Rick McNair died in Winnipeg this past week. The Winnipeg newspapers did the right thing. They ran big stories saying what a wonderful contribution Rick had made to the local theatre scene as former artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, founder of the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, storyteller, actor, playwright, opera librettist, and so on. As well they should have done. Rick was an accomplished and versatile theatre artist, dead of a heart attack at the all too young age of 64.
What about Canada’s other newspapers? How did they mark his passing? Most, if they did anything at all, carried just a few paragraphs from the CP version of the Winnipeg Free Press story. Fair enough. Rick had lived in Winnipeg for the past 20 years, and didn’t have a high profile in other parts of Canada. Even though he had worked in different places as a director, actor, or storyteller, the footprints he left were washed away when the next tide came in.
One of these places was Calgary. He first arrived there in 1977, a folksy, shambling, 34-year-old ex-jock from Amherst, Nova Scotia, who had coached high school basketball in Cambridge, Ontario, and also worked in community and educational theatre. He loved the jock image. He would tell friends years later that his favourite Calgary Herald article was one documenting his achievements as a relief pitcher in the “A” division of the Calgary Softball Association league. But to dismiss him as a theatrical misfit because of his passion for sports would have been the same as writing off Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter because they played cricket in their spare time. McNair wrote excellent plays (Beowulf!, Dr. Barnardo’s Pioneers) and directed well-received productions for Theatre Calgary’s Stage-Coach Players, a schools touring company. In March 1978, he was appointed artistic director of Theatre Calgary when the previous director, Harold Baldridge, quit and moved to New York.
During his first season as TC artistic director, McNair set the pattern for the six seasons that followed. Instead of relying on hits from Broadway and the West End to put bums on seats, he pushed the work of Canadian playwrights. We’re not talking two-handed chamber pieces here. McNair convinced the TC board of directors they should put up the money for playwrights such as Sharon Pollock, John Murrell, and W.O. Mitchell to write large-cast plays. It was a big gamble. TC was carrying a $150,000 deficit in 1978.
McNair’s first major commission was a stage adaptation of W. O. Mitchell’s The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon, a show that had begun life in 1965 as a script for CBC Radio. The stage version was a huge success. The critic for The Albertan dismissed it as “tiny talent time at Theatre Calgary.” But everyone else who saw this Faustian comic fantasy about a shoemaker gambling his soul on a curling match against the Devil — including me, then the Calgary Herald‘s theatre critic — agreed that this show had legs. Within a few years, it had been produced all across Canada. It’s still being produced all across Canada.
More successes followed. Sharon Pollock’s Whiskey Six was the hit play of one McNair season. Her next play, Doc, sold more seats than any of the New York imports staged in Calgary that year. John Murrell’s Farther West was also a big hit. McNair was clearly doing something right.
Not all of his gambles paid off, of course. McNair’s adaptation of Robert Kroetsch’s The Words of My Roaring was a brave failure. So was his Calgary edition of Aristophanes’s The Birds. But for every flop there was a new Canadian stage hit. Mitchell’s The Kite was one. McNair’s mainstage reworking of Sharon Pollock’s Lizzie Borden play, Blood Relations, was another. When McNair left Calgary in 1984, he was succeeded by like-minded artistic directors — including, briefly, Sharon Pollock — who showed that theatre rooted firmly in its own community can be just as successful, if not more so, than theatre that draws its inspiration from foreign sources.
So how did the Calgary Herald acknowledge McNair’s great contribution to the local theatre scene? With a throwaway, four-sentence obit stuck in the middle of a wire-service roundup of entertainment gossip slugged Daily Dish.
Rick deserved better. Much better.
Brian Brennan is a Calgary author and journalist. His latest title is How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray.