Falling in love with the stage

Wild Geese: Michael Hennessy, Ontario

Actor and theatre company owner Michael Hennessy has directed more than 80 productions in his career

Actor and theatre company owner Michael Hennessy has directed more than 80 productions in his career

 

Michael Hennessy grew up in Clontarf in Dublin. In 1967 his wife’s twin sister moved to Canada. Three years later, Michael and his wife Dympna decided to follow her to Sault-Ste-Marie in Ontario.

Hennessy’s father, Robert Hennessy was a member of the Gate Theatre with Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir. During his time at the Gate, Hennessy senior had worked with the likes of Christopher Cassin, Marie Kean, Orson Welles, Barry Fitzgerald, Siobhán McKenna, Anew McMaster and Milo O’Shea.

In the 1950s, Ardmore Studios opened in Bray and Michael’s father started to work with the studios, on productions with Rock Hudson, Robert Mitchum and James Cagney, to name a few.

But although Hennessy worked in the Gate Theatre and at Ardmore studios backstage, helping his father and other actors, he says he never had any interest in theatre or the movies at that stage.

However, two years after he moved to Ontario, Hennessy and his wife decided to go for parts in a local theatre company’s production of Playboy of the Western World.

“The flood gates opened for me,” Hennessy recalls. “I became an absolute theatre fanatic.”

He had parts in two more productions before directing Juno and the Paycock in 1978.

“Had I known this passion for theatre was inside me, I never would have left Ireland. All the connections I had in theatre in Ireland ... who knows what could have happened?”

Hennessy went on to direct more than 80 productions throughout his career, turning his passion into his livelihood and touring all over northern Canada with a theatre company he set up.

“In the 1980s in Ontario, there was a big recession and a lot of people were out of work,” he says. “I was approached by a local social services agency who wanted to use theatre to raise awareness of social issues and engage people to work with them.”

He set up a theatre company called Family Life Theatre Inc, which wrote more than 25 plays on a range of social issues including bullying, poverty, domestic violence and homelessness.

“No one else was using theatre like this at the time and the productions were hugely successful in engaging our audiences on these difficult issues. I’m very proud of the work we did during those years and the people we helped, not to mention the people we employed at a time when there wasn’t much work about,” says Hennessy.

The Family Life Theatre Company toured all over Ontario, and, in all, Hennessy reached an audience of more than a quarter of a million.

In 2002, the social services agency took over the theatre company and Hennessy focused his attention on his dinner theatre company.

As well as his work with Family Life Theatre, he had set up his own dinner theatre production company in 1998. It, too, became successful and went on to take five regional titles, and more than 50 awards for its productions.

The company toured four productions a year, including stagings of Playboy of the Western World, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Juno and the Paycock. It also produced a number of comedy productions including plays by the American playwright Neil Simon.

After 34 years running a theatre company, Hennessy directed his last production earlier this year.

“I chose Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon as the last production for this theatre company. It’s a comedy and I wanted to bow out making people laugh. I don’t want to think of it as my last production ever.”

“You’ll never get rich from running a theatre company but I made a good living from it. In the 1980s and 1990s it was easy to get people to work with us because there were so few jobs because of the recession.

“I consider myself so lucky to have been able to earn my living doing something I love so much but I often wonder what would’ve happened if I had stayed in Ireland. I wonder about the opportunities I might have had.

“I’m 75 now and I’m not ready to call it quits. After 34 years in theatre in Canada I’m opening another new dinner theatre company here in the autumn.”

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