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playwright Carol Bolt

by Florence Gibson | October 9, 2003

When Carol Bolt, one of Canada’s finest and best known playwrights, died in 2000, I felt, like many other women playwrights, something more than the loss to the arts community and to the Playwrights Union of Canada, now called the Playwrights Guild. Yes, Carol had written some of our finest plays, and now there would be no more, and she was a founding member of the union who continued to serve the organization for over thirty years as president, chairing committees or establishing policy and procedure with incisive, impressive command. But there I was at her memorial service some weeks after her death, feeling as if I’d been left with a hole in my heart. And an uneasy one at that.

After Carol died, I realized I knew very little about her. Born in Winnipeg and raised in British Columbia, she was one of a group of artists who came to Toronto in the early seventies with the intention of being a playwright of distinctive voice, creating new Canadian plays for theatres that were just coming into existence (Factory Theatre, Tarragon Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille). She offered zeal, enthusiasm, commitment and amazing talent. I didn’t know where it all came from. And I didn’t know where she got the nerve.

She was the only woman successfully making her way in a sea of men; nationalistic theatre men hell bent on rescuing us from the British and American imports that had dominated Canadian stages for decades. As is often the case when politics reach a flash point, male bravado puts forward a restraining hand: “Stand back, this is a job for a man.” But there was Carol, writing amazing feminist plays like Red Emma and Buffalo Jump, seated at the “round table” of the fledgling Playwrights Co-op, having her say. Getting her way. Being counted, listened to, acknowledged and produced.

At her memorial at Factory Theatre, I listened to the accolades pour in.

“She was a tremendous pioneering force in Canadian theatre, both in terms of her own body of work and her tireless advocacy on behalf of playwrights across the country,” said Factory Artistic Director Ken Gass.

“The Playwrights Co-op was little more than an idea and a mimeograph machine back in the early seventies,” remembered fellow playwright Paul Le Doux. “And I can honestly say there isn’t a single aspect of its development that hasn’t benefited from the attention of Carol Bolt.”

“Dear Carol,” came a telegram from playwright Penn Kemp, “I can’t believe she’s gone, when her light still shines so brightly.”

It was at the memorial that I began to realize the full extent of Carol’s legacy. She was a mentor, a teacher, an educator, an artist who worked in many fields including radio, film, television and opera. She was a political activist, who put together a national organization for the benefit of all Canadian playwrights, said the voices, the letters, the memories, the tears. And I didn’t know, because I didn’t know Carol.

I knew the plays.

  • Red Emma, a remarkable feminist play about the American anarchist Emma Goldman.
  • Her famous One Night Stand, a thriller that explores sexual politics through the story of a man and a woman who meet one night in a bar. It went on to great commercial success and continues to be remounted at regular intervals.
  • Ice Time, her play about young Justine Blainey’s struggle to play hockey in a boy’s hockey league, won her a Chalmers Award.
  • And Famous, a controversial play for two women, was inspired by the atrocities of Paul Bernardo. I realized that I had only known Carol though her plays, and that was all I could ever know now.

I listened, and I cried a little. At our loss, and at mine. I had a feeling of missed opportunity. If I’d asked her more questions then, maybe I’d have more answers now. Why didn’t I get her to take me aside, like Polonius does Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, tell me the facts of life so I would know how to take what comes. I wished I’d asked that one question that would have made all the difference to my life: how did you do it without being labelled with the most silencing of adjectives a feminist is forced to endure: strident.

“A strident feminist,” someone says. Eyes roll and silence falls. Indeed, a strident feminist has become a symbol of injustice to many.

Carol was never strident. If anything, she tended to shun the limelight. I think she would have said that the limelight just makes you look green. Her plays were political, intelligent, biting and satirical; they starred women, they got produced and they won awards. So how did she survive?

When I came onto the scene some 15 years after Carol, government grants had been reduced to a trickle. The focus was fiscal, not political, due to budgetary constraints. The suggestion was that “a good one-woman show will travel a lot farther these days”. About that time, the Fraticelli Report came out, demonstrating that women were as poorly represented on Canadian stages as everywhere else on the Canadian landscape: roughly 90% of all directors, artistic directors and playwrights being produced in Canadian theatres were male.

At the conclusion of the service, I left the theatre wondering what it takes to be a woman playwright in this country. How do we get our message out there that things are not OK for women? How do we write about the politics of being a woman? How do we pass on a way of working, of enduring, so that future generations will endure and learn by endurance? How do we put the female perspective in the social fabric so that the voice of women can endure and the silencing cease?

Rattling home on the Bathurst streetcar, that uneasiness, that hole in my heart began to gnaw at me. I ought to do more, to have done more. But more what? More shouting into the wind? More years of politicking only to slide back again and again. It seemed to me that we’d had our kick at the can during the “feminist years” in Canadian theatre back in the eighties – back when race and colour and sexual orientation divided us. Many of us lost sight of the fact that being female might just be the only common ground we have.

I thought back to a women’s caucus meeting in the mid-1990s. One of an endless ribbon of gatherings that were held at Carol’s house, to raise money, to strategize, to connect. We’d been joking that we would become like the women in church basements making pinwheel sandwiches for charity teas, one floor down from where the important decisions were being made. Carol showed up at the next meeting with the largest, most elaborate platter ever seen, claiming that pinwheel sandwiches could and should be made by any and all who liked them. And we devoured them.

I got home, turned on the light over my desk and thought about Carol’s voice. I could hear her intuitively putting the collective first. I could see her entering a room and collectively embracing the warring factions. She spoke like a poet, like a dramatist; from her own perspective in the here and now. There she was, I thought, honouring the unities in every aspect of her life. With her ability to be so comprehensive in perspective, she could include her most entrenched opposition. She could get the most die-hard opponent to do what needed to be done. She saw no need to separate herself from the fullness of humanity. In the collective is our strength, and if they are all men, so be it.

What had always seemed a paradox in Carol now revealed itself to me: with this innate ability to be immersed in the collective and yet not lose sight of her individuality, she remained separate yet integral, demonstrating that each of us makes the whole more than the sum of its parts.

It was as if the magic of theatre had been revealed to me in the life of Carol Bolt. She seemed to be standing there beside me at my desk, teaching me, as she had done for years, by example.

“Do what we do in theatre,” I could hear her say. “Show don’t tell. Use a feather instead of a hammer. Subversion is in the work, and the hidden agenda is the real magic of any dramatic scene. No need for strident when one’s got subtext.”

Subtext, I thought, the fourth dimension, that transcendent space between audience and performer, the space that connects people.

Carol envisaged a national theatre inclusive of women. She embedded her feminist politics in her plays because they were the subtext of her life, a part of the social fabric. She lived by her work, and her work and her life were one.

I reached for my copy of Hamlet and looked for the advice Polonius gives Laertes: to thine own self be true.

It then occurred to me that perhaps that hole in my heart, that restless, uneasy feeling had to do with filling Carol’s shoes. Carol had moved on, and she had left a pair of shoes in the middle of the road. A big pair, waiting for someone to step into them. And my uneasiness was that they might be too big for me. How does one fill the void that someone as big as Carol left? One step at a time, she’d say.

I turned out the light on my desk and there it was, the light that Penn Kemp spoke about.

Carol’s mentoring and teaching live on with such luminosity that, in many ways, she’s not gone. There is a light at the end of the road, and Carol and all the other women who have walked it before her are holding it. It’s a beacon they hold out to us, and it’s calling for voice. Sometimes it’s strident, sometimes it’s reduced to a whisper in a low-budget, one-woman show, but it keeps calling, and we must call back. Because it’s a whole line of women, from the living to the dead, who link hands along the road and say, “look how far we’ve come.”

How do I help? It’s up to me. What remains to be done? Step into those shoes and find out. Maybe my feet will keep growing. If they do, I’ll put it down to the magic of theatre.

of interest

The Canadian Women Playwrights Conference occurred September, 2005.

Carol Bolt’s memory is honoured in a number of ways:

  • The Carol Bolt Reading Room at the Playwrights Guild of Canada, 54 Wolseley Street, second floor, Toronto, holds an extensive collection of Canadian and international plays.
  • The Women’s Caucus of the Playwrights Guild holds monthly fundraisers and play readings across the country which are named for Carol’s One Night Stand. Carol is honoured at each and every event. She continues to shine in the minds and hearts of future generations of Canadian playwrights, in the institution she was instrumental in founding, and in her works, gracing the stage with her encouraging words.
  • The Carol Bolt Award is a $1,000 prize awarded annually for the best Canadian script either published or produced. Donations to increase the amount of the award can be made to the Foundation for the Recognition of Excellence in Drama (FRED) at the Playwrights Guild of Canada, 54 Wolseley Street, second floor, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1A5
  • Carols Bolt’s papers are available at the National Archives of Canada, Carol Bolt Fonds, MG 31, D 89, Finding Aid No. 1038.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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