February 2019 / Scarborough, Ontario, Canada
Nonnie Griffin, Canadian Theatre Icon
By Heather Anne Hunter
In the heart of Cliffside nestled amongst blue spruce trees, sits an English cottage, white stucco with blue shutters. Equally charming is its owner, 85 year old Nonnie Griffin, an icon of Canadian Theatre. Both Nonnie and her quaint little house on a large lot are anachronisms stubbornly resisting encroaching contractors. Her blue eyes dance as she happily reminisces about her career and passion: acting.
Nonnie moved to Cliffside from the Beaches in 1991. She proclaims without hesitation, “I love it here!” Billowy cushions on floral sofas fill her pastel living room under an original wood-beamed ceiling. A window seat in an archway displays her paints, brushes and watercolours. She paints (“it’s meditative; it restores the soul”), acts, sings, writes… “It’s hard to divide the time.”
She comes from a family of artists. “My father was a scholar (he read Dickens to her at the age of 5); my brother Sandy was born able to draw.” As a child she attended St. Margaret’s Convent School which did a lot of drama. There her talent was recognized so her grandmother subsidized singing lessons and paid her tuition to the Royal Conservatory of Music. She is the great grand-daughter of Sir William Mackenzie, the builder of the Canadian Northern Railroad, but their wealth was lost during the Great War, so her family was very poor. “Music and singing kept us going,” but still her brother, John, committed suicide at the age of 25. He shot himself as a result of abuse he suffered as a child and again in the Jesuit seminary where he sought refuge in religion. Nonnie’s most recent play, Piper’s Son, is based on this, the greatest tragedy of her life. She is searching for the right theatre for it where she will play the mother.
At the age of 16, she performed at the Red Barn Theatre in Jackson’s Point and went on to the Royal Alexandra Theatre and CBC radio and television in Toronto. One of the 1980’s hosts of CBC’s children’s show, The Polka Dot Door, she was recognized on the street and in airports by adoring fans. “It always made me feel good that they loved me”.
Nonnie, nee Lorna Margaret Jean, has had an illustrious lifetime career in acting. She received critical acclaim for roles too numerous to mention from all over the world including London, England, Lebanon and New York as well as across Canada. In the latter part of her career, she has created one-woman shows and even took multiple roles in her play, Sister Annunciata’s Secret, which ran at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012. Dramatic poetry recitals (Keats, Yeats and Other Greats and Tea and Poetry) were favourites at intimate theatres.
However, her greatest achievement is: “…managing to stay in the profession and keep my sanity. It takes so much to be in this crazy business.” When she was auditioning at the Royal Alex and got the attention of Peter O’Toole, a casting director diverted his interest. This major disappointment precipitated a downward spiral but proved to be a turning point in her life. It lead to her joining a Twelve Step program which gave her a new, spiritual direction. “If disappointment happens today, I don’t suffer over it.”
Nonnie is the perfect reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe in her masterpiece, Marilyn After, in which the legendary star returns to the stage at the age of 75 to reflect on her tragic life. “She was murdered, you know,” Nonnie whispers conspiratorially. But why write a play about a fifties sex goddess? “Because I love her and a friend of mine told me, ‘you have the look’,” which is true; with her whimsical expression and fluffy platinum hair, she becomes Marilyn. A stack of books by the fireplace attest to her meticulous research before writing the dramatic monologue. Riveting from start to finish, it ran in Toronto and Hamilton and one night On-Broadway in New York City winning The Best International Production Award.
She goes to her kitchen to make tea and bursts into a melodious warble. Her voice quavers when it used to be strong. A tube damaged her throat during an operation on her shoulder in 2013, a significant set-back for an actress. A voice teacher and naturopath are helping her surmount this challenge. “It is getting better, will be better, so please pardon the rasp.” A torn aorta in the spring of 2018 sent her to the hospital for a week but she isn’t worried. “It’s healed up now, I’m sure!”
Always positive, never deterred, she is brimming with ideas for her future. When asked if she ever married, she responded with eyes twinkling, “No, not yet, but I have a lovely boyfriend!”
Nonnie cautions that the life of an actress is not for the faint of heart; you never know when your next gig will be. ”I didn’t make a lot of money, but enough.” TV commercials helped her survive. ”You have to be a very good actor to do commercials. At the audition, you have one shot. It’s fun and pays quite well.” She was once chastised by a friend for doing a bra commercial. She thought it was beneath the dignity of a classical actress. “So I asked her, are you going to pay my mortgage?” “I have a lovely house, but nobody handed it to me!” she says pointedly. She belongs to AMI, Actor Management Incorporated and is definitely not ready to retire.
What exactly makes a person a good actress (she will not refer to herself as an actor)? “Empathy is the key, a great imagination, a good voice, energy and stamina and a strong spiritual sense, as well as a love and knowledge of literature.”
So, “darling”, if you dream of becoming an actor and have the right stuff, a glittering life on stage and screen could await you. However, you would be wise to pick up a copy of Nonnie Griffin’s book, Show Biz and Other Addictions (from Amazon or the library) a tell-all diary of “what people go through” in the THEA-TAH!