The FPP theatrical troupe was inspired by Diane Dupuy’s childhood experiences. Bullied and misunderstood at school, she failed three grades because of social and learning difficulties due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). To lift her spirits, her mother made puppets for her and encouraged her to put on shows in the neighbourhood. These led to summer stints at the Canadian National Exhibition.
After performing at the Surrey Place Centre for Mental Retardation (now the Surrey Place Centre) in Toronto, Diane was inspired by the children’s supportive natures. She decided to create a black light theatre company for people with disabilities so the players would remain invisible and therefore be judged solely on their performance. (Black light theatre is performed in the dark by people dressed in black who manipulate puppets in fluorescent colours.)
In 1974, Diane used an Opportunities for Youth (OFY) grant to found the Famous PEOPLE Players Company — so named because the black light puppets were typically of famous performers, such as Elvis Presley and Liberace. The company enjoyed almost immediate success. Then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau became an Honorary Patron, and in 1975, Liberace was so impressed with a show performed in his honour that he brought the company to Las Vegas as his opening act. The FPP performed with him there for ten years and also toured with him internationally.
In 1977, the FPP performed The Carnival of the Animals with Boris Brott and the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, which led to a CBC TV special narrated by Gordon Pinsent. The company received a $10,000 donation from Anne Murray in 1978, and in 1980 the troupe reopened Radio City Music Hall in New York City with their production of Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In 1984, they performed at the opening of the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and became the first international troupe to be invited to perform in the People’s Republic of China. They continued to tour frequently through the 1980s with performances in Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. They appeared at the famous “Shamrock Summit” between prime minister Brian Mulroney and US president Ronald Reagan in Québec City in 1985, and performed on Broadway that same year.
For its 25th anniversary in 1999, the FPP produced its first full-length musical, Leave the Porch Light On, featuring original music by composer Doug Riley. Riley also wrote the music for the company’s 2001 production, Hide and Seek: A Game of Human Spirit, the title song for which was written by Amy Sky. To celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2014, the company launched ADHD (Awesome Dreams with High Drama) The Musical, and bestowed medals of honour on such notable philanthropic Canadians as Shirley Douglas, Justin Hines, Charles “Spider” Jones, Steve Paiken, and former Ontario premier David Peterson.
The FPP celebrated Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017 with Made In Canada: Celebrating Canada’s 150th Anniversary, narrated by Dan Aykroyd. Other notable Canadians who have narrated FPP shows include Alex Trebek, Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Robertson and Lorne Greene. The company also branched out in 2017, introducing a program to include international students.
A biopic about Diane Dupuy and the FPP, Special People, was broadcast by CBS in 1984. It starred Brooke Adams as Dupuy and featured a cameo appearance by Liberace. In 1985, actor Ann-Margret hosted A Little Like Magic, an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the FPP, and in 1988 the troupe was featured in an episode of CBC TV’s Adrienne Clarkson Presents. Blacklight Dreams: The 25 Years of the Famous People Players (2000), celebrated the company’s 25th anniversary. It featured interviews with Paul Newman, Phil Collins and Alex Trebek, and aired on the CBC and in the US on A&E’s Breakfast with the Arts.
In 2002, Dupuy made a cameo appearance on an episode of the CBS family drama 7th Heaven.The troupe was featured in a 2004 episode of the children’s program This is Daniel Cook, and in a 2013 episode of the CBC program The Rick Mercer Report. The company also had its own children’s show, Roll Play (2006-09), which aired on Treehouse TV and received a Gemini Award nomination in 2007.
The Dine and Dream Theatre
After two decades of constant touring, Dupuy created a permanent home base for the FPP in 1994. Assisted financially by celebrity fans such as actor Paul Newman and musician Phil Collins, the Famous PEOPLE Players Dine and Dream Theatre was built. Newman’s Own Foundation provided much of the capital funding for the project, while Collins provided the funding for the theatre’s sound system.
The 200-seat dinner theatre also facilitates the Dine and Dream Program, which gives FPP performers the opportunity to work in a culinary capacity or in a technical role at the theatre. The training services include dining room management, arts administration, and theatrical and visual arts performances. All meals are prepared and served by the performers in Newman’s Own Kitchen under the supervision of a head chef and visiting celebrity chefs. Originally located in Toronto, the company moved to a new location in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke in 2009.
In addition to its professional placement programs, the theatre offers in-house educational programs for youths as well as anti-bullying educational outreach to local schools. These visits include audiovisuals and life-sized puppets the students are encouraged to interact with as learning tools about kindness and compassion. The FPP has hosted, entertained, and taught disabled students from around the world, and also conducts corporate motivational team-building workshops.
Diane Dupuy and Family
After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, Diane Dupuy stepped down from her role as artistic director and was replaced by her daughter Joanne Dupuy. Diane continues to work as an author and motivational speaker, as well as an international advocate for people with disabilities. In 2003, Dupuy was invited by FPP honorary patron Dr. Deepak Chopra to speak at his conference, Alliance for a New Humanity.
Diane’s mother, Mary, headed the costume and props departments from the theatre’s inception until well into her 80s, and managed administrative tasks at the theatre into her late-90s. The theatre named the Mary Gioberti Thornton Visual Effects Department in her honour. She celebrated her 100th birthday in 2016, and was honoured that year with the Queen’s Jubilee Medal.
Honours and Awards
In 1982, Dupuy was made a Member of the Order of Canada for her groundbreaking humanitarian work with the intellectually challenged and for her service to theatre arts in Canada. In 1984, she received the Ernest C. Manning Innovation Award, as well as the Library of Congress Award in the US, and in 1995 the FPP received the Ontario Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Arts. Dupuy has since received honorary degrees from the University of Windsor, Trent University, the University of Calgary, the University of Toronto, and Brock University, as well as the B’nai B’rith Woman of the Year Award and the Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur Award.