article and photos by Ann Baggley
Sitting on the back deck of actor Tom Rooney's Stratford home, I almost thought I was seaside. Without a blade of grass to speak of, thick ivy covers the entire backyard and large, mature birch trees float amidst a tranquil sea of green. We begin our conversation by discussing how Tom feels about living here. “In some ways, it's an actor's dream, because you get to live at home, and get to work for seven or eight months throughout the year” He is quick to add, “and [to] live in such a great, beautiful little charming city!”
An award winning actor, Tom Rooney has been a member of the Stratford Festival for seven seasons. This year, Tom plays the title role of Miguel de Cervantes in Man of La Mancha, and Bela Zangler in Crazy For You. It's a truly musical season for Tom. “I'm very happy to be given the opportunity. I think everybody should get the chance that I'm getting this year - being a part of the musical theatre company. It really is humbling, what they can do, and how hard they work. It's positive and incredibly supportive, and generous.”
Tom hails from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the youngest of seven children and the only son. “It was a very musical family. That's what we did,” he says matter-of-factly. “Everybody sang. And people would come over and sing. We'd have sing-a-longs!” His mother Donna led the way, a classically trained singer who recently retired from the Saskatoon chapter of the 'Sweet Adelines' after more than 40 years.
Tom's early musical life saw him involved in choirs both in school and extracurricular, plus his first musical, despite the desire of “not wanting any of the other boys to know I was singing. I tried to keep it under wraps, but then my sister came home one day and told me there were doing the Sound of Music, and that was kind of it!” After high school, Tom took a slight detour, studying computer science (“I hated it!”) and economics for two years at the University of Saskatchewan before an older sister's example of musical study let him to change keys and earn himself a Bachelor of Music in Performance, majoring in voice.
Attending school, however, caused Tom to become “a little disillusioned with singing, because it suddenly became about how to sing and I got all in my head. I started thinking about things and how (singing is) supposed to be produced.” Tom pauses. “Also, I was maturing so (my) voice was changing and I didn't have the tools to get myself through that period.” Tom began spending more time in the theatre department, and was inspired by professor and mentor Henry Woolf. “At the time, there was this divide between musical theatre and straight theatre and so I didn't want to be considered a musical theatre performer. I wanted to be considered a 'real actor',” he laughs, “Whatever that was!”
One only needs to glance at Tom's resume to discover that he has more than achieved his desire to become a 'real actor' and bridged the gap between musical and straight theatre. From Romeo (acclaimed director Robert Le Page's production, Romeo et Juliette), to many productions for Saskatoon's Persephone Theatre, directed by another mentor of Tom's, Tibor Feheregyhazi. Tom has won a Dora Award, performed in Berlin, done countless Shakespearian roles here at the Festival (Angelo, Malvolio, Puck and Cassius to name a few) and has been on Broadway, playing Wilbur Turnblad in the musical, Hairspray. The Festival's premiere of Wanderlust in 2012, gave Tom his debut in a musical here.
“The thing with musical theatre,” Tom ponders, “[is that] the music helps, it's a great tool. It does do a lot of work for you, in that emotional, story-telling part of it. With a play that is very emotionally raw or demanding, it's all up to you, all up to the actor. It's a different kind of challenge. There's more than one way to tell a story and musical theatre (the art form) is more flexible because it includes all kinds of different disciplines. It's the disciplines that I find so humbling. I'm humbled by how rigorous the work is. In straight theatre, I don't think we have that same kind of rigour when we approach the work, or for some reason, we think we don't need it. Particularly doing Shakespeare. It does need discipline, it does need rigour. It's not something you can just do.”
This season, tackling Miguel de Servantes, Tom admits, “I hadn't really sung the way I'm trying to sing now in La Mancha, for a long, long time. When I heard that they were wanting me to do [it], I didn't know that I could. I got together with Franklin Brazs (Director of Music for the Festival, and musical director of La Mancha) and he thought I'd be able to do it, so I started working then. I got in touch with Gary Relyea [and] I started working with him. It was really great.” Tom pauses reflectively. “But-I still have mixed feelings about singing and being able to sing. I miss the ease of it. When you're younger, like many things, you don't think about it, you just do it. It's similar to acting in some respects. It gets harder, the more you know.”
Even with these 'mixed feelings', Tom is grateful for the variety and opportunities he's had here in Stratford. “I've been so lucky here over the last seven years because I've done so many different things. It's amazing to be able to sing 'The Impossible Dream' with an orchestra. There's this challenge, and this scares the hell out of me, that there is this train going - this thing called the orchestra, and you get on it and you've got to keep going. It's not like you're doing a scene and you can pause here until something comes to [you] or [you'll] make something up. You can't do that. It's terrifying, but also very exciting.”