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Theatre legend invites students to bring ideas to the stage

Shannon Tosic-McNally, Victor Knight and Gabriela Saltiel (photo: Scott Philip)

Victor Knight has always had acting on his mind. He has shared that passion with Dawson students for a quarter century. “Victor’s 86. The man’s been around and he knows what he’s talking about,” said Kyle Pelletier, a third year student of Knight’s. He’s one of the older teachers at Dawson who is able to communicate with the younger generation.”

“My family was in show business,” said Knight, a teacher in the professional theatre department since 1974. “I was the eighth child, so my mother certainly was no longer a dancer. My father had been an entertainer in London.”

Knight explained that when his father returned from serving in World War I, he chose to drive a taxi. Knight speculates that his father no longer had the stamina to be an entertainer.

“Very frequently he would get calls from his old friends in the business that would say ‘we need a couple of kids for a film next week,’ I would go trotting off and do extra work, small part stuff.”

Gabriela Saltiel, a second year theatre student, has obviously heard about Knight’s beginnings in the theatre world. “He was born into the business and it shows because it’s so in him.”

Like Knight’s father, his acting career was put on hold due to serving in a world war, but when he returned, he enrolled in the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England. He never completed this program. “After I graduated — well I didn’t graduate, I got kicked out.”

He explained that a lot of his classes got cancelled and he and his classmates were frustrated. “The whole class got mad and they said ‘go and tell them.’ I was fool enough to do that.” He said he was labeled a troublemaker and was asked to leave. “I didn’t make the trouble, they made the trouble.”

This bump along the road didn’t phase Knight one bit. “I immediately got work so it didn’t matter.” It was a job at the Kew Theatre in Kew Gardens, in London. “The week that I got kicked out of school, I got a job there and I worked there for three years.

Victor Knight’s students on the Romeo and Juliet set (photo: Lucas Chartier)

“One day, a friend of my fathers called me up and said ‘Victor, my niece is coming down from Montreal and is interested in the theatre. Can you take her?’” This call altered the course of Knight’s future. “I said I would try to fit her in somewhere and I did. I later followed her to Montreal and we got married and had a child.”

“I wish he had told you the story of how he got engaged,” said Saltiel who had been eavesdropping. “The first play that they saw together was Twelfth Night and when he proposed to her he took this quote from the play and it goes on and on and on about how he could love her and how he would show his love to her. It’s the sweetest thing ever.”

Although Victor and Helen Knight are no longer married, they share grandchildren in England.

When Knight arrived in Montreal, he began working in radio. He worked at a daily soap opera called Laura Limited. “Your mother may know about it, you wouldn’t though,” said Knight, addressing one of his students.

He also worked on a national broadcast every third or fourth Sunday. He explained that the pay was lucrative for the time. For the two gigs, he was making well over a hundred dollars a week doing what he loved.

Knight explained that he did not originally plan on becoming a teacher. He was working on a play at Sir George Williams University that the Chief of Studies was directing. “He was directing the play but I ended up doing a lot of the directing for him because I’d been in the business a little bit longer than he had. At the end he said ‘You’re a born teacher.’ I didn’t believe him and I said ‘I didn’t even finish high school.’” He was assigned two courses.

“What I like about the way he directs is he lets you do what you want first,” said Bineyam Girma, a third year theatre student. The third year students are currently working on Romeo and Juliet. “I had an idea of how Tybalt should be and I brought it to the stage. He doesn’t tell you, ‘play it like this.’”

Knight explained how he came to be at Dawson College. Sister Saint-Laurent was working in theatre at Marianopolis College. “She got into trouble with a play that she was directing. The sexual parts were getting embarrassing so she asked me to finish the play for her.” He did the same thing the following year.

After she joined Dawson College, Knight said she called him up and said, “You’ve got to come here now.”

Knight began his career at Dawson teaching pre-university courses. Shortly after, he was approached by members of the administration to develop a program for professional theatre with the help of Bert Henry, a long-time colleague in the department.

Knight wanted the students to have a venue for their plays. “I was walking along Notre-Dame street and I saw this empty cinema and I called Bert and I said, ‘Come with me, I’ve got to look at this place.’ It was in appalling shape but it was perfect. It had romance written all over it.” This became the original Dome theatre. It was 1974.

“I’m making new friends every year with these students. I tried retiring. I took one semester off. I felt like I was waiting to die and I don’t like waiting to die.”

“I wish he was my grandpa,” said Shannon McNally, one of Knight’s students, as she walked by.

“I’m doing exactly what I want do,” he said. “What possible reason could I have to retire?”

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