Chatting with Jeff Hyslop

~Trilby Jeeves

What does one limit themselves to asking when doing an interview with one of the most prolific and successful Canadian Triple Threats, actor, singer, dancer, the notable Jeff Hyslop? (Actually, “Quadruple” as he is also a director.) My challenge was to direct the myriad questions I had and the stories he had into the short, but time-stopping two hours we shared.

What is your family background and how were you guided into the world you are in?

My Dad was a fireman, captain for 35 years of the fire department. We lived on the East side 29th and Rupert. I went to Sir Wilfred Grenfell Elementary that was across the street. I could go 3 minutes to the bell! And just down 3 blocks was Windermere high school, a brand new school that was built. I never graduated as I’m a high school drop out because I went to Charlottetown and became Gilbert Blythe (in Anne of Green Gables). I don’t recommend it in this day and age to young people. I espouse something differently when I do my workshops.

My Mum was a housewife and, my Dad, he worked two days, two nights and four days off as a fireman so 9 out of 10 times he was always available to drive. Sandra, my sister, twirled a baton, and took tap dancing. And, Dean Regan, his sister was the family friend and it just happened that Dean was in show business. That’s how we were all aware of that.

I was morbidly shy and at about 4½ I was sitting watching my sister twirl her baton at a community event in an auditorium in some community hall. And, I was sitting with my legs, splayed, in “second position” with my elbows on the floor. A friend’s mother turned to my mother literally said you should take Jeff to see Grace MacDonald. I wasn’t ADD but I was pretty active as a kid. I wouldn’t be sitting here now, I’d be balancing on the chair, turning, twisting, always in my body. And, so I was taken to the main street legion which is now a bingo palace I believe, to six ½ hour acrobatic classes. I was a natural. I have an equal torso, equal legs, which is perfect for gymnastics. I remember going to Grace MacDonald’s studio and I was beside myself with fright to go into this strange environment. And, Grace came out and took “Jeffrey”, she always called me “JeffRey” by my hand and walked me in. And, they showed me a couple of things and I was hooked.

 

Did you know that you were going to be a performer at that time?

“No, I was going to be an insurance salesman and be a millionaire when I was 35 or something! I thought! Who knew?!” In grade 6 I was doing “Ballet School” (a show where Jeff was spotted by the Bolshoi Ballet). I did my first professional job, Theatre Under The Stars, their last professional season. I did “Bye Bye Birdie”, my first musical comedy role out at UBC. It was all in a six month period when I finally had chronic fatigue at a very young age. But, I was an A student so I would just show up and teachers would say “oh, come after recess”. They were very accommodating. But, we kind of had an inkling that something was going on.

Did your family and you talk about what was happening?

You know, it’s what you did. You didn’t talk about it. You didn’t analyze it like we do now. How is this impacting my child, my family? We just did it. We didn’t even look at it as an opportunity because we had no foresight. No idea. I was too young to say “this is what I want to do with my life”.

Would you consider “Anne of Green Gables” your big break?

Beforehand I had done a lot in Vancouver. A lot. So I was pretty experienced as a teenager. So that was the difference.

So when did you do the TV series “Today’s Special”?

Not until 1986. And in between PEI (The Charlottetown Festival) and that series I did a myriad of CBC varieties when there was still variety. I was lucky, very fortunate to get the tail end of television variety as we knew it. Wayne and Schuster, oh god, the shows… I can’t tell you that I was a dancer on, a chorus performer on. Tommy Hunter! I did his 90 minute Easter Special.

You’ve done some major work.

I’ve done 3 big shows for instance: A Chorus Line, all about dance- I think it had just won the Pulitzer.   It hadn’t won all the Tonys yet. It was brand new. Mike Bennet, Bob Avion, they all came up to Toronto. I was doing “Company” here (Vancouver)… I was choreographing. I flew back (to Toronto). So 400 people go through in groups of ten all day long. Mike brought his drummer, and Fran Neibergof, his pianist. Fran looks like the frumpiest, Jewish librarian you would ever want to see and plays likes a monster. Funky dirty!! It was sensational. You went through in stages. They gave you a ballet combination if you could do the ballet then you could do the jazz because if you didn’t have technique you would injure yourself during the dance. So, thank god ballet, I just have it. So you got through that and they eliminated, down to, not a lot, maybe from 400 we were down to 10.

Then they read me for Bobby. “Oh yeah, this one time I broke into my friend’s house. Oh I didn’t steal anything, I just rearranged the furniture”. It’s just great, beautiful writing. And, then for Mike… “Me, don’t you want to start at the end?- No…I’ll start with you and relax.- Oh, ..well, I could if you started at the end!” Real jerky. Then we sang, and I had brought a song called “It’s Gettin’ Better” from the review “What’s a Nice Country Like You Doing in a State Like This?”

At the end, Bernie Gerstein the associate producer came up to me, just took my hand, and said we’ll see you in New York. So I had an inkling. I didn’t have the word, but I knew. They chose 6 of us of the 400.

Was it a thrill when you also got the role for Phantom of The Opera?

“You’re shell shocked because you are in another zone. You know me, I told you, I set up the fact that I would run out of dance classes to throw up! And, here I am singing for Hal Prince for Phantom of the Opera. And it just puts you in another zone.

Is directing something you are doing very much?

“Yes, I’m coming back to it. There are a lot of things on my mind. It took me many years to decide to come back to play the game.

You took a break? What did you do?

Yes, I became disenchanted with the business. I’ve been adjudicating, doing workshops, and teaching musical theatre. Companies hire me to go in, and they’ll do right up to their tech dress. I’ll go in a watch. They’ll hire me for an eight hour day. I’ll go in and take copious amounts of notes, and then I’ll do a 4 hour workshop on the notes and tweak it before they go into performance.

Is this the first performance you’ve done in awhile?

“Yes.. in awhile. I did the Mute in the Fantasticks at the Vancouver Playhouse for Max (Reimer) 2 seasons ago. That was the first time onstage in a big way and here’s Canada’s triple threat: “Mute”! Haha It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was fantastic.

I’ve resisted singing, I’ve resisted coming back and this (Victor Victoria) is the first … and it’s a LOT of words! A LOT of lyrics, and in the second act there’s a little dance.

So how does it feel?

I feel very encouraged that….

That you still “have it”?

No, I think you always “still have it” somewhere in your “computer”. And, its… we are in the eyes of the beholders. I don’t have any control over that. You (the audience) will see what you want to see. You’ll hear, you’ll remember what you want, whatever it is, but I have no control over that.

What is your ritual just before you go on stage?

Just some quiet. Very, very simple. I have a little saying that I developed through the Phantom years that I shared with my daughter. It’s just a combination of a few words. Some of them, (smiles) four letter words. It’s kind of a little lesson. That’s it. I’m really quiet.

Have you ever done the Lipton (Actor’s Studio questionnaire)? It’s really simple & fun.

Okay.. I’m not really good at these things but go ahead!

1. What is your favourite word? Life

2. Your least favourite word? No

3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally? Someone that listens & is open

4. What turns you off? Negativity – closed (mindedness)

5. What is your favourite curse word? The F-bomb… when I forget lyrics I replace the words with f#@#, f#@$, f#$%!!

6. What sound or noise do you love? Laughter

7. What sound or noise do you hate? That certain pitch people talk at when they aren’t listening to you

8. What other profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Chef… it’s still about performance (and yes, I’m a good cook)

9. What profession would you like not to do? A politician

10. If Heaven exists what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Hmm… I’m not really religious, but… Welcome, you worked hard, come in and take a load off.

I guess we have to stop as we could continue forever…

Yes, we could go on! I don’t know… we get to an age where you… life happens and you’ve experienced a lot and somebody’s interested enough that they want to hear about it. And, as I come back into the business, it’s another perspective for me because it’s an adjustment. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. But I know that I’m over my disenchantment. I still don’t like, necessarily, the business but I do like the people. I like the act and the process. I could stay in rehearsal for the rest of my life. I never need to perform; I just could be in rehearsal.

A last word to the young or not so young who are re-entering the profession?

Do it for yourself because you love it, you want it, you can’t resist it. I don’t want to do anything else. This is my first love, and I know how to do it. So why would I deny it? Especially if you have training and you have craft. Persevere…

Thank you, Mr. Jeff Hyslop, for the gentle cruise you took me on .

 

PS: Here’s a VIDEO of one of Jeff’s fondest memories, touring with Karen Kain, Bruno Gerussi, Ross Petty, and Ruth Nichol in the pantomime of Aladdin.

You can read more posts by Trilby on her blog at buffooneryworkshops.com

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