On September 22, 2016, my friend and mentor Iris Turcott – a giant of our profession – died, leaving a prominent hole in my heart, which I imagine is about the size of the small blue ashtray that she used to keep on the blue harvest table in her living room in Toronto, where she helped to shape the Canadian theatrical landscape, and also shape me. Since she died, a lot of tears have been shed, and we held a beautiful memorial service in Toronto where the breadth and depth of her impact in Canadian theatre was apparent in the list of speakers and performers: John Alcorn, Leslie Arden, Ronnie Burkett, Adam Pettle, Anusree Roy, and Judith Thompson, to name just a few. Over these past few weeks a rich portrait has emerged which made clear just how rich, complex, and dynamic Iris’s life was and although she’s gone now, through her impact and her work, she lives on.
Like many in our profession, I began my journey as a dramaturg under the guidance of Mark Bly. First as his student and then later as his assistant at the Kennedy Center New Play Dramaturgy Intensive, I had what felt like a compressed MFA, immersed in the history, technique, art, and craft of dramaturgy. Later, when I went to graduate school at York University in Toronto, I emailed Iris out of the blue to ask to be her intern. The interview is not something I’ll ever forget: almost immediately she took me out to the fire escape at Factory Theatre and asked if I smoked. I used to, I said, but I quit. Well, you’re unquit now, and the next thing I knew, a lit menthol was in my hands. I’m not interviewing you, she said, you’re interviewing me. When I told her I was under Mark’s guidance, she looked at me and said: “So you already know what you’re doing – why do you want to be a fucking intern?” Thinking back on it now, I wish I could remember exactly what I said, but whatever it was, it was enough for her to take me on. What followed were four of the most important years of mentorship of my life, and from that our relationship grew into a meaningful friendship.
I know now that over the years of our friendship she taught me to be a better dramaturg by teaching me how to be a more present and honest person. Watching Iris read a new play was watching someone feel her way through a world; she worked intuitively and with the confidence of someone whose massive intellect was matched by her vibrant imagination. From her I learned that the precondition for complete honesty was respect rooted in love. She had a talent for telling a writer that all of Act III was garbage and that they were an asshole and needed to make it better in a way that uplifted rather than destroyed them. She had little patience for the gentle questioning that has become a hallmark of what we do. Instead, she’d lay it all out on the table for a writer to see, swear like a sailor, light a cigarette, and smile when the important thing landed. She had excruciatingly high standards and a personality that made people want to meet them. She was one of a kind – a radical who cared about beauty and truth and built her life around helping others achieve it.
She certainly helped me. I work in her office now – I could spend 10 years here and it will always be her office to me – and I think about her so often that it feels as though she’s still here. Maybe she is. We shared a mutual distrust of sentimentality, but somehow it still feels right to say: you’re with me every time I read something and think, this is a matter of life and death. This matters. Beauty matters. Truth matters. So make it happen, asshole.
~ Matt McGeachy
p.s. Please consider a donation to the Iris Turcott Award at York University, to help support training early career dramaturgs.