National Arts Centre: Andy Jones is connecting to his past and his present in theatre

Andy Jones as Scrooge. Photo: John Lauener

In the mid-1980s Andy Jones brought his one man show Out of the Bin to the Great Canadian Theatre Company and proceeded to crack up audiences by driving a nail into one of his nostrils with a hammer and telling stories of Uncle Val one of his many archetypal Newfoundland characters. In private Andy was just about as self-effacing as he could be, travelling around town to media interviews in an army great coat. In his 70th year, he remains capable of making an interviewer spit coffee out his nose with a good line but even more he is the embodiment of theatre history in his home province of Newfoundland and Canada. So, as he has returned to the National Arts Centre to reprise the role of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol starting this week, it was a chance for ARTSFILE to catch up.

Q. How come you are still acting?

A. I’ve got no choice. I do like it, but I kind of wish I could do another show of my own. It’s been a while now and that show was a pastiche of old stuff called An Evening with Uncle Val. It included all my Uncle Val material and an explanation of where it came from. I did that and Lois Brown directed and that’s the last time. I have been doing other people’s stuff ever since.”

Q. Where did acting start for you?

A. I always wanted to be an actor but I didn’t know how to do it. Eventually I went to the University of Toronto in 1969. That summer I went to see a production of The Marriage Proposal by Anton Chekov at Theatre Passe Muraille. It was a comedy piece and the theatre was so dirty. The lead had white gloves on and they were black. I thought, I could fit in here. There’s a place for me in the Canadian theatre. I could see what they were. I could go there to the dirty theatre and I didn’t need a smoking jacket or an English accent. That really was a turning point moment.

After university I went teaching for a year before I said … ‘I want to (act)’. So I got a job in Newfoundland with a little rep company. They hired us for the summer and we did this ‘little’ tour. We were in a British farce called See How They Run. The company was the Newfoundland Travelling Theatre Company. We toured Newfoundland in 1972 when people had no idea what a touring theatre company was. My favourite line happened when we arrived in this one town and someone greeted us with: ‘Oh, you came.’

We did 40 shows in 30 days. We also did The Wizard of Oz for kids. I met Mary Walsh for the first time on that tour. Tommy Sexton was on it too. And Bob Joy was on that tour. Next year we toured the sequel to that farce called Pools Paradise. Greg Malone and Cathy Jones (Andy’s sister) joined us. We had all of CODCO gathered in this one place and right away we were talking about getting our own company.

It was the era of Monty Python but the thing that influenced us a lot was Beyond the Fringe. I knew their album by heart. We were thinking about that. We wanted to be doing sketch comedy as they did it.

Q. After CODCO, you stayed home, why?

A. We were really very nationalistic and wondering what is our place in Canada? We were the first generation of children born as Canadians. There were great hopes for us. We all went to university. But in the end we realized when we got into our teens that we were these jokes. There were these Newfie jokes and people thought were sucking off the tit of Canada. We wondered: Who are we? What do we do?

We knew that we brought a great culture into this country. We were constantly dealing with that issue in our comedy. It seemed like there was no question at the time that I would stay. It was almost like we had found a new religion.

Q. What did you find?

A. I discovered there was so much more besides the language and the accents. There was the history of all those places and incredible stories of survival. I totally dug in. Everything I did had that kind of theme. I probably said the word Newfoundland a million times. It was a deep mine that still can be mined. And I’m still doing it.

Q. Tell me about Tartuffe, a play you adapted and starred in?

A. I never put the actual word Newfoundland in Tartuffe but in my mind it’s all about the south coast of Newfoundland in the First World War. The original play is wonderful piece of comedy.

It was totally (Jillian Keiley‘s) idea. I had never read Moliere. I had no interest in it. I wasn’t interested in Shakespeare either. Jill said, ‘What about doing this play? And she said, ‘We’d like you to adapt it as well to Newfoundland and I want it in rhyming couplets’.

She is much younger than me but I knew her because she was almost instantly a star in St. John’s. She put on one of those shows everyone had to see. She worked at the LSPU Hall and (that’s where) I came across her.

I never ran (the Hall). I worked there a lot and I was instrumental in getting it on the go. We just did it, we took building over. We ended up getting so involved … I reckon I spent 2 1/2 years straight in the building. We did the shows; we put up the posters; we did the box office. We had lunchtime theatre and we made the lunch. You can only do this when you’re young. The theatre crowd would all meet at a bar in St. John’s called The Ship Pub. It was the crucible for a lot of stuff.”

She has always been very respectful of what happened in the past in Newfoundland and Jill has given me some great opportunities at this late stage in my career.

Q. Tartuffe just toured Newfoundland — how did that go?

A. I wasn’t acting … Bob Joy was Tartuffe. But I went as the playwright. We did a lot of outreach. All the actors were out. I did 15 storytelling gigs over eight days in schools. It was great. It was a brilliant reception. We had big houses. More people turned out in Gander than I ever played to, except maybe for CODCO. We used to joke in the early days ‘Best tour ever’ and in many ways it was the best tour ever.

I got to watch show every night. It made me think a lot about comedy. I’m getting to the point now where I don’t know how much is left to do but what I have done I’m very happy with.

Q. You are playing Scrooge again. How are you making that different?

A. We are constantly thinking and talking about the social issues of that time and connecting them to today. (A Christmas Carol) is very present today. I just came back from California where my daughter has a little baby and we were down to visit them. Every chance we get, we are down there with them. The homeless situation there (and everywhere) is very shocking. It brings home how much of the population is dispossessed and in many ways it’s not much different from Dickens’ time.

We spend a lot of time thinking about this.

Beside that, Jill is very concerned with the psychological change that happens in Scrooge. In some way, he lets go of his fear. I realized that so much of his personality is to do with fact he is so frightened he can’t do anything but make money. He’s caught in a vicious circle. The ghosts open him up to take risks and chances and to enjoy his life.

Q. What’s after this?

A. I have a gaping maw of nothing on the horizon. I have been like this forever. This is my life, it always has been … ‘This is it I’m never going to work again.’ But then I’ll figure something out which is what I always do.

I have another children’s book to write. It’s called Jack and the Three Giants. This will be No. 7. It started in the 1970s Anita Best who is a great Newfoundland  folklorist and a beautiful singer too. She’s the one who said to me. ‘Have you ever heard about the Jack stories?’ There is a tradition of Jack stories told all over Newfoundland.

A Christmas Carol runs in the Babs Asper Theatre from Dec. 8 to 24. Previews: Dec. 6, 7. Tickets, times and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.