Arts & Entertainment
2 min

A tribute to Toronto’s Tarragon

Critic Kamal Al-Solaylee launches anthology of seminal theatre's memorable works

Kamal Al-Solaylee makes one thing perfectly clear as we sit down to talk about his new book, Tonight at the Tarragon. The Toronto-based journalist and professor has never pretended to be objective.
“This is not a bird’s-eye view of the history of the Tarragon Theatre,” Al-Solaylee notes. “This is very much my take on things; I approached it like a curator.”
The idea for the anthology, in which Al-Solaylee discusses six plays produced at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, came as he considered the far-reaching influence the Tarragon has had on the Canadian theatrical canon.
“They really are our national theatre,” he says. “They are the home of the Canadian playwright. [Globe and Mail journalist] Kate Taylor has said they gave birth to Canadian theatre. I think she’s right.”
The book has arrived just in time for the Tarragon’s 40th birthday. Al-Solaylee, who wrote theatre criticism for Eye Weekly and The Globe and Mail before becoming a professor in the Ryerson journalism department, says the book was a two-year journey. “I read more than 140 plays. Given the quality of the work and Tarragon’s reputation, I was surprised that a book of this sort hadn’t been done before. Like the Royal Court Theatre in London or the Public Theatre in New York, they have fostered so much important talent.”
Al-Solaylee concedes that his selection is “idiosyncratic,” adding, “someone suggested I should really just call the book My Tarragon.” He focuses on the years he worked as a theatre critic, from 1998 to 2005.
“I chose plays that spoke to me personally.”
This includes Half Life, by John Mighton; It’s All True, by Jason Sherman; and Motel Hélène, by Serge Boucher.
Al-Solaylee reflects on his choices in the introduction.
“I was happy that I could include Serge Boucher’s play. He is largely unknown outside of Quebec, so it’s great to be able to draw attention to him,” he writes. “As well, Michael Healey’s play Rune Arlidge didn’t do particularly well when it came out. It was badly reviewed by almost everyone else, but I liked it. This gave me the opportunity to include low-key plays that I adored. And this will give them a new home and hopefully a new life.”
Al-Solaylee says his connection to the theatre has everything to do with his sexual orientation. “I think it’s something we inherit, from one generation to another. There are so many stereotypes of the theatre queen. I think it’s a proud part of our heritage and our legacy. The theatre is an obvious place for queer themes, as theatre can be done on a low budget, as opposed to film and TV, which cost so much more and are more heavily regulated. It means theatre is often a place for radical self-expression.”
Tonight at the Tarragon became important for other personal reasons. As Al-Solaylee was researching the book, the Arab Spring was unfolding, including tremendous political uncertainty and violence in Yemen, the country where his entire immediate and extended family lives.
“I was so worried about the suffering of my family through all of this. It was extremely difficult to be removed from that while it was going on, to often not know what was happening to my sister or other family members. Some couldn’t go home because of snipers in their neighbourhood. The book was so removed from that, and that meant researching it and putting it together was a very therapeutic process.”
The Deets:

Tonight at the Tarragon launches Friday, Nov 25, 5:30-7:30pm 
Tarragon Theatre Rehearsal Hall
30 Bridgman Ave
Al-Solaylee will be on hand to sign copies
Actress Jane Spidell will perform