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Stratford Festival celebrates life of designer Desmond Heeley

As published in the Stratford Beacon Herald, Monday, November 7, 2016.

Celebrated Stratford Festival designer Desmond Heeley was remembered Sunday as a faithful friend, a patient teacher, an inspiring mentor and a true original.

And someone who could turn “dross into gold.”

“With pool noodles and scotch tape and plastic spoons and a glue gun, he could create worlds,” Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino told the crowd gathered at the Festival Theatre for a celebration of Heeley’s life.

Up close, his work was often a crazy collection of everyday items, masterfully assembled, he noted.

But from the audience, with the proper lighting, “it was so much better than reality,” said Cimolino. “His designs were not only filled with artistry and beauty, but they were filled with poetry and metaphor.”

Born in Staffordshire, England in 1931, Heeley started out at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and came to Stratford in 1957 to design Michael Langham’s production of Hamlet (with Christopher Plummer) at the newly constructed Festival Theatre.

He went on to design nearly 40 productions in Stratford, including Cyrano de Bergerac (1962), The Duchess of Malfi (1971), Amadeus (1995, 1996), Camelot (1997), London Assurance (2006) and finally The Importance of Being Earnest (2009).

He died in June at the age of 85.

Friends and colleagues, including Douglas Paraschuk, Molly Harris Campbell, Shawn Kerwin, Frank Holte, Paul Shaw, Barry McGregor and Martha Henry, remembered his warmth, his “heroic imagination” and the respect and kindness he showed to his fellow artists.

“His legacy, more than anything else will be about how he reached out and touched the people that he got to work with,” said Paraschuk, “and made the connection that made his incredible vision and the incredible scope of his ideas actually happen.”

While the Tony Award-winner worked at stages around the world, Stratford was a special place for him, he suggested.

“This was the place that was really, really at the core of who he became,” said Paraschuk. “The Stratford Festival nurtured who he became, and he never, ever forgot that.”

He may have been a legend here, but he was always humble and kind, noted Kerwin, who said that she, like many designers, learned a great deal at “Desmond school.”

That included, among other things, the importance of patience, the endless uses for masking tape, and “why champagne and strawberries sometimes just make a fitting more fun.”

“He taught so many of us, and with a generosity of spirit and with a heart that was huge,” said Kerwin.

One of the most important lessons was imparted, without a word, one time when Festival patrons were lined up in the pouring rain for tickets to The Mikado. Heeley walked into the theatre’s Green Room, and asked Kerwin to help pile a tray full of teacups. He then grabbed a large pot of tea, and proceeded outside to serve it up to the unsuspecting but grateful patrons.

She read a letter from fellow designer Susan Benson, who also remembered “his humility, his warmth, his need to pass on his knowledge to young designers,” and his work that reflected “a theatricality and a beauty that will never be forgotten.”

Sunday’s tribute included some theatricality of its own, with Tom McCamus and Cynthia Dale returning to sing Camelot on the same stage on which they performed it in 1997.

Frank Holte, the former head of props at the Festival, said Heeley’s designs showed a remarkable understanding of his colleagues’ work.

“He was a designer, but he was also a director, a lighting designer, a scene painter, a cutter and a prop guy,” he said. “He was all of these things put together.”

And Heeley had as much respect for the people in front of the curtain as he did for those behind it, “but I think, in the back of my head, he saw actors as a means of getting his costumes around the stage,” joked Holte.

He suggested that there are certain sounds and smells in the theatre that remind people of someone.

“When you hear this, you’ll remember Desmond. Scout’s honour,” he said, and with that, he took out a large roll of tape, and unspooled it loudly.

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