Meet the First Lady of Canadian Theatre Critics

Special Features   Meet the First Lady of Canadian Theatre Critics Audrey Ashley, the retired theatre critic of The Ottawa Citizen in Ontario, made a homecoming to the provincial capital recently.
Audrey Ashley
Audrey Ashley Photo by Vivian Macdonald

Ashley, 78, was honored by her colleagues Nov. 7, when she appeared to present the newly-created Audrey M. Ashley Award at the annual awards ceremony of the Capital Critics Circle.

The Ottawa critics, who recognize excellence in amateur and professional theatre in the capital city, named the new award to note Ashley's contribution to Canadian theatre history. The award was suggested and endowed by producer Barbara Crook, who was Ashley's successor at the Citizen in 1985. Ashley, not one for the spotlight, handed out all the awards (including the one named for her) at the 2005 ceremony

"It's very nice to have that recognition," Ashley told Playbill.com in the days leading up to the awards. "You hope somehow you're making a difference."

Ashley and her husband, James, retired to Stratford, Ontario in 1985. She had spent 25 years covering theatre and music in Ottawa. James Ashley retired as an aeronautical designer for the National Research Council. Since his retirement, he has given backstage tours of Stratford's flagship Festival Theatre.

Audrey Ashley's quarter-century tenure in Ottawa — covering shows there and in Montreal, Halifax, Toronto, New York and at Ontario's Shaw and Stratford Festivals — represents one of the longest regular theatre beat assignments in post-World War II Canadian theatre. She was also a rare female critic for her time — indeed, one of only a few women in an editorial job at the Citizen 40 years ago. The new Capital Critics Circle award is called the "Audrey M. Ashley Award for Major Contribution to Theatre," and acknowledges a theatre artist's overall contribution to the Ottawa theatre scene. "It's a 'body of work' award," Barbara Crook said, "not a lifetime achievement award."

The award comes with a $500 prize.

"I've been a sponsor of the awards for several years," Crook told Playbill.com. "And it dawned on me last year that it was time we did something to honor Audrey. She made such a contribution to the Ottawa scene for more than 30 years. There are few other critics in Canada who have seen and covered so many decades of theatre and seen the evolution of theatre in Canada. Audrey is respected by those she works with and those she writes about."

The award cheered Ashley, who in recent years has been battling multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. Although she said she moves a little more slowly these days, Ashley caught plays in Stratford and Shaw's 2005 season and has winter plans to visit her son, Warwick, daughter-in-law Erin, and grandchildren Devon and Meredith on the West Coast this winter. She said she has lately felt like she had the energy to review plays again.

Ashley started at the Ottawa Citizen as an editorial secretary in 1951, shortly after she and her husband emigrated to Canada from their native Birmingham, England. She became interested in the stage because Jim Ashley ran an amateur theatre troupe, The Ashleigh Players, in Birmingham. Married in 1948, they later moved to Canada seeking opportunity beyond the hardscrabble world of post-war England, where rationing continued into the 1950s.

In addition to being an editorial secretary and librarian at the Ottawa Citizen, she was second-stringer to arts writer Lauretta Thistle in the 1950s. In 1961, she was shocked and pleased to be invited to be Thistle's successor in the music and drama writer's job.

During her time at the Citizen, Ashley covered the creation of the National Arts Centre and the rise of its resident professional theatre company. In her time, bus and truck tours of plays and musicals played Ottawa, and the respected non-Equity Ottawa Little Theatre also performed there (and still does).

In 1985, when she settled in Stratford — one of the major North American theatre communities, known for The Stratford Festival — Ashley began contributing free-lance reviews for the local paper, the Beacon-Herald, which places reviews on the front page.

Ashley admitted to being a bit of a traditionalist and a purist in her tastes, and is disappointed when a director "undermines a play" by imposing a busy or confusing concept. She said that if the choices of the director or actors are delightful or illuminating or make you think more deeply about the work, she is all for creativity.

"I think the idea of 'making it accessible' to a modern audience is sometimes unnecessary," she said. "Mind you, I don't want everything stuck in amber. I just object when they are doing violence to a play."

Only Herbert Whittaker, dean of Canadian theatre critics, had a longer career covering theatre in Canada, according to sources in the Canadian theatre community. Whittaker, a former stage director, became theatre critic at the Montreal Gazette in 1935 and worked for the next 60 years.

Ashley's Citizen reviews and interviews are now in the City of Ottawa Archives. She was also a correspondent for the former Centre Stage magazine and contributed the Ontario chapter of "Contemporary Canadian Theatre" (Simon & Pierre, 1985). In 1977 she was awarded the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal for her service to the arts.

Her biography of late actor Mervyn (Butch) Blake and his 42 seasons with The Stratford Festival, "With Love from Butch," was published in 1998.

Few know that in recent years she also penned a novel (about a British enclave in France), which has yet to be published. She said she started writing a play once — a family drama — but never finished it. "I wish I knew where it was," she said.

Ashley was encouraged in her love of writing when, at age 10, a poem she wrote was heard on the BBC "Children's Hour." Her mum, she said, regarded creative writing as a nice fantasy but, like many parents who don't know how to deal with an arts-minded child, later steered her daughter to a night school to learn shorthand and typing.

Much later, those practical skills led to a door opening at the Citizen. And through the door, a curtain rose to a wider world that would benefit Canadian theatre for decades.

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How did Ashley approach her work, back when she was writing full time?

"I just did my job to the best of my ability, and loved doing it, which is one of the reasons I am so surprised — I believe 'gobsmacked' is the current term — and delighted by the idea of an award being made in my name," Ashley told Playbill.com. "It was a very busy job, always, and I don't think there was time to sit and consider a mission or an agenda. But when asked, I suppose I would say that I considered the role of critic as something of a bridge between the audience and the actors, directors, etc. Too often we are seen as adversaries, yet we are all on the same side, basically.

"In the daily newspaper business, I think the purpose is to assess a production for the benefit of the reader (this sometimes gets forgotten and there is a distressing tendency for the critic to start re-directing the play). I wouldn't go so far as to say one interprets the play for them (audiences are not that dumb) but if you can shed a little light on something that needs it, all to the good, all the while remembering that you are watching this as a member of the audience, not from some Olympian height. What you see is what they see, and they are not necessarily privy to all the infighting and skulduggery that may have gone on backstage and colored your view of the show."

Was she a purist? A traditionalist who didn't like experimentation on stage?

"Long ago, the young director of a fledgling theatre company accused me rather snidely of 'wanting a well-made play,'" Ashley said. "Well, I still do, and judging from the current crop of new stuff, there aren't many about. But that's by the way. I still think the director's job is to deploy his actors, designers etc. so that the end result is as faithful a reflection of the author's intention as is possible. Whether the author's intention, as in Coward's Fallen Angels, is worth putting on the stage in the first place is a whole other kettle of fish! The business of integrity is very important to me, and I think it all too often gets lost in the personal vanity of a particular director or actor."