Theo Fleury story takes to Calgary stage

Actor Shaun Smyth spends two hours on ice in a Calgary theatre while playing Theo Fleury in a production of Playing with Fire, based on the bestselling memoir of the former NHLer whose complex life has seen him win a Stanley Cup while battling his personal demons.

One-man show at Alberta Theatre Projects follows hockey journey

The Playing with Fire artistic team includes back, from left, director Ron Jenkins, sound designer Matthew Skopyk, stage manager Michael Howard, set designer David Fraser; front from left, production and video designer Andy Thompson, Shaun Smyth, who plays Fleury, and playwright Kirstie McLellan Day. (Kirstie McLellan Day)

Actor Shaun Smyth has been taking lessons in how to handle a puck from Theo Fleury, the former Stanley Cup champion whose complex life story is taking to the Calgary stage, based on the bestselling memoir Playing with Fire: The Highest Highs and Lowest Lows of Theo Fleury.

Fleury has also shown Smyth how he laces his skates, how he tapes his socks and pads, and how he speaks to much bigger guys for the actor's role in the play, which opens for previews May 1.

For the Alberta Theatre Projects production, Smyth, whose credits include The Collected Works of Billy The Kid and Stones in His Pockets, will spend the entire play on an artificial rink, installed in the theatre specifically for the show. Playing with Fire is a one-man show based on Kirstie McLellan Day’s Fleury memoir, which captures the in-your-face attitude and honest voice of the ex-NHL star who played for several teams, including the Calgary Flames.

Former NHL player Theo Fleury is shown in the Calgary theatre where his story is being adapted for the stage. He has given tips to actor Shaun Smyth. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

Smyth is very conscious of his responsibility in representing a hometown hero – a guy who helped the Flames win their first Stanley Cup in 1989, scored a spectacular overtime goal in the 1991 playoffs, and then became team captain in 1995.

"It certainly adds to the fun, whenever you play somebody who’s still alive and living in your city, but … I kind of like that – it drives me a little harder, you know," Smyth said in an interview ahead of the show’s opening Tuesday.

The story begins with Theo, a runt of a player who skated rings around his opponents and drew fans from across the Prairies to the Russell, Man., rink where he started his hockey career. It captures anecdotes from his time with the Winnipeg Warriors, as a terrified child who was sexually abused by his junior coach, Graham James, and the fierce ambition that sent him on to the NHL and Team Canada.

Smyth says what he most wants to get pitch perfect is Fleury's volatile, fiery brand of hockey and his fearless, frequently insulting demeanor to bruisers who towered over him and commonly outweighed him by nearly 90 pounds. 

"He was totally fearless, that was part of his m.o.," Smyth said. "He learned this from a very young age that if he acted a little crazy out there, people gave him space and also he took a lot of penalties because when someone got him on the boards or tried to kick his legs out with their stick, he’d turn around and say, 'I’ll take your f---ing eye out," and he did this because he said, ‘If I didn’t do that, I would not have had a career. They would have punched me once and they could have wiped me out.'"

But the script descends into darker territory in its second act. The substance abuse, the breakup with the mother of his child, the injuries and depression, the time Fleury had a gun in his mouth and was ready to pull the trigger, the legacy of his sexual abuse by James.

Playwright penned Probert bio

Playwright Day had never written for the stage before –  though she fully understands the world of hockey, having penned Ron MacLean’s Cornered and Bob Probert’s Tough Guy before writing a bestseller with Playing with Fire.  She says she was sitting in a New York production of Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher’s one-woman autobiographical show, when she realized that Fleury’s memoir would lend itself to the same form of storytelling.

"One-man shows are very difficult — they’re tough to pull off. You have to have the right actor, you have to have the right tone.  They have to be funny, but they also have to have a lot of dynamism, and that’s hard when there’s one guy on stage," Day told CBC News.

She wrote the first draft more than two years ago and admits the play she initially turned out was not stage ready. But APT artistic director Vanessa Porteous read it and with director Ron Jenkins, and Fleury himself, helped her create something that would work.

APT's Playing with Fire is very much like Fleury’s memoir, following him from the time he first laced up to today. Day said Fleury’s own keen sense of what would interest people guided her in writing.

Calgary Flames' Theo Fleury, left, shows his feisty on-ice behaviour on Sept. 20, 2009, a quality that has driven him through both high and low points in his career. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press )

"He’s a wonderful raconteur, he really tells a great story. I think you saw that in the book…. When you’re with Theo, he can take a certain incident, and make it colourful and make it poignant, and get to the meat of what happened. And I think that comes across on the stage," she said.

She sees Fleury’s life as a journey, made all the more moving by the hardships he overcame on the way.

"Even though there are parts of his story that are very dark and chaotic, it works the way it works when you’re in a theatre — you’re laughing, and then you’re crying and then you’re laughing again. I hope the book is like that too. I hope you feel you’re spending a night with Theo."

Smyth is a little taller than Fleury – who at five-foot-six was one of the NHL’s smallest players — and a little heavier than the hockey star was in his incredible rookie year. 

"I watched a lot of tapes, a lot of video of him on YouTube and games online, but I’m not doing an impersonation – I want to be able to take the material and interpret it myself. Whatever I show up on that stage, you have to believe it — the audience has to believe it," Smyth said.

Working with Fleury himself has been a bonus. The player has given pointers on how he might tell these same stories. He has has been generous with his time, working with Day to develop the script, then later with Smyth to polish his performance.

Director Ron Jenkins calls the space where Fleury tells his story the "nether rink," reflecting the fact that he turned to the ice as a place to work out his problems.

"Let me put it this way," Fleury says in his memoir. "When I was on the ice, I knew who I was, but I didn't have an identity when I left the rink."

Building a hockey player body

Smyth has been skating and playing for the past nine months to try to build the body of a hockey player, especially the lower-body agility that an audience would expect of an NHL player.

Although he is alone on the ice for the two-hour show, he's not always the focus of attention. The ice itself changes – starting out as an outdoor prairie rink, morphing into the small-town arena, then transforming into an NHL space with the Jumbotron coming down. Video effects bring Fleury into the theatre, for his moments of triumph on the ice.

Smyth sees Fleury's life as a great Canadian story of survival, and says he admires the ex-NHL star for putting everything out there so publicly. 

Fleury himself is taking a hiatus from the public eye, after watching his case against James end with only a minor sentence for the former junior hockey coach. Day says she worried about Fleury as that unfolded earlier this year.

"Not many people have to see the face of their rapist in every newspaper, on thousands of websites, next to photos of their own in several publications, and on blogs all over the place," Fleury wrote in his blog in April. Manitoba is appealing the two-year sentence.

"Not many people have to give public interviews and answer questions about their rapists for weeks on end. I have. And I thought I was powering through it, that it wasn't affecting me all that much. I was wrong," he said.

Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story begins in previews Tuesday, with the official opening night May 4. It runs until May 19.