Tarragon Theatre’s original plan was for artistic director Richard Rose to unveil a bursting-at-the-seams 50th anniversary season of new Canadian plays back in March – and then, shortly thereafter, announce that he was retiring.
Then, of course, the pandemic hit and survival mode kicked in.
This week, Rose, 65, has belatedly announced his impending retirement – just days after Tarragon became the first major theatre in Toronto to say it wouldn’t be producing a live theatre season in 2020-21.
“I’ve hit a certain age and I think it’s time that someone takes the theatre over and reinvents it,” said Rose, who will officially depart at the end of a rethought “Tarragon Acoustic” season that will mostly involve audio recordings of plays from the company’s history. “I hope by the end of next year we’re still in a strong position.”
Since Rose took over English Canada’s best-known new-play theatre in 2002, Toronto’s theatre scene has seen the dramatic rise and fall of a number of grand artistic visions that seduced the media and donors, for a while.
As an artistic director, Rose’s primary accomplishment has been to avoid buzzwords and keep a relatively low profile – and plug away at the necessarily up-and-down business of creating new plays.
Nestled in the Annex neighbourhood, Tarragon has been a place of modest renovations, rather than eye-catching capital campaigns – and Rose and his managing directors have focused on sustainability rather than growth.
The result has been a mid-sized company with a loyal audience and attendance close to 40,000 that can afford to pay its playwrights and artists a little better than many other new-work companies.
This has made the place a magnet for playwrights whom Rose, one of the most talented directors in the country, could promise polished world premieres.
His seasons mixed together Canadian works by emerging playwrights with veterans to whom he is loyal (Joan MacLeod, Jason Sherman, Daniel MacIvor) – occasionally with a classic or contemporary international hit thrown in.
In an exclusive exit interview this week, Rose cited a trio of shows staged from 2006 to 2007 as highlights of his tenure – a selection with which no theatre critic would disagree.
With his sweeping 2007 Dora-winning production of Linda Gaboriau’s translation of Wajdi Mouawad’s family epic Scorched (Incendies), he cracked open one of the greatest French-language playwrights of our time for English-language audiences in a way that American and British directors have since tried and failed to do.
In 2006, Rose directed the premiere of Léo by Rosa Labordé – who has become one of the leading Canadian playwrights of her generation. The next year, Tarragon premiered Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin (in a production directed by Alisa Palmer), not her first play, but the one that became her calling card nationally and internationally.
Moscovitch, one of the country’s most in-demand playwrights, continues to premiere much of her work at Tarragon (most recently Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes); and Labordé is the theatre’s current Bill Glassco Playwright-in-Residence, a fully salaried position established three years ago unique in Canadian theatre (an important accomplishment of Rose’s tenure).
When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, Tarragon felt effects on its attendance – and the theatre went through years that seemed perhaps a little more miss than hit artistically. But it has been on an upswing again in audience and acclaim.
The season interrupted in March was highly impressive in terms of world premieres. Anosh Irani’s Buffoon (which Rose directed) and Kat Sandler’s Yaga are both contending for outstanding new play at Monday’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards, while Anthony MacMahon and Thomas McKechnie’s The Jungle just nabbed the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for best new play.
(Full disclosure: The season before that, Rose directed Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman’s Guarded Girls, which went on to win outstanding new play at the Doras; I am married to Corbeil-Coleman.)
Tarragon’s emphasis on stability under Rose sometimes led the theatre astray. Most notably, The Drawer Boy playwright Michael Healey resigned as playwright-in-residence in 2012 after Rose declined to produce his play about then-prime minister Stephen Harper, Proud; Healey claimed the board of directors was concerned about the theatre being sued.
Asked about regrets, Rose immediately says one was losing Healey. “I would have liked to work on more plays with him,” he says.
Rose managed to avoid any other significant public controversy during a tumultuous era in which artistic directors elsewhere were ousted for reasons strange (Ken Gass at Factory Theatre) or shocking (Albert Schultz at Soulpepper).
In the 2015-2016 season, while Canadian Stage’s then artistic director Matthew Jocelyn was being criticized with the hashtag #CanStageSoWhite, Tarragon actually had an even less inclusive lineup of directors and playwrights, but Rose was not called out by the theatre community in the same way.
In the ensuing years, Tarragon has never again been so unrepresentative of Toronto’s demographics. “We have to do plays that reflect our city,” says Rose, who expects his successor to tap into “new playwrights and new communities.”
“We’ve got a number of playwrights from the diverse community that we’re supporting now and wanting to do.”
Keeping his cards close to his chest has worked well for Rose – who founded and ran Necessary Angel from 1978 to 2002, and spent 10 seasons at the Stratford Festival, but somehow doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. Few know that the Sudbury-raised director was born in Venezuela, or that his first language was Spanish.
He sums up his artistic philosophy at Tarragon as, essentially, having been to put on plays where you’re not sure who the hero is. “I’ve kind of stayed true to that aesthetic of embracing a sense of contradiction to the work and the stories that are being told,” he says. “I just didn’t want to be stuck saying one simple message … I didn’t want to be reductive.”
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.