Father and sons on stage in Titanic at Stanley Park
When Sayer Roberts was on stage for the Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) production of Titanic this summer he noticed how the other performers thought it was so special for him to share the stage with his father, Russell, and younger brother, Gower.
"I've had countless people tell me how they would love to do it with family members but don't have any in the business," says Sayer, 22.
The three months of rehearsals and six weeks of shows at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park comes to an end Saturday for the New Westminster family, but the memory of something special will live on.
The journey to that Stanley Park stage started almost 40 years ago. In 1973, Russell had just moved with his family from Wales to White Rock and hadn't given an a thought to acting. He was sweet on a girl at Semiahmoo secondary who was always busy doing different activities in the evening. One night she was going to the White Rock Players' pantomime and said, "Why don't you join us?"
His parents, anxious for him to have a social life, said, "Go ahead."
That's the night the bug bit.
"The camaraderie, the family, the sense of sharing, the response you get from the audience," says Russell, 56, about falling in love with acting. "We all like to hear the applause, whether it's for you or not. It was magic."
Blessing and a curse
Russell took drama at UBC for a couple of years and then went to the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England before moving to Calgary. That's where he met Colleen Winton, who was a fifth-generation New Westminster girl. After that they ran into each other performing in various productions across the country, and after doing the obligatory Canadian acting stint in Los Angeles ("You've got to try it once"), Russell landed on stage with Winton in Victoria.
With the television and film industry taking off in British Columbia they decided to set up shop here. Winton initially balked at returning to her hometown, but they fell in love with a little house in Glenbrooke North.
Since then they've found enough gigs to pay the mortgage and raise Sayer, 22, and Gower, 18. Russell says a recent report found 96 per cent of actors in Canada live below the poverty line and another determined 40 per cent of Canadian actors have left the business in the past two years.
"We're somewhat blessed and we've managed to buy a house," says Russell, who has shown up on TV shows like MacGyver and movies such as Ernest Rides Again and the second Twilight flick as well as doing lots of voiceover work for animated films.
"I'm not qualified for anything else, and now who wants to hire a 56-year-old know-nothing?" he quips. "It's a passion. Being an actor you are blessed and you are cursed because when we act and perform we get to do what we want. But we're cursed because that's what we have to do."
A son's awakening
Russell and his wife didn't drag their kids around to auditions because they'd seen too many stage mothers living their lives vicariously through their children and, besides, Sayer and Gower had no interest in acting growing up.
But when Sayer was in Grade 12, New Westminster secondary decided to produce its first musical in 22 years, Annie, which he tried out for. Sayer says he was an outgoing kid until he hit his teenage years when he became quite shy. He wanted to be a magician, so he took drama to develop stage presence. That class changed his life and his focus.
"It really brought back the Sayer that used to be, that had been laying dormant. [Annie] was just a great time," says Sayer.
The experience inspired him to enrol in the musical theatre arts program at Capilano University. His parents weren't so sure about the decision because he hadn't shown that much interest prior to Grade 12.
"I sat him down for 30 minutes because it was the last thing I ever wanted [Sayer] to do," says Russell. "I wouldn't want to wish it on anybody."
After the half hour, Sayer remained adamant.
"They thought they should just let him do this and get it out of his system and within a year he'll give it up," recalls Sayer, who graduated from the program last year. "It was just apparent that [musical theatre] was just right."
Gower's passion, on the other hand, is music—composing, arranging, producing—and in the fall he'll begin studies in music technology at Douglas College.
During high school, however, he was part of the NWSS production of Grease, at which point he figured his stage career was over.
But then Russell got the TUTS role of Captain Ben Smith in Titanic, which he performed 10 years ago in Nanaimo. Its music has many a time echoed off the walls of the Roberts residence. Singing, however, has been one stage activity Russell generally shies away from—thankfully, his role in Titanic doesn't require him to do much of it.
"I'll ad lib Shakespeare, but when I forget the words to a song, the music leaves me behind. It petrifies me," says Russell.
'My heart sings'
Sayer auditioned for the role of engine crew member Fred Barrett, who does a duet with a telegraph operator. Sayer, who has done three shows with his mother before, encouraged Gower to audition for that role so they could sing together. But the director decided Gower was too young and offered him another part as a bell boy which Gower balked at.
Russell, realizing it was a fantastic opportunity for the three of them to work together, bribed Gower by promising to buy him the fully loaded laptop computer required for his course at Douglas College. Although an acting career isn't in his plans, Gower enjoyed the experience.
"It's a lot more comfortable than it would be with a whole bunch of strangers, or even a bunch of friends," says Gower of working with his brother and father.
Says Sayer, "It's been really neat. It's been a lot different than with my mom. Those just so happened, it didn't seem like a family thing. The three of us, all the boys from the family, and that we always [went to rehearsals and performances] together."
Russell's eyes light up when he talks about being in the same production as his sons.
"It's a wonderful, wonderful treat, and I'm going to miss it when the show closes," he says. "The overwhelming feeling is one that is shared with every parent; that of immense pride in seeing your children succeed so well and make such an impression doing something they have a passion for, and enjoying themselves so much. My heart sings every night that I watch them."
• Titanic closes Friday, Aug. 17 at Theatre Under the Stars at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. Visit www.tuts.ca.