Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Louisa Burgess Corbett
Meet Louisa. I first heard of Lou through a mutual friend who takes singing lessons from her. He spoke of her often and that she would make a great Leslieville Lives story; for many reasons. I finally met with her and can vouch that my friend was right. Her life/experiences may strike a chord with some of you out there: from her climb to fame and fortune in the theatre, which saw a death in the family and discrimination in the ranks reroute her life, to infertility, adoption(s), the break up of her marriage from her husband of 20 years when he came out as gay, and devastating heartbreak which led to a nervous breakdown.
Lou was born in Bristol, England to John and Hilary. They moved to Canada (London, ON) when Lou was five, her dad pursuing his gift as a commercial artist here, her mom, owner of a floral design business. For any of the women out there who remember L’Eggs stockings, that was John Burgess’s baby.
Lou, the eldest of three, wasn’t the only talent among the siblings. Mike, her younger brother, was a top animator for Disney and her younger sister Claire, a costumer designer for film & TV. Clearly, creativity runs in the Burgess genes. Lou pursued theatre at a young age. She went to St. Peter’s Choir School in London, majoring in singing and the violin and at 17 years old had her first role in Summerstock theatre doing two seasons with Rick Waugh’s The Storybook Minstrels.
She was hooked after that and went on to study Musical Theatre at Sheridan College. There, she met her husband, Rob, who was more a ‘behind the scenes guy’, focused on directing vs acting. They married after college in 1989. Lou’s career took off after that. She was working in commercial theatre, at resorts, recording work and on the stage. At the same time, she was also teaching. Her music background had her constantly employed substitute teaching, musical directing (Sheridan) and doing voiceover work with her brother, Mike, on his creative projects. “Teaching was always on my list – after Broadway”, she laughs.
Behind the scenes during rehearsal for Gypsy, 2016
It was at this zenith in her career, at age 29, that Lou’s brother, Mike, died. “He was only 28 years old and had cancer, but died from a reaction to the chemo. I was devastated.” Very close, Mike’s death signalled the end of Lou’s performing years. “I decided to re-prioritize my life. Performing wasn’t bringing out the best in me. Besides struggles with my weight, due to a hormonal disorder, it didn’t help to be doing auditions to be told ‘your audition was stellar, but picturing you in gold lamé tights is repulsive’. Those ‘backhanded’ compliments do nothing for an actor/singer’s fragile ego”, she says, looking at me with a raised brow. As well as the discrimination, we talk a bit about the current scandal in Canadian theatre. As predicted, it’s no surprise/not new to Lou.
Lou joined a bereavement group after Mike’s death and not long after that was studying classical singing in New York & Toronto and began teaching more and doing studio work (singing/voiceovers). “I was desperately looking for a replacement to performing.” After getting counselling, Lou volunteered at Bereaved Families of Ontario for ten years. During this time she took on work with Ms. Emma Designs. Some of you will remember that great store chain in Toronto. I sure do! Starting out part-time, Lou ended up managing all five stores in Toronto from 1994-2004. “It was crazy. A few weeks after I resigned to take up full time teaching with Sheridan and George Brown Colleges, Ms. Emma folded.” Timing is everything.
In 1998, she and Rob moved from the west end and bought their first house in Leslieville. They wanted to start a family. Without any luck naturally, they began infertility treatments. “The in vitro was killing us – on a few different levels. At $12,000 a pop and nearly a year of trying Rob suggested we ‘take the money and adopt from China’. One night, feeling a bit downtrodden about not getting pregnant, we ventured down to Sea Breeze (remember that place?) for our usual meal. Rob opened his fortune cookie and read out to me, ‘A trip to China awaits you’. Talk about a sign! He still has that little piece of paper – framed. We tell Lily she was conceived at Sea Breeze,” she laughs.
They joined Children’s Bridge adoption agency and in 2003, with 45 other families, set off for China. “It was the year of SARS” Lou reminds me. “The place was empty.” Their daughter Lily was 9 months old when they brought her home. “There was definitely an adjustment period, but about 4 months in, she settled.” A few years later, they decided to adopt again. China was becoming tougher/stricter/more difficult and a friend Lou met through the Bereaved Families had persuaded her to adopt from Africa. They sold the house on Myrtle and bought a bigger house on Endean to accommodate the 4 of them. “We were so lucky. We bought Myrtle for a song, renovated it and did well on the sale. Overseas adoptions are expensive. The adoption agency, lawyers, flights, hotels etc. And that’s just one!”
Lou, Rob, Lily and Zara are what you might call a ‘modern family’. “People look at us like we are a parade. A caucasian couple with two kids from different ethnicities. This is why we remain in Leslieville. It’s starting to look like that more and more. The kids couldn’t be more different though. Lily is sporty, conservative, a bit shy, loves math and Zara is loud, sparkly, hip-hop,” she smiles.
After the move from Myrtle there were a few years there where Lou sunk into a bit of a depression. “I’m not sure if I was still grieving Mike, the industry work, or what, but something wasn’t quite right.” It wasn’t until 2009 that Lou realized her husband was gay. “There were signs – gay pop ups on the computer, a book I found, but I just buried them. 2009 – the year of Gaymaggedon!” she laughs. “Rob is a lovely person and a great father. That doesn’t change for me or the kids. We ended up moving from our big house to what I call the ‘consolation’ house. It works well. There’s a basement apartment for Rob and he’s with us a lot, especially during holidays and important occasions for the girls. We were in therapy together. It’s still odd, but it is what you choose for it to be. I think we’re really great now.”
Both Lou and Rob started seeing other people after they separated. Lou joined a group called Straight Spouse Network. where she met Mark, who she was seeing for six years. “It eventually ended because we lived in different countries (Mark was from the US) but it was a lifesaver experience for me.”
In 2016, Lou met a man she believed was the reward for all the heartache she’d endured. “We were perfect soulmates and I was deliriously happy”, she smiles. They had planned to marry. “Then, out of the blue one day, he called me and simply discarded me. In a less than five minute conversation, it was over. I was devastated, but discovered that he’d been unfaithful to me, was a sociopath, parasite and sex addict. I had ignored so many red flags. He contacted me again after that phone call, and in mid July, I suffered a nervous breakdown.”
Lou is now on a new journey – a spiritual journey, a journey to be the best person she can possibly be. “One day, I know I will be grateful for the grief and heart ache…In fact, I see that day in my not too distant future. I am better, stronger and much braver for these experiences. I want my girls to know how strong and brilliant women can be no matter what, how our heart aches don’t destroy us, they make us more beautiful, and more compassionate. We must never give up on love.”
It’s 4pm. The girls arrive home from school. Lily, in a leg cast and Zara, ‘hip hops’ through the door. They’re typical teen/tween-agers. One word replies and then head straight to the kitchen. Roxie, the dog greets them with the love and exuberance only a dog can muster after not seeing her humans all day. Lou takes a deep breath, gets up and readies herself for her soon to arrive vocal student. Busy lives resume in the Burgess-Corbett household. Time for me to go.
Lou continues to work in musical theatre, teaching vocals at Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts and from home as a private voice coach. She has a roster of over 150 private students, six students currently on Broadway and adjudicates music festivals across the country.
For more info on Louisa Burgess-Corbett and her extensive resume/performance history go to http://louisaburgesscorbett.com/
Older photos/headshots supplied by Louisa Burgess Corbett
Feature Pic: Louisa, Zara and Roxie