Frances Hyland

'First lady of Canadian theatre'
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The Independent Online

An actress often described as "the first lady of Canadian theatre", Frances Hyland spent most of her 50-year career in Canada, where she starred in and directed many productions at the Stratford (Ontario) and Shaw Festivals. Despite her slight build ("People who see me off stage are often surprised I'm so tiny," she once said) she had a commanding stage presence, a vivacious personality and what one critic called "a glorious honey-whisky voice".



Frances Hyland, actress: born Shaunavon, Saskatchewan 25 April 1927; OC 1971; married George McCowan (died 1995; one son; marriage dissolved); died Toronto, Ontario 11 July 2004.



An actress often described as "the first lady of Canadian theatre", Frances Hyland spent most of her 50-year career in Canada, where she starred in and directed many productions at the Stratford (Ontario) and Shaw Festivals. Despite her slight build ("People who see me off stage are often surprised I'm so tiny," she once said) she had a commanding stage presence, a vivacious personality and what one critic called "a glorious honey-whisky voice".

Triumphs outside her native country included her performance as Stella Kowalski in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire (1950) and her seductive Laura James in Look Homeward, Angel (1957) on Broadway.

Born in Saskatchewan in 1927, she was raised on a farm in one of the so-called "dust bowl" areas during the Depression, and escaped from grimy reality by play acting. Upon graduating from the University of Saskatchewan, she won a scholarship to Rada in London, from which she graduated with a silver medal. She made her professional début when she took over the role of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Aldwych Theatre.

She also worked in the fairly new medium of television when given a small role in a BBC production of Deep are the Roots, a controversial Broadway hit with hints of miscegenation. "I don't think I'd ever seen TV," she said,

and I certainly hadn't been in a studio. We had to wear orange makeup and there were banks and banks of lights. We'd sweat like horses.

Other West End appearances included The Same Sky (1952) and the role of Hester Worsley in a Coronation presentation of A Woman of No Importance at the Savoy Theatre in February 1953. After playing Gelda in Christopher Fry's The Dark is Light Enough in Edinburgh (1954) she returned to Canada at the request of Tyrone Guthrie to appear at the Stratford Festival, playing Isabella opposite James Mason in Measure for Measure, and Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew. At the following year's festival she was Portia in The Merchant of Venice, then she toured with the Canadian Players as Ophelia in Hamlet and Desdemona in Othello.

Hyland made her Broadway début in Ketti Fring's hit adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel. In an exceptionally strong cast Anthony Perkins starred as the sensitive adolescent growing up in a boarding house run by his domineering mother (Jo Van Fleet), with a drunken father (Hugh Griffith) and a sickly brother (Arthur Hill). Though the play was not a success in London, it is considered a classic in the United States and taught in schools and colleges, and Hyland's performance as Laura James is still recalled fondly by those who saw the original production.

Returning to Canada, Hyland played in Shakespeare, Shaw, Noël Coward, T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene. She directed Agatha Christie's Black Coffee at Shaw, and Othello at Stratford. She refused to leave Canada for the US, though she could have made more money that way. Her television appearances included the popular mini-series Road to Avonlea in which she was Nanny Louisa, and a Dallas-style soap opera, The Albertans. Her films, mainly Canadian productions, include The Changeling (1979), Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and I'll Be Home for Christmas (1988).

Her former husband was the stage director George McCowan, who died in 1995.

Tom Vallance

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