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Theatre critic, arts and culture analyst, James Bickle Portman was born 6 October 1935 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Graduating from the University of Manitoba with a BA, he moved to Alberta in 1957 to become a journalist for the Calgary Herald.
It was to be the start of a 50-year career in journalism, that saw Portman first become the leading theatre critic and arts writer in Calgary (1959-1975) during the city's transition from the amateur to the professional era, then the national arts correspondent for Southam News. Between 1975 to 1987, he served as a national theatre critic and arts advocate, reporting on the performing arts across the country and discussing arts and cultural issues of national importance.
One of the last national critics attempting to cover the full range of the emerging professional English-Canadian theatre from a liberal-humanist perspective, Portman has a reputation for being fair, urbane and comprehensive in his coverage. His high regard for work that he felt revealed essential truths about human nature with compassion, perceptiveness and technical brilliance often led him to write more brilliantly about the classics than new work. Nonetheless, he championed Canadian playwrights like David French, John Murrell, George Ryga and Michel Tremblay whom he felt conformed to his high standards. He also highlighted the work of prairie, Atlantic and rural Ontario playwrights and companies that he felt revealed a genuinely populist spirit. While he condemned the ultra-nationalism of the 1970s as xenophobic, he was a strong advocate of comprehensive arms-length government subsidization of the arts, and viewed the erosion of that funding, combined with the increasing globalization of the electronic revolution, as being the greatest challenge confronting the Canadian theatre by the mid 1980s.
In 1987 he moved to Southam News headquarters in Ottawa, where he mostly covered film until his retirement in 2007. He now posts entertaining, informative theatre reviews on www.capitalcriticscircle.com.
In 2019, he was awarded the Nathan Cohen Award for Outstanding Review by the Canadian Theatre Critics Association for his fierce review of Fierce by George F. Walker.
Profile by Moira Day, University of Saskatchewan
Last updated 2021-07-30