Joan MacLeod | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Joan MacLeod

MacLeod's first produced work was the libretto for a chamber opera, The Secret Garden, presented by Comus Theatre in Toronto in 1985; it won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new musical in 1986.
MacLeod, Joan
Award-winning playwright Joan MacLeod (photo courtesy Joan MacLeod).

Joan MacLeod

 Joan MacLeod, playwright (born at Vancouver). Joan MacLeod studied creative writing at the University of Victoria (BA 1978), where she became an associate professor in 2004, and at the University of British Columbia (MFA 1981). She was encouraged to write plays while attending a poetry workshop at the Banff Centre in 1984. Her poetic, lyrical plays are characterized by evocative imagery and layered themes that consider the complexities of personal and political relationships. MacLeod sees all of her plays as political, exploring the often unacknowledged tensions and conflicts in an apparently peaceful Canadian society. She believes in the power of the imagination to transform reality and enable hope. Despite natural and political cataclysms, individuals can recreate their lives.

MacLeod's first produced work was the libretto for a chamber opera, The Secret Garden, presented by Comus Theatre in Toronto in 1985; it won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new musical in 1986. She joined the Playwrights Unit at Toronto's TARRAGON THEATRE in 1985, and remained playwright-in-residence there for 7 years. Her first play, Jewel, is a monologue spoken by a young woman to her dead husband, who drowned during the sinking of an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland. It premiered at the Tarragon in 1987 and was subsequently produced for radio in English, French, German, Danish, and Swedish.

Her next 3 plays, Toronto, Mississippi (1987), Amigo's Blue Guitar (1990), and The Hope Slide (1992), also premiered at the Tarragon. The scenario for Toronto, Mississippi originated in MacLeod's experience as a social worker with the mentally disabled in the late 1970s. It explores the complex dynamics between a mother and her mildly autistic daughter, and their responses to an absentee husband/father who lives out his fantasies as an Elvis impersonator and enables his daughter to imagine a world beyond her mental limitations. In 2009 the play was revived in a co-production by Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton and VANCOUVER PLAYHOUSE. Despite MacLeod's reservations about its political correctness, the production was critically acclaimed as an engaging portrait of a girl struggling with personal obstacles to develop her full potential.

The motivation behind Amigo's Blue Guitar was the "appalling" refugee policies in Canada, which MacLeod encountered while involved with refugee sponsorship programs in Toronto. She addresses the question of why refugees sometimes lie - out of desperation and necessity. The play is set on a Gulf Island, a place of refuge and retreat, but where the wreckage of other places and events washes up on the beaches. The family of an American draft dodger has sponsored a Salvadoran refugee, but their response to his painful history is compromised by selfish personal motives, which finally the refugee violently resists.

The Hope Slide is a complex monologue that tracks the inner journey of an actress, recollecting her turbulent girlhood in terms of her preoccupation with the Doukhobors who settled in the Canadian West. The Doukhobors' struggle for the freedom to live as they choose becomes a metaphor for her own aspirations and social defiance. The character Irene, touring a play through the BC Interior, plays the roles of 3 Doukhobors who died violently: Mary Kalmakoff was buried under the Hope Slide in 1965, Harry Kootnikoff was blown up by one of his own bombs, and Paul Podmorrow died while on a hunger strike. Playing their deaths is Irene's way of coming to terms with the death of a friend from AIDS.

In 1992 MacLeod returned to Vancouver and began to teach creative writing at the University of British Columbia, Kwantlen College and the University of Victoria. She wrote Little Sister, a portrait of teenage anorexia, for a production at CANADIAN STAGE COMPANY's Berkeley Street Theatre in 1994, and it was subsequently toured by GREEN THUMB THEATRE for Young People. Her millennium play, 2000, was commissioned and first produced by the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa in 1996. It is set on the margins of Vancouver, where the city meets the mountains - a precarious space between the civilized and the savage - portraying a technologized consumer culture that cannot entirely displace the elemental forces of nature. In 2000 MacLeod demonstrates the limitations of optimism and hope in a world characterized by the unpredictable and the unknowable, but she also enacts those values that keep intact and strengthen human interaction and the commonalities that constitute the lineaments of a civilized society. As in most of her plays, domestic space is both fraught and comforting; despite its conflicts, it shapes the values that guide individual actions.

In The Shape of a Girl (2001) an adolescent girl discovers a frightening correspondence between the senseless murder of a teenager by her schoolmates, and her own social behaviour. Her monologue is grounded in a historically specific Canadian tragedy - the 1997 killing of a Victoria schoolgirl by a gang of teenagers, most of whom were girls. Though she has not participated in this murder, the character Braidie is haunted by it because it replays her own complicity in her friend's tormenting of a "different" girl in their class, the identification of an individual as "other," and a systematic, cruel predation that is psychologically destructive. Braidie's imagined audience is her older brother, whom she has cast as a sympathetic mentor, and she finally experiences a sense of new possibilities and hope. The Shape of a Girl was commissioned by Green Thumb Theatre in Vancouver, and premiered in Ottawa at Great Canadian Theatre Company. It has been translated into 6 languages and has toured the US and Australia.

Homechild opened in 2006 at CanStage (renamed from Canadian Stage Company) in Toronto. It revisits Canada's "benign" history to expose the 1860-1930 policy of importing IMMIGRANT CHILDREN as labourers from Britain: many thousands of "home children" from impoverished families and orphanages were sent to work in factories and on farms; some were adopted. MacLeod's grandparents hosted 2 children on their Glengarry County farm in Ontario. The play is set in Glengarry County in 1999 and reveals the psychological trauma experienced by one of these involuntary immigrants, now a retired dairy farmer in his eighties. During a visit by his estranged daughter, he suffers a stroke that triggers memories of a six-year-old sister he had promised to bring from Scotland to Canada; she has haunted him for all his adult life. Finally aware of this family history, his daughter locates the sister in Comox, BC, and instigates a reunion. As in many of MacLeod's plays, the disinterment of buried personal trauma makes possible a more hopeful future. In a revised and shortened version, Homechild was produced by the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver in 2009.

Returning to the monologue format of her first play, MacLeod drew on her personal experience with aging parents for Another Home Invasion (Alberta Theatre Projects playRites Festival 2009 in a co-production with Tarragon). Jean, a feisty senior, attempts to place her husband, who is suffering from dementia, into a home where they can be together. She is battling an intractable and absurd social system, staving off the demands of her daughter and cheerfully enduring the unreliable "help" of her granddaughter. Her life is further complicated and threatened by the appearance of a drug addict at her door, followed by his invasion of her home. It becomes apparent, however, that there are many invasions of her home space, and her best efforts are continually thwarted. Like the "invader," she is a social outsider. The emotional range and humorous irony of the dialogue were convincingly articulated in Nicola Lipman's strong performance in the Calgary production.

Joan MacLeod's plays have won numerous awards, including the 1988 Prix Italia for the CBC production of Jewel, the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD for Amigo's Blue Guitar in 1990, the 1992 CHALMERS Award for The Hope Slide, and the JESSIE AWARD and BETTY MITCHELL Award for The Shape of a Girl in 2001. They have been produced across Canada, and in England, the United States, Australia and Europe, and translated into 6 languages. Most are published by Talon Books.

Joan MacLeod was awarded the prestigious SIMINOVITCH PRIZE in 2011.