Leisa Way: after years of travelling, Orangeville is home

August 20, 2014   ·   0 Comments

leisaway2By Constance Scrafield –  If you begin singing at the age of two, chances are you will keep on singing. Talent, determination and dedication to music, with an almost magical ability to connect with people are all assets to Leisa Way’s success in the music industry.

“My sister used to teach me songs when I was two and my mother always wanted me to sing for people who were visiting. But I was so shy, I would go into the kitchen and turn my back so no one could see me and sing as loudly as I could.”

However awkward, it was still performing.

Once she started going to school, she sang at every function there was. The grade eight music teacher used to fetch Ms. Way from her own class to sing for the grade eight students. Soon, she was singing for the events in her home town, Sudbury. When the executive at Inco heard about her, they had her singing for them, too, at every chance.

“They had a hall at Copper Cliff where I sang with the Big Band they brought in, as well as a Pipe Band at events all over the city. I had a microphone but I had to sing really loud!” she laughed. “I sang at a dinner for Terry Fox. He was so attractive – a life force. Everyone was drawn to him. He had cancer but he more energy than anyone I ever met.”

She added, “I sang for Ted Kennedy – anyone that came to Sudbury. Sudbury was a really good start for me; I was called Sudbury’s Sweetheart.”

When Queen Elizabeth came to open Science North, Ms. Way had the chance to sing for her and meet her.

She later met the whole Royal Family, except for Diana, at a Festival in Charlottetown once she was doing Anne of Green Gables. That was to come.

At 14 years, being considered a protégé, Ms. Way was invited to go to Wilfred Laurier University for a summer program. “They needed some who looked young for the production they were doing. I stayed with my brother who lived in Kitchener.”

Back in Sudbury, over the next few years, she did 14 professional shows as Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, and many other starring roles.

“I got to work with pro actors,” she explained. “I learned so much during those shows.”

Then she told us how she became “Anne:” “They were holding auditions for Anne of Green Gables and I crashed the audition because I wasn’t a member of Equity, I sat on the floor in the office because I thought I shouldn’t take a chair and I sat there from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Don Harron was doing the auditions and he had to trip over me every time he went to the bathroom. At the end of the day he saw me and he said, ‘Are you still here?’ I told him he had met me before in Sudbury and he said, ‘Oh, you! You can come in.’ ”

She was the last person they saw, “and after four call backs, I got the job.”

Once in Charlottetown, doing “Anne”, Ms. Way joined Canadian Actors Equity Association, in 1987.

This was the time in her life when she met Walter Learning who was directing the show. He was her first Anne director, a great mentor and a dear friend to this day.

She agreed with Mr. Learning that she would stay with “Anne” for the five seasons that he was contracted to direct the show. Of the 50 years of Anne of Green Gables’ running, the longest running musical in history, Ms. Way was the seventh “Anne.”

After the first season of “Anne”, Ms. Way returned for a visit to Sudbury.

“There was a Pipe Band there to meet me as I came down stairs from the plane,” she recalled. “The Mayor was there, everybody – it was just fantastic – the support that town gave me.”

During her run with Anne, she did six tours to Japan.

“We did the shows in English but with Japanese subtitles and they would laugh before we finished saying the lines because they could read it faster than we could say it. We always finished the dialogue, though.”

Not only did the Japanese love Anne, they loved the actors too. “The Mayor of Osaka invited me to come by bullet train for a beautiful ceremony when he gave me gifts and welcomed our tour to Osaka.”

Ms. Way took a year off from “Anne” to work in the Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend where she was Guinevere in Camelot to David Nairn’s Arthur. This is how the couple met. Ever since, Ms. Way and Mr. Nairn have spent their professional lives doing shows and fulfilling contracts, always with a view of how they could meet, flying from one city to another in order to spend a few days together.

Yet, this past week saw them celebrate their 22nd anniversary.

Through her connections in Anne, she was invited to play the role of Wendy in the U.S touring production of Peter Pan, starring Olympic Medalist Cathy Rigby, who had gone on to acting and singing.

Ms. Way was to learn how to fly and the dangers thereto in Peter Pan. As the show travelled from city to city, the fly technicians changed until the producers realized they should pay to keep the most experienced people travelling with them.

“My chiropractor knows where all my injuries are from flying,” she commented.

She later played the part of Peter in the show in Carmel, California, during which production her mother came to visit in the beautiful mansion where she was staying. Then, the New York bombing of September 11 occurred and there were no flights possible back to Toronto.

The result was that her mother was obliged to stay “in paradise” for two weeks longer than expected.

“Six degrees of separation,” as she said, have brought Ms. Way in contact with old friends and new roles. “Most of my roles came from word of mouth – it is always great to be working with people you know and like.”

She created her one-woman cabaret which she took on board cruise liners in the seas around Japan, South America and Greece.

“I visited 60 countries with the ships,” she said. “And David or I would fly down to weird places so that we could spend a few days together.”

She tells the tale of David’s leading lady in I love you, you’re perfect – now change! becoming incapacitated. Although the show was playing in Detroit, Ms. Way had to fly to New York to audition for the role.

“And I got it!” she laughed. So, she and her sweetheart were able to share the stage again.

In fact, she continued in the role touring the U.S. National Tour out of New York.

In 2004, she starred in the Theatre Orangeville-produced tribute concert, A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. This launched her on what has become her life’s preoccupation: researching, writing, assembling and rehearsing the new shows she has assembled since that first production with Theatre Orangeville.

When Mr. Nairn accepted the position of Artistic Director of the theatre in 1997, the couple moved to Orangeville, planning on seeing how things went for a couple of years. They learned to love and respect the tremendous arts community that is such a huge part of the whole community here.

So Ms. Way sold her condominium in Toronto and they bought a house in Orangeville. It was a big moment for them both.

“My happiest years of my life are in Orangeville,” she said, “because we have a home here. We like this place well enough to put down roots – just to be part of this community.”

Since the Patsy Cline debut, Ms. Way has written four more shows and is working on another two. She is responsible now for her own theatre appearances, not waiting on invitations from others; she is responsible for employing her band, who are largely local musicians; she does all the bookings and the week to week maintenance of the shows. Lots of work; lots of independence.

And she loves it.

“I love the creation, research – the writing,” she declared. “I love rehearsing with the band – the guys come with ideas about arrangements of the songs – that’s so much fun.”

Pensively, she added, “Naturally, I’ll continue to be better at creating and producing. I have a good relationship with my band. At least now, I can choose my dates in case there’s something I want to do with David.”

Of her home here, she said simply, “There are so many wonderful people, such creative people; so many people we know doing great things we don’t even know about.”


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