Calgary

An 'uncommon brilliance': Acclaimed Calgary playwright Sharon Pollock dies at 85

Pollock, who twice won the Governor General's Award for Drama for her plays Blood Relations and Doc, died on Friday after battling colon cancer. The former artistic director of Theatre Calgary was 85.

Writer of Blood Relations, Doc won the Governor General's Award for Drama twice

Sharon Pollock, an acclaimed Calgary playwright, actor and director, died Friday at the age of 85. (Submitted by Darryl Pollock)

At one point, acclaimed Calgary playwright Sharon Pollock's business cards prominently featured the image of a dragon.

What did that symbolize? If you ask her eldest daughter, Jennifer, dragons have tough, scaly exteriors with hidden parts you might not ever get to know. But in some depictions, dragons are also friendly, loyal and always otherworldly — and, of course, dragons can fly.

Pollock, who twice won the Governor General's Award for Drama for her plays Blood Relations and Doc, died on Friday after battling colon cancer. The former artistic director of Theatre Calgary was 85.

In a statement, Theatre Calgary called Pollock a "giant" and a "fierce, bold and groundbreaking artist" whose work helped shape the Canadian landscape. 

"Sharon will have a lasting impression on theatre in general. Specifically, everything that she stood for as an artist, as a woman, as a feminist, and as a human being comes through in her work," current Theatre Calgary artistic director Stafford Arima told CBC News. "Her voice will resonate for generations to come."

A ferocious reader — she used to read one or two books a day, Jennifer said — Pollock was fascinated by murder mysteries.

Many of her plays were of the genre, including one of her most famous, Blood Relations. Based on the story of Lizzie Borden, the play earned Pollock her first Governor General's Award in 1981.

She earned her second Governor General's Award in 1986 for Doc, a semi-autobiographical play that traces the interactions in a dysfunctional family. 

A love for people and animals

Kim Rich-Kuny said she first met Pollock when she was running the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in 1977. As a shy, quiet child, Rich-Kuny was awestruck when she was brought to the family home with Pollock's son, Kirk. Rich-Kuny was married to Kirk for 14 years.

The house was filled with actors, directors, producers and playwrights, as well as cats, dogs and birds. But Pollock, seeing Rich-Kuny's trepidation, sat down and talked with the 17-year-old and made her feel like she mattered.

"She was surrounded by people and having huge conversations," Rich-Kuny said. "And I come in and she just drops everything.

"She'll look you in the eye, and she's truly, truly interested in what you have to say."

Kim Rich-Kuny, left, was married to Pollock's son, Kirk, for 14 years. She said Pollock always treated her with love, kindness and respect. (Submitted by Kim Rich-Kuny)

The house was certainly full of animals. Jennifer said her mom would rescue cats, and some nontraditional pets eventually found their way to live in the family home.

"There was a squirrel that lived in the house for some time. My mom had a rat," she said. "I mean, the rat stories are very famous."

As Jennifer tells it, Pollock was doing a play in Nova Scotia and for some reason, she was given a rat. Pollock promptly named Ratty.

At the end of the production, Pollock would bring the rat with her to the theatre and put it inside her blouse. As the story goes, actors were terrified to see a rat tail or a rat head occasionally flick out of Pollock's clothing. 

Eventually, after much pleading from the cast, Pollock agreed not to bring the rat to production any longer. 

'Like magic'

Jamie Dunsdon, artistic director with Calgary's Verb Theatre, said she very nervously called Pollock in 2010 to ask her if she would consider acting in a full-length, one-woman musical called Marg Szkaluba (Pissy's Wife).

Pollock, then 74, said yes immediately. On opening night, she had the play word perfect — but ran into a glitch in the middle of a monologue in act one.

"She accidentally jumped to a monologue in act two, because the line she was supposed to say was very similar to the one in act two," she said. "She realized immediately what she had done — that she had skipped more than half the play."

Instead of going back to act one and correcting the mistake, she went through the rest of the play and pieced in the entire show in bits and pieces, putting the play back together in a different order.

"By the end of it, and I don't think the audience had a clue what had happened, she had done the entire show in a different order, and the story made sense, and it was still moving and meaningful," she said. "It was like magic.

"It speaks to her mastery of the craft, and how audiences experience stories on stage live. And I'll never forget it."

Pollock is pictured performing in her play Blood Relations at Theatre Calgary in 1981. The play, which is based on the story of Lizzie Borden, earned her a Governor General's Award for Drama. (Submitted by Theatre Calgary)

Allan Boss, a former arts and entertainment producer with CBC, called Pollock a "major force" in Canadian theatre. "I have to draw a deep breath every time I think of her, because she was such a figure in Canadian theatre," he said. 

"She was an amazingly strong writer who wrote so many great plays, including a whole pile of radio plays for CBC."

Final memories

A few months ago, Jennifer and her sisters were gathered around their mother, concerned about what she wanted to do near the end of her life. Pollock kept repeating her final wish: she said she just wanted to go off into the woods and die.

"'Mom, I want to help you, but this doesn't seem like a plan that I can get behind,'" Jennifer told her mom at the time, crying.

Her sisters left to go into the kitchen, leaving Jennifer with her mom. The mood was tense.

After about a minute, Pollock rolled her eyes and spoke up.

"It's a metaphor," she said. Jennifer burst out laughing, later describing that moment as representative of her mother's "uncommon brilliance."

Pollock's final play for Theatre Calgary was called Blow Wind High Water, which premiered in 2017. (Submitted by Theatre Calgary)

Pollock held the care of animals as one of her core values throughout her life, one that her children and grandchildren hope to carry on as part of her legacy.

At the end of her life, Pollock had just one dog, named Putty. Jennifer said Putty became extremely anxious after Pollock died.

Putty was then brought to Pollock's bedside and was lifted onto the bed so he could lick her face. Then, Jennifer said, he sat on the bottom of the bed — and when they took him down from the bed, he wasn't anxious anymore.

With files from Russell Bowers

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