Actor Shaun Smyth went into training for the hockey play he’s performing in Halifax at just about the time genuine players were getting ready for the real season.
Smyth stars in Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story at Neptune Theatre. The production is a unique one-man show performed by Smyth entirely on skates, on a set that looks like s a hockey rink.
“I started probably in August, slowly getting the cardio going. In September, I probably skate three times a week for an hour a day,” Smyth said during an interview on the show’s rink.
“My body remembers it now.”
Based on the former NHL star’s best-selling biography and developed with Fleury, Playing with Fire tells the story of how a five-foot-six Metis from Manitoba beat the odds to become a star. He would play in over 1,000 games and score over 1,000 points, winning a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada along the way.
Produced by Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, the play premiered at the Alberta Theatre Projects in 2012 and has been staged across the country. Smyth was on board since the beginning and has been the only person to play the role.
Director Ron Jenkins called him, saying “If you tell me that you played junior hockey, we’re good to go.”
“It was pretty intense,” said Smyth.
“We workshopped it two or three times. ... They brought me to Calgary, and I read for Theoren.”
The actor acknowledged that his hockey skills were a little rusty at the time.
“I mean, I could skate, but not at the level I had to get to to sell convincingly that I could play pro hockey.”
Physically, the Hamilton, Ont.-based performer said, he hones his skill set to fit the confines of the mini rink that spans the width of the Neptune stage. The surface is similar to those found in off-season training facilities but, despite how easy Smyth makes moving on it appear, it bears no correlation to skating on ice.
“It’s a different style that you have to adopt,” he said.
“Once you get the hang of it, you know how to use it.”
Still, his skates have to be sharpened after every couple of shows.
A big element of the play is Fleury’s life away from the rink. He was abused by the former coach Graham James, battled addictions and lost millions of the dollars he earned as a scrappy on-ice pest.
“It continues to evolve as the Graham James situation changes,” Smyth said of the production.
“Particularly at the end, because it was really important for Theoren in the last section of the play that we talk about where he is now. You go through this huge journey but the catharsis happens and he hits the bottom and he comes through it and he survives.
“That was his whole career — the size of him, the way that he played and the NHL at that time. Guys were massive.”
One thing that isn’t simulated is the effort Smyth puts into each two-hour performance.
“It’s pretty gross. The shirt that I take off at intermission is just like ‘Blech.’ The lights heat it up, too, but I probably drop a couple of pounds a night, for sure.”
Playing with Fire will be on the Fountain Hall stage for a final preview performance Thursday, Oct. 18, before opening Friday, Oct. 19.
Tickets can be purchased at neptunetheatre.com, by calling 902-429-7070 or 1-800-565-7345, or at the box office, 1593 Argyle St.