My effort 15 years ago to land a first professional production came back to me recently when I received a message from a scholar who had come across a letter I sent to one of the most influential figures in Canadian theatre in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The researcher is examining the voluminous correspondence of the late Urjo Kareda, who was artistic director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre from 1982 to his death in late 2001. During those two decades, the Tarragon premiered new work by pretty much every major English language playwright in Canada, including Judith Thompson, Joan MacLeod, Morris Panych, Jason Sherman, Michael Healey, and Daniel MacIvor.
In early 2001 I sent a draft of my play Noble Savage, Savage Noble to the Tarragon, where I expected it to languish on the slush pile like most unsolicited scripts sent to theatre companies. In September of that year, I received a detailed reply from Kareda, which, although it was a rejection, gave me the morale boost of knowing that a guy who read piles of scripts every year liked it. Encouraging as the tone of Kareda’s letter was, there was also something pretty bleak in its message: even in the biggest city in the country there might not be enough people with an interest in and knowledge of the ideas of the French Enlightenment to make a play about Rousseau and Voltaire a success. The play did go on to have a successful production in Winnipeg by Theatre Projects Manitoba and, though I never landed a second production, I saw a staged reading of it a few years later at a festival at New York University, an event I’ll go to my grave thinking of as my Broadway debut.
I’m not sure how much of my story, or of Kareda’s letter, will make it into the scholarly book, which is planned for 2017. But here’s his response to that long-ago query:
“Thank you for letting Tarragon have a look at your script Noble Savage, Savage Noble. It’s an intelligent and amusing piece, which makes good use of the techniques of anachronism and fanciful history. The set-up is droll (I had an image of the historical figures against the backdrop of a classic Canadian landscape painting), there are several excellent jokes, and the dialogue has a self-confident poise and polish. I very much enjoyed reading it.
“Having said that, I also have to acknowledge that I can’t see its production possibilities at Tarragon. The piece would be best received by an audience with some easy familiarity with French literature, philosophy and history. I’m not sure I could deliver such an audience for the five to six-week runs that our productions need to fulfill. Your writing lives more in the head than it does in the heart or the loins, and while that is certainly an agreeable change to someone like me who reads a lot of scripts, I cannot help but feel, still, that it is a very specialized piece, a bit rare for a general audience (even as educated as ours is). A good piece, then, and congratulations, but I’m afraid I can’t use it.”