Theatres across Toronto left a seat reserved this weekend in honour of theatre critic Jon Kaplan, who passed away from cancer on April 28, 2017. He is survived by his husband Don Cole.
Kaplan was best known as the senior theatre critic for Now magazine, where he wrote for 35 years, using his position at the alternative weekly to tirelessly boost the local arts scene. He was also a former contributor to Xtra and its predecessor, The Body Politic.
Kaplan was a champion of emerging and independent artists. He attended and reviewed hundreds of shows every year in Toronto and maintained an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s theatre scene.
Facebook was filled over the weekend with reminiscences from Toronto artists who recalled the many ways Kaplan supported their work. Many artists cited a positive review from Kaplan — a note of encouragement, or even tips on how to engage other media — as helping kick off successful careers.
Many of Toronto’s queer artists were among those who found particular support from Kaplan’s work.
Alistair Newton, artistic director at Ecce Homo theatre company, says Kaplan’s contributions to the community are immeasurable.
“It is likely impossible to count the number of Toronto theatre artists — spanning three generations at least — who owe a piece of their existence to the visibility and encouragement that Jon’s journalistic eye afforded,” Newton says. “Jon’s enthusiasm, warmth and tireless boosterism was a bright-light that provided continuity to so many of our artistic lives, and things will be noticeably dimmer now that that light has blinked-out.”
Brendan Healy, former artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, says that Kaplan’s generosity helped build a community around the theatre in Toronto.
“He gave to the theatre community in so many ways,” Healy says. “He was somewhat discreet about it. For example, he was a big supporter of the queer youth arts program at Buddies but never made a fuss about it.”
Performance artist Ryan Graham Hinds, most recently seen in lemonTree creations’ MSM [Men Seeking Men], says Kaplan’s encouragement of younger artists was one of the things most beloved about him.
“Jon really took an interest in people at the beginning of their careers, even going to college or university productions. He took pride in following a career throughout the years, and would remember you or your show despite the unreal amount of theatre he saw,” Hinds says. “His writing was always thoughtful and he didn’t think in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ If he didn’t like a show, he’d still be respectful of the time and work that went into the piece.”
LemonTree artistic producer Indrit Kasapi agrees.
“When you start out and no one in the theatre world knows you, having his attention provided an incredible amount of validation and confidence to keep going. I will never forget how attentive he was with the words he chose when speaking to us,” he says. “Moreover, and on a personal level, he became quickly a queer elder I could look up to. He will be greatly missed.”