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June 7, 2011

Looking Back on a Legacy – Eric Peterson

Eric Peterson, C.M. began his long career in Canadian stage and television in 1971 when he helped found the collective theatre company in Vancouver, where he first worked with John Gray. Peterson moved to Toronto in 1974 and began collaborating with Gray again on what would become Billy Bishop Goes to War. On stage, Peterson has appeared in productions for Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre, the National Arts Centre and the Vancouver Playhouse. Peterson has also worked extensively on television programs such as Street Legal, Corner Gas, and This is Wonderland.

Eric Peterson

For over forty years, John Gray and I have had Billy Bishop Goes to War between us, as part of our lives and our friendship, and it’s this friendship that is at the heart of the joy I feel in doing the play again. It’s what also keeps the piece “a work in progress,” as we two old chums try to figure out what this play we created so long ago means to us today, a process we’ve been lucky to repeat every ten years or so. We first played it through our thirties, then in our early fifties, and now in our early sixties.

The play still remains the journey of a fictional, “real” Canadian war hero, a kind of “every Canadian” and his story of survival, with its theme of how surviving such great difficulties reshapes our self-awareness as individuals and as a country. What changes every time we come back to the play is how it is cast, with the parts being played by actors who are getting steadily older, oddly enough. The casting of a play unleashes a fate that the production is destined to fulfill. It’s not the only factor but it’s certainly a major one and Billy Bishop Goes to War is no exception. Those early productions, when John and I were thirty year-olds, spoke of youth coming to manhood, and I got to act “age” at the end of the play when Air Vice Marshal Bishop was an ancient fifty-seven. In our fifties, the fifty-seven year old Bishop was the bracket within which the play was told with all the modulations of an older man looking back on his past prime.

Now John and I are the same age the real Billy Bishop was when he passed away quietly in his sleep at the age of sixty-two, and so, it is a Bishop looking back on his life from the end of his life that informs this Soulpepper production. It has been a huge creative pleasure working on Billy Bishop Goes to War again and with the wonderful contributions of Ted Dykstra, Camellia Koo and Lorenzo Savoini, I don’t think John and I have ever had more fun performing it.

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.