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by Tim Chapman, Professional Theatre Coordinator
In the past few months the professional theatre community has been hit with the loss of so many of its invaluable family members: Jackie Burroughs, Tracy Wright, Graham Harley, Gina Wilkinson. ‘Attention should be paid’ to all of them, but I would like to focus particularly on the contribution of David French to Canadian theatre.
David French started in theatre as an actor, but it was not long in his career before he turned to playwriting. In 1971, he saw the Tarragon Theatre’s very first production, David Freeman’s Creeps (starring, among others, Robin Cameron, a young John Candy, Frank Moore and Charles Northcote.) What then transpired became part of Tarragon lore—it’s a story I heard on numerous occasions after I arrived at Tarragon in 1979; Albert Schultz told the story at David’s recent funeral and Hrant Alianak added a note to the story which I had never heard before: apparently after the performance of Creeps, David went to the Tarragon box office and asked for Tarragon Artistic Director, Bill Glassco’s phone number. And they gave it to him! (Something that would never happen after I arrived at the Tarragon, and I would even venture to guess Bill would have stopped that practice quite soon after David’s call.)
In any event, David did call from the Tarragon box office and Bill suggested he send him a draft of the script he was proposing. Soon after, David sent him a first draft and Bill called him in for a meeting. At the meeting Bill told David that, while he liked the play, he also thought David had not realized its full potential. To which David lit into Bill with numerous profanities, grabbed the script, and stormed down the stairs and out of the theatre. Bill then chased after David into the street shouting, “I’m not your enemy, I am your friend.” And so began a creative partnership in which Bill directed all of David’s premiere productions until Bill died in 2004. Mallory Gilbert (who was soon to become Tarragon’s General Manager for over thirty years) said she once asked Bill what would have happened if he had not chased after David that day. Bill said who knew, that it was an impulse, and he could have just as likely let him go.
Of course the script David brought to Bill that day was a draft of Leaving Home. Bill still did not have a show for the last slot of Tarragon’s first season. So Bill directed the premiere production of Leaving Home in the spring in 1972 to astounding acclaim (assisted in no small part by a glowing review from Urjo Kareda in the Toronto Star.) It was such a success that Tarragon revived the production to begin the 1972/73 second season. Bill once told me that, after the initial success of Creeps, the rest of Tarragon’s first season had been box office failures, so Leaving Home quite literally saved the Tarragon that year and allowed him to proceed into a second season. Bill said it is no exaggeration to say that without Leaving Home, there was a distinct possibility Tarragon might have folded after one season.
Leaving Home is a landmark play in Canadian theatre history, going on to be produced at virtually every regional theatre across Canada, the first Canadian play ever to do so. In the Fall 2010 issue of Actors’ Equity Quarterly, Walter Learning, founding Artistic Director of Theatre New Brunswick, is quoted as saying it was the first Canadian play produced at that theatre, “He’s from Newfoundland, as I am. We did the second production of that play. We found a voice that really spoke to our audience. There was an organic feel to his work.”
I first saw Leaving Home in a community theatre production at Kingston’s Domino Theatre in 1974. I can remember it had a real impact on me. Productions of Canadian plays were exceedingly uncommon at that time. Personally, I had seen a touring production of Ten Lost Years, adapted to great success by Toronto Workshop Productions, and I had seen my first show at Tarragon Theatre, the English-language premiere of Michel Tremblay’s great play, Hosanna (directed by Bill starring Richard Monette and Richard Donat) in the spring of 1974. Also I had acted at Queen’s University in a production of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe along with Chick Reid and Nancy Palk. But I believe those were the only Canadian plays I was exposed to prior to Leaving Home, a play about the transplanted Mercer family from Newfoundland now living in Toronto and a son who abruptly leaves home for the first time. Maybe I related to the play more as I had recently left home myself, albeit in much more positive circumstances, or maybe because it was a family play set in Toronto where my family had moved in 1964. Anyway I remember for the first time thinking that these characters felt so close. I could relate to them in a way which was more immediate than the characters in the foreign plays which overwhelmingly dominated our stages and publishing prior to the early seventies. I came to the realization that, indeed, we needed to tell Canadian stories in our plays, we needed to build a theatre producing more Canadian playwrights. The impact of David French’s Leaving Home is not to be underestimated in the exponential growth of Canadian theatre in the 1970s.
David French went on to write four more plays about the Mercer family. Of the Fields, Lately premiered at the Tarragon in 1973 and won the Chalmers Award that year. In 1984, Salt-Water Moon premiered at Tarragon to instant success. David had written a beautiful two-hander, a love story set in 1926 between the Mercer parents, which has had hundreds of productions across North America since its original run. I can’t remember if it was during that run or perhaps the run of David’s play The Riddle of the World in 1981 when I first witnessed David’s attendance at every performance in the run of his premiere productions. The final two Mercer plays are 1949, the year Newfoundland joined Confederation. It premiered in 1988 at CentreStage (now Canadian Stage). Finally Soldier’s Heart, set in the First World War, premiered at Tarragon in 2001.
David wrote other plays aside from the Mercer saga, but really only one had much success. And that is Jitters, the backstage comedy, which premiered in 1979 at the Tarragon. It was such a hit during the 1978/79 season that the Tarragon revived the show in the summer at Toronto Workshop Productions (the theatre that is now home to Buddies in Bad Times.) That is where I first saw this hilarious show which starred Charmion King, David Calderisi, Les Carlson, Miles Potter and Jim Mezon. There are many in this country who deem Jitters a better backstage comedy than Noises Off, the 1980s hit by British playwright Michael Frayn. Curiously, Noises Off is said to have played a part in Jitters never reaching Broadway. In 1979/80 Jitters enjoyed a very successful six-month run at Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, in a production directed by Bill Glassco. The New York Times critic said: “Jitters is almost a perfect comedy of its kind.” After that there were plans to take the play to Broadway but, after too many delays, Noises Off came along to preclude producing another backstage comedy in New York at the same time.
Beginning in 2007, Soulpepper Theatre remounted four classic David French plays — Leaving Home; Of the Fields, Lately; Salt-Water Moon; Jitters — with great success. These lovely productions, all directed by Ted Dykstra, really showed us again what a wonderful writer David French is. He was critically important in the growth of Canadian theatre and his plays will continue to be a mainstay on our stages.
Thank you, David. Rest in peace.
This article first appeared on the blog of Theatre Ontario on Thursday, 6 January, 2011.