What’s it like to play John A. Macdonald


David Rockne Corrigan played Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a political ally of Sir John A. Macdonald, during the historic walking tours that take place in Kingston in the summer. This week, he takes on the role of the first Prime Minister in the entertaining “Sir John Eh? The Musical.” (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Column by David Rockne Corrigan
SALON Acting Company Member 


David Rockne Corrigan has made the transformation to Sir John A. Macdonald for a production commemorating his birthday on January 11. (Courtesy of Sir John A. 2015 Commission)

KINGSTON, ONTARIO — When I was in high school, I told my friends that I would be prime minister someday. Well, I did it.

This week I will be portraying Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, in Sir John, Eh? The Musical. It is being presented in Kingston, Ontario, the city that Macdonald called home for most of his life. The musical is part of a celebration of Macdonald’s 198th birthday, which of course is falls each January 11.

I have been in several plays over the span of my acting career — I’ve done Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pinter, and Mamet, to name a few — but there is a unique pressure that comes with playing an actual historical figure, especially one as complex and storied as Sir John A.

I’ve been growing my hair since September. It’s dark, wavy, unruly, and beginning to look a lot like his. My nose, like his, is rather prominent on my face (though maybe not as bulbous). My Scottish accent is coming along nicely — John A. was born in Glasgow —  and I don’t sound like Groundskeeper Willy, so that’s good. I’m even thinking about trying a wee sip of alcohol, too, just to see what it’s like. I heard he had a few drinks while he was alive. I’m a Method actor after all.

By way of preparation, I’ve read many books about the man and his contributions to Canada. One of the biggest of these accomplishments, of course, is Confederation itself. It really is quite staggering — bringing so many disparate voices together for the creation of something bigger than anyone could have possibly imagined at the time. But that’s the thing I love about Sir John A. To say he had a bold vision for the future of Canada would be a huge understatement.

John A. was a dreamer. He was a schemer. And he left a transcontinental nation in his wake. Not bad for a guy who arrived on our shores as an immigrant child.

I am getting very tired of the complaint that “Canadian history is boring.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Canadian story is filled with fascinating and dramatic episodes that illustrate how and why we are what we are today. Confederation, the French-English dynamic, the railway, our defiance against “becoming American,” these are all aspects of our history and character that played out during John A.’s time, and many are still relevant in Canada today.

At the risk of sounding like my Grade 10 history teacher: Canadian history is not boring.

Of course, I am biased. I have been very lucky over the last four years to work as an actor helping the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission bring the life and legacy of Sir John A. back before the public as the bicentennial of Macdonald’s birth in 2015 approaches.

On the theatre side of the Commission, we are concerned about the facts, yes, but we are just as concerned about the personal realities of 1867. What was it like to be a politician in 1867? What was it like travelling everywhere by horse and cart? What kinds of prejudices existed? In what ways was life the same then as it is now? How the hell did people communicate without smartphones or Facebook? These are questions we get to explore when we are looking at Macdonald from a dramatic perspective. Not simply “what” he did, but why he did it, and what motivated the Father of Confederation.

Kingston Celebrates Canada’s First Prime Minister

The Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission, of which I am proud to be part, is planning a huge celebration to be held all over the country in two years. There are some people who feel we shouldn’t give our past leaders the unmitigated adulation that our American friends give theirs. As an actor, and a Canadian, I have a certain sympathy for this view.

But I am also the first to admit that Sir John A. made mistakes. And that is exactly what makes it so exhilarating to portray him. Like no prime minister since, Sir John A. was human. Yes, indeed, he would not have cut down a cherry tree. Our Father of Confederation would have cut down 100 cherry trees and then happily denied for the rest of his life that he had done so. There is something refreshing about living in a country whose first prime minister was like that.

Despite his faults, it is crucial for Canadians today to recognize and honour him nonetheless. In a land with too few national heroes, Sir John A. Macdonald remains a giant.

I will approach this role with joy and humour, much like John A. himself faced life and politics. I think the old guy would like that.

David Rockne Corrigan is an actor, writer and comedian. For further information about Sir John, Eh? The Musical, or to learn more how to become involved in the Macdonald bicentennial, please visit www.sirjohna2015.ca.

More About “Sir John Eh? The Musical”

Dates: January 9-12, 2013
Ticket Prices: $45 — purchase online here.
Location: Grand Theatre, 218 Princess Street  Kingston, ON (see map below)
Telephone: 613-530-2050

More Vacay.ca Coverage of Sir John A. Macdonald

Don Cherry walks in the footsteps of Sir John A.
Every day is Canada Day in Kingston 

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David Rockne Corrigan is an actor, writer and comedian. For further information about Sir John, Eh? The Musical, or to learn more how to become involved in the Macdonald bicentennial, please visit www.sirjohna2015.ca.

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