On Monday night, I nearly didn't get into the memorial for actress Tracy Wright at Hart House in Toronto. The ushers stopped me at the door to go and count how many seats were left in the auditorium. Behind me, a line of people hoping to join in the tribute stretched down the hallway and around the corner out of sight. They included I, Claudia's Kristen Thomson, The Drowsy Chaperone's Bob Martin, CBC's Sook-Yin Lee...
"You should have booked the Bluma Appel," I told Wright's long-time partner, Don McKellar, when we were let in -- which probably wasn't the thing to say. But I meant it as in: Isn't this wonderful?
Here was the sell-out house that Wright deserved, but didn't always get. She originated roles in great plays that will be remembered and revived for a long time -- Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets and Daniel MacIvor's A Beautiful View, to name two -- but acted in many more experimental and off-beat shows that, even in terms of Canadian theatre, are pretty obscure.
Take Revolutions in Therapy, a 2004 STO Union show where Wright, in a typically ultracasual performance, sat with a microphone interrogating -- and being interrogated by -- Nadia Ross and Jacob Wren on the subject of how to cope with a cruel life. Video of an insect crawling up flesh was projected behind them. I remember finding that show fascinating -- largely because of Wright's almost hypnotically relaxed manner of delivery -- but there were walk-outs as well. The theatre I saw it in has since been demolished for a condo development.
Wright's memorial was similarly, for lack of a better word, avant garde. It was structured like 86: An Autopsy, a play she created and performed with McKellar and Daniel Brooks back when they were The Augusta Company. In that show, they enumerated 86 personal effects of a fictional dead woman. (In Kate Taylor's review of the show in the Globe, she praised Wright's "carefully etched character, pained and subdued.")
At the memorial, the same number of Wright's possessions -- books, clothes, the contents of her wallet, a block she shattered with her hand in Tae Kwon Do class -- were held up and described by her friends and family.
The hosts for the evening were Brooks, MacIvor and Caroline Gillis (Wright's co-star in A Beautiful View). Other speakers included Molly Parker, Wright's co-star from Twitch City and the upcoming Trigger; Bruce McDonald, who directed Wright in his first feature film, Roadkill, and her last, Trigger; Judith Thompson, who read from Lion in the Streets; playwright and Buddies in Bad Times founder Sky Gilbert; the woman who did Wright's taxes; the aforementioned Nadia Ross, from STO Union, who described what "a great ambassador for all of us" she was touring shows like Revolutions in Therapy around the world; a woman who was in Wright's Tae Kwon Do class; author and playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald; writer, filmmaker and performance artist Miranda July (appearing via video), who cast Wright in Me and You and Everyone We Know...
They talked about Wright's style that didn't look like style (before that was popular; it has been described as "proto-hipster"). They talked about her cool naturalism on stage, which Gilbert aptly summed up like this: "When she was on stage, she was just there." They talked about her influence on the city and country's indie theatre. (I can't remember who dubbed some of her work as "whimsical verité" but that's a term I'm going to file away for future use.)
More than Wright's work in theatre and film, however, the memorial was about Wright as a person -- a person who was concerned about her friends even as she lay dying.
McKellar's emotional speech -- the last of the evening, spoken as he held up her ashes, the final of the night's 86 objects -- was the most touching. He described meeting Wright as student at University of Toronto, acting in Shakespeare; he played Malvolio, she was one of the witches in MacBeth -- "two characters who don't usually get a lot of dates," he quipped.
McKellar also remarked on how few painkillers Wright took in her final weeks (we had seen the empty bottles and the full bottles earlier on) -- and how her doctor was astonished to encounter a patient who valued lucidity over comfort. I didn't know Wright as a person, but I think that somehow gets at what made her special as an artist as well.