Jean Roberts was a pioneer of Canadian theatre who, although Scottish-born, led key institutions in the 1960s and 1970s to help establish an indigenous dramatic tradition devoted to local playwrights rather than foreign imports. Which may explain why she was also the stage director who, on one occasion, declined to bring Laurence Olivier to Canada.
Roberts, who had been in ill health for many years, died Dec. 12 at a hospital near her home in the south of France, where she had retired in the 1990s. She was 86, and suffered from heart and lung problems as well as arthritis.
In the days when English Canadian theatre largely consisted of touring productions from the U.S. and Britain, Roberts worked at two of the first professional theatres in the country: the Crest Theatre in Toronto and the Red Barn summer theatre in Jackson Point, Ont. She then moved to Ottawa where she established the theatre section of the National Arts Centre and ran it during its heyday in the 1970s.
Roberts studied in Belgium and at the University of Edinburgh before she began her career working as a scenic painter for the local theatre in her hometown of Perth. She joined what was then called the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (now the Royal Shakespeare Company) in 1949, working her way up from stage manager to assistant director. There she worked with some of the great names of British theatre – Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Peter Brook and Tyrone Guthrie – and met her partner Marigold Charlesworth.
In 1956, the couple immigrated to Canada looking for a place where they could direct their own productions. They lived in Calgary before they moved to Toronto where Roberts became the production manager at the Crest Theatre in 1959. Established in 1953, the Crest ran for 13 years, and was one of the earliest professional theatres in Canada, providing opportunities for local actors as well as the annual production of a Canadian play.
Roberts and Charlesworth also joined writer and actor William Whitehead at the Red Barn Theatre in 1959, helping to build a summer stock company that provided seasonal work for a growing Canadian acting community, as well as producing a few winter seasons in Toronto. (That theatre closed in 2010, after a devastating fire the year before.)
Roberts produced a winter theatre season at the Toronto Central Library in 1962, and in 1965, she and Charlesworth became co-artistic director of the Canadian Players, a company that eventually merged with the Crest Theatre to become Theatre Toronto.
Moving to Ottawa, she acted as consultant to the fledgling National Arts Centre, a Centennial project that finally opened its doors in 1969, and worked as a theatre officer at the Canada Council from 1967-71.
In 1971, she joined the NAC as director of the theatre section, which was a bilingual department in its first years, and began to put in place the program that would establish the Ottawa company as a lynch pin of the Canadian theatre scene. She stressed the importance of performing new Canadian plays, giving productions to John Coulter, James Reaney, Timothy Findley and Michael Cook.
In her book Art and Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre, Sarah Jennings writes that the NAC's ambitious and well-connected founder, Hamilton Southam, wanted Roberts to use her British theatre contacts to bring Olivier to perform in Ottawa but that she disagreed, arguing the money was better spent on Canadian talent. The idea was shelved.
Meanwhile, Roberts brought in theatre troupes from across Canada to perform at the NAC, helped craft a landmark, bilingual production of Coulter's Riel in 1975, built up the scenic shops and created both a young company for local high-school students and a touring company that performed plays for young audiences.
She also established a writers-in-residence program with Findley as the first incumbent; he completed Can you See Me Yet? during his tenure. She was known as a warm and humorous person who played mentor to many actors.
Soft-spoken but tough-minded, she was highly practical and knew her way around government bureaucracy, yet was idealistically committed to a national theatre.
"Jean Roberts made an enormous contribution to establishing the theatrical tradition in this country," said the centre's current artistic director of English theatre Jillian Keiley in a statement released by the NAC. "Her belief in telling Canadian stories on the national stage was so important – and it remains so today."
Roberts also laid the groundwork for the resident acting companies that were established after her departure in 1977. She then went to the CBC to develop and produce television drama there, but continued to teach, direct and produce plays as a freelancer.
Partly because of her health problems, she retired to France in the mid-1990s. Appointed to the Order of Canada in 2006, she was finally invested by Governor-General David Johnston in 2011, when a private ceremony was conducted at her home in Bagnols-sur-Forêt because she could not travel.
Roberts leaves Charlesworth, her partner of 60 years.