Emotional farewell for theatre stalwart
Janice Howell never saw it coming. She thought the Stella Halsall Award was reserved for Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society legends, not people like her.
When Society president Carol Birch pulled it out of a bag and presented it to her at a special reception, she burst into tears.
“I lost it in front of everybody,” said Ms Howell. “I cried like a baby. I thought I might get the Gel Hammer tech award but I wasn't expecting that, not in a million years.”
Named after BMDS founding member, the late Stella Frith Halsall, the award is presented to “individuals who have made outstanding long-term contributions to the performing arts in Bermuda”.
The accolade came as the Society bid farewell to Ms Howell, its long-time stage manager. She returned to her native Canada shortly before Cup Match, having lived here for 30 years.
“[Janice was] a mainstay of our society for many years,” said Ms Birch. “Her stage managing resume is long and illustrious and what on earth will the panto be without ‘Iron Pants', I shudder to think ... There are many times she pulled the iron out of the fire and saved the day; last year's panto is no exception.
“We had to move to Ruth Seaton after the hurricane damage to City Hall. She was a rock that shored us all up and got the job done in her inimitable fashion. It was a tour de force, and no one in the audience would have known the hard work and headaches that went into making it work.
“Janice has also in recent years turned her hand to directing. I had the pleasure of being in A Little Murder Never Hurt Anyone. It was one of the happiest shows I have been in. She then went on to direct Calendar Girls to great acclaim and fantastic reviews.”
Ms Howell arrived on the Island in December of 1984. She came with her former husband, who had been hired by the Bank of Butterfield.
She managed to get a secretarial job at the Bank of Bermuda the following year. In the spring of 1986, she was plucked out of relative obscurity to work for the bank's president, Donald Lines.
“At first I was terrified,” she said. “He was a scary guy. But we developed a relationship and when he left the bank [to start his own company] he asked me to go with him.”
Mr Lines's death last December precipitated her departure, said Ms Howell, who has Bermuda status.
“At the end of the day Donald dying was the catalyst. I'm leaving mostly because Donald died and I didn't want to start over. I could look for another job but I'm almost 60. I can't afford to retire here; I can't afford to buy a house.”
Being a stage manager wasn't on her radar when she joined the arts charity 26 years ago — she was hoping for a spot onstage.
“Back then I looked good in a dress and I could dance, but I couldn't sing,” she said of her somewhat disastrous audition for a musical. “I'd never sang out loud by myself.”
Her voice cracked midway through.
“I said ‘****' this', and headed for the door. Kate Ross pulled me back and held my hand and sang with me. I got on stage once — I think there was a petition to get me off — but I met people in that very first show that are my friends still.”
Despite that inauspicious start, Ms Howell soon found her niche through a series of short plays.
“The beautiful thing about BMDS is that they would say ‘follow your gifts — and then exploit them',” she laughed. “They still do. The rehearsals were two weeks maximum and gave people [who were new to BMDS], a chance to act, to work with lights, with sound, design sets. It gave everybody a chance to bring something and that's the first time I stage-managed. I've been involved with two or three plays per year in some way since.
“You need so many people to put on a show but the stage manager is ultimately responsible for the technical aspects. And once the show is up and running, I'm backstage and calling the shots. We have a policy at BMDS, once the rehearsals are over, the director walks away and gives control over to the stage manager.
“It's the stage manager's job to say, ‘You were a little bit late with that line' or ‘That's not the way we rehearsed it' or ‘You've screwed up your lines'. The show is a little bit different every night, but for the most part we want to keep it the same. We want to keep the director's vision alive.” Her real joy, Ms Howell said, was seeing it all come together.
“I'm up in the booth watching, the sound guy to my right, lighting to my left — the camaraderie is fabulous. I worked for Donald Lines for 30 years. When he was at the bank he said I couldn't produce because it takes up too much time. I went with him to his new company and BMDS put on Lend Me a Tenor, Brian Webb's last play before he died. I invited Donald and [his wife] Janine and they sat in the booth with us and saw what I did. It was only after that he said, ‘Now I get it'.”
Ms Howell now lives in Vancouver with one of her four sisters and her family. She hopes she'll be able to visit her BMDS family often.
“I really hope I can come back and visit and work on shows,” she said. “My closest friends are at BMDS. We're a very social group. The friends I had in Bermuda were the best in the world. I don't want to lose that connection.”
The BMDS Charitable Trust recently presented $30,000 in scholarship funds to students pursuing degrees in theatrical arts.
Six students benefited from the Kate Huntington Memorial Bursary, which was founded by the Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society in 2001. It was created a year after the BMDS member died in a motorcycle accident in India.
The 28-year-old was active in BMDS’ youth drama workshops as a teenager, studied drama at university and held principal roles in several BMDS productions.
The Trust has donated $238,000 in bursaries since it was formed. This year’s recipients received $5,000 each:
• Eryn Beach is studying contemporary dance at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance;
• Kioshi Burgess is studying voice performance at Musicians Institute;
• Shareef Hinds is studying recording arts at Full Sail University;
• Riley Mello is studying professional make-up design at Delamar Academy;
• Julia Frith Quinn is studying acting at Rose Bruford College;
• Marcus Smith is studying theatre at New York University.
The Trust also donated $3,000 towards the Bermuda School of Music’s bursary programme earlier this year. The bulk of the funding comes from the annual BMDS production, Famous for 15 Minutes.
The show, comprised of six 15-minute original plays, runs Thursday through Saturday at the Daylesford Theatre.
It continues August 12-15. Tickets are $30 for the 8pm show and $85 for the gala night on August 15, which starts at 6.30pm. Tickets are available from www.ptix.bm
• For scholarship information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org