April 23rd, 2014 § permalink
It’s with sadness that I write this tribute to Alistair MacLeod, one of Canada’s literary lions, who died on Easter Sunday. David and I both loved his writing. In the 1980s when I worked at Playwrights Union, our Executive Director Jane Buss gave me a copy of his wonderful short story collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. I remember laughing, weeping, and marveling at MacLeod’s ability to get to the beating heart of family relationships. MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief is, of course, a classic. In 2006, I had the pleasure of selecting and editing David Young’s stage adaptation of that novel for Scirocco Drama.
David and I were lucky enough to meet Alistair several years ago when Lee Gowan of the U of T School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Department invited Alistair, David, and Michael Winter to do a reading. We all went out for dinner first, and it stands in my memory as one of those golden evenings where the company could not possibly have been improved upon.
David was to get to know Alistair better a few years later when he went to be Writer-in-Residence at the University of Windsor. Alistair’s office was just down the hall from David’s, and they formed a teasing friendship that apparently involved a lot of ribbing about offices. (Alistair’s office was famously cluttered, while David, who was only in Windsor for a year, had a very sparse set-up.)
My condolences to Alistair’s wife Anita and his children and grandchildren. His deep love for his family was apparent, and they will miss him very much.
May 3rd, 2013 § permalink
In the years before he died, David was working on a suspense novel. The story was set in the fall in small-town Ontario, in a fictional place not unlike Gananoque. One October weekend David and I drove to Gananoque so that he could soak in the atmosphere and do a bit of research. We had fun walking around town and exploring…Somewhere I have a funny photo of him taking notes on the end of a pier! Of course, while we were in town we saw a show at the Thousand Islands Playhouse, an excellent production of The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey.
I’m happy to say that the Thousand Islands Playhouse will be presenting Salt-Water Moon this fall, from October 11 to November 2nd. More information is on their website. I look forward to hearing more about their production in the fall, and I hope to get to Gananoque to see it. Here’s the poster image from the show:
February 1st, 2013 § permalink
As it turns out, today is Jacob Paquette’s birthday. Happy birthday to the young man named after Jacob Mercer, who will soon be playing the character in Soldier’s Heart!
The full story is in yesterday’s blog post, but here are links to an article in the Woodstock Sentinel-Review and a YouTube video interview that celebrate the Paquette-Mercer connection.
Cast and director of Soldier’s Heart. (Back: Ian Culley, Jacob Paquette. Front: Jason Paquette, Jennifer Paquette.)
January 31st, 2013 § permalink
Yesterday I received a beautiful letter from Jennifer Paquette, a director whose production of Soldier’s Heart opens in Woodstock on February 8th. The Paquette family has a heartfelt connection to David’s work, and the Theatre Woodstock production of Soldier’s Heart features real-life father and son playing Esau and Jacob…but that’s just part of the story! Jennifer has kindly given me permission to quote her letter on this blog:
“Life Does Indeed Imitate Art”
A Love Letter to David French
This is our family’s story;
In the spring of 1991, I learned that I was being offered my directorial debut with a small community theatre in Woodstock, Ontario. The show was David French’s Salt-Water Moon. I was a 29 year old single mom who had lived and breathed theatre since I was a girl, and Mr. French’s plays had figured prominently in my development as an actor, director and writer. I had toured Ontario schools with a repertory theatre in the early 80’s and Leaving Home was in our line-up and was one of our most requested productions.
I was excited and nervous to finally have the opportunity to share my vision of one of a series of plays about the Mercer family, written by the man who was and remains Canada’s most important English speaking playwright.
I met my husband Jason when he auditioned for the role of Jacob Mercer. Obviously, he got the part, and, well, the rest as they say…
Our modest production of Salt-Water Moon ran in February, 1992 and surprised us by going on to win the coveted Best Production award at the Theatre Ontario festival in Sault St Marie that spring.
Jason and I were married in 1994. In May of 1995, Jason and I learned that we were expecting a child. We had been raising my two little girls together and I think we both knew instinctively that we were having a boy. We didn’t even need to discuss what his name would be. The day before I gave birth, my husband telephoned Mr. French and told him our story. He explained how our own love had blossomed while telling the love story in Salt-Water Moon. Then Mr. French and my husband spoke of the thrill of becoming a parent.
Jacob Anderson Paquette was born the following day, on February 1, 1996. Three days later, after returning from the hospital with our beautiful new bundle, a package arrived in the mail. We opened it to find a copy of Salt-Water Moon with this inscription:
Jan 31/96 (this was the night I went into labour)
To Jason & Jennifer,
who are proof positive that life does indeed imitate art.
– David French
We treasure this generous gift. But the story doesn’t end there.
In February of 2013, our son will play his namesake, Jacob Mercer in a production of Soldier’s Heart. His dad will play Jacob’s father, Esau. In July 2012, Jacob, Jason and I traveled to Newfoundland where Jacob stood at Coley’s Point, was officially “screeched in” and did a first read-thru of Soldiers Heart with his dad on the steps of the old railway station in Bay Roberts. And so continues our connection with the Mercer family. It is as if these characters are our kin.
Jason and I have been fortunate to share our love of storytelling with our children. We believe that our stories are our most cherished inheritances. We are reminded of this every time we hear our now adult children recall to their friends their favourite story about a play called Salt-Water Moon, and of how their parents met and fell in love.
First read-through of Soldier’s Heart, Jacob and Jason Paquette on the steps of the train station in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland, where the play is set.
November 17th, 2012 § permalink
This week playwright and poet David Freeman died. He was a writer of power and passion whose work opened our eyes to the world in a new way.
Freeman’s groundbreaking and highly theatrical play Creeps was the first play produced at the fledgling Tarragon Theatre in 1971. Creeps paints a frank and courageous portrait of a group of disabled people struggling to find meaning in a society that places little value on their lives. Since Freeman was born with cerebral palsy, he knew his subject. He also was fortunate to have placed his play in the hands of a great director (Bill Glassco) and a stellar cast that included a young John Candy. But it was the power of the writing that made Creeps such an important event in Canadian theatre history.
David French used to tell the story of how he met Bill Glassco and began his long association with Bill and the Tarragon. It’s a long story, but it starts with Creeps. David’s sister-in-law, Marlene Aarons, had seen the play, and told David that he should go. David was reluctant, but Marlene insisted. David was so impressed with the show that he immediately knew that he wanted whoever had programmed and directed Creeps to direct his own work. He went to the box office and asked for the director’s phone number. Which was given to him on the spot! David phoned Bill Glassco and made an appointment to see him.
I found a photo of the two Davids along with Michel Tremblay in the closet a few months ago, and after David Freeman died, I posted it on Facebook. It was picked up by CBC and several other news outlets, but I will repost it below. I’d also like to share a beautiful poem that David Freeman sent to me after my David died in 2010. It serves as a tribute to them both.
FOR DAVID FRENCH (1939-2010)
The day seized
In staccato rhythm
Of typewriter keys
As enraptured youth
We could do no wrong
Where actors voiced
The world was our oyster:
We were the pearls.
The headiness made our heads
The center of attention,
Hardly a day went by
When our names
Fame flees rapidly
And doesn’t defy
What goes up
Must come down
Toasts of the town.
The spotlight that warms
In theater, fortunes
On a dime.
Works of passion
Seeds to change
Are better than
No seeds at all .
We were young Turks
That you’re gone,
Your words, your work
Will live on.
Michel Tremblay, David Freeman, and David French at the Chalmers Awards, 1970s.
March 6th, 2012 § permalink
While going through some old photos last week, I found this wonderful shot of Michel Tremblay, David Freeman, and David French from the 1970s. I don’t know the occasion or the photographer, but wanted to share it here. If you have more information, write and let us know the scoop!
Michel Tremblay, David Freeman, David French
January 27th, 2012 § permalink
The wonderful Bill Kennedy posted this tribute to David on Facebook last year under the title “A Death In The Family.” I am grateful to be able to post it here as well.
Scowling at the now empty stage, the man sat two thirds of the way back, as the audience, laughing and chatting, left for the lobby. It was the end of Act I of the preview of the comedy Jitters at the Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. I watched the man, concentrating on the stage as though the actors were still there. In his mind they were. This was the man who had woven together his own experience as actor and playwright and had run this play through his mind a thousand times as he revised and revised, boiling it down to its essence. This was David French.
I walked over to the row he was seated in and sat down a respectful distance away, not wanting to disturb his train of thought. I had met David through an introduction to dramatic writing course given by his partner, Glenda MacFarlane and I had emailed them a couple of times. After a while he acknowledged my presence. “There’s a lot of work to do yet,” was all he said. This despite all of the laughter that had just come from the full house.
David was like that: intense, passionate, uncompromising, as much a rock as the place where he had been born. When he visited our class, we all talked about our current projects. When I described mine, he said, “A novel maybe, not a play.” He was right. That comment made me start over from scratch, because after listening to him, all I wanted to do was write a play. David’s approach was classical theatre: a single protagonist with an all-consuming desire, facing overwhelming conflict and equipped with only their intelligence and feelings. Salt-Water Moon features two actors on one set in one evening. “The challenge,” he explained, “was that this story took place before my previous play, so the audience already knew the ending.” Yet, even knowing not just the ending, but also the whole play, I was still riveted to my seat. I took my family to see it at Soulpepper. With two teenagers, it can be difficult to find something that engages all of us. This play was an exception. The conversation all the way home centered around the play and the two characters.
You can picture yourself in a French play. Whether you see yourself as the parent or the child, the young lover or the frustrated patriarch, he spoke to all of us. Each character is presented with understanding and compassion, true to all of the frailties and strengths of the human condition. You can’t leave one of David’s plays untouched by the experience.
We will miss him.
January 27th, 2012 § permalink
Dorothy Ward, voice coach extraordinaire and a friend of the family, sent a beautiful email to Leslie about David. She has given us her permission to quote part of it here. It’s particularly appropriate just now, as February 7, 2012 marks the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth.
A quotation fell out of a book I was reading this morning and suddenly I was aware of David’s presence. Of course I had to share this.
The quote is by Charles Dickens:
“Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.”
On our infamous car ride together he talked to me about how important it was to read great literature to learn about the craft of writing. I asked him who inspired him and he said without a moment’s hesitation, “always I return to Charles Dickens – it’s all there. He’s the master.”
And so, on a cold, stark morning I am given this blessing. And I wanted to write of it. His legacy is in his plays, the characters he gave us through his own joy and pain – to teach, to reveal, to change us. In a half hour car ride he left
an indelible mark on me.
January 22nd, 2012 § permalink
Recently I had some correspondence with playwright David Gow. In one of his emails, he mentioned meeting David. He’s kindly given me permission to quote the email here:
I was sorry to hear of your David’s passing. I was an admirer of his for some time and he had kind words for me once, having seen something of mine, very kind and encouraging words, which meant a lot to me. In a way it was a humbling moment. “Here is a great writer…” I thought, “who is telling my work is good”. Like the jerk of an elevator, I felt lifted and sobered one moment to the next, and remember the twinkle in his eye and humour which said in effect “we’re on the same ride”. A blinking moment, drinking in another man’s appraisal of my chops, a man whose writing I thought was above all the other writing for the stage- that I had heard under our flag, and great writing by any flag. David was born the same year as my father, and essentially, yet young by today’s standards. Great that he achieved so much and broke so much ground for so many of us to follow planting in.
January 20th, 2012 § permalink
The only two books in the house when David was growing up were the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. He used to read the Bible aloud to his Granny French, who was losing her sight — David said she was particularly fond of “The Song of Solomon.” David often spoke about the beauty of the poetry in the King James version, and you can see the influence of it on his own work.
He discovered fiction when he was in Grade Eight. Before then he’d been far more interested in sports than literature, but one day when he was acting up in class, his exasperated teacher told him to go get a book and to sit down and read it. David happened to pull Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from the shelf…and he was hooked; he loved Twain from that moment forward. A couple of weeks ago I noticed that we have two huge Twain compendiums on our bookshelves! I’m sorry David never got a chance to read the recently released Twain autobiography, which I’m sure he would have been very interested in. Reading Twain really did change his life — he said that before he’d even finished Tom Sawyer, not only did he know he wanted to be a writer, he knew that he was one.
David’s next big literary influence was Jack London. After reading his way through London’s adventure novels, David decided to head out on an adventure of his own. He and a friend hitchhiked to Vancouver, hoping to get work on a tramp steamer. David was seventeen at the time! Unfortunately (or fortunately,) the only job he could manage to land was working on one of the local ferries – and that came to an abrupt end when authorities discovered he’d lied about his age. He made it back home to Toronto in time for school in the fall.
In his 20s, David idolized Hemingway. He finally did make a sea voyage, and spent a month in Paris, where he lived on one meal a day (breakfast, which was included with his accommodation,) and retraced the steps of Hemingway and other “Lost Generation” writers like Fitzgerald, Callaghan, and John Glassco. As a young man David wrote a novel that was much influenced by Hemingway. It’s never been published, but it’s a wonderful bildungsroman about a group of friends who travel from Toronto to Carnaval in Quebec City.
David read plays and books about playwrights, including everything he could get his hands on about Shakespeare’s life and work. When he talked to playwriting students David would ask them which playwrights they admired — and he was frequently irritated when they couldn’t come up with more than one or two names. He used to say that reading good plays was one of the best ways to learn how to write them. Sometimes David would take a break from working and walk to Theatrebooks to buy whatever plays looked new and interesting. He had a comprehensive collection of drama, from Aeschylus to Neil Labute, and everything in between. Chekhov, to whom David is sometimes compared, was a particular favourite.
Stephen King was one of David’s favourite contemporary authors. He liked Salem’s Lot in particular, and bought each new book in hardcover as soon as it appeared. I read the new one (11/22/63) a couple of months ago, and all the while I kept thinking about how he would have enjoyed it. David also loved mysteries, and there are a lot of those on our shelves, too — PD James, Peter Robinson, Giles Blunt, Rennie Airth, and many more. David was working on a mystery set in a small Ontario town before he got sick, and having a lot of fun writing it.
Near the end, David was having trouble with his eyes, so we started reading books aloud together. We finished Faulkner’s Light In August while riding out chemotherapy side effects…and we were about halfway through Treasure Island when he died.
There were, of course, so many other books David loved…the books I love best are the ones that have “David French” on the spine.