Valley Lives - Robert Rooney

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the January 13, 2016 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Wakefield takes final cue from beloved director

by Anastasia Philopoulos

Early on in their friendship, Peter MacGibbon recalls sitting next to Robert Rooney in what felt like an endless meeting on forming a new committee. In true Wakefield style, the question circulating the room to each attendee was 'what's your vision?'

Robert Rooney
Robert Rooney, 65, died on Jan. 5 of cancer. File photo.

And in true Rooney style, the dogged director - who was visibly fed up with the entire process - answered with his signature bluntness.

gnature bluntness. "He said 'I want to change the world,'" McGibbon said. "And he meant it."

And he meant it." Whether it was organizing 45,000 school children and their teachers to listen to Nelson Mandela speak in Toronto, or bringing local voices to life on Theatre Wakefield's stage, Robert Rooney was never afraid to dream big.

"He was never scared of having that grand vision," MacGibbon said. "He always saw his art, and art in general, as a way of changing the world."

The beloved Wakefield man died on Jan. 5. The well over 200 people who attended his public memorial at the Wakefield La Pêche Centre on Jan. 9 is a testament not only to the many lives he touched, but also to the many he lived.

Theatre director, producer, filmmaker, mentor, activist, and community builder were all apt titles. He dedicated 18 years to working with the South African anti-apartheid movement, worked on indigenous rights, and was a well-respected figure in Canada's theatre world. Locally, Rooney founded the Wakefield International Film Festival, helped create Theatre Wakefield, and mentored countless young artists through his summer film camps.

Along with his wife, Brenda Rooney, he brought relevant social issues to the Canadian consciousness through Rooney Productions films, including 'The Great Granny Revolution,' which profiles Wakefield's connection to South African grannies raising AIDS-orphaned grandchildren.

Robert Rooney
Robert gives direction to young actors during rehearsal of Dreamwalker, a play by Ian Tamblyn, with Adrian Kiva far right (2011). File photo.

Married for 40 years, Brenda admits both she and Robert didn't like the other much when they first met back in 1975.

"I said he was the biggest con I'd ever met, and he said you're not bad yourself, and three weeks later we decided to get married," she said with a smile.

The couple were rarely apart thereafter; when Robert directed theatre in Toronto, Brenda was his theatre publicist; when Robert became a filmmaker, Brenda became his producer. The duo spent their lives joined at the hip, raising two daughters, Rebecca and Caitlin.

In 1996, Robert and Brenda moved their family to Wakefield, where it didn't take them long to get involved in community life. Robert was heavily involved in the fundraising, planning, and construction of the Centre Wakefield La Pêche.

"It was largely his work that ensured that it's a performance space and not just a gym," said long-time friend MacGibbon. "He was the most vocal and forceful advocate."

Robert Rooney
Brenda and Robert Rooney put Wakefield on the map with the Wakefield International Film Festival (shown here in 2011). File photo.

When it came to theatre, Robert was ferocious in general. Wakefield playwright Scott Hebert-Daly worked with Robert on a number of plays, including the Wakefield Trilogy, and recalls the director never gave anybody an easy time creatively.

"[Working with Robert] was brutal," Hebert-Daly said with a laugh. "The two of us had the most amazing arguments... we both had passion about the material."

And while the pair cleared more than a few rooms with their quarrels over scripts, Hebert-Daly says it was all entrenched in a profound respect for one another, and was a sort of process.

"I think that [Robert] found something in me that I hadn't seen, and that I'm still discovering," Hebert-Daly said. "He has changed me as a writer. Every script that I write will have some of Robert in it."

The director was able to spot talent from a mile away, and often pushed people to reach their potential.

"He was able to see what you could rise to," Brenda said. "He would know you could do it, and he would just insist you figure it out... but you know, that was faith."

Robert Rooney
The Rooney family in 1982. Photo courtesy Brenda Rooney.

The Rooney's annual summer film camp was a place where that kind of faith continued. Adrian Kiva was part of the original group to go through film camp, and also worked with Robert on 'Dreamwalker'.

"We weren't used to adults talking to us the way he did," Kiva recalled. "He didn't talk down to us, ever, which meant he never withheld criticism, but because he saw potential in us and wouldn't settle for anything less."

Kiva says the Rooneys heavily influenced a number of film campers, so much so that the 20-year-old could easily list a number of friends taking art, photography, theatre, and film at school, himself included.

And while it came about organically, Robert's ability to inspire young people came as a surprise to him.

"He didn't expect that he would love the kids, he didn't see how important [mentorship] would be to him," Brenda said.

And after describing all his big dreams, his rotating job titles, many accolades, and accomplishments, there was only one thing Brenda wanted to add about Robert.

"Only that I loved him."

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