Stage Door News

Toronto: The Royal Alexandra Theatre will dim its lights on April 7 in honour of Shirley Douglas

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Shirley Douglas, one of the giants of Canadian theatre, TV and film died on April 5, 2020 from complications due to pneumonia (but not related to Covid-19). Her son, Kiefer Sutherland, announced her death on Twitter and explained: “My mother was an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. Sadly she had been battling for her health for quite some time and we, as a family, knew this day was coming.”  Shirley and Kiefer starred as mother and son in a production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1997. The show was a co-production between Mirvish Productions and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa; it was the only show the two starred in together.

In honour of Shirley's immense contributions to the arts, to Canadian society and to the equality of all Canadians, the lights of the Royal Alexandra Theatre marquee will be dimmed on Tuesday, April 7th at 8 pm.

The Royal Alexandra, the oldest continuously operating legitimate theatre in North America, is, of course, closed at this time due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the age-old traditional of marking a life well lived in the service of the theatre will be followed.

The theatre's manager, who is now working from home, will return alone to the dark venue, turn on the marquee lights an hour before the traditional curtain time of 8 pm, and then dim them for five minutes, before turning them back on. He will then leave them on for a few more minutes before turning then off again and returning home. (The lights will not be lit again until it is safe enough for the theatre to reopen, once the pandemic has passed.)

There will be no one else at the theatre, so he will not be violating any of the pandemic protocols, which are important to fulfill; just as it is important to fulfill the dimming of the lights for all major theatre artists.

Long a friend of the Mirvish family, Shirley's work as an actor was equalled only by work on behalf of the less fortunate and all who were underprivileged in society.

Born in Saskatchewan in 1934, she was the daughter of Irma and Tommy Douglas. Her father was one of Canada's greatest statesmen. He championed universal healthcare and helped to make it a reality. He served as the Premier of Saskatchewan, cofounded the CCF, which became the New Democratic Party for which he was the first leader.

Shirley told the Toronto Star about her father's early years in an interview with Richard Ouzounian;

“He was such a great speaker. He knew how to start off being funny, to get them settled, then he would get serious and lay out all the problems and then he would offer the hope, the solution.

“The depression, the dust storms, tumbleweeds going down the street, the cars shaking in the wind, holding wet cloths over our mouths when we had to run from the car into the house, all the paint worn off the grain elevators, everything was grey. You couldn’t see the sun for days.

“That’s the world my father spoke to. He would say, ‘When it’s this ugly outside, you’ve got to find beauty, in literature, in music, in religion, wherever you can find it.’

“He was never sentimental. He was tough and he told them, ‘People don’t have to live like this. We all deserve better.’ I always waited for the windup. It was so exciting. Grown men were weeping. It was great theatre long before I ever knew what theatre was.”

Shirley began acting in school when she was just a girl. This led to her studying at the the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where she stayed to work after graduating, working in theatre and film, notably for director Stanley Kubrick in Lolita.. She returned to Canada in 1957 and began to work across the country in theatre and TV.

After marrying actor Donald Sutherland, she moved with him to Los Angeles in 1967. There she became involved in the American Civil Rights Movement, the campaign against the Vietnam War, and later on behalf of immigrants and women.

Returning home, her career continued. Among the highlights: starring as Nellie McClung in the TV series about the pioneering women's rights advocate, as May Bailey in the television series Wind at My Back, and as Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel.

Shirley was awarded a Gemini as Best Actress, was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame, was awarded the International Achievement Award by Women in Film & Television, was bestowed the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and was given honorary doctorates from Ryerson University and Brandon University.  

This courageous woman of the theatre will be sorely missed by all of us who loved her. May her memory live on.

Photo: Shirley Douglas in Wind at My Back. © 1996.