Dionysus, Greek god of wine and wild behaviour, arrived in strait-laced Toronto in the winter of 1969, at the invitation of a long, lean, lank-haired theatre guru by the name of Ernest J. Schwarz.
Dionysus in '69, a hippie-era updating of Euripides's The Bacchae, opened on Dec. 11 at Mr. Schwarz's Studio Lab Theatre, a small company up til then known for producing children's plays. "But," cautioned The Globe and Mail's theatre critic, Herbert Whittaker, reviewing the opening night, "I wouldn't take the kiddies."
Indeed, as Mr. Whittaker went on to note, the show offered "orgies, blood, audience participation, nudity and fellatio." It was the 1960s counterculture zeitgeist let loose on the stage, (barely) clothed in the trappings of ancient Greek tragedy. And audiences lapped it up.
"They were rabid," recalled Martin Wiener, who, as Studio Lab's administrator, had urged Mr. Schwarz to do the play when they had both seen the original production at New York's off-off-Broadway Performing Garage.
Torontonians flocked to it for the full-frontal nudity, but many came back again and again for the electrifying experience. The show was one of the first works of environmental theatre presented in the city, where the entire venue – a converted Orange Hall on Queen Street East – was transformed into a performance space and the boundary between actors and audience was shattered.
Among those blown away was a young Ken Gass, new in town from Vancouver but soon to found Toronto's Factory Theatre. "It was revelatory," he recalled of its environmental, participatory approach. He also admired Mr. Schwarz's serious artistic intent. "It wasn't sensationalistic, it was a work of social commentary, exploring boundaries," he said. "It captured the sense of social liberation that was in the air."
Dionysus in '69 soon attracted a cult following and enjoyed a year-long run.
Mr. Schwarz, who died Sept. 18 in Cleveland, Ohio, of natural causes at 83, would go on to give Toronto other significant productions. They included the local premieres of the gender-bending classic Cloud 9 and the gay Holocaust drama Bent. However, he never again caught the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Dionysus. Instead, he would be remembered by those who knew him as an inspiring teacher, mentor and leader who played a key role, first in Toronto's alternate theatre movement, and later in its commercial sector.
Ernest Julius Schwarz was born Sept. 16, 1934, in Cleveland to Ernest Schwarz and the former Amalia Heitz. According to his only sibling, younger brother Robert, their father had several jobs but mostly worked as a milkman, delivering from a horse-drawn wagon. Their mother sewed for an awning company. Although the family had no theatrical background, Ernest was drawn to the stage as a teenager and was always involved in high school plays.
He attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., receiving a bachelor of arts in speech and drama in 1956, and went on to take a master's degree in directing at the Yale University School of Drama. Shortly after that, in 1959, he headed north to Toronto. Teaching at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University), and later at York University, Mr. Schwarz gathered students under his wing and got them involved in an outside theatre project that became Studio Lab.
Among those students was Akiko Lamb, who met Mr. Schwarz in 1964 and would become a lifelong friend. She remembered him vividly from that time. "Erny was six-foot-four, really tall and slim, an imposing figure, but at the same time very youthful and high-energy," she said. "He was especially good with young people. He was kind of like a guru; we'd just follow him around and whatever Erny said, we'd think was great."
Studio Lab began in 1965 as the Studio Children's Theatre and toured plays for young audiences to schools, libraries, recreation centres and parks, both across Toronto and throughout Northern Ontario. "There must be hundreds of people who experienced his shows as children," said Ms. Lamb, who served as the company's tour co-ordinator.
The company also travelled to the Venice Biennale in 1971, where they scored a big hit with Mr. Schwarz's musical adaptation of Aladdin and His Magic Lamp. "Erny had been clever enough to put a bunch of Italian words into the show so the kids could understand it," Mr. Wiener recalled. "Afterward, we saw all these students waiting for their bus and screaming 'Aladdino! Aladdino!'"
Mr. Schwarz wrote 17 children's plays for the company when he wasn't directing and producing. But he also had ambitions to do adult work, which culminated in Dionysus in 69. The piece had been devised by avant-garde American director Richard Schechner and his company, The Performance Group. Mr. Schwarz's production would be the first time it had been performed outside New York.
The show's popularity was driven by the young people who had converged in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, which at that time was the city's answer to San Francisco's fabled hippie haven Haight-Ashbury. "There was a sense of an alternate audience for theatre being developed," Mr. Gass said.
In the early 1970s, however, a wave of nationalism took over, with new companies such as Factory, Theatre Passe Muraille and the Tarragon Theatre shifting the focus to developing Canadian plays. Although Studio Lab made an attempt at creating new work, it was unable to repeat the success of Dionysus and in 1976 it closed.
Undaunted, Mr. Schwarz turned his attention to the then-nascent commercial theatre scene. Partnering with Brian Sewell, whom he'd met in 1980 when they were hired to run the Red Barn summer theatre in Jackson's Point, Ont., he formed an independent production company. Schwarz/Sewell Productions made its debut with a bang in 1981, presenting the Canadian premiere of Bent, American playwright Martin Sherman's powerful drama about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Mr. Schwarz directed the hotly anticipated production, which starred Richard Monette and Brent Carver and ran for eight weeks at the Bathurst Street Theatre.
Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Sewell followed that with a Dora Award-winning production of Cloud 9. British playwright Caryl Churchill's landmark exploration of sexual identity played to packed houses at the Bayview Playhouse in a staging directed by Bill Glassco and starring such blue-chip talent as Fiona Reid, R.H. Thomson, Nora McLellan and Geraint Wyn-Davies.
Mr. Sewell, as the younger of the duo, said Mr. Schwarz taught him to be passionate about making theatre. "One of his great pieces of advice to me was, 'Every now and again, you just have to get hysterical,'" he recalled, laughing.
In 1985, the men teamed with Toronto's biggest commercial producers, Ed and David Mirvish, for what would become a string of Canadian productions of New York and London hits, presented at the Mirvishes' Royal Alexandra Theatre. Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Sewell eventually joined the newly formed Mirvish Productions, where they helped produce the company's first long-running mega-musical, Les Misérables, in 1989.
Greg Brown, who was Schwarz/Sewell's general manager, said the pair's singular achievement had been to convince New York producers to release the Canadian producing rights to shows still playing on Broadway. "That was big step forward in terms of international hits coming to Canada," he said.
After Les Mis, Mr. Schwarz parted with Mirvish Productions to accept a professorship at his alma mater, Allegheny College. "He felt the lure of teaching," Mr. Sewell said. "He loved it." He kept a home in Toronto and eventually returned in 1996, becoming involved in the Metropolitan Community Church and supporting the fledgling SOY program for LGBTQ youth. Upon retirement, he moved back to Cleveland to be close to his brother's large family.
Mr. Schwarz was a much-loved uncle who delighted in playing with children and introducing them to theatre. "During holiday dinners he always made a point to sit with us kids and we would spend hours playing games and cards," recalled his niece Terri Buesking. When he returned to Cleveland he became especially close to a great-grand-nephew with autism.
"He took him horseback riding and swimming or to the park several times a week," Ms. Buesking said. The two had a special bond "because my uncle saw beyond his autism," she added. "He was a very giving and accepting man."
With Parkinson's disease and the onset of dementia, Mr. Schwarz moved into Cleveland's Arden Courts Memory Care Community in the fall of 2016. There, he still managed to produce and direct, putting on skits involving his fellow residents. He died surrounded by family and his last words were those of a director arriving late to the rehearsal hall: "Oh look, everybody is here! They are all waiting for me."
Mr. Schwarz leaves his brother, Robert Schwarz; nephew, Scott; nieces, Kathy Borling, Terri Buesking, Kim Mason and Dawn Vangieson; seven grandnieces and grandnephews; and 11 great-grandnieces and great-grandnephews.