Riding in on a skateboard as a juggling, fire-breathing Mustardseed in the 1987 Vancouver Playhouse production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Greg Kramer, a free-wheeling and sometimes outrageously multi-talented artist, tripped over his feet and cracked both ankles. He was so high on adrenalin that he carried on until the end of the show.
“He was always high on adrenalin,” said Guy Sprung, now artistic director of Montreal’s Infinithéâtre, who directed the production. “He was a street performer back then stuffed to the brim with talent. He was always himself. He had a backbone of his own, and the ability to make things happen wherever he went.”
Few performers were as versatile. Mr. Kramer was also a magician, a jazz pianist, a director, a playwright and author who worked with theatre companies in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa since arriving in Canada from England in 1981.
“Theatre is my religion,” he declared. “There is nothing quite like the communion between an actor and an audience to keep you on your toes. We are all artists, so there is need for much forgiveness.”
He gravitated toward ghoulish roles, playing, among other things, a satanic dog, a number of vampires and “a wonderfully creepy Gollum” in the Toronto Young People’s Theatre’s 2000 production of The Hobbit. Recently, he appeared as a Mephistophelian couturier who promises a country singer fame in exchange for his soul in the rousing musical Haunted Hillbilly.
Mr. Kramer directed Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade for Toronto’s Umbrella Factory, earning him a 1991 nomination for a Dora Award. He also appeared in several films, including the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, and three years ago was the director of magic at Stratford Festival. His one-man show, The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare, for the New Theatre of Ottawa, was nominated for six Rideau Awards, given for theatrical production in the Ottawa area.
He was about to begin rehearsals on April 8 with Jay Baruchel for Sherlock Holmes, a play he had adapted for the Segal Centre in Montreal when he was found dead in his Montreal apartment. Although Mr. Kramer had twice been diagnosed with cancer, had a lung removed, had burned his arm so badly during a magic trick that he required a skin graft, and had been living with HIV, his death at 51 was unexpected.
“He was a total magical presence. He was mystical, quietly intense. He had an extraordinarily powerful gaze and a vision,” said long-time friend and sometimes roommate, cabaret singer Holly Gauthier-Frankel. “Although he could be wonderfully mischievous and impish and insouciant, he also had this quiet aura about him,” she said.
Greg Kramer-Dowlen, the fourth of seven children in a research engineer’s family, was born in Codicote, Hertfordshire, England, on March 11, 1962, and was educated at Hitchin Boys’ Grammar School, which, according to his elder brother, Oliver, had an exceptionally good drama school.
“We were all artistic around the house, mother was an artist and a teacher, and we lived in a big house filled with lots of children, two pianos, books. We had our own little theatre with puppets and things,” he told The Globe and Mail in a telephone interview. “We were all pretty eccentric and very creative.”
Greg’s first role, at the age of 7, was that of a rat in a production of Dick Whittington and His Cat. Years later, he appeared on stage as Fagin, with a live rat, in the London production of Oliver! When Mr. Kramer was 13, his mother died of cancer. Devastated, he ran away from home and charted his own course in life. He continued his education at The Magic Circle and at the Mountview Theatre School in London.
He joined the Ricky Wales punk band then, at 18, found a job as a musical director with a touring theatre company, Incubus Theatre. Because of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s massive cuts to arts funding, he left the United Kingdom for Canada. He arrived in Vancouver, where he played Richard III for the Firehall Art Centre and worked with the Vancouver Playhouse. He dropped the use of Dowlen from his hyphenated name.
After he was diagnosed with HIV, his roles became increasingly macabre. In 1995 he was in six episodes of the television series Forever Knight, about an 800-year-old vampire working as a Toronto detective. He then wrote and produced a one-man show, Lies of the Vampyre.
“I have played enough vampires in my life to last a lifetime,” he told one interviewer. “Perhaps it’s because there is a parallel between vampires and living with HIV, a parallel between the human sexual appetite and the vampire’s thirst for blood.”
Mr. Kramer’s first novel, The Pursemonger of Fugu, a murder mystery, was shortlisted for the 1996 City of Toronto Book Award. He also wrote a regular column for Xtra magazine.
In 2008, Mr. Kramer won a MECCA award (Montreal English Critics Circle Award) as director of the Segal Centre’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
He was a uniquely talented and gentle soul,” said the Stratford Festival’s former artistic director, Des McAnuff. “He made a great contribution to our production of The Tempest. His wizardry greatly enhanced Christopher Plummer’s wonderful performance as Prospero.”
“He lived his life so fully, and he went for everything all at once, all at the same time,” Mr. Kramer’s brother said. “He loathed Margaret Thatcher, he thought he was finished with her – and the irony is, is that he died at the same time she did.”