne, I had moved on. It was a nice surprise to get the answers to the questions from him tonight through Messenger. As you read his answers, you’ll understand and see why he must place some elements of his life in priority.
Frayne has liked some of the profiles I’ve published over the course of the pandemic, but his name sounded familiar to me even before I saw his resume. Once I saw it, then I knew where I had seen his work before. I saw Frayne’s performance as Marius in the Montréal production of ‘Les Misérables’ at Théâtre St. Denis. I also saw his work in the original Canadian cast of the musical ‘Napoleon’ at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. You’ll see from his answers what else and where else Frayne’s life and work have taken him.
Thank you so much, Frayne, for adding your voice to the conversation:
Tell me about some of the teachers and mentors in our life for whom you are thankful and who brought you to this point in your life as a performing artist.
I haven’t had a typical performer’s training, so some of my mentors might surprise you. I suppose I can honestly say that my earliest mentor was my mother. I remember singing with both my Mom and Dad during the longish car rides to visit my grandparents. My mother always had a beautiful singing voice (and still does), and even as a young child I appreciated that she had something more significant in her sound than any of my teachers who taught us ditties at school.
Fairly recently, I heard a keepsake cassette-recording of Mom singing with a twelve-year-old me for an aunt and uncle’s wedding, and I realized that, indeed, Mom had the natural talent to have been a professional singer. That sort of thing just wouldn’t have been considered realistic for an English-speaking girl from a rural background in western Quebec in the 50s and 60s…but she was absolutely that talented.
In fact, performing never seemed like a possibility for me either. I attended a high school where there was no drama program to speak of, except for the small mafia of popular kids (which definitely did not include me) who seemed to monopolize the class for social time. There were no school plays or musicals, so I was never the least bit inclined to explore Theatre in school.
But once I got to college things changed.
Heritage College in Hull (now Gatineau) Québec didn’t have a Music or Theatre program, but while I was there, it did have a National Award-Winning stageband comprised of high school grads (that’s grade 11 in Québec) with exceptional talent who came from the separate school board’s feeder school (so, not the high school that I attended). These players were so remarkable that they were kept together as a group by two very caring bandleaders, Bobby Cleal and Heather Karas, who volunteered their time and talent to continue working with these students who had so much musical potential, and to help carry their development further.
Bobby, Heather, and this brilliant gang of musicians to which they were committed just came together to rehearse (for no academic credit or financial remuneration at all) because it was thrilling to make amazing music together. And my own life was completely changed when I was allowed to participate as a band vocalist.
Now, I know you might be wondering what singing in a band might have to do with Theatre, but I only later came to realize that it had a great deal to do with how I evolved as an actor. I learned to interpret my songs. Acting is storytelling and every song is a story being told through with music; it’s a sung soliloquy of sort. As I explored the feelings behind the lyrics, the dialogue that told these stories, I was becoming an actor.
I was privileged to be a real part of this group of brilliant, talented players who, again without a Music Program, went on to win several Music Festival awards including the National College and University top prize and a regional ‘Best Festival Soloist’ – usually reserved for an exceptional instrumentalist – by me, a singer. I will always remember Heather talking through a band arrangement for a vocal number, and I will always remember when, after hearing me sing, Mr. Cleal officially announced that I was in the band. Excellence was nurtured by these great mentors who gave so much of themselves to our young band. Several of the players went on to professional careers in music. And because they took a chance on me and believed in my talent long before I ever took a singing lesson, I had an opportunity to discover my own potential as a performer.
Sorry for reminiscing at such length about how I became a band singer, but it really was a catalyst for my personal artistic development. I later went on to study at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec; I took electives and audited classes in the University of Ottawa Music Department (while I was a full-time student in the Visual Arts Department). Later I studied Vocal Performance for a few semesters in the Jazz Program at Humber College.
Some of my music teachers were very helpful, but I made my greatest strides as a singer with my private voice teacher, Bruce Kelly in Toronto, who became my mentor and friend. He took on the mantle of mentor very seriously, and he was a constant and generous source of guidance, information, and support. I had the privilege of studying with Bruce for several years and he still inspires me today.
As for Acting mentors, well I learned stagecraft mostly “by doing”, and talking to directors and other actors whom I respected. Much of my formal education was spent in Art studios with a paintbrush in my hand, but I realized eventually that I yearned to be a performer, particularly in Musical Theatre. Rather than go back to school to immerse myself in a formal theatre program, I instead threw myself into as many amateur productions as I could audition for in the Greater Toronto area, where I was living at the time. And it was an amazing education, although I sometimes joke that it was the School of Hard Knocks.
I spent many hours learning my lines and lyrics while on buses and subways travelling to rehearsals in Toronto, Scarborough, Mississauga or wherever there was a show that I wanted to be in. I just got myself there.
Of course, there were lessons to be learned through every show in which I was cast, but wo very special people stand out as my mentors during this period of my life: Lorraine Green Kimsa was the Artistic Director of Broadway North in North York, and she knew how to push me to be bolder and more confident that I eve thought I could be on stage. She took my shyness and vulnerability and made them strengths.
Next, choreographer Nina Falconer, who became like a sister to me, taught me to have fun with dance, and to remember to smile in difficult scenes or through songs of melancholy or sorrow. Nina was never my director, but she was a constant artistic touchstone whom I always trusted when I asked for her personal notes. You can instinctively figure out who you best teachers are, and Nina was one of them.
I’m trying to think positively that we have, fingers crossed, moved forward in our dealing with Covid even though the media tells us otherwise. How have you been able to move forward on a personal level? How have you been changed or transformed personally?
Covid has been a terrible beast. I admire the people who can honestly say they have been positively changed through this period. Like many, I put on a brave face, pulled away from friends and family, took a forced break from my career, followed all prescribed protocols (including double vaccination and then boostered), and I’ve been waiting for things to get better.
You know this, but your readers likely are now aware that I co-own the Royal Theatre Thousand Islands in Gananoque, Ontario with my partner, Kevin John Saylor In March of 2020 we shut down our operations before many other theatres, and we’ve remained closed until some limited capacity events were briefly allowed.
But the stress of having both our home and the theatre to maintain without an income has been hard on my partner and me. Just because there weren’t any shows on our stage didn’t mean that we didn’t have the regular monthly overhead to pay. Kevin took a job on the Mohawk Territory of Kahanawake, which is his home community, teaching Grades 7 and 8 English. We are grateful for his employment at this time because we need some kind of household income to cover bills at the house and at the Royal.
Unfortunately, I know that Kevin who has taught Theatre at the State of New York, has four University Degrees and a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada, is not in the most fulfilling teaching position for someone with his qualifications and artistic experiences. And so, while he’s in the classroom, we’re apart from one another during the week, every week, which is challenging, stressful and depressing. It’s an entirely different mindset than when we’re separated for creative work, like a show in a different city.
So, I suppose the greatest challenge these days is maintaining a degree of optimism for the future. We need to take care of our mental health more than ever because, honestly, Covid has not presented any positive experience in our household at all. We are thankful that we and our circle of friends and family have not suffered any casualties.
How have these last few months changed or transformed you professionally?
Okay, I appreciate the nuance in this question, but again I’m amazed when I read about people who say that their creative careers have been transformed because of the pandemic. I’m not saying that it can’t be, but that I respect and tip my hat to these artists.
Before Covid hit us all sideways, I was enjoying a bit of a career reboot. I had just come off a back-to-back gig in two of the most popular shows in Québec. I spent a year playing Harry Bright, a role I’d dreamed of playing in the spectacular multi-million-dollar production of ‘Mamma Mia!’ for Just for Laughs Productions in Montréal and Québec City. This French language production was a bold and beautiful (and frankly much improved) new version of the popular show. I knew well from being cast in the Mirvish Production in Toronto. Director and translator Serge Postigo’s reimagining of ‘Mamma Mia!’ was one of the most joyful experiences of my stage career.
And while Kevin and I were apart, we were both creatively engaged (he at the Royal) and happy, and we managed to see each other quite frequently.
Mamma Mia!’ then dovetailed perfectly with my next show, which was quite possibly the most prestigious stage production of the year in Montréal, Michel Tremblay’s and Andre Gagnon’s gorgeous ‘Nelligan’ for Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. I played the role of the father, David, in the piece and I was so captivated by the intimate family drama about unconditional love being impacted by mental illness that I collaborated with Michel on an English language adaptation of the show.
I didn’t have an agent but was quite confident that I would be able to attract bilingual representation with my work in ‘Nelligan’. I was also very certain that I had acting work on the table for several months still as I had already been tapped to continue on as David Nelligan through the next summer in Québec City. The production was actually on tour throughout the province when we got word that we were cancelled.
Overnight, every creative person I knew was unemployed. And soon after, as I tried to reach out to agents, I got the same unsurprising response that they were not taking on new talent, especially not at this time.
Yes, some artists have tried to embrace the internet and present themselves online through live streaming. I was (am) one of them. I was very excited to be one of the first batch of performers selected by the National Arts Centre for their Canada Performs series. My one-hour live show was called ‘Émile Nelligan & Michel Tremblay in Poetry/en Poésie’ and it was well received
Then Kevin and I worked with the American Federation of Musicians, the Musicians’ Trust Fund and the Union of Professional Musicians of Eastern Ontario to present several concerts at the Royal Theatre. And we also helped to produce twice the First Peoples’ Performing Arts Festival of the Thousand Islands online.
But I’ve discovered that I do not have a particular passion or aptitude for the technical aspects of this very specific forum/medium that is the very particular specialty of some Creators. Sadly, the glut of amateur video production may have devalued the work of creatives working seriously in this medium. And the flood of free online performances of all sorts, I think, has somewhat devalued the work of many professional performing artists.
But we need to move forward, and so, at the Royal, we have invested in equipment and continue to collaborate with the Union of Professional Musicians of Eastern Ontario. We hope we will be able to improve our online presentation when the gathering of groups for the purpose of livestreaming is allowed again (it’s been restricted, on and off). The Royal Theatre Thousand Islands is an amazing space acoustically for presenting live music, and musicians love the vibe of the place. So we do what we can, when we can, to use our space creatively, but that is not why my partner and I bought the Royal in 2013.
Kevin and I bought a theatre because we are both actors and directors and we hoped that we would be establishing an exciting performance venue in Eastern Ontario, but it’s been extremely hard, and Covid has only presented more challenges.
But has Covid changed or transformed us as artists?
I guess it has made us fighters. We will not lose our dream, and so we are adapting at every turn, as best we can, and we do so with determination.
And I hope that I will personally be able to get back on stage soon as well. In French or in English, I need to be performing.
Do you see the global landscape of the professional Canadian live theatre scene changing at all as a result of these last two years (and moving into a third year)?
The Canadian live theatre scene has been in limbo for basically two years now. I hear about actors who are looking forward to picking up contracts that were deferred all this time, but they are nonetheless doubtful that the shows will go on. I, myself, was offered a since-postponed ‘Nelligan’ concert tour, that is now being reconsidered, but no contract has been offered because everyone is still in a wait and see holding pattern.
I completely understand. As theatre owners, Kevin and I are concerned about public safety, and we know that we are not alone. The global pandemic hasn’t run its course yet…and so we need to resign ourselves to being patient awhile longer. We know of theatres and companies that have closed permanently since Covid started, and so, yes, fewer performance opportunities and spaces will definitely affect the Canadian live theatre.
Interestingly, I have many actor friends in Paris, France, whose shows are still going on and being sold to full-capacity houses. The spectacular mega-production French adaptation of ‘The Producers’ is completely sold out and has now announced a long-extended run.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the huge success of Mirvish’s ‘Come from Away’ had to close completely because there wasn’t enough government financial support or understanding of how important this production was, what it represented or how terminating its theatrical run hurts a Canadian industry as well as many satellite businesses that rely on the success of the arts.
But is it reckless for big shows (or shows of any size) to still be running in France? When I hint at my concerns for my friends’ and the public’s safety, I am gently rebuffed…so I say nothing further. The subject is so completely polarizing that I don’t want to lose friends, either here or in Europe. I see all sides. As an actor and theatre presenter, I am desperate to get back to business as usual, but I don’t want to be doing so in a way that endangers fellow artists or patrons. And when you are talking about someone’s livelihood in the performing arts, it’s even more difficult because our industry was the first to be completely shut down and has always seemed to be the least understood in terms of how to support our professionals and how to get show business back on its feet.
How much our own Canadian theatre scene will change remains to be seen, I think. We still need to see how many companies survive, and how many theatre professionals have moved on to other employment opportunities. There is certainly going to be a period of rebuilding our industry required for awhile.
What excites/intrigues/fascinates Frayne McCarthy post Covid?
Post Covid? I want to get representation (remember, I’m in agent limbo) and see if I can get back on the boards and in front of the camera a bit more. I am also starting work on a second English language adaptation of an opera by Michel Trembly and composer Christian Thomas.
In a perfect world, I’ll get back onstage as a performer. ‘Nelligan’ will be workshopped and produced.; I’ll work with Michel and Christian on ‘Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer’; and maybe some light might also shine on ‘The Virgin Courtesan’, a musical I wrote with the brilliant Blair Thomson.
And, of course, there is the Royal Theatre Thousand Islands, which is the 165-seat vaudeville theatre that Kevin and I run in Gananoque which I hop will become better known and appreciated as a great live-performance venue in Eastern Ontario. How many actors do you know who would go so far as to change their lives to buy, restore, and operate their own theatre? Not many, probably, because it’s madness! But Kevin and I love the Royal, and we have surrounded ourselves with great people who, like us, see wonderful potential for making our town a much more important arts destination in Canada.
What disappoints/unnerves/upsets Frayne McCarthy post Covid?
I supposed the idea of needing to start so many things from scratch. This is a weird business where you are quickly forgotten unless you are in the immediate creative mix. You’re apparently only as relevant as the last show you were in.
I’ve always straddled Toronto and Montreal because I don’t seem to be one of the usual suspects in either city, and now I live in neither, but between both. I have been written off as retired by some people, and I just want to scream from the mountaintops that I’m still here, probably more dedicated to performing than I have ever been in my life. But I suppose that’s up to me, to make a stronger impression.
Where does Frayne McCarthy, the artist, see himself going next?
GOING next? Is that a trick question?
Because if I could choose to actually go anywhere other than here (Gananoque/Montreal/Toronto), it would be to return to Paris to perform. I was blessed to live there for a time, and that city just felt so perfectly like home. Kevin loves it there too, so if there was a way to work in Paris again, and bring my Kevin along for the ride, and somehow leave the Royal in the care of a brilliant Manager (oh, the dream of being able to hire a Theatre Manager is so huge for us) that would be amazing.
And seriously, I do see myself returning to Paris at some point in the future. I think I have more professional cachet in Europe as the first French Marius in ‘Les Miserables’ and the first French Capitaine Haddock in ‘Tintin, le temple du soleil’ than I have for any of my work in Canada.
But next…-most immediately? I want to see my English language adaptation of ‘Nelligan’ come to life on stage so that I can continue to work on it with Michel Tremblay. And I will also continue working with Michel and Christian Tomas on the English language adaptation of ‘Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer’.
I also want to get an agent…and in jig time, I’ll be booked in the Big Time…Oh, what a dream! (Sorry, I geeked out there on a bit of ‘Gypsy’) Yeah, I want to get back in the saddle!
And Kevin and I, and our Board of Directors, and our team of Royal Family volunteers will continue to build on our Royal Theatre Thousand Islands brand as an important Arts Venue in the Best located tourist destination in Ontario!
Where does Frayne McCarthy, the person, see himself going next?
Oh, you are being tricky! I see what you did there!
Frayne the Artist and Frayne the person have been the same for so long that I hardly distinguish between the two. Frayne is only perhaps less the Artist when he is “Frayne, the son of Teresa and Kevin”…but even then, as I mentioned, my Mom was always a singing mentor; and both Mom and Dad have been my greatest supporters as an artist, and my Dad is even on the Board of Directors of our Production Company! I’m incredibly blessed to have them both so fully involved in all facets of my life.
My friendships, too, nearly all revolve in some way around the world of the arts.
And my relationship with Kevin is also deeply rooted in our artistic partnership. We met working on Theatre together; grew closer through working on Theatre together; and now we own and manage a Theatre together! Kevin makes me a better person, but he also makes me a better artist in every way possible.
Frayne the person will go wherever Frayne the Artist needs to be.
If you could say one thing to one of your mentors or favourite teachers who encouraged you to get to this point as an artist, what would it be?
I discovered that my mentors were people whom I wished to somehow emulate, and so I thank you for your example, support and guidance.
If you could say something to any of the naysayers in your career who didn’t think you would make it as an artist, what would it be?
The news of my retirement has been greatly exaggerated.
What’s your favourite swear word?
I honestly don’t like to swear. Swearing is a lazy form of expression, and I don’t think much of it in play dialogue either.
What is a word you love to hear yourself say?
What is a word you don’t like to hear yourself say?
What would you tell your younger personal self with the knowledge and wisdom life experience has now given you?
To that kid who was mercilessly bullied, I’d say “It gets better.”
With the professional life experience you’ve gained over the years, what would you now tell the upcoming Frayne McCarthy from years ago who was just in the throes of beginning his career as a performing artist?
Go to the events and be seen; go to the parties and mingle and do your best to make friends and network with people in the performing arts.
What is one thing you still wish to accomplish personally and professionally?
I want to record a solo album while I still kinda like my own singing voice.
Name one moment in your professional career as an artist that you wish you could re-visit again for a short while.
I wish I could live in the pure euphoric joy of being cast as Marius in ‘Les Misérables’.
Would Frayne McCarthy do it all again if he was given the same opportunities?
Yes, Frayne McCarthy would do it all again, but I think with a little more confidence, focus and drive.
To learn more about The Royal Theatre Thousand Islands in Gananoque, Ontario, visit https://www.royaltheatre.ca/
Social Media: Facebook: @RoyalTheatreThousandIslands AND Twitter: @RoyalTheatreTI