The first time I saw Susan Gilmour’s work on stage was as Fantine in the extraordinary production of ‘Les Misérables’ at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre that claimed instant fame in Toronto in the 1980s.
And again, I’ve seen her work since then and her resume is impressive.
I also saw her work in two other productions: the fascinating ‘Larry’s Party’ at CanStage where she performed in fine ensemble work with the late Canadian theatre icon, Brent Carver, AND in ‘Man of La Mancha’ at the Royal Alexandra where she performed the role of Aldonza/Dulcinea. Susan has also performed the role of Fantine on Broadway, in Los Angeles, and in the Asian/African production.
Susan’s training includes Grant McEwan Music College in Edmonton, the Edmonton Musical Theatre and in New York City’s American Musical and Dramatic Arts Academy.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you so much for the conversation, Susan:
Could you share the names of one teacher and one mentor for whom you are thankful.
Yes, well, teacher wise there have been two who have been very important. One I’ll start with because she was at the very beginning and that would be (the late) Dasha Goody, founder of the Edmonton Musical Theatre. When I got out of Grant McEwan College I started working in bands and I had a duo with a girlfriend (Carmen Lindsay) and I had a party band, and then I had a jazz band. I got engaged to this amazing piano player and thought my life was set and I was so happy.
Well, he decided he didn’t want to marry me and he moved on, and my life fell apart. I was really, really lost. Dasha had been one of my teachers when I went to Grant McEwan, and I hadn’t seen her in about six years since then. I was singing in a Bar Mitzvah band, really unhappy but doing my best in my life. She and her husband waltzed by and she slipped this piece of paper at my feet. I read it at intermission. The note said, “Hi, Susan. It’s been a long time. I’m sitting at table 150. Why don’t you join us and we’ll have a chat at intermission?”
So I went and chatted with her and she encouraged me to come down to Edmonton Musical Theatre to see what we were doing. Dasha felt it would be a perfect fit for me. I made that decision to go and a whole new world opened up for me.
I trained with them for a couple of years and felt I needed more training after that so that’s when I headed to New York where I attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy where I had two and a half years of amazing training which brings me to my second teacher – Karen Gustafson. She taught a class (all the classes there were amazing) there that has helped me the most in musical theatre in approaching a song as how you take it and bring it to life through taking it apart, looking at the music, what does the music tell you, take the words apart and find the subtext.
In other words, take the song like a monologue.
That particular skill has really made a difference here in my career in Canada. I’ve been able to build all my characters knowing how to do that and how to make them come alive through the songs we sing.
Everyone we work with mentors us on some level through discussions, sharing onstage and backstage. We are all like a big family, we support one another.
To choose one mentor – Lorraine Foreman. I met her at Charlottetown during the run of ‘Anne of Green Gables’. She was playing Rachel Lynde and I was playing Miss Stacy. This was my first professional production coming back from the States and I had a lot of questions and unknowns.
Lorraine and I shared a house in Charlottetown, and we developed these friendships that have lasted our whole lives. We’ve stayed in close touch and have worked together many times. She has helped me to pick myself up, dust myself off; she’s a straight-ahead character, takes no nonsense and she loves fiercely. She’s really helped me through the bumps. Just being around her and soaking up everything she has done, the things she knows and experienced and shared with me. She’s in her 90s and still performing, most recently at Koerner Hall doing ‘Follies’ a month ago. All my life, I’ve said I’ve wanted to be just like Lorraine. She’s been a wonderful friend and mentor my whole life.
I’m trying to think positively that we have, fingers crossed, moved forward in dealing with Covid. Some days are harder than others. Disregarding all these high numbers both in Ontario and Alberta, how have you been able to move forward from these last 18 eighteen months on a personal level? How have you been changed or transformed on a personal level?
Well, the year before Covid hit, I had several little injuries on my knee and I had another one and it ended up I needed to have a knee replacement. Even before Covid hit, I had to take a rest from theatre and performing.
I had some work lined up in the spring six months after my operation in 2020 but I had to pull out because I wasn’t able to do my best to be prepared for the work. Then Covid hit.
I was already in a state of mind since I wasn’t working of thinking about who am I and who am I now in this stage of my life, and where do I see myself going. For me, Covid coming gave me more time once my knee healed, and I didn’t have that nagging at me and making me feel like I wouldn’t be able to work again, can’t dance, it was hard.
I still had another two years to actually be still and think about those things. Funny, when you’re still things come to you and take time to breathe and be silent and go inward a little bit, things start to become clearer and happen. One of the things I’ve been hoping is that I would meet somebody. I’ve been on my own for many years since I’ve been divorced from (the late) Michael Burgess. The industry means we have to pick up and go at a moment’s notice so it’s difficult for relationships, and I thought in the last third of my life it would be nice to be with somebody.
And sitting in that stillness came a wonderful person. I’ve had this time also along with inner searching to get to know this wonderful man and have this time to spend together and nurture a relationship. I’m thrilled and extremely happy. While the world was falling apart with so much anxiety and fear and grief in the world, I had this almost exact opposite experience personally in own little bubble here of love and growth and inner search and setting the tone and figuring out.
I haven’t got all the answers yet where I’m going in this next stage of my life.
Covid gave us that opportunity to just sit and be because we’re always on the go in this industry all the time to stay current on all levels. There’s never really any time to be, to read and to follow a path you haven’t followed in a long time. For me, it was learning to play the piano again. If I can play the piano for the rest of my life and accompany myself and sing for the rest of my life, I will be content until the day I die.
How have these last eighteen months of the pandemic changed or transformed you as an artist professionally?
Well, as an artist as I’ve spoken to other people too, there was a time where I lost my voice and thought it’s gone. I was asked to do an online concert and I was going to do this one song which was going to be funny, and I was going to throw in some Covid words.
It was as if my voice had disappeared. My bad, I hadn’t sung a note in several months, so I had to pull out of that online concert because I was just so scared of what was happening with my voice. That was a little bit of a wake-up call to start singing again.
And that’s what partly led me back to the piano because I was playing scales and singing and then I thought it would be nice to play a song. So, I got out a book, plunked out a few chords and thought, “Geez, I’m really terrible.” So, I bought this course, and I have a private piano teacher now all online for as long as I want, and I’m learning to play again.
I also picked up my guitar again and started plunking around on that and learning new finger picking methods and just allowing myself to follow the trickle of whatever interested me without any pressure whatsoever which has been really, really lovely. I’ve even dabbled in some writing, and I’m not a writer but I thought let’s give it a try.
In your professional opinion, how do you see the global landscape of professional Canadian theatre changing, adapting, and morphing as a result of these last 18 months?
I think it’s going to change a lot. This time of gestation for a lot of people is going to create a lot of incredible stories that have to be told.
You add that to what’s going on in the world with inclusivity of all different peoples, everyone has a story to tell and they all should be told.
Whether or not that includes me, I don’t know. And that’s okay.
I’m just excited to see what is going to come out of all this sadness and global strife. Nobody has been untouched by this. The artist of the world, the poets, the writers are going to build an incredible amount of amazing work that we are all going to experience. A lot of my friends have been busy writing shows and writing stories, songs, poems, and books. There’s going to be so much and that’s exciting.
Theatre is always going to be there. I never thought for a moment that theatre was dead or that Covid was going to kill it. I knew that Covid would make difficulty for some of the smaller theatres. Theatre will live because people will demand it. Our audiences will come back when they feel it’s safe to come back.
And they already are starting. It goes up and down and that will probably continue for awhile.
There will be some much-needed changes, and it’s thrilling and exciting and I hope I can be part of it.
What intrigues/excites/fascinates and interests Susan Gilmour post Covid?
Wow!....hmmmm…we’re not quite post Covid yet…
What excites me post Covid is I want to travel more. Now that I’ve got this amazing man in my life (and by the way we just got engaged!!!!!), there’s a wedding coming up and some travelling in the future.
That’s exciting for me. I’m excited to see how I can fit into the post Covid theatre community through I’m hoping mentoring, coaching, some teaching on my own, and also performing should it come my way, and continuing on developing my own skills.
I’m going to start jamming with some musicians which I haven’t done in a long time. Part of me wants to revisit all that.
What disappoints/unnerves/frustrates Susan Gilmour post Covid?
Global politics. Looming war. People’s selfishness, I suppose, but I try not to be judgmental as fear is a real thing as people are doing the best they can, and I know that.
I really hope and pray there isn’t going to be a huge division between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. It doesn’t upset me or make me angry in that way as I try to be understanding of all that.
Try to answer these in a single sentence. If you need more than one sentence, that’s not a problem. I credit the late James Lipton and “Inside the Actors’ Studio’ for this idea:
If you could say one thing to one of your mentors and teachers who encouraged you to get to this point as an artist, what would it be?
“Thank you” for one.
“Thank you for believing in me, for pushing me, for inspiring me.”
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 that be?
Well in another way, “Thank you” because I’m the type of person who says you can’t do something I’m like, “Oh, yeah? Just watch me!”
I did have one of these individuals in my life and they did make me work harder, made me want to prove that they weren’t right.
What’s your favourite swear word?
Well, it’s the ‘f bomb’ I have to say. (and Susan and I have a good laugh). My brother says I’m sounding like a truck driver so I’m trying not to use it as much.
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?
I would tell her to follow her dreams, to be patient, to listen, to have no fear and to be kind to others.
With the professional life experience you’ve gained, what would you now tell the upcoming Susan Gilmour from years ago who was just in the throes of beginning a career as a performing artist?
To breathe, to relax a bit more, to work hard, to say focussed. To observe everything in life around you and soak it in for characters, accents, stories, everything you can use and put in your pool to draw from as an actor.
Stay focused and work hard, but always remember it’s supposed to be fun.
What is one thing you still wish to accomplish personally and professionally?
To accomplish personally, I want to learn to be a better cook. I’ve already started. Personally, (and Susan starts to laugh) we never think of things on a personal level anymore…
I want to be here for my husband. I want to have a fulfilling relationship for the rest of my life. I want to be close to my family. I want to mentor my nieces, I’ve got two beautiful nieces (they’re 15 and 17 now) and starting to question and wonder about life. I’ve told them that anything they can’t talk to their mother about, they can talk to me. So I want to be here for that.
I just want to keep going with the things I’ve started to do during Covid – cooking, gardening, I’ve picked up knitting and needle point. Oh, and having time to read. I want to travel too.
Professionally, I just want to go where the road leads me because I don’t know what that looks like for me yet, but I know there’s something and I can feel it. I’m just going to stay open and walk down whatever road appears before me.
I’m going to say Yes and allow those experiences to come to me whatever they are, and that will be in theatre, in mentoring, in teaching, in writing, in expressing myself through music whether playing or singing in a piano bar.
I’m going to do it and do it with all my heart.
Name one moment in your professional career as an artist that you wish you could re-visit again for a short while.
Ohhh…there are so many…
This moment, I would love to go back to the very first production of ‘Man of La Mancha’ that I did. It was at Neptune Theatre in Halifax. It was the second show I did since I got out of school. Tom Kerr was the director, and he was like a teacher to me. Ed Henderson was Music Director and was an amazing teacher as well. I learned a lot there.
To work with (the late) Brent Carver – he was Don Quixote, and I was Aldonza. Brent was the seasoned actor and I learned so much from him, and from that entire company. There were so many wonderful people in that show.
I would love to go back and do it one more time, just to experience the magic we made in that show together.
That would be amazing.
What is one thing Susan Gilmour will never take for granted again post Covid?
Life and freedom. I will never take for granted life; it is so fragile or freedom. To be locked in your house and told you can’t go anywhere or see anyone, touch, hug or kiss anyone, or sing with anyone, was torture.
Life and freedom.
Would Susan Gilmour do it all again if given the same opportunities?
(Susan says assertively) Absolutely 100%. Even the bumps along the way.