Multi-talented artist creates connections.
One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith
Deborah Buck considers it a stroke of good fortune that she arrived in grade nine at Aden Bowman Collegiate in Saskatoon just in time to be cast as a grasshopper by legendary drama teacher Bob Hinitt. Hinitt – who has since received both the Order of Canada and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit – was soon to retire. In that production, Once upon a Clothesline, Buck took to the lights, costumes and the acting – all the elements that bring a play to life.
The next year at Bowman, Craig Archibald, a gifted Grade 12 student at the time (now a professional actor) cast Deborah in her first big role in the Castle Theatre production Clara’s on the Curtains, where she played a domineering British matron. She remembers travelling to rehearsals on the bus and the feeling that “the bus couldn’t get there soon enough.” More roles followed including a version of the Adam and Eve story in which she played the serpent with “a lot of slithery hand and arm choreography!”
The theatre seed had actually been sewn much earlier in Buck’s life, along with good musical training. At age seven she began taking piano and singing lessons. Deborah was a “pastor’s kid, active in the church and church music,” and her family was musical. She often created small plays and songs for herself and for the church. She also took acting lessons in Saskatoon, and was once cast as the Littlest Billy Goat Gruff.
Music and stage did not distract Buck from her education. She completed a B.A in English at the University of Saskatchewan, then a Masters’ Degree in English at Queen’s in Kingston. A year later, yearning for new vistas, she went to Belfast on an exchange between the two Queen's Universities and, on a fellowship, completed a year of post-graduate work. But Deborah felt a call back to Saskatchewan. She came back and “applied for jobs everywhere”, landing a position as Box Office Manager at Persephone Theatre. This was the early ‘90s.
“The milieu was bliss,” she says. She saw the shows and met and talked to people “who were making a living in theatre.” Next she spent two years as the Theatre’s publicist, and did two seasons as the public relations director for Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan. With every job she demonstrated a strong work ethic and attention to detail.
At the same time she was working as an accompanist and music teacher. She was also acting in summer theatre including such classic musicals as Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady, and was doing school tours throughout Saskatchewan with an opera company.
In 1995 Buck heard that Tibor Feheregyhazi, Artistic Director of Persephone Theatre was looking for a ‘doo-wop’ girl for a role in Little Shop of Horrors. Buck was interested and was very surprised when Tibor gave her the role, because, she says, “my dancing is not good.” She rehearsed the hand and step choreography night after night in front of a mirror, and managed to pull the role off.
Feheregyhazi must have seen something he liked, because a few months later he asked Deborah to be the music director for a new Persephone production. She declined. “There weren’t any professional music director role models here in theatre,” she says, “and so there was no one to look to.” But Tibor convinced her to take it on. She learned what a music director did by doing it.
Freelance work began to encroach on Deborah’s spare time – that left after her full-time job as Persephone’s publicist. So she decided to leave “the most secure job I ever had” and go totally freelance. She threw herself into work as an actor, theatre musician, accompanist for other musicians, concert performer, and vocal coach and teacher.
Nowadays Deborah Buck offers a theatre a complete package, or a made-to-order combination drawn from of her many talents – musical director, actor, singer, musician, composer, and song-writer. She’s a rarity in Saskatchewan; she’s one of only a handful of artists in the province working steadily as theatre musicians.
Buck has made several appearances at Dancing Sky Theatre in Meacham. She is eternally grateful for the plays being done there by Angus and Louisa Ferguson. The Ferguson’s believe that there should be live music in every play. Buck acknowledges, that at some points, “without Dancing Sky I could never have sustained a living.”
Deborah Buck says she “really believes in the difference that music can make in a theatre production. The two can enhance each other beautifully.” She has taken this philosophy to work with her at several theatres, including the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern, the Globe in Regina and Rosebud Theatre in Alberta, where she did Billy Bishop Goes to War. She followed that in Rosebud with an 85-performance run of a modernist re-telling of the Moses story in which she juggled a dozen or so roles.
But Saskatchewan is her favourite place to work. “I feel honoured to work with the calibre of people here. We have great actors, directors, playwrights and other theatre artists in Saskatchewan. I’m so grateful. My goal is just to keep collaborating with these amazing people.”
And she has chosen Saskatoon as her home. “Saskatoon has distinguished itself as a cultural centre, a cultural jewel. That’s why people choose to live here and move here. That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m lucky. I always seem to have work. I’m making a living. My income will never be as good as when I had a day job, but I don’t worry. I live frugally. I have a comfortable home and I can travel. I inherited good management and budgeting skills. I’m content with the amount of work I have.” And she retains a space for her accompanist role for a select few clients.
Deborah’s current projects include: sketching musical ideas for a film by Saskatoon actor and director Sean Hoy; reading a script for consideration for a summer production; putting finishing touches on the preparation of accompaniment for a violinist; music direction for Persephone’s April production. As well she’s music directing Persephone's school tour, and is learning the score for a play in the Live Five series taking place later this season at the Refinery.
Besides the need to express her many talents, Buck sees a social purpose for her work. “I have to connect,” she says, “to my neighbours, to people I like and perhaps dislike. The more we connect, the more we learn about each other and ourselves and what it means to be living together on this earth.”
“Theatre gives us an opportunity to tell our story and to hear the stories of others. Story telling is miraculous. When I hear something on the stage that is really true I get a shiver. Then I’m connecting.”
Music does the same for Buck. “It’s just a different language. Music and theatre foster empathy. They’re both expressions of the heart, which is why, I guess, I do both.”
Fortunately, we’ll get to see Deborah Buck’s talents in action at Persephone Theatre in April, as she’s the Musical Director for Fire, the play inspired by the connection between Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, who were second cousins. And Deborah will also take the stage in a small chorus role in the play.
“She has a beautiful singing voice,” says Tibor Feheregyhazi, who was inducted into the Margaret Woodward Theatre Hall of Fame in 2004. He’s worked with Deborah Buck on more than two dozen productions, and says of her: “She’s a brilliant music director. She is detailed, exact, and does lots of preparation; she doesn’t let mistakes go by, she’s a perfectionist.” He adds: “She could work in Stratford; she could work in New York. We’re very lucky she’s living in Saskatoon.”
Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.
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