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Remembering Robin


Robin Phillips is one of Canada’s most respected and influential classical directors. He was a director, actor, and mentor, and was the artistic director of Stratford between 1974 and 1980. Robin believed in the transformational power of theatre and sparked a generation of Canada’s best stage artists. He died in 2015, and he left an indelible mark on Canadian theatre. 

Over the course of three years, Martha Burns and Susan Coyne filmed Robin and actors Mark McKinney and Christine Horne rehearsing a piece from Shakespeare’s Richard III, at Robin’s home outside of Stratford. The filming resulted in Robin and Mark and Richard III, which opens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema April 15.


I first met Robin Phillips not as a director, but as a fellow actor. Robin and William Hutt had come to the Vancouver Playhouse to be in The Dresser. My terror about being in the rehearsal room with these titans (I had graduated from the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre School a mere two years before) began to fade as I realized that Robin, too, was afraid. He had not been on stage for many years and had decided to return to refresh his memory of what it felt like to be an actor. It was an education for me to watch him appreciate the fear and frustrations of being on “the other side.” But however difficult and humbling the experience of being on stage was for Robin, he did not let that intrude on his desire to have a good time.

My life in the theatre had so far been full of some terrific roles accompanied by a lot of panic and worry. What I learned from Robin during The Dresser’s run was how to enjoy myself a little more. An easy way to keep it all buoyant was to be highly motivated to surprise the hell out of each other. This ongoing activity ranged from playing hide-and-seek to continuing to fill in the backstories of our characters’ lives, competing for the most original, shocking, or tender revelation. His observations and curiosity about people—those inhabiting our story as well as those around us—were sharp, funny, thoughtful, and always enlightening. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned was that convulsive laughter with a fellow actor offstage was as good a preparation as any for being alive and ready to receive onstage.

During the production, my boyfriend of two years broke up with me. I didn’t talk about it, but Robin knew something was up. I arrived at the theatre one night to a shiny white florist’s box full of roses. There was no card, just “love” written in red lipstick (it must have been mine) on the inside of the cover. There was that kind of surprise too.


What I remember most about working with Robin Phillips is how much fun we had. The atmosphere in rehearsals was electrifying, full of a sense of adventure and possibility, whether the play was a comedy or a tragedy. Time and again, we laughed until we cried. (During a rehearsal of The Cherry Orchard, Robin was so convulsed with laughter that he fell off a chair.)

Robin had an old-fashioned belief in the theatre as a sacred space, a place of transformation. And he believed that as practitioners we had a duty of care. He taught us to respect everything: from the rehearsal space (no newspapers or other distractions were allowed) to the design (Robin came to every costume fitting; he handled every prop). He taught us to respect our fellow actors by making deep connections, by allowing ourselves to be affected by them. He taught us to respect the audience, trusting them to use their intelligence and imaginations to become full participants in the experience. He taught us to respect the text, to take nothing for granted, to demand more of ourselves. His favourite line was from The Winter’s Tale: “It is required you do awake your faith.”

Of course, like many gifted artists, Robin had his demons. He could be difficult and demanding. Even imperious. It was hard to reconcile this side of Robin with the more nurturing one. In hindsight, I can see that he was harder on himself than on anyone else.

Above all, Robin taught us what Rilke described as the essential attitude of the artist, to “love the questions… as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language…. Live the questions… Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Robin and Mark and Richard III screens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on:

Fri. Apr. 15         6:30pm
Sat. Apr. 16        6:30pm
Sun. Apr. 17       9:15pm
Wed. Apr. 20      6:30pm
Mon. May 16      4:00pm
Thurs. May 19    3:00pm

For tickets or more information, click here.
Martha Burns

Martha Burns

Martha Burns is an actor, teacher, and advocate for more art for young people.

Susan Coyne

Susan Coyne

Susan is an actor and writer who struggles with procrastination. She is getting help for it tomorrow.



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