A homecoming: Film star Paul Gross to make heralded return to Alberta stage after four decades

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Canadian superstar actor Paul Gross is coming to Calgary in October to help Alberta Theatre Projects launch its 50th anniversary season.

It will be the first time in 42 years that Gross has graced a stage here, having starred in George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and John Murrell’s Farther West for Theatre Calgary’s 1981/82 season in the company’s original home in the Allied Arts Centre on 9th Avenue.

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“I’m a great deal more prepared and more confident than I was back then. I was pretty much right out of the University of Alberta. All I remember was it felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I thought someone would figure that out, and they’d replace me,” says Gross.

He recalls the experience as baptism by fire. Murrell directed the Shaw play and, later in the season, Robin Phillips directed the world premiere of Murrell’s Prairie play Farther West.

“John felt he’d been sent from Mount Olympus to guide Canadian theatre. He turned out to be more of a referee because Mrs. Warren’s Profession’s two leading ladies didn’t really like one another. Robin Phillips came in for Farther West fresh out of his tenure as the artistic director of the Stratford Festival, and he brought with him quite a few of his friends. But I really did like that old theatre. It had a real unique charm. It’s funny what you remember about those early days.”

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Paul Gross as Hamlet in the 2000 Stratford Festival. Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford n.a.

Seven years later, Gross would star as an alcoholic former football star in Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production of the Tennessee Williams’ classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and, flash forward another decade to 2000, when he would star as Hamlet for The Stratford Festival.

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Gross, as the troubled young Dane, would give Stratford one of its biggest box office successes in the company’s 70-year history, running neck-and-neck with Christopher Plummer’s acclaimed 2002 King Lear.

“If you’re doing one of these major plays at Stratford and you’re not selling out the house, you’re not doing your job. That’s why they ask you there.”

It was during that 10-month run of Hamlet that Gross met Haysam Kadri, who is ATP’s new artistic director, and forged a friendship.

“That may have been 24 years ago, but I still remember Haysam well. He’s a smart, committed, inventive artist, and a really great human being. Haysam called me, said he had just taken over Alberta Theatre Projects, and it was struggling a bit, and would I come and help him launch the company’s 50th anniversary season.”

Gross says what ATP is experiencing is not unique in Canadian theatre.

“Theatres across Canada are in a great deal of trouble. It’s been difficult bouncing back since the pandemic. Even Shaw and Stratford are having a hard go. They haven’t recouped their audiences as quickly as they’d hoped. I told Haysam, if he thinks I can sell a few seats, then I’m there. I was born in Calgary, so it’s like a homecoming.”

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Gross was born in Calgary on April 30, 1959. His mother, Renie, was a writer and art historian. His father, Robert, was a career soldier, colonel and tank commander. A true army brat, Gross spent much of his youth and adolescence moving from country to country.

When he was barely in his teens, his mother took him to Stratford to see William Hutt in Lear.

“I was so mesmerized, and I thought, this is what I want to do. This is the world I want to be part of. At one point during the performance, the head of a prop spear broke and fell into the aisle. I darted down to pick it up. I still have it to this day.”

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Paul Gross starred as King Lear in the 2023 Stratford Festival production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. David Hou/Stratford Festival cal

Little did Gross imagine, some 50 years later, he would be playing King Lear at Stratford. “When they talked to me about doing Lear, I thought I’d better do it while I still had the stamina for the part, and the memory for all those lines.”

It was while Gross was packing in the houses at Stratford that Kadri got the idea, and the courage, to contact him about coming to Calgary.

“Paul hadn’t been on stage for a while, and here he was getting rave reviews and huge audiences. I just knew he could do the same for us, so I threw caution to the wind and contacted him about headlining our 50th anniversary season,” says Kadri.

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For his part, Gross says it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Haysam offered me a plumb role in Conor McPherson’s dark comedy The Seafarer, with Peter Pasyk directing. I’m going to have to start working on my Irish accent, and my lines. I want to be as prepared as possible when I arrive in Calgary for rehearsals in September.”

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Paul Gross starred in the RCMP drama Due South, which ran for four years in the ’90s. Postmedia files PR

To many people, Gross is best remembered as the handsome Mountie, Constable Benton Fraser, in the Canadian TV series Due South which he helped produce, write, direct and starred in for four seasons from 1994 to 1999. The cult series began streaming on Netflix last year.

He is also known for his passion project, the 2008 Canadian war film Passchendaele, which he wrote, directed, starred in and shot in Calgary, Fort Macleod and Belgium.

“I love writing, but I think I love acting even more. Acting is immediate. There’s a looseness, freedom, and absolute expression you get with acting that isn’t there with writing. Writing is much more calculated. With acting, especially live theatre, it’s your job to bring people into a world that is not their own, to put them through the full existential wringer, and then have them leave feeling slightly changed. You have to make it worthwhile for people to buy a ticket and spend that time with you.”

Tickets for Alberta Theatre Projects’ 50th anniversary season are on sale at albertatheatreprojects.com, and early bird pricing is in effect until May 15.

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The First World War epic Passchendaele was based on stories told to actor/director Paul Gross by his grandfather. Gross, centre, played soldier Michael Dunne, an Albertan, who enlists in the army and is sent to battle in Europe. The movie was partly filmed in Calgary and Fort Macleod. SunMedia

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