The Elizabeth Szathmary Story

by Stephen McNeill

“The day before Szathmary died, she kept repeating, 'the vultures are circling, the vultures are circling!' I assumed she was having hallucinatory dreams, but it became very clear that the message was a conscious warning.”

Elizabeth Szathmary (1937–2003) was an accomplished artist and a tour de force in the Toronto arts community. In the early days, her avant-garde approach was a much needed boost to a maturing theatre community. Her dedication to the arts, which lasted almost 34 years, distinguishes her as one of the longest serving theatre directors in Canada. She was one of the first to share European theatre with Indigenous peoples, and the first to present plays for young people that made use of multiple languages; including English, French, Cree and Ojibwemowin.

Szathmary was born in New York on October 12, 1937, to Hungarian-Jewish parents. Her mother was a former opera singer and vaudeville performer, and her father was a composer best known for writing the theme song of the popular 1960s television show Get Smart.

Szathmary was a graduate of the High School of Performing Arts in New York City and later performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet under the great choreographer Antony Tudor. It was at this time that she met musician, Robert Swerdlow. They began a relationship and moved to France where Szathmary danced with such companies as Les Ballets Classique de Monte Carlo and Les Ballets Contemporains de Paris.

In the mid 1960s, The couple relocated in Montréal, then settled in Toronto and together founded the legendary Global Village Theatre in 1969. They set to work and collaborated with great artistic synergy. Swerdlow composed music and co-wrote the shows while Szathmary became choreographer, director and feature performer. In 1970, Global Village produced a successful show called Justine, co-starring Salome Bey, which later moved to New York as the widely acclaimed hit, Love Me Love My Children. More importantly, it positioned Global Village to become an exciting venue for showcasing imaginative new works and new talent. Although Global Village came to an end a few years later – and a final act to the couple's relationship – Szathmary carried on solo and founded the Inner Stage Theatre in 1975.

It became Szathmary’s mission to nurture young minds with art and dance. She once explained, “I named the theatre Inner Stage because it embodies the notion of the inner person as being creatively and spiritually boundless.”

The mandate of her new theatre was dedicated to bridging an empathic understanding between cultures, while the mythical roots of the productions connected ancient traditions to contemporary issues. “The greatest gift Inner Stage has to offer children is the love of life and hope for a fulfilling future,” she once remarked. She began with modern fables and sometimes reshaped the stories with fearless pragmatism. The theatre company produced social documentaries on topics such as the homeless, First Nations Peoples and the world’s underprivileged. She toured schools across Canada with her daring, often provocative theatrical campaigns. However, pushing the boundaries with unconventional theatre began to take its toll, and in 1989, Inner Stage lost its operating grant.

With unwavering determination - and the help of private and corporate donations - Szathmary struggled on to finance her own productions. Her once dynamic studio became a personal shrine filled with costumes, whimsical objects, sacred artifacts and of course, her beloved cats. Her stylised calligraphy graced the walls with spiritual journals and nostalgic theatre remembrances. She, however, persevered and was able to produce such plays as The Trojan Women; a modernised adaptation based on the work by Canadian poet, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Earth Drum; a trilogy that dealt with anti-racism, violence and environmental issues, and Voices of Change; a highly successful play that toured First Nations reserves in Ontario. But misfortune struck again when a tragic fire broke out in Szathmary’s studio, forcing her to relocate.

Peter Bartók, son of the great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, had a long-standing friendship with Szathmary. His benevolence and financial aid extinguished all memory of the burning rubble at the St. Nicholas Street studio. She purchased a condominium in Harbour Square at Toronto’s lakefront and continued the theatre’s shoestring operation. The building also had a top floor lounge complete with a dance studio. The surroundings may have been new, but her bohemian lifestyle remained unchanged. The stylish, split-level condo was transformed into another magical temple, decorated with many of her salvaged items from the fire. In May, 2002, she was working on a modern dance piece with David Hatch Walker called The Annunciation. I arranged to meet them for a photo session. The lounge studio was unavailable, so we shot the dance sequence in the building’s squash court. Afterward, Szathmary treated us with one of her exotic meals, but silently, I was most troubled by her apparent loss of weight. It proved to be her last dance. A month later, she was diagnosed with cancer. A true nonconformist, she elected for unconventional treatments. Ultimately, it cost her great suffering and most likely an early death. Szathmary died on March 28, 2003. Afterward, her friends bid a fond farewell. Those bequeathed any property were contacted by the executor of her estate. She had no family and only a few people had knowledge of her personal affairs, so it was naturally assumed that her theatre operation would cease. However, her remarkable story doesn’t end here. Her legacy and the chronicle of Inner Stage took yet another near-tragic turn.

Fast forward about a year and a half later...

Around the first week in October, 2004, I received a phone call from Peter Gugeler, a former member of the theatre. He inquired whether I would be interested in photographing the theatre’s contents for the purpose of an “archive project." Gugeler – who was not well-liked by Szathmary – was now the theatre’s appointed Chairman. According to Gugeler, the contents had been gathered and stored at his place by the theatre’s directors who also made plans to hold an auction of the property before the archiving was completed.

Naturally, I was shocked to learn of the theatre’s existence, and even more so of its active board of directors, but it appeared they were being notably honourable. I began my photography work and found it to be an enjoyable, nostalgic experience. In the process, I was nominated to the board. I learned of the board’s agreement to wind down the corporation, and that the executor, Robert Mason (also a director), sold the condominium seven months after Szathmary’s death, seeking to fulfil her wishes of archiving the theatre’s work. There was some confusion as to the ownership of the condo, but the net funds available from the sale were nonetheless transferred to the Inner Stage corporation, giving the directors complete control of the assets, valued at approx. $235,000.00.

It is unclear what Szathmary – impoverished for most of her artistic life – had actually requested of her company archives, or to what extent, as her wishes were never specified in writing. Working on-site allowed me to monitor the activities, but the director’s involvement with the project appeared to be more personal in nature than voluntary. Within a week, my observations turned from curious to suspicious.

I discovered that Gugeler and Mason had been paid monies (approx. $15,000.00) by the corporation for their work related to the project, and were planning to pay themselves an additional $35,000.00 for work on the project’s “second phase." It was later discovered that Inner Stage was registered as a not-for-profit charitable corporation, but had lost its charitable status in 2003 (on Gugeler’s watch). Furthermore, Gugeler and Mason intended to spend the remaining monies on a film documentary. Leaving aside the propriety of this activity, they clearly intended to profit even more from such an undertaking.

Directorship gave me entitlement to investigate, but the board became decidedly uncooperative. One by one, the directors resigned, with the exception of Gugeler. His resistance proved to be both futile and comical.

I contacted three former theatre members and we filed a Court application against the lone gunner. Backed in a corner, Gugeler committed his most shameless act by making repeated references to Canada Revenue Agency’s alleged interest in the theatre’s assets. It was a devious attempt to avoid the consequences of his various breaches of trust, and proof that his intention to honour Szathmary with an archive project was motivated primarily by self-interest. His elaborate scheme to obscure the board’s greedy desires came to a screeching halt.

The Court appointed one other former theatre member to assist me with the wind up and we succeeded in securing the theatre’s assets. Our inexhaustible efforts to regularise its affairs were rewarded when Judgment ordered the remaining property be distributed to York University and two Toronto-based theatre companies, as follows:

The York University Foundation received a donation of $70,000.00. Matched with the government’s Trust for Student Support program, it created an endowed scholarship fund of $140,000.00. The Elizabeth Szathmary Theatre Scholarships were inaugurated in 2008 with the awarding of four scholarships valued at $1,750.00 each to full-time undergraduate students in the Department of Theatre in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts. In addition, The Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, housed in the York University Libraries, received the theatre’s historical archives and $5,000.00 for maintenance and conservation of the materials which include texts, photos, audio reels and audio/video cassettes. We were also effective in shepherding gift money to Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts with awards of $50,000.00 and $25,000.00 respectively.

My successful journey also ended. It wasn't until weeks afterward that a powerful memory stirred inside of me. The day before Szathmary died, she kept repeating, “the vultures are circling, the vultures are circling!” I assumed she was having hallucinatory dreams, but it became very clear that her message was a conscious warning.