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Palmer, John

CTE photo
John Palmer

Playwright, director, actor, born in Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1943; died in Ottawa, May 15, 2020 at age 77 of COVID-19. John Palmer grew up in Ottawa, where he began his involvement with theatre in high school, and as an English major at Carlton University. He directed plays at Le Hibou Coffee House in Ottawa, and at the Black Swan Coffee House in Stratford, which he founded with Martin Kinch. In 1968 he founded the Canadian Place Theatre in Stratford with Kinch as Canadian alternative to the British fare at the Stratford Festival. Canadian Place Theatre premiered the first play of his trilogy, Memories for My Brother (1969, dir. Kinch).

After moving to Toronto, he founded Toronto Free Theatre with Tom Hendry and Martin Kinch in 1971, which produced his plays The End (1972, dir. Kinch), and the collective creation, The Pits (with Des McAnuff 1975, dir. Kinch), which portrayed the bizarre denizens of a dilapidated boarding house. For Toronto Free Theatre he directed Hope by Larry Fineberg in 1972, and Gossip by George F. Walker in 1977.

Palmer also wrote and directed for: Theatre Passe Muraille (Charles Manson a.k.a Jesus Christ by Fabian Jennings and Allan Rae 1971); Factory Theatre (A Touch of God in the Golden Age 1972; Henrik Ibsen on the Necessity of Producing Norwegian Drama, 1976, dir. Kinch); and St. Lawrence Centre (Bland Hysteria 1971, dir. Palmer). In 1984, he directed Brad Fraser's early controversial work, Wolfboy starring Keanu Reeves at Passe Muraille. His other plays include the gay-themed A Day at the Beach (Toronto Free Theatre, 1987, dir. Eric Steiner), and Singapore (Factory Theatre, 2000).

In Henrik Ibsen on the Necessity of Producing Norwegian Drama Palmer adopts the persona of the Norwegian playwright to make the case for the importance of developing and producing plays which express a local and national culture, implicitly comparing Ibsen’s promotion and management of a national theatre in Bergen for six years in the 1850s to a fledgling Canadian indigenous theatre in the 1970s. In Palmer’s play, Ibsen expounds on the cultural and social need for a national theatre that articulates a sense of place, belonging, and identity. He interrogates the idea of nation and the ways in which nations and individuals define themselves through boundaries, politics, economics, and culture:

“The much touted ‘identity crises’ which we in Norway are said to suffer is a foul and inane lie propagated by those who stand to profit by it. It does not exist. I certainly know who I am. If you do not know who you are, according to the laws of psychiatry and the state, you are insane and have no rights in the affairs of Norway.

Norwegian art is abundant and at this very moment is clearly defining Norwegian existence for those who choose to see; to remain deaf to it is the prerogative of any citizen: to claim its non-existence is either to be blind or wicked, but to oppose its legitimate growth and establishment is a criminal act against the people of Norway.”

Palmer was a founding member of Playwrights Guild of Canada. He taught at York University, Ryerson University, National Theatre School of Canada, Juilliard, and Brooklyn Academy.

Readings: John Palmer. “Henrik Ibsen on the Necessity of Producing Norwegian Drama.” The CTR Anthology: Fifteen Plays from Canadian Theatre Review. Ed. Alan Filewod. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Profile by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University

Last updated 2020-12-18