- Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock
Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock is a work of prodigious, rigorous scholarship, and yet an engaging read. Sherrill Grace's biography follows the life and career of Sharon Pollock, the prolific and still-producing Canadian playwright - arguably Canada's most important playwright. Believing that the work of an artist is best appreciated in relation to her situation, her milieu, and her mind, Grace fully situates her subject in the social, geographical, and historical context of her times - a context that includes the story of the beginnings, development, and flowering of contemporary Canadian theatre from the mid-1960s to the present. Grace weaves into this complicated mix the awareness of her own role as the biographer who is observing, interpreting, selecting, and editing.
'A serious maker of theatre' since the mid-sixties, Sharon Pollock has worked tirelessly offstage, onstage, backstage, and front of house as actor, director, playwright, mentor, artistic director, outspoken advocate, and challenger. Now in her seventies, author of an impressive canon of plays, winner of numerous awards, including two Governor Generals, Pollock is honoured again with the publication of Grace's splendid biography, which appears at the same time as the three-volume Sharon Pollock: Collected Works (2005, 2006, 2008).
Making Theatre is divided into three parts: part 1 on the formative years, part 2 the seventies and eighties, and part 3 the nineties to the present. Throughout Grace holds to her stated intent to focus on the work and keep 'private details . . . private, unless they in some way illuminate a play or a public decision made by Pollock herself.' It is in the section on Pollock's formative years that Grace locates the source for what later become the familiar situations, setups, and significant tropes in Pollock's canon. Pollock's painful confusions from childhood seem to have shaped a need to pursue certain issues - issues that were augmented by an abusive first marriage (to Ross Pollock). At the core is the dysfunctional Chalmers family dynamic: the famous charismatic workaholic doctor, the talented, defeated alcoholic mother who commits suicide, the conflict and guilt for the sensitive teenage daughter. Many Pollock plays include the trope of the struggle with authority; the cost of rebellion or surrender; the warring truths lodged in one personality; how guilt works over the long haul and the dark question that haunts many artists, 'Was it worth it?' (a question that the character Catherine asks her doctor father in Doc). Also from childhood, according to the excellent interview with Kathleen Flaherty, is the persistent awareness of the experiential gap, 'to know what kind of TRUTH was behind all of this and yet see how the outer world viewed, for example, my family.' Here [End Page 536] too, perhaps, the wellspring for the continuing preoccupation with ethics and the kind of moral dilemmas that underlie the political issues at the heart of her plays.
Parts 2 and 3 discuss the stages in Pollock's career and deliver indepth studies of her plays, most especially her best-known ones such as Blood Relations, Doc, and Fair Liberty's Call. Discussion includes the creative instigation, thematic interpretations, details of the production process, and review comments, including some from reviews of different productions. I particularly enjoyed the section on One Tiger to a Hill (1980) because the first production was deemed a 'calamity,' but the Stratford remount (1990, directed by John Wood) was highly successful. It was fascinating to read about the rewrites and revisioning, which, apparently, made all the difference.
Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock opens with Pollock's character Nell Shipman facing her younger selves. From that opening Grace goes on to provide so much about the writing life (which is more than the story of just one life), the special challenges for a woman artist in this country, the politics of theatre, and the dynamics of production. Grace has brilliantly intertwined the artist and her work, her work and her cultural milieu, and her milieu and the larger story of Canadian theatre. Was the effort worth...