A force during the emergence of Toronto’s alternative theatres in the 1970s, John Palmer was a playwright and director first known for a fiery Canadian nationalism, born out of a frustration with finding no work in British-dominated theatrical institutions upon graduating university.
A quintessential “enfant terrible,” Mr. Palmer – who died in Ottawa on May 15 at the age of 77 of COVID-19 after a long struggle with dementia – attracted attention by storming into the office of one Stratford Festival artistic director demanding work and placing an ad in a newspaper offering British theatre artists a one-way plane ticket back to England. He later channelled his advocacy for Canadian theatre into a drama called Henrik Ibsen on the Necessity of Producing Norwegian Theatre (1976).
“The theatres were run by Brits, and they were bringing over more Brits,” he said, in an interview for Denis W. Johnston’s 1991 book Up the Mainstream: The Rise of Toronto’s Alternative Theatres. “I thought, well, this has got to change.”
To bring about that change, Mr. Palmer started a number of short-lived theatre companies in Ottawa and Stratford before, in 1972, co-founding Toronto Free Theatre (TFT), a company that became known for inventive and visual productions staged in an old gas works, now the Berkeley Street Theatre. It would eventually merge, controversially, with another company in 1987 to become Canadian Stage, now one of the city’s most attended not-for-profit theatres.
Murray John Palmer was born on May 13, 1943, to Morris and Ethelyn (née Rubin) Palmer of Ottawa.
His birthplace was Sydney, N.S., where his father was stationed as part of the Royal Canadian Air Force, but his family returned after the war to the country’s capital and the Jewish community that centred around the orthodox Beth Shalom synagogue. Morris Palmer took over the family scrap iron and metal business there after his father’s death in an accident – and John’s sister, Myra and brother, Mark, were born.
Mr. Palmer’s siblings recall their older brother as a creative force, who would enlist them in films made on an 8mm camera or entertain them with papier-mâché puppets. When John was 13, his mother took him to New York as a bar mitzvah gift – and he saw a Broadway musical called Happy Hunting starring legendary performer Ethel Merman, which gave him a taste for spectacle and, after which, according to his sister, “everything changed for the better for him.”
Studying English at Carleton University, Mr. Palmer thrived at the Sock ‘n’ Buskin drama club, forming friendships with future Hollywood fixture Saul Rubinek, with whom he travelled to New York to see Peter Brook’s production of Marat/Sade, and Larry Kardish, who would go on to become senior curator of film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
At the Canadian Universities Drama League Festival, where he first met director and future TFT co-founder Martin Kinch, Mr. Palmer won best original play for Visions of an Unseemly Youth – and, the next year, a best director award for Goebbels Gobbledygook, written by Mr. Kardish.
Frustrated by an inability to find work or even get a response to his letters from established Canadian theatres, Mr. Palmer began producing Jacobean tragedies and Joe Orton farces in between musical bookings at Le Hibou, the legendary Ottawa coffee house. He then decided to directly challenge mainstream Canadian theatre right at its heart – forming the New Vic Theatre at the Black Swan Coffee House in the summer of 1967 in Stratford, Ont.
The next year, Mr. Palmer and Mr. Kinch reconnected abroad when they were both part of a program called Directors Training in Britain – and began plotting together. Mr. Kinch recalls the energy of that period as fuelled by the 1960s youth movement, as well as nationalism. “There was no way of being oneself in the culture in which we existed,” he says. “There was no context in which to do Canadian plays.”
Back in Canada, Mr. Palmer and Mr. Kinch returned to Stratford to set up Canadian Place Theatre in a dry-goods story opposite the festival’s Avon Theatre, opening an all-Canadian season in July, 1969.
Critics were more encouraging of the groundbreaking idea than of the individual productions – but the pair made a fan in Stratford Festival literary manager Tom Hendry, who would partner up with them to create the TFT in 1972, which was, indeed, free for a short spell because of Trudeau-era Local Initiatives Program grants and private sponsorship.
In the meantime, Mr. Palmer grew his reputation at other emerging Toronto companies – named “man of the year” in theatre by The Globe and Mail in 1971.
His production that year of Charles Manson a.k.a. Jesus Christ at Theatre Passe Muraille involved nudity, roller skates and a heart-stopping moment where an actor walked off a 17-foot high platform; his script A Touch of God In the Golden Age at Factory Lab (now Factory Theatre) was excessive in a different way: a four-hour-plus running time. “John and I had many heated discussions,” Mr. Kinch recalls. “I eventually convinced him to cut one speech – and he printed it in the program.”
The most legendary TFT production directed by Mr. Palmer came in 1975 – a collective creation called The Pits, written with assistant director Des McAnuff, a future Tony Award winner and Stratford Festival artistic director. Set in a Toronto boarding house almost built to scale in the Berkeley, the play was watched by a roaming audience peering down at actors from eight-foot-tall platforms.
Its script written through improvisation with actors in character anticipated the working methods of the filmmaker Mike Leigh, Mr. Kinch and Mr. Rubinek say; its staging is recognized as a predecessor of “environmental” or “immersive” theatre. “It was way ahead of its time,” says Mr. Rubinek, who performed in it.
Mr. Palmer may be best known today, however, for directing the Toronto premiere of Brad Fraser’s psychosexual thriller Wolfboy at Passe Muraille in 1984 – starring a young Keanu Reeves, whose steamy homoerotic stills from the production still circulate online.
Mr. Palmer was a pioneering Canadian queer artist, paving the way for the likes of the internationally successful Mr. Fraser. He tackled sexual orientation through metaphor in Confessions of a Necrophile (1967) – and wrote gay, lesbian and bisexual characters in The End (1972). Later gay-themed works include A Day at the Beach (1987) and the 2004 independent film Sugar
“He was a queer at a time when no one was really out, or it was hard to be out in the theatre,” says Franco Boni, the artistic director of the PuSh Festival in Vancouver, who studied with Mr. Palmer at York University and later became a friend and collaborator. “Nobody knows him as a gay playwright, but he was.”
After the early 1970s, Mr. Palmer was a less central figure in Toronto theatre as he started to split his time between there and New York – where he taught at Juilliard and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Though he had a new play produced in Toronto as recently as 2000 (Singapore at Factory Theatre), he later told friends he regretted not staying around and running TFT – which, swallowed up by a larger company, is less remembered than its contemporaries.
The director and playwright’s personality – his favourite words included “irascible “and “obstreperous” – may be part of the reason he stayed on the margins.
“John was outspoken and witty and pissed off a lot of people – he would do interviews saying ‘I am Canadian theatre,‘” recalls Mr. Rubinek, who is trying to put together a collection of his plays for publication. “That provocateur-ish-ness in John made us laugh, but also got him hated.”
Mr. Palmer nevertheless left his mark on younger generations through teaching not just at York and Julliard, but the National Theatre School, Brooklyn Academy and Ryerson University. That career was cut short by vascular dementia in 2013. His family helped him sell his house across from the Toronto AIDS Memorial – a memorial to a plague that claimed many of Mr. Palmer’s friends and artistic colleagues – and eventually moved him to Ottawa.
In 2016, Mr Palmer was moved again into the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre, where he received care until he died. He leaves his siblings, Myra and Mark; niece, Reina; nephew, Josh; and close friends, Mr. Boni and Robert Swain.