TORONTO – Long before he conquered classic works and characters on the stage and screen, venerated actor Christopher Plummer mused about them during childhood reading sessions with his family in Montreal.
“They were terrifically well-read and they taught me at a very young age that reading was not only necessary but it was fun, it was great enjoyment, and great riches can be got from it,” Plummer, 82, recalled in a recent telephone interview.
“My mother and my aunts and grandma, they all read and they used to read aloud to each other after dinner, which was a lovely old custom and it made reading so much more interesting and more personal,” continued Plummer, whose great-grandfather was former prime minister John Abbott.
“We read everything from Shakespeare to P. G. Wodehouse, and French as well, because my family were all bilingual. So it was terrific growing up.”
Plummer pays homage to such writers in his self-created new one-man show “A Word or Two,” which begins previews on Wednesday at southwestern Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Opening night is Aug. 2.
Festival artistic director Des McAnuff, who worked with Plummer on the 2008 Stratford production of “Caesar and Cleopatra” and 2010’s “The Tempest,” also helms this latest show at the Avon Theatre.
The Toronto-born Plummer offers details about his life in the show as he runs down the literature that has had an impact on him since youth, from that of A. A. Milne to the Bible to Stephen Leacock’s work. He also gives praise to his family for introducing him to such authors.
“It’s quite fun because I make it as amusing as possible but I also celebrate language,” said the seemingly untiring star, who won an Oscar earlier this year for playing a gay father in the film “Beginners.”
“And that’s the purpose of the piece, is to celebrate language, which in our day and age is fast disappearing.”
Plummer, who’s also won two Tony Awards and two Emmys, said he conceived “A Word or Two” several years ago when a library in his former home city of Darien, Conn., asked him to do something for their fundraiser.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, a lecture would be awful. The very word frightens people away,'” he recalled.
“So I thought, ‘No, wait a minute, I’ll do something that I want to do, which is to share with the audience my favourite sort of bits of literature that have stayed with me all my life, prose and poetry,’ and it worked out.”
No stranger to the rigours of a one-man show, having won his second Tony for his solo performance in “Barrymore,” Plummer first performed “A Word or Two” on his own as a 45-minute piece. He also brought it to various other fundraisers.
“It was this sort of excellent piece to entertain, inform and also raise money for charities, but I never earned any myself so I decided it’s time that I’m going to make a little money off this damn thing,” he said with his signature hearty chuckle.
With that, Plummer invited McAnuff to his home and read the play to him. McAnuff liked it and the two got to work on making “A Word or Two” into its current full-length production that includes a simple set, lighting and music.
Plummer, who’s been acting on and off at the Stratford festival since 1956, said he’s rewritten the play “considerably” since he last did it, and “made it much more personal.”
The narrative is in the same spirit of his 2008 autobiography, “In Spite of Myself,” he said.
“I think audiences receive it with much more warmth if you’re personal, and I get as personal as I can,” teased Plummer, whose upcoming films include “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.”
“A Word or Two” runs about an hour and a half, and there’s no intermission.
Plummer said he didn’t want to have a break for two reasons.
“One: the way it’s written, it can’t, it’s got to flow right to the end and there’s a sort of journey that can’t be broken,” he said.
“And the other reason is that I always get scared if there’s an intermission, I’m afraid that nobody will come back for the second half,” he added with a laugh.
“So I’ve got to pin them to their seats, and they ain’t leaving.”