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Robin Phillips, former head of Stratford Festival, dead at 73

07/26/2015 01:26 EDT | Updated 07/26/2016 05:59 EDT
Robin Phillips, a director and actor often credited with revitalizing Ontario's Stratford Festival in the mid-1970s, has died.

The British-born director, who lived just outside Stratford, Ont., died peacefully yesterday after a prolonged illness. He was 73.

Barbara Budd, former co-host of CBC Radio's As It Happens and a longtime friend who acted at Stratford during Phillips's tenure, said he was a perceptive man who inspired people with his infectious love of theatre and the wider world.

"And he did that in his day-to-day life, whether it was cutting the lawn on his farm, or directing Peter Ustinov or William Hutt or a journeyman actor, as I was when I first met him in 1975," she said. "So people think of him as a director at first, and after spending a week in rehearsal with him and being touched by his observations, you changed."

Phillips led what was then called the Stratford Shakespearean Festival from 1975 to 1980. He initially met resistance as an outsider, but brought esteemed actors to the festival, including Maggie Smith, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Martha Henry, William Hutt, Brian Bedford, and Colm Feore, all while directing 35 productions.

"Theatre for me is a vocation," Phillips said during a 2002 CBC television documentary about the festival, Stratford Gold. "I believe that we do it for reasons other than just to entertain and that if we do it well, we can make a huge difference to people's lives. I think I wanted to startle them into realizing that Stratford was more than this slightly old-fashioned ... velvet costumes twirling around. There was an awful lot of spinning that went on."  

'Inspired an entire generation'

The Governor General's Performing Arts Awards, honouring him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, lauded him as one of the country's greatest stage directors.

"His creative vision, passion, and discipline have inspired an entire generation of Canadian actors, designers and directors, and set the standard for excellence in staging works both classical and contemporary," the Awards' bio of Phillips said.

After leaving the festival in 1980 due to exhaustion, Phillips had a wide-ranging career in numerous cities across Canada, including as artistic director at The Grand Theatre in London, Ont., in the early 1980s and as director general of Edmonton's Citadel Theatre from 1990 to 1995.

He also helped found Toronto's successful Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Phillips's numerous directing credits included a London production of Long Day's Journey into Night starring Jessica Lange, the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde, and a Canadian Opera Company performance of The Marriage of Figaro.

He was given an honorary degree by the University of Western Ontario in 1983 and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005.

Appeared on The Avengers, The Saint

Phillips was born in Haslemere, Surrey, U.K.,  in 1942. He left school at the age of 15 and went to work for a costume house in London.

He went on to study acting at England's prestigious Bristol Old Vic and worked with London's Royal Shakespeare Company before moving to Canada in 1974.

He also appeared on popular 1960s TV shows including The Avengers and The Saint, and played in the title character in the 1969 TV movie of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. But it's his directing that is likely to have the most lasting legacy. 

Phillips is survived by his long-time partner Joe Mandel.

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