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A salute to Iris Turcott

Celebrating an influential life well-lived
2701 Pinnacle Theatre sup

Certain people are larger than life and leave such a large imprint, it is impossible to resist the urge to tell their story. Such was the case for Matt MacKenzie who was with the legendary Iris Turcott when she died of cancer in September 2016. 

Not terribly well-known to western Canadian theatre audiences, Turcott was a beautiful, immensely talented and complicated dramaturge who guided and convinced several generations of Canadian playwrights that theatrical storytelling was essential and deeply important. 

“Iris was very animated. She smoked heavily and could swear like no one else. She worked at helping Canadian playwrights develop their work. She was a force of nature,” said MacKenzie. 

As artistic producer of Punctate Theatre, he paired up with Daniel MacIvor, one of North America’s most accomplished playwrights and a close friend of Turcott’s. The duo presents “The Situation We Find Ourselves In Is This”, a tribute to the late dramaturge. It is a free, one-night only live event produced Saturday, Jan. 30, on YouTube. 

MacKenzie recalls being by Turcott’s side the night she died.

“I was lighting cigarettes for her. She started talking about some of the playwrights she worked with, and we travelled through the cosmos together. She mentioned leading Canadian playwrights such as Daniel MacIvor, Ronnie Burkett, Judith Thompson, Colleen Murphy, Colleen Wagner, Brad Fraser.”

Although well acquainted with the luminaries of Canadian theatre, Turcott loved nothing more than raw talent. In fact, MacKenzie remembers meeting his mentor while still a student at National Theatre School and how this inspirational woman was brought on as a play developer.

She helped him polish the award-winning SIA, a story about NIcholas, a 20-something Canadian idealist who volunteers in a refugee settlement in Ghana during the 90s Liberian civil war. Taken hostage by Abraham, a Liberian man who befriends, Nicholas shifts from idealism to desperation when he realizes he’s being used as a pawn to stop a war crimes trial. 

Prior to meeting Turcott, MacKenzie had travelled to these war-torn areas and written numerous drafts for SIA over several years.

“I didn’t have the capacity to do it right. I needed to do it authentically. She didn’t let me chase my tail and get too precious about it.” 

He believes Turcott had an incredible gift for sensitivity and a natural intuition on how to assist playwrights. 

“She was incredibly straightforward and honest. But she cared about people. She had this mind-meld. She could enter the world they (playwrights) created and dance with them.” 

As a friend, MacKenzie spent the last two weeks of Turcott’s life at her home caring for her, taking her to doctor’s appointments and doing all the domestic things one does at the end of life. 

“We talked a couple months earlier about having tests done. If anything was bad, I said, ‘I’ll come and be with you’ not thinking she’d take me up on it.” 

But while the young playwright was in Banff climbing a mountain, she telephoned him and started the conversation saying, “The situation we find ourselves in is this,” the title of the MacKenzie-MacIvor production. 

Turcott was a very private individual and few people knew of her passing. MacKenzie initially performed a workshop at Toronto Theatre Centre to an audience of family, friends and colleagues. 

“It was important for me to pass on what an extraordinary woman she was and how she touched so many. There are some extraordinary people you never hear about. They work in a specific niche, behind the scenes and have an incredible impact and she was one.” 

Turcott was an important person in the lives of both MacKenzie and MacIvor in different ways. The two playwrights met in Toronto while MacKenzie was going through a dry spell financially and was hired to walk MacIvor’s dog. 

Today MacIvor is Cape Breton University’s artist-in-residence. As the play’s director he Zooms every week and chats with MacKenzie in Edmonton rehearsing his role as the sole actor of Turcott’s tribute.  

“We’re co-creating online. It’s often within the medium and we’ve gotten into interesting conversations around Iris, Canadian theatre and what dramaturgy is,” MacKenzie noted. 

Moving, uplifting, funny or potentially messy. There are any number of adjectives to describe her life and she would have embraced each one. 

To view the 45-minute show visit https://youtu.be/0Bdgnyhipe!