Hockey at centre stage: Centaur opens season with Theo Fleury story, Playing with Fire

CBC arts reporter Nantali Indongo only got to preview one scene, but the promise of excellence is established as soon as actor Shaun Smyth starts his monologue. Everyone came to watch him, he says, "to see a sports superstar behaving very, very badly."

Actor Shaun Smyth 'relives the despair, the joy, the glory' of hockey player's life

Actor Shaun Smyth channels his version of former NHL great Theo Fleury in the award-winning production Playing With Fire, on until Oct. 29 at the Centaur Theatre. (Denis Cleary/CBC)

Before you even hear the actor utter a single line, the set for the award-winning production Playing with Fire, which launches the new season at the Centaur Theatre, kind of blows you away. 

It's a hockey rink — not made of real ice but a close facsimile, equipped with wooden sideboards, two nets, red and yellow lines, pucks and sticks. 

Playing with Fire takes place on an ice rink much like the one where Theo Fleury first learned to skate as a child, dreaming of becoming an NHL star. (Denis Cleary/CBC)

And dressed in a Calgary Flames uniform, warming up by doing laps around the rink in his Bauer skates, is a Fleury doppleganger  — actor Shaun Smyth. 

I only got to see one scene, but the promise of excellence is established as soon as Smyth starts his monologue, claiming that he knows why everybody came out to watch him: "To see a sports superstar behaving very, very badly."

He pulls a cigarette and a lighter from inside his glove to accentuate the point. 

Centaur Theatre has invited the production team of Saskatoon's Persephone Theatre to co-present the Quebec premier of Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury story

It runs until Oct. 29.

At the forefront of the collective memory of most hockey fans is Fleury's traumatic life experience as a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Graham James, his junior coach.

The play, by Kirstie McLellan Day, based on Fleury's 2009 autobiography which she co-wrote with the hockey player, is about more than this sad chapter of his life.  

"They tell the story through hockey," explained Centaur's new artistic and executive director, Eda Holmes. 

"Shaun, the actor, skates on synthetic ice and relives the despair, the joy, the glory of the whole of Theo's life."

"What I love, especially as a dancer," Holmes went on "...is that it's this physical desire that's built into any kind of athletic experience. And so you feel that from this performance."

"It's just so physical.… It's really exciting." 

Set inspired by Fleury's childhood memories

And back to that rink.  It almost wasn't going to be the set, when the play was first written and workshopped.  

McLellan Day had originally set Fleury's story in a hotel room.

When director Ron Jenkins got on board, he had another idea.

Director Ron Jenkins decided a hockey rink had to be the setting for a play about NHL star Theo Fleury and actor Shaun Smyth would have to be convincing on skates for the two-hour production. (Denis Cleary/CBC)

"In the book, there's this beautiful section of him talking about pretending that he was in the NHL, " Jenkins starts off.

"His father used to drive the Zamboni in this tiny little rink and do custodial work. And that's where he skated: he was five years old, and he would go there and skate for hours and hours while his dad cleaned the ice."

"And I went, well, that's where the whole thing should take place, on a rink."

Apparently, the audience — often a mix of theatre and hockey fans — are transported.

Jenkins described people shouting at the actor what perhaps they had yelled at the TV during a heated match during the real Fleury's 15-year tenure in the NHL. 

Others have given high-fives to the actor.

None of this behaviour equates with your usual theatre etiquette.

Sue Smith in conversation with Ron Jenkins, director of 'Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story'. The play about the former NHL player's life opens at the Centaur Theatre tonight. 7:04

A human story

A true appreciation for Theo Fleury's impact as an athlete seems to be at the centre of the storytelling.

Jenkins said he was a fan, despite being an Oilers man, because of Fleury's "tenacity." 

Obviously McLellan Day is a fan, too, to help write his book and then bring his story of resilience to a theatre audience.

Theo Fleury said in his autobiography he was 14 when his junior coach, Graham James, began abusing him. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

The sound composer and designer, Matthew Skopyk, is also a hockey fan, Jenkins said, which made the director's instructions to make the set sound like a hockey rink even easier to deliver.

Smyth, based in Calgary, has been performing the production on and off since 2012 and has racked up prizes and praise for his performance.

He, too, admires Fleury.

Actor Shaun Smyth grew up admiring Theo Fleury for the excitement he brought to the game despite his small stature. Smyth has won many accolades for his performance as Fleury. (Denis Cleary/CBC)

"I watched him, as a young man, win the Stanley Cup," he said, smiling at the memory of being on the sidelines of the celebratory parade in downtown Calgary.

"I admired him, his style of play. He brought such a level of excitement to the game, whatever game he was playing."

In terms of playing the 5–6'' right winger, Smyth says, "It's got everything that an actor would want. It's like what Bryan Cranston must feel in Breaking Bad: the journey is so extreme, and it's such a roller coaster, from top to bottom."

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Playing With Fire runs until Oct. 29 at the Centaur Theatre, 453 St-François-Xavier Street in Old Montreal.

The Centaur Theatre launches its new season October 3rd. Eda Holmes - it's brand new Artistic and Executive Director just happens to be the first woman to fill that position! Her personal story from ballet soloist to theatre director is remarkable. 54:00

About the Author

Nantali Indongo

Nantali Indongo is CBC's Arts & Culture contributor and host of The Bridge. Follow her on Twitter @taliindongo.