In the 1960s, Ben Tarver and his wife, Charlene, were living in New York’s Greenwich Village when a musical he co-wrote, Man With a Load of Mischief, premiered off-Broadway.
The show, praised by a New York Times critic as “perfectly charming,” starred a then-relatively unknown Reid Shelton (later to become famous playing Daddy Warbucks in the original Broadway staging of Annie).
By the late sixties, with two children in tow, Mr. Tarver chose to take an offer from the University of Alberta’s theatre department to teach playwriting. The family was set to move there in 1969 when a huge winter storm hit Edmonton. The snowfall was so extreme, a photo capturing it made the front page of The New York Times. Charlene Tarver apparently pointed to the photo and asked her husband, “Is that where you’re taking me?”
But weather be damned – Mr. Tarver insisted the move would be a good one. It was there that he would settle in to teaching the art and craft of playwriting in what would become one of the best theatre programs in Canada.
When Mr. Tarver died on Sept. 12 at the age of 86 in Toronto, he left behind two hit plays and a legion of writers he influenced as a professor.
Friends, colleagues and former students recall a man who was cultured, well-read and impeccably dressed, while also a fan of John Wayne movies. His signature touch was to always wear turquoise – something he picked up while coming of age in Santa Fe.
Mr. Tarver was born on Aug. 15, 1927, in El Paso, Texas, but his family soon moved to Santa Fe, where he grew up. He studied English at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, then moved to Colorado to complete an MFA in creative writing at the University of Denver.
There he met Charlene, the woman he would marry. In the mid-fifties, the couple moved to Taos, N.M., where they formed a company called the Encore Players. Mr. Tarver would often direct and act, and Charlene would act. Their productions were staged at the Taos Encore Theatre and included The Canyon Cries Murder, I Am a Camera and Born Yesterday.
After the couple moved to New York in the sixties, Mr. Tarver found acclaim as a playwright. In 1966, his romantic musical (co-written with John Clifton), Man With a Load of Mischief, premiered off-Broadway.
Then came the move to Canada. Mr. Tarver was part of a wave of hiring by the University of Alberta’s theatre department that included more than a dozen professionals from the two main theatre centres of New York and London, England. “This group of people is one of the reasons Edmonton has the strong theatre scene it does,” says Frank Moher, a playwright and former student of Mr. Tarver’s. “People like Ben helped to take the Edmonton theatre scene to another level.”
Mr. Moher recalls that Tarver was “an extremely supportive professor and mentor. … And long after I finished studying with him, Ben would always be there on opening night when I had a play open. He maintained his commitment with his students long after they graduated.”
Mr. Moher now teaches at Vancouver Island University, where, he said, “I try to carry on that philosophy with my students.”
While at the University of Alberta, Mr. Tarver established an MFA in playwriting. The first student to enroll in the program was Gordon Pengilly. He describes Mr. Tarver as a “formative influence. He taught me that being a playwright would not be a walk in the park. He taught me that playwriting had to be essential to my life or why do it?
“Ben really dignified playwriting for me and the playwright’s life. Playwrights were important and deserved respect – in the theatre, [they] were king of the mountain.”
In 1979, Mr. Tarver wrote another play that became a hit, The Murder of Auguste Dupin, a murder mystery based on characters created by Edgar Allan Poe. In a Lennoxville, Que., production directed by Richard Ouzounian (now the Toronto Star’s theatre critic), the play debuted to rave reviews (including in The Globe and Mail, which called it “ingenious” and “a clever tour de stagecraft”).
“Ben was amazing to work with,” Mr. Ouzounian recalls. “He was strong-willed – larger than life. He had an air about him, like John Huston. He carried that New Mexico style with him wherever he went.”
The Murder of Auguste Dupin became the first play to be performed in a new theatre in Pitlochry, Scotland, in 1981. The opening night was attended by Prince Charles, who was there to inaugurate the theatre.
After retiring from the University of Alberta in 1992, Mr. Tarver moved to Santa Fe. When his wife died in 2003, he relocated to Toronto to be closer to his daughter, theatre director Jennifer Tarver. He also leaves a son, John, and a grandson.
Mark Schoenberg, the Toronto-based theatre director who taught alongside Mr. Tarver in the University of Alberta’s theatre department in the sixties and seventies, says they remained close friends. “I will always remember Ben’s incredible sense of generosity and loyalty. Once you were his friend, he would do absolutely anything for you. He and Charlene were among the most amazingly kind people I will ever know.”
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