A lasting love affair
Show-biz marriage defies the odds
By: Anna Borowiecki
| Posted: Wednesday, Dec 05, 2012 06:00 am
Maureen Rooney and Paul Punyi, Q&A:
What is your favourite meal?
Maureen: "Anything Paul makes because he is an amazing cook and wine maker!"
Paul: "Chicken Paprikash."
Where is your favourite vacation spot?
M: "The Rockies; Banff, Jasper."
P: "My backyard."
What place on the planet (or in space) do you dream of visiting?
M: "Australia, all of Europe, Ireland, Croatia, New Zealand, Turkey, India, China, Russia, Caribbean, Hawaii, etc."
What is the story behind your first kiss?
M: "Um ... I don't think I will share that with our readers as it may cause slight nausea … High school in the '70s…. blah!"
P: "I kissed my first leading lady in a wheelbarrow during a show that my older sister wrote that we performed in my backyard when I was eight years old."
What is the last book or magazine you read?
M: "A Fine Balance (very heavy) Now I'm reading J.K. Rowling's Casual Vacancy And Richard Rohr and daily readings from the Bible."
P: "William Lyon McKenzie King; A Life Guided By The Hand of Destiny by Alan Levine. And I always read the Canadian History Magazine."
What is your favourite song?
M: "That is impossible to answer with so many great songs … um… Blackbird (Paul McCartney) Middle of the Night (Billy Joel) Best Friend (Queen) and almost every Disney song ever written, as well as most Andrew Lloyd Webber, Beatles, Rodgers & Hammerstein songs."
P: "Fire and Rain by James Taylor."
If you could be a superhero, what would your power be?
M: "Flying and healing and turning all weapons in the world into balloons filled with some sort of laughing gas but I think X-ray vision would be really gross and quite disturbing!"
It's been a tough year for celebrity marriages. From Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, these love affairs have detonated under the Tinseltown curse.
The acting profession sees more than its share of failed relationships too, though some couples stay very strong indeed. A case in point is St. Albert acting duo Paul Punyi and Maureen Rooney, whose continuing love story is the foundation for a bubbling fountain of creativity that has grown into a thriving educational theatre business.
Walking into their Sturgeon Heights bungalow, you immediately feel a tranquil aura. Perhaps it's the comfy soft sofas, artfully placed paintings or romantic fireplace. At any rate, it's a warm, welcoming home full of passion and dedication.
“Our house is a place of kindness, creativity and peace,” says Rooney. “Some people like drama in their lives. We prefer to keep the drama on stage. We live a high-risk life. We never know if we will have enough contracts and we have chosen to create a peaceful environment.”
Most of St. Albert has at some point been introduced to their dramatic, larger-than-life characters in historical school shows and artist-in-residence programs. Punyi is the charming chameleon who just as easily morphs into Father Lacombe, Lenin, Leonardo Da Vinci as John A. MacDonald, William Shakespeare and Samuel de Champlain.
While Rooney has so far limited her historical figures to strong women of character such as Catherine the Great, Irene Parlby and Mary Sosnowski, she is the dynamo idea woman and scriptwriter.
“We balance each other's strengths and weaknesses. I make up the show. He memorizes the lines,” Rooney chuckles. As a dyslexic, Rooney adds, she has refined certain coping skills such as developing an excellent memory, being organized and highlighting her scripts with a blue pen.
“I used to avoid reading with Paul, but he gave me my love of reading. Now I have three books on the go.”
In a different world, Rooney and Punyi might never have met. Rooney is a third-generation born and raised Calgarian with a brother who is a military lawyer and another who is a scientist.
“I barely squeaked through school,” she said a grin spreading across her face.
“But I took drama in high school. It was like Harry Potter getting a broom. Without effort I had all the leads.”
Together with a couple of school chums, they created a mime troupe and hosted Lunch Box Theatre. Students paid money and the funds went into bringing in special guest artists.
Right after high school, she worked for a year as a bank teller. “But it was spiritually deadening to who I was meant to be.”
With dreams in her heart and the world at her feet, Rooney enrolled at Toronto Theatre School learning the arts of mime, clowning, busking and circus. After completing a four-month program, the school offered her an apprenticeship.
“I researched, wrote, designed the set, built costumes and set up the footlights. I was paid beyond lousy. I lived in the slums, but I was so happy.”
While Rooney was stretching her wings out west, Punyi spent his formative years as a sports junkie in Port Colborne, Ont. on Lake Erie's north shore on the Niagara Peninsula.
Baseball, football, soccer, basketball, hockey. You name it, he tried it. But as young kids, Punyi's older sister, now a journalist, wrote plays through the summer holidays, and cast her young siblings and neighbourhood kids in backyard productions.
This first taste of theatre prompted Punyi to join his high school's drama group where he became president and nabbed the comic lead in Anything Goes and the lead in Good News.
He also formed Shaboom, a sketch comedy troupe that became the highlight of school assemblies.
“When I graduated it was a toss-up between sports and theatre.”
Ryerson accepted his application for the theatre arts program. He was one of 33 students chosen out of thousands of applicants across the country.
“The first week was traumatic. I was coming from a small town to a big city. The first week I was there, the transit was on strike. I wanted to hunker down. But instead I would get up at five a.m. to walk to 7 a.m. dance classes and after classes ended at 6 p.m. I'd walk home.”
During a production of School for Scandal, a scout from Stratford checking out potential apprentices for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival dropped by and invited Punyi to audition for the new season. He was one of seven apprentices accepted.
“Instead of paying to train, they were paying me to train with the créme de la créme of giants.”
After two years at Stratford, Punyi returned to Toronto and met up with a friend producing Biblical stories.
“We would rehearse, throw down a tarp in a park and try to draw a crowd. Occasionally a drunk would show up, you'd put him in the show and then he'd move on.”
Searching for a more solid gig, Punyi auditioned for Theatre Calgary and received a 10-month contract for a touring show. There he met Rooney.
At the first cast meeting, Punyi gave everyone a hug. Rooney described him as “vivacious, very kind, really talented and a warm person. Somehow I couldn't stop visiting him. I always felt better when I spent time with him.
And Punyi saw Rooney as “bubbly, alive, talented, compassionate, kind and loving.”
Having witnessed their share of breakups, they believed actors shouldn't get involved with each other.
“We kept having meetings about not meeting,” laughs Rooney.
But in the end their private walks staring at the stars and sharing runny-nosed kisses in minus 40 temperatures overcame their fears.
“One of the biggest things we said was that we wanted to have a family and live in a small town that had all the big city amenities. Having a family was a priority,” Punyi commented.
When Brian Paisley, founder of the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, hired Rooney for a 1986 show, the duo moved to the Edmonton area and never looked back.
Individually and as a couple, they've played in just about every theatre from the Citadel, Mayfield and Workshop West to Northern Light, Nexxus and Theatre Network.
Throughout the decades, this exciting couple has also nabbed radio, television and film work. Large conglomerates such as CBC, YTV, Disney, Turner Network and the Family Channel have all knocked on their door.
Their last resounding film success was a contract with the University of Alberta to write and star in a film that detailed the enduring love story between Sam Steele and his wife Marie.
Rooney quite succinctly defined the modern couple's equally enduring romance and life together.
“We are business entrepreneurs. Our business is educational theatre. Everything we have ever created has come from the heart.”