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Remembering actor Neil Garvey

Shakespeare FEA  KIRKHAM tempest 07
Neil Garvey, right, appears with Dew Derek in a 2009 Shakespeare in Delaware Park production of "The Tempest." Photo by Robert Kirkham / The Buffalo News.

I've just received word that Neil Garvey, the longtime Buffalo actor, attorney, writer and Shakespeare devotee, has died at 56. This is terrible news, and a huge loss for Buffalo's theater community, which must now bid farewell to one of its most beloved members far before his time.

There will be more to come, but for now, I am posting this 1996 profile on Garvey written by The News former theater critic Terry Doran:


By Terry Doran


Picture this: 4 a.m., cold and dark, a morning after Thanksgiving. Neil Garvey rolls his Falstaffian figure out of bed. Time to roast a pig on a spit out in the snow. Half a day later it's done. Loads it into the back seat of his compact car and heads into the city, where he unloads, changes into costume. And for what? For art.

Garvey is an attorney, majoring in personal injury litigation and minoring in the arts. If it weren't for Garvey and people like him, arts and culture in the city would be a different story. Behind what the public enjoys is insecurity. Degrees of financial unease accompany all performances and shows.

Garvey's appearance in costume (which? "The king, of course") lugging a roast pig was part of an annual Elizabethan feast fund-raiser for Shakespeare in Delaware Park. It's the sort of thing that goes on all the time, and without it arts organizations would barely function. No one even bothers to consider dignified money-raising anymore.

"Now I know how they feel over at Channel 17," said Garvey, with more than a trace of irony. Channel 17 stands as everyone's nightmare example of public panhandling.

Garvey has passed the hat. He's done it in front of several thousand people lounging on the grassy slopes of Delaware Park at a performance of Shakespeare.

This fall he stepped down as chairman of the board of Shakespeare in Delaware Park. He remains active, though. He also is on the board of Shea's Performing Arts Center. He is chairman of the committee for the David Fendrick Theatre Fund (which gives money directly to theater artists in the city). Until recently he was on the board of Summerfare Theatre. He was a valued adviser several years ago to the fringe Cabaret. Unofficially he has acted as adviser and helper to many other organizations and individuals in the arts.

His most notable accomplishment to date is Shakespeare in Delaware Park. For years the project got by on help from the University at Buffalo, with which it was allied. Then after a time of strong hints, UB yanked the funding in 1991. The Delaware Park operation -- free Shakespeare outdoors in the summer -- faced extinction. Saul Elkin, the founding artistic director, looked around for help. For logical reasons he turned to Garvey.

Garvey's ties to Shakespeare in Delaware Park go back years. He is an actor. It's highly unlikely he's the only attorney in town who's an actor (it's not for nothing that it's called "courtroom drama"). Still, the number of board honchos who also perform has to be a very small number, possibly limited to Garvey alone. For the past two years he and Mary Kate O'Connell have performed A.R. Gurney's two-hander, "Love Letters," and will do it again this year. Usually the performances are to raise funds for arts organizations. Shakespeare is his great love, though. He last appeared in a Shakespeare play, "Othello," in the park in 1990 as Gratiano.

In February he'll take the part of Cardinal Wolsey in Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" at the Kavinoky Theatre, "if my trial schedule permits."

"The funny thing," he said, "is I already played Wolsey just out of high school. For the East Aurora Players, and I had to cover up my pimples with makeup."

When Garvey agreed to take charge of a board for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, prospects were grim. An injection of cash was needed or it was all over. The Griffin administration was not terribly supportive. As a highly visible public project, it was also subject to public criticism, which received little or no discouragement from the mayor's people. Arts programs are extremely vulnerable to lukewarm attitudes like this. They have to approach the same indifferent people for help, for money, for relief from unreasonable restrictions, for some expression of support.

That year, 1991, was a tough one. To that point Shakespeare in Delaware Park had been run with the blessing of UB. Now it had to completely overhaul itself. Overnight it had to turn itself into a not-for-profit operation to qualify for public and private funds. A board had to be assembled. Garvey and Elkin took over leadership. Garvey stepped in to head the board. They squeaked by that summer. They got over the hump with a chunk of money from Marine Midland Bank.

"We were put in a real situation of sink or swim, and we almost sank," Garvey said. "To survive we had to find $75,000 or else. Marine Midland was a lifesaver."

It may surprise to know just what was at stake. Shakespeare in Delaware Park is the country's second most successful outdoor Shakespeare festival, in terms of audience. Only one other free Shakespeare festival draws more than Buffalo, and that is New York City's. There are a dozen of them around the country, and after Buffalo comes Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Even if the list is broadened to include free and paid attendance, Buffalo stands third in the country. Last summer 51,500 people attended Shakespeare in Delaware Park (the figures are from a report by the Institute of Outdoor Drama).

The news must have reached the Masiello administration, for its relations with Shakespeare in Delaware Park are considerably warmer and more encouraging than its predecessor’s.

Four years later big strides have been made. The budget has gone from $105,000 to $160,000. There is now a full-time executive director, Nancy Doherty.

Said Garvey: "We show up for the public six weeks each summer. What people don't realize is that it takes a full year to produce those six weeks. It's a full-time job."

Doherty and Artistic Director Saul Elkin wrestle with artistic problems and Doherty tackles administrative chores. She also is responsible for what is widely viewed as Shakespeare in Delaware Park's artistic breakthrough. That was last summer's staging of "Hamlet," which she directed and which not only was attended by some of the largest crowds so far, but received ecstatic reviews.

Garvey attributes his love of Shakespeare to his parents. His father, James A. Garvey, is an attorney and head of the Garvey clan: seven sons in law, medicine, engineering and business. He majored in Latin at Canisius College. Neil Garvey's mother, Marie, graduated from Vassar College and got her master's degree in English from Columbia University. "They were very severe about language," he said. "If you made a mistake, you heard about it."

Combining Shakespeare and the law strikes him as only natural.

"My attraction to Shakespeare, no doubt, is the language," he said. "It's probably my attraction to the law. The law ultimately is about words, and you'd better damn well know what the words mean. And what other influence on the English language comes close to Shakespeare?"

Garvey graduated from the University at Buffalo and its law school, and formed close ties with its theater department, with some of the actors and with Elkin, the department chairman. Elkin started the outdoor performances of Shakespeare in Delaware Park 21 years ago. Garvey appeared in some of them as an actor and was close to the summer festival for many years before the 1991 crisis. All the high anxiety now is but a memory and Shakespeare in Delaware Park is on reasonably safe ground, that is, operates inside the normal amount of stress.

"Right now," said Garvey, "we're running a $10,000 deficit due to one lousy rainy week last summer. It didn't even rain that much, but it looked like rain. In reality we're always only one lousy rainy week a summer away from extinction."

No admission to the two Shakespeare plays each summer is charged, but contributions are asked for from the "people on the hill," those sitting on the grassy slopes of the natural amphitheater behind the Rose Garden.

"We're averaging about $1 a head," said Garvey. "But the cost to us is actually a little closer to $3 a head."

Garvey doesn't want any tinkering with performances' being free. "That was a condition of my coming on board," he said. "Besides artistic merit, that is the most important thing, keeping it accessible to people who might not otherwise ever see Shakespeare in performance. It is tough to balance, though."

In 1991 at the turnaround, 80 percent of the money came from public funds and 20 percent from private contributions. "That has entirely flipped over," said Garvey. "Now it's 80 percent from non-governmental resources and private contributions of one kind or another. Donations from the hill are a big part of that."

All in all, Garvey looks back in relief and wonder. "It turns out to have been a good thing," he said. "It made us move from the university level, where the emphasis was primarily on apprenticeship, to a professional level. I think that has had a positive impact not only on what we present but also on the theater community at large. We did about 21 Equity (actors' union) contracts last year. It's been very beneficial to actors who want to live and work around here."

The reassessment also forced rethinking the direction they wanted to grow in. Raising money is still a primary function to keep going. Garvey has turned his energies since stepping aside as chairman to working on an endowment.

Another important development took place this fall. Shakespeare in Delaware Park moved indoors. It collaborated with the Irish Classical Theatre Company for a production of "King Lear" in the Pfeifer Theatre. Further collaboration is almost certain.

For Garvey, who knows the inside of theater, collaboration was one of his goals. There are others.

"Corporate nights, that's one," he said. These are nights set aside to give VIP treatment to those who give sizable donations. "We give them reserved seating, picnic baskets, but no, no roast pig, and we make a polite fuss over them. When you are not-for-profit like we are, no stone can remain unturned."


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