By SAHAR FATIMA
As Kamal Al-Solaylee worked to produce the first anthology of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, his siblings in Yemen continued struggling in dangerous conditions brought on by the Arab Spring.
“It was actually quite a welcome distraction to take my mind off the fact that my family is hiding from a civil war by looking into the minutia of Canadian theatre,” says the professor and undergraduate program director at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. Al-Solaylee – who was simultaneously working on a memoir about his life in the Middle East, to be released this spring – remembers the relief in thinking, “I’m going to have four hours where I’m not going to think about the survival of my family.”
Al-Solaylee did the bulk of his work on Tonight at the Tarragon during the spring of 2011, which coincided with rising violence in Yemen.
“I’m also Canadian and this is my culture as much as writing about the Arab Spring,” he says.
The book, composed of Al-Solaylee’s personal selection of plays produced and performed at the Tarragon, was launched in November at the Tarragon theatre itself. Jane Spidell and Tony Nappo from the original cast performed Serge Boucher’s Motel Hélène for the guests, one of six plays in the anthology. Others to have made the cut include: The Optimists, by Morwyn Brebner; Half Life, by John Mighton and It’s All True by Jason Sherman.
Al-Solaylee’s approach to the selections as a critic rather than strictly as an academic is what makes the book unique, says his editor Blake Sproule. “He’s seen pretty much every show on opening night for I don’t know how many years,” says Sproule, referring to Al-Solaylee’s time as a theatre critic for Eye Weekly and The Globe and Mail.
Indeed, Al-Solaylee believes an academic would have chosen plays representative of milestones in the history of Canadian theatre. “I didn’t feel the need to do that with the Tarragon. It’s so personal to the point where it’s entirely my selection,” he says.
Al-Solaylee’s selections carry a common theme of darkness. “They’re all very sad plays,” he says. “They explore themes of isolation, death and human disconnection. Even though I am a very cheerful and happy person, I’m also someone who fought depression for four years.” Having come out of depression, Al-Solaylee says he still has a melancholic side that is reflected in the plays he has chosen.
Rune Arlidge, by Michael Healy, was not generally well-received, but Al-Solaylee felt a personal connection to the play’s pessimistic view of relationships, and it thus made its way into his anthology.
“He isn’t just a reviewer,” notes Richard Rose, artistic director of the Tarragon. “He’s trying to look at material in a critical way that brings a depth of knowledge.” Rose adds that Al-Solaylee’s anthology gives a “sense of endurance and a sense of importance” to the Tarragon Theatre.
The decision to compile an anthology for the Tarragon was a “natural choice” for Al-Solaylee, who believes it is undoubtedly Canada’s national theatre. “People are passionate about the Tarragon,” he says. “It is a theatre that has produced an incredible amount of plays and the quality has consistently been there.”
The Tarragon is also the first theatre Al-Solaylee ever visited in Toronto. “I have very cunningly, slyly written myself into the history of the Tarragon theatre,” he said in a speech at the launch of the anthology. “This is my collection of the Tarragon.”