A Normal Life
Profile by Jane Ledwell
A small-town boy from a British Columbia pulp-and-paper town, Hank Stinson has been active as an actor and in the theatre since 1969. And yet, in an introspective conversation, he insists he has had “two careers.”
“From the time I graduated in 1969, to the late 1970s, I was pursuing a theatrical ‘career,’” Hank recalls. “I worked most theatres across the country, and I reached what I thought was the pinnacle: the Stratford Festival. And it was wonderful—I worked on ‘King Lear’ with Bill Hutton and Peter Ustinov. And I thought, this is great. I’m working with a well-established company… but this isn’t ‘me.’” He laughs self-deprecatingly and adds, “Also, I wasn’t getting the big parts!”
While at Stratford, he jumped at the opportunity to develop his own work and created and starred in the show Flash in the Pan. The Charlottetown Festival’s Alan Lund saw it in Toronto and brought it to Charlottetown in 1980, and Hank with it. It was the putative end of his theatrical “career,” but the beginning of a fuller life. When he met his wife Rowena here, he realized, “I was just basically lonely. Here, I found a place I was connected, where I belonged.”
Hank says, “It is unusual for an actor to work at home. The actor’s stock-in-trade is his mobility. But I like a normal life,” Hank smiles. “I like to belong to the Rotary, to the church choir. This kind of life is luxury for actor-gypsies who are never in one place more than a few weeks.
“Some theatrical opportunities have escaped me,” he admits, “but I’ve been able to produce others…” He has acted in “many, many productions” and seen musicals and revues he co-created produced, from Canada Rocks to shows based on the life and work of L.M. Montgomery (including The Blue Castle, currently being translated into Japanese).
Beyond the Charlottetown Festival and Theatre New Brunswick or Neptune Theatre, he has performed in Anne and Gilbert, volunteered with Theatre PEI, toured productions to nursing homes with Young at Heart Theatre Company, and created cantatas for his church choir. “I get as much artistic satisfaction out of that as I do on the Mainstage at the Confederation Centre, though some would see that as not important in a ‘career,’” Hank says.
He contrasts two career decisions in his life. He auditioned for the original production of Les Miz and was offered the part—but the contract wasn’t as appealing as the offer, and it would have meant at least a two-year separation from home and family. He said no.
At another point, he signed up to take an Education degree. “I thought I would be a teacher and make a regular salary,” he says. “I was accepted into the program and signed up—and then I was invited to do a run of Billy Bishop—and I was gone like a shot.” He did not become a teacher.
“I’m not temperamentally suited for acting,” he reflects, “but it’s what I am trained to do, and I have an instinct for what I’m doing.”
He says, “There’s a large picture of life in which your profession fits, some way or another… I think you get strength from family and friends and community—and you bring all that to your profession. People ask me what I’m doing—meaning what acting part I am playing—as if that describes who I am. Well, it doesn’t tell the whole story,” he says.
This summer, Hank returns to the Charlottetown Festival in Dear Johnny Deere, as the narrator and a grizzled newspaperman. In addition, he is working on a commission for the Theatre New Brunswick Young Company, and a walking tour on rum running, with Rowena. “You do it because someone asked you to,” he says.
Acting is an art you only get to practice by invitation. On the negative side, Hank says, “In theatre, you exist for six weeks, and then stop existing.” On the positive side, “Lifelong friendships are formed among cast. They are special bonds—and it is not necessarily theatre that keeps them together, but they start there.”
Hank Stinson adds, “It’s the best sort of play that adults can do together.” Hank pauses and with a glint in his eye laughs, “Oh, wait. Maybe second best.” Let the play go on.