Iris Turcott loved writers. In her long, fruitful career as a theatre dramaturge, she became a matriarch to the rock stars of Canadian playwriting: Ronnie Burkett, Judith Thompson, Brad Fraser, Tomson Highway, Daniel MacIvor. A loud, abrasive matriarch, mind you, with a taste for cigarettes, whisky and cheerfully outrageous obscenities, whose love could be as tough as it was tender.
Mr. Burkett, the marionette maestro who counted Ms. Turcott as both a collaborator and close friend, said she was the rare person who could bring big artists with big egos to heel. "These were not easy personalities she was working with. We're all needy, awful people really," he said with a laugh. "But the fact that we all clung to her and let her talk about our work in such an honest, brutal way, says something about how much we respected her."
Ms. Turcott, who died on Sept. 22 of cancer in Toronto at the age of 62, has been hailed by those artists as a "warrior" in her championship of Canadian writing, a fearless "sherpa" who guided the work of prominent playwrights across the country, from Joan MacLeod on Vancouver Island to Robert Chafe in Newfoundland. But she gave her expertise equally to younger writers, whether as an educator (notably at the National Theatre School in Montreal) or as the resident dramaturge at Toronto's Factory Theatre, where she nurtured promising up-and-comers as Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman and Joseph Jomo Pierre. She found time for budding talent, no matter how green.
Factory Theatre's artistic director, Nina Lee Aquino, recalled how she once proudly showed Ms. Turcott the writings of her seven-year-old daughter, Eponine Lee. "Iris read them very thoughtfully," she said. "Then she barked at me, 'Call your daughter in! I want to speak to her.'" A nervous Ms. Aquino obeyed and Eponine came in for a closed-door meeting with Ms. Turcott. Eponine emerged smiling and Ms. Turcott claimed to have found her intimidating. "Which was very funny, coming from Iris," Ms. Aquino laughed. "Then she told me, 'Your daughter has a gift. You have to encourage her to keep writing, no matter what.'"
Next to her own son, Merrick, Ms. Turcott's all-consuming devotion was to the theatre, especially the dramatic text.
Born Iris Noreen Turcott on July 9, 1954, in London, Ont., she was the youngest child and only daughter of Doris (née Davey) and Allan Turcott, an auto mechanic. Her cousin, veteran producer Paul Wells, remembers her as a voracious reader from an early age, and an astute one. "She could finish a book more quickly than anybody I've ever known," he said. "And she had a better understanding of the book, too."
She attended London's South Collegiate Institute and was involved in community theatre before leaving for England, to study at the City Literary Institute in London. Back home, she earned an honours degree in English and drama at the University of Western Ontario, and a degree in education at the University of Toronto. Although she acted, directed and co-founded a young people's company, Playbill Theatre, her true calling was to the little-understood field of dramaturgy. Joining Toronto's Canadian Stage in that capacity in the early 1990s, she went beyond the job's narrow definition as a specialist in dramatic writing. Working closely with playwrights, she would encourage them, challenge them and, when necessary, advocate for them.
When Toronto theatres were shying from Palace of the End, Judith Thompson's harrowing drama about the Iraq invasion, Ms. Turcott insisted that Canadian Stage produce the play. It turned out to be one of the playwright's most acclaimed works, winning two major international awards. "If Iris had not pushed and pushed," Ms. Thompson said, "the play would not have been produced here at all."
Ms. Turcott also had no qualms about pushing established playwrights in new directions. Brad Fraser was already a celebrated enfant terrible for his controversial plays Love and Human Remains and Poor Super Man when he began what would be a long association with her. "It was Iris who said to me, after my play Martin Yesterday, 'Step away from the gay, angry [material] and try something different for a while, Brad,'" Mr. Fraser said. "She was the first person I went to with a new play, before I showed it to anybody else," he added. "You knew she wouldn't judge you and would understand what you were trying to do, even if you weren't quite succeeding at doing it yet."
Mr. Burkett said he would have long discussions with her about his ideas for a play, sometimes a year before actually beginning to write. "She didn't find the act of writing mysterious and precious," he noted. "What she found mysterious and almost spiritual were the conversations to get the thing written. And then, once it was written, she was absolutely brutal with her red pencil! A different side of her came out."
After 17 years at Canadian Stage, her position was cut in 2008 during a financial crisis at the company. She freelanced for a time, until Factory Theatre hired her in 2009. Among the writers she worked with, there was novelist and playwright Anosh Irani. When he emigrated from India as a young man with aspirations to become an author, she was one of the first people he sent his work to. "She gave me a lot of confidence," he said. "She responded with so much passion."
She could also be an instigator, Mr. Irani added. "One time, we were talking about my family, I was telling her a story, and she said, 'That would make a great play.' That became My Granny the Goldfish." Daniel MacIvor tells a similar tale, in which Ms. Turcott patiently listened to him talk about his dog, and then insisted he write a play involving one. The result, The Best Brothers, became one of his most popular comedies.
Not all the plays Ms. Turcott worked on were successes. She had her share of misfires, but it said much about her influence that she was sometimes criticized more harshly than her playwrights.
In 2012, when Factory Theatre's board dismissed founding artistic director Ken Gass and many big names in the theatre community boycotted the company in protest, she remained on as the calm in the eye of the storm. "She kept the place afloat when we were still in transition," Ms. Aquino said. "She made sure the heart of the place kept beating." More than that, she played mentor to Ms. Aquino. "She dramaturged my leadership. She was the guide that I needed to find my voice and my place at Factory."
Ms. Turcott's extended family included many of her theatre colleagues, who would drop by her downtown Toronto apartment for tea or visit her in the summer at her rented cottage in Port Stanley on Lake Erie. There, she loved to swim, play poker and talk about theatre. Bonnie Green, an associate producer at the Stratford Festival and perhaps her closest friend, said they made a Saturday ritual of checking out garage sales. "It was a pretty swell way to hang out with Iris Turcott – driving around Port Stanley, looking for vintage dishes, laughing our faces off at anything and everything."
Ms. Turcott's sense of humour was one of her salient traits and didn't desert her even after she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer this year. Visiting her during her illness, Ms. Green remembers seeing Ms. Turcott's dog, Honeybee, drink some water and then start to cough. "Iris glared at the little dog and said, 'Don't mock me.'"
She stepped down from her job at Factory Theatre two seasons ago, but was working as a dramaturge until to the end. Alberta playwright Matt MacKenzie was staying with her and she was assisting him with a new play the night before she died.
Among those who visited her in her last days was Mr. Fraser. "It was inspiring to see how accepting she was of what was going on," he recalled. "She said, 'I'm not sorry, I don't regret anything, I feel really good about my life and I'm ready to die.'"
She leaves her son, Merrick Anderson, the child of her relationship with the late Keith Anderson; her brothers Tim and Michael; and her nieces and nephews.
Over the years, Ms. Turcott was honoured with the George Luscombe Award for mentorship, the National Theatre School Award for excellence in teaching, the Playwrights Guild of Canada's Tom Hendry Award and the Harold Award.
"For all her outrageousness, her quest in life was for beauty," Mr. Burkett said. "She wasn't just a dramaturge fulfilling a job like an editor; she had her own philosophical and spiritual view of what theatre and language should be, and what they could do to an audience. With Iris, you always knew you were dealing with a giant brain and a giant heart, and a giant investment in the bigger idea of what theatre is.."