Bill Glassco

Champion of new writers in the Canadian theatre
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The Independent Online

Bill Glassco was an Anglophile Canadian who championed new Canadian writers at all the theatres he directed, in a professional career of over 30 years.

William Grant Glassco, theatre director: born Quebec 10 August 1935; Artistic Director, Tarragon Theatre, Toronto 1971-82; OC 1983; Artistic Director, CentreStage 1985-87, CanStage 1987--91; Artistic Director, Montreal Young Company 1999-2004; married 1961 Jane Gordon (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Toronto 13 September 2004.

Bill Glassco was an Anglophile Canadian who championed new Canadian writers at all the theatres he directed, in a professional career of over 30 years.

He translated and staged seven English premieres of the works of the Quebecois Michel Tremblay as well as first productions of the works of many Anglophone playwrights. Most of these were presented at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, which Glassco founded in 1971 and which rapidly became Canada's leading promoter of new writing.

Born in 1935 in Quebec City, "in the purple of commerce" of an English-speaking family, Bill Glassco was able to take time to choose his career. England and English literature formed an important strand in his make-up. He read English at Worcester College, Oxford, from 1957 to 1959, having acquired his first degree at Princeton University. At Oxford he concentrated his extra-curricular energies on the Worcester Buskins, rather than on any university dramatic society, always ready to sit down at the piano without any music (which he said he could not read) and effortlessly play or compose anything.

Back in Canada, he avoided a career in commerce where his elder brother Richard was successful, and taught, perhaps less than enthusiastically, at Victoria College while attaining his PhD on the Tudor poet John Skelton at the University of Toronto in 1966.

Glassco soon escaped to New York University, with wife and two children, to study acting and directing for a Master of Fine Arts gained in 1969. Then two years later, having criss-crossed Canada as a guest director, he started, with his wife Jane, the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto. As its artistic director he directed his own translations of Michel Tremblay plays, as well as new works by David Freeman, Judith Thompson, George F. Walker and David French.

Like any prominent Canadian stage director, he directed Shakespeare at Stratford, Shaw at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Congreve in Toronto and Sondheim in Ottawa, but he was happiest with new writers who excited him. He brought this excitement to the Donmar Theatre, London, in 1986 with Tremblay's Albertine, in Five Times, and to the Glasgow Mayfest in 1989 with another Tremblay play, The Real World?

From 1985 Glassco was artistic director of CentreStage, Toronto, and then of the Canadian Stage Company (known as CanStage) which formed out of the merger of CentreStage with the Toronto Free Theatre in 1987. Brought up in Quebec, Glassco latterly was able to repay to French-speaking Canada a debt of honour by creating in 1999 in Montreal a company of young actors drawn from both the English- and French-speaking communities. These actors had trained together at Canada's National Theatre School in Montreal but like previous generations would have drifted apart had it not been for his initiative.

Diagnosed with cancer early in 2003, he was determined to enjoy the life that remained. In the winter he visited Europe and India, as well as most of Canada. In summer he held court at his magical 19th-century timber villa in Tadoussac on the St Lawrence river - all Chekhov, piano playing, seriously cold swimming and apparently unending weekend parties of writers, actors, grandchildren and friends from all his milieux. Finally, he took up "piano bar", cutting three CDs, the last one a recording of less well-known Gershwin, with songs sung by his daughter Briony, who has followed her father into the theatre.

Iain Mackintosh