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Philip Dinn was the voice of Newfoundland’s cultural evolution

Philip Dinn, co-founder of the band Figgy Duff with his brother Noel. The trailblazing and influential group sought out (and in the process preserved) many traditional Newfoundland songs, infused them with rock percussion and guitar, and ignited a new genre.

Bud Gaulton

During the Newfoundland renaissance of the 1970s, Philip Dinn was among the artists at the forefront of the cultural revival and co-founded the band Figgy Duff with his brother Noel. The trailblazing and influential group sought out (and in the process preserved) many traditional Newfoundland songs, infused them with rock percussion and guitar and ignited a new genre.

"It was heady times," said musician Pamela Morgan, lead singer with the band. "I was in the Newfoundland Travelling Theatre and came into St. John's in 1974 to hang out with the actors. There was an awful lot of passion on the go. Everyone was excited about Newfoundland culture, and fighting back against the stereotypical image.

"Noel played drums and piano. Phil didn't have the instrumental expertise, but he certainly had an ear for accompaniment. He played the bodhran [an Irish frame drum] and sang the most gorgeous songs. You would never mistake his voice for anyone

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Mr. Dinn's energies weren't restricted to music. When he left Figgy Duff in 1979, he founded Sheila's Brush Theatre Company. Its main objectives, set out at the time, included writing and producing original theatre, writing "plays that reflect our cultural evolution" and adapting traditional Newfoundland tales for stage. The company also adapted stories from Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As well, it was committed to touring, especially the smaller Newfoundland communities.

"I don't know if I call what we do indigenous theatre," Mr. Dinn once told The Newfoundland Herald. "Indigenous is a word that's going around a lot these days; I think it's oversaid but underdefined. We take our themes from the culture we grew up in, but our ideas expanded."

Mr. Dinn's other acting credits included The Boys of St. Vincent (playing janitor Mike Flynn), Random Passage and Gullage's.

His other bands included Larger Than Flies, and he performed in Figgy Duff reunion concerts in 1999 and 2008. Noel Dinn died in 1993.

Philip Dinn died of lung cancer on Nov. 21 in Halifax.

Philip Randolph Dinn was born Oct. 6, 1949, the sixth of nine children to Olive (née Noseworthy) and Philip Dinn. Though he perhaps might not have wanted this to be made public, he once won a beautiful baby contest. "My mother said he was so beautiful and so smiley she never had any trouble getting someone to walk him in the pram," his sister, Cathy Dinn said.

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The Dinns grew up on Power Street in St. John's and the boys went to Holy Cross Elementary School and Brother Rice Junior High. Philip Dinn Sr., a skilled car mechanic, moved to Toronto and later Malton, Ont., for work, leaving his family behind.

Mr. Dinn tried his hand at mechanics, and picked tobacco in Ontario for a few summers. "He was fairly shy, but talented and funny," said Cathy Dinn. For example, he could mimic Clark Gable and other actors. Noel Dinn, meanwhile, founded Lukey's Boat, which toured to Montreal and London, England, and Mr. Dinn designed their light show. "He was still looking for his niche," said Cathy Dinn. "But he really found what he was looking for, he found his voice, when he co-founded Figgy Duff."

After Mr. Dinn left Figgy Duff, he started a band with fiddler Val Ryan, called Sheila's Brush. This quickly metamorphosed into a theatre troupe focused on a modernized commedia dell'arte.

The Brush was very political, performing to protest, for example, the construction of the 350,000-square-foot Atlantic Place on Water Street. At the same time, they were devouring all the German, Russian and South American literature they could find in secondhand bookstores.

"We were all reading that stuff like mad, everyone was," said Frank Barry, theatre artist and filmmaker and a founding member of the group. "We were quite the little group of existentialist magic realists." And it was this group, that now included Mercedes Barry (no relation) and Flip James, along with CODCO actor/writer Andy Jones, who created what might be the Brush's best-known production, Jack Meets the Cat.

"We wrote Jack Meets the Cat in collective," Mr. Jones said. "I had had a conversation with Phil some time early in 1979. We had been to Anita [Best]'s wedding in Southeast Bight and we had heard Mr. Power tell some Jack tales. We came up with the idea of making it a play." The first script became Jaxxmas. Then they realized, as they reviewed the grant application that funded the play, "we said we'd do a children's show, and we scrambled.

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"In the basement of the hall were all these costumes the model shop had given us when they closed. Many characters were created from those bags of costumes. Flip found the bag of crinolines and became the white tornado. Someone found a bustier and made eyes out of the bra part and that became the frog. And that show became the one that lasted and lasted."

The first tour took five weeks including transportation by boat to communities that had rarely, if ever, seen a play. "It was where we learned everything about stagecraft," Mr. Barry said. "Plunked down in front of 500 high-school kids, if you lose them, they'll eat you. We had to learn how to keep an audience's eyes on us. And we could play at night for an adult audience, or an afternoon for kids in kindergarten; we could gentle it down or roughen it up."

"Nobody was particularly versed in the basics of theatre at that time," Mr. Jones said. "We had to be sure they were facing the audience, that type of thing." It worked. The show has had longevity and resonance, and has been remounted, remade into a prize-winning radio play, and Mr. Jones has adapted the Jack Tales into children's books, which have also received awards.

As a performer, "Phil had a tremendous sense of costume," said Mr. Jones. "He would grab stuff, grab hats, wrap scarves around hats, and it would be interesting and funny and bizarre. He had flair.

"And he was an absolutely committed actor. He was 100 per cent there all the time. It wasn't technique; it was real. He was an interesting personality on stage."

"He was magnetic," Mr. Barry said. "There was nothing small. And he had a wild sense of language."

Around 2006, Mr. Dinn moved to Nova Scotia to be closer to some family, joined IATSE to work in film, and, with the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia and their Writers in the Schools program, shared the oral traditions with students.

He also found new partner Julie Snair, with whom he lived in the Gaspereau Valley. Mr. Dinn enjoyed the rural environment, being in the woods, the fishing ("He loved flyfishing, he used to call it a dance," Cathy Dinn said) and the privacy.

"He was a very kind-hearted guy," Mr. Jones said. "He had demons, like everybody else. But he was single-mindedly ambitious for Newfoundland culture. That included any aspect. The absolute joy he got from the way Newfoundlanders spoke, the way they told stories, the way they made music."

Philip Dinn leaves his partner, friends and family, especially Amiah and Liam.

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