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David French wrote his first script, Beckons the Dark River, when he was 23. He sold it to CBC television for $400. He continued to write for the CBC until the summer of 1971, when he wrote a one-act script which he knew was intended for the stage almost as soon as he began writing it. That script, originally titled The Keepers of the House, would change Canadian theatre forever.
Later that year, while watching a pay-what-you-can matinee of Creeps, the first play at the new Tarragon Theatre, he decided that the man who directed it should direct his script. French didn’t realize it at the time, but Tarragon co-founder Jane Glassco was the woman in the box office whom he asked for the home phone number of its artistic director, Bill Glassco. She agreed – and even let him use the phone. “Mr. Glassco, you don’t know me. My name is David French and I’ve written a play… would you read it?”
The two men met and discussed the play. As French told the story, Glassco said, “I like the play, but I don’t think you’ve realized the full potential in it.” The young playwright swore and stormed out of the theatre, but Glassco chased him down. “Let’s talk,” Glassco said. “I am your friend, not your enemy.” With input from Glassco, French expanded the manuscript, which became the two-act play Leaving Home. Bill Glassco remained a friend and over the next thirty years directed the premiere of all David French’s plays, all but three at the Tarragon Theatre.
As Urjo Kareda, Tarragon Theatre Artistic Director from 1982 to 2001, wrote:
On the evening of May 16, 1972, almost thirty years ago, I came to Tarragon as part of my job as drama critic for The Toronto Star. It was near the end of the theatre’s first-ever season, and Bill Glassco, the founding artistic director, had programmed a first stage play by a young Newfoundland-born writer who had grown up in Toronto. The playwright was David French and the play was Leaving Home. The impact of that evening would be impossible to forget. Ever. Leaving Home was about the Mercer family, also Newfoundlanders relocated to Toronto, but David French’s skill was such that it was also a play about all our families. The play’s power and its heart, both thrillingly brought to life in Bill’s production, knocked all of us out of our seats. Leaving Home was the play and the evening – I’ve always believed – that put Tarragon Theatre onto the map. And it soon became clear that this young writer was not yet finished with the Mercer family.
(from the Tarragon Theatre’s study guide for Soldiers’ Heart, the last play written about the Mercer family)
Tarragon Theatre was founded to nurture new playwrights and Bill Glassco did just that with David French: he chose to include one of his plays in seven of the eleven years he ran the theatre. Glassco continued advancing French’s writing after leaving the Tarragon, remounting the hit Jitters in his first season upon becoming Artistic Director of Centre Stage, then Toronto’s largest theatre company. In 1988 that company merged with the smaller Toronto Free Theatre to become the Canadian Stage Company. It was here that Glassco directed the premieres of French’s 1949 and Silver Dagger.
In more recent years, three experiences with revival productions were particularly close to David French’s heart, according to his partner Glenda MacFarlane. Soulpepper Theatre championed his work with four critically acclaimed productions directed by Ted Dykstra – Leaving Home (2007), Salt-Water Moon (2008), Of the Fields, Lately (2009) and Jitters (2010) – demonstrating to the playwright that his plays had indeed become classics. French attended all the rehearsals for the Soulpepper productions.
In 2007, David French directed a production of Salt-Water Moon at the Charlottetown Festival in PEI. This was the only occasion in his long career that he ever directed his own work.
And in the summer of 2009, Theatre Newfoundland Labrador produced all five of the Mercer plays in a single season – the only theatre ever to have done so – as part of their Gros Morne Theatre Festival in Cow Head, NL. Many of the same actors appeared in multiple plays, which were performed concurrently throughout the summer.