A Series of Intimate Love Affairs: The Life of a Theatre Composer and Director in Toronto
Photography by Tara Bartolini
Zachary Florence’s musical career path wasn’t a choice. Forgive me for the cliché, but he was truly born for the theatre [/the-a-tah!/]. Zachary may have even exited the womb with jazz hands, we can’t be sure. But what we are sure about is his immense talent and staying power in Canada’s theatre industry. For the past 12 years Zachary has been building his career as a director and composer—two disciplines he feels go hand-in-hand—and has created quite a name for himself along the way.
“Longer than I can remember, this has been my world,” Zachary states, matter-of-factly. And it’s true. From a very early age his family had him whisked about town (Toronto, ON. to be exact) from to play to play. Little did his parents know, they were helping to mold the director and composer he was destined to become.
The first two productions he remembers seeing as a young child couldn’t have been more different. The first was an adaptation of “The Emperor’s Panda” by Young People’s Theatre. This modest, half-a-dozen character play had a big impact on young Zachary. He remembers being stricken by the simplicity of its staging and cast and the ability to transport its audience to another place and time. The second production was “Starlight Express” by Andrew Lloyd Webber (a.k.a: “Theatre God”). A spectacle of lighting and sound, Zachary vividly recalls being mesmerized by the way each character and an entire story was able to unfold through song.
Fast forward to his high school years at Claude Watson School for the Arts in Toronto, and Zachary was well on his way to stardom. Having already written a series of musicals, he was encouraged by his peers and teachers to produce and direct his first musical play.
Zachary giggles as he says the play’s name — “Illusions.” Wise beyond his years, the play was a precocious take on the lifespan of a marriage. Not without its faults, Zachary took the play as a learning experience and used its strengths and weaknesses to his benefit, a similar methodology as one of his idols—composer Stephen Sondheim.
“He’s just the best,” exclaims Zachary. “He’s inspirational because he’s a perfectionist. Sondheim is his own worst critic—he will hack away until a play feels just right.”
This similar process is something that Zachary employed when directing his first play, “Gwen Powers”, a WORKHouse Theatre production. “It was just such a great story, I had to do it,” he gushes. “It’s a play with a difficult subject matter—a bizarre love triangle involving a 17-year-old girl and her teacher, which is what drew me to it. I love performances that have the ability to make the audience talk! Where they need to go out for a drink afterwards to decompress.”
After its three-week stint, the play received positive response from critics and audiences alike (see: Mooney on Theatre) Zachary attributes this to a number of things, including the incredible cast and the thoughtfulness and care that went into its production.
Since it wrapped, Zachary has had his hands in all sort of projects. A bonafide workaholic, he has directed several other plays, including (but not limited to): Strawberries in January (New Diorama, London), NOT Nightmare Fish (London), Hydriotaphia (LAMDA), I Am A Strange Loop (LAMDA) and Bloody Poetry (Drunk & Brilliant). Zachary has also written words and music for “Experimental Selves” (Shaw Festival Workshop), and “Children of Israel” (Canadian Stage Workshop) among many others.
At the rate in which Zachary has been plowing through, writing, directing and composing all of these plays and musicals, you would think the theatre life was an easy breezy one. Far from it.
“Each play is like a series of intimate love affairs,” he blurts out (I can swear I even heard him blush). “You go all in, your give it your all, and before you know it it’s over.”
The hours are long, and sporadic. Writing can take months of commitment and time, and once in production your days can start as late as 6 or 7 p.m. and go until the wee hours of the morning, trying to perfect each scene, develop each character, and sync each song. It can be draining and tedious—a life that only those born for the theatre can thrive on. The collaboration and drive of working towards a common goal are just a few of the things that excite Zachary about the process, and push him to want to continue to create.
“I’m just so fortunate to do what I do, and that I love my job,” Zachary says. “Theatre is my first love, and my only love. I don’t think I could be doing anything else.” Of course, he’s always open to going where the work is, if it means he can continue to follow his dreams and his lifelong passion. If something in film or television ever arose, he wouldn’t be opposed, but for now, he’s quite content right where he is. Here in Canada.