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On the morning after last Valentine's day, the cast and crew of Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mt. Morgan assembled for a scheduled rehearsal of Birdland Theatre's debut production. But the director, a young man named Cameron Wright, was unaccountably missing. Shortly after, Birdland's artistic producer Zorana Kydd received a telephone call to explain why: the young director had been killed in a fall from his parents' apartment balcony the evening before. Barely a month later and only two days before opening night, the show experienced a second tragedy: Kydd's husband, Ralph, just 57, died -- a victim of cancer.

Despite everything, the show managed to go on -- with Kydd herself playing one of the lead roles -- opening to largely critical notices. Now, on the eve of Birdland's second production, Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (opening tomorrow at Toronto's Jane Mallett Theatre), Kydd has no regrets.

"I wanted this baby, Birdland, to be born," she said in a recent interview. "If the baby's an alien, it's fine -- it's still my baby. The birth was very difficult, yes, but I had to do it. I had made a commitment, no matter what. But I cannot describe the experience -- the level of pain and sadness, and then to try to rise above that, to survive, to breathe, never mind to act. I have no words to describe it."

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It was an emotional freefall, which is exactly the word used by Kydd in her Birdland mission statement to describe the experience she hopes to impart to theatregoers. "We want to inspire our audiences to have the courage to plunge into the worlds where anything is possible . . . Free-fall is part of the adventure!"

The Miller production, she concedes, never really hit its stride. After Wright's death, two of its actors assumed directorial duties and tried to implement the original vision, but the critics found the result largely confused and unfocused. When one local scribe suggested it would have been better not to mount the show at all, Kydd wrote a scathing letter to the editor insisting her private pain should have been given no place in the paper's review and that, despite its shortcomings, the production was a victory for those involved and a way to honour Wright's name. "The critic's job is to criticize, that's fine," she says. "But the production has to stand on its own values. For me it was important to stage it . . . I was maybe slightly hurt because some of the reviews brought in personal circumstances. I'm not sure they should have."

Similarly, to honour her late husband -- an accountant and expert in offshore tax havens, he had helped get Birdland off the ground financially -- Kydd established an award in his name, to be given annually to a young actor who has excelled in the craft. The first winner was Matthew Edison, for his performance as Mozart in Amadeus at CanStage last year.

Born in Serbia, Kydd, now 33, started acting at 17 in Belgrade, the seventh member of her extended family to make a career in the theatre. She was one of 10 applicants to enter the national theatre conservatory's rigorous program, then spent several years performing in repertory companies.

In 1999, she came to Canada to visit some friends, met Ralph Kydd and decided to stay. She spoke virtually no English at the time, but quickly mastered the language and completed a PhD program at the University of Toronto's theatre department. She wrote her thesis on the works of George Kelly (uncle of actress Grace Kelly), a prominent American playwright during the 1920s. "I'd done a lot of Chekhov and Gorky and European drama, but sort of felt I didn't know enough about American theatre," she explains. "I wanted a fuller understanding and this was a missing link. I like to conquer new territories and it was something I wanted to conquer."

At U of T, she launched a small production company and staged Kelly's 1922 satire, The Torchbearers, a kind of earlier version of Michael Frayn's Noises Off. "So in the last year of my PhD, I was thinking about how to put all of this together -- my acting background and the academic work. I'd done my MA in theatre management. So I'm sort of like [Chekhov's]three sisters, but not all of them want to go to Moscow."

Birdland was the result, duly incorporated in the spring of 2003, with a mandate "to encourage the creation of outstanding theatre performances relevant to our times." She says New York critic John Simon gave her some valuable advice, as did Columbia University professor and director Andrei Serban.

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She describes McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a hit on Broadway (with Stanley Tucci and Edi Falco) and elsewhere, as "an urban fairy, a simple love story, and we need love stories and fairy tales." In Toronto, Kydd plays waitress Frankie; Peter Van Wart plays Johnny. The show is directed by Rod Ceballos.

Birdland's future is uncharted. Kydd says she has been reading scripts and has a space booked at the Jane Mallett venue for the spring. She needs to raise more funds and hopes to hire a director of development, perhaps next year. In her spare time, she's working on a guidebook for actors about acting methods.

"My only hope is to move audiences," she says. "That's what I expect when I go to the theatre. I want to talk about love, talk about humanity. Life here is so busy and I sometimes find we don't have time to talk about the important things that are at the core of every human being. That's what theatre is for."

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opens tomorrow night and runs to Sept. 26 at Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre.

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