Sharon Mary (Chalmers) Pollock was a prolific playwright, actor, director, literary critic, and cultural activist whose politically charged dramas garnered both national and international acclaim. Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on 19 April 1936, she died in Calgary, Alberta on 22 April 2021. She was the first child of the esteemed physician and provincial MLA Everett Chalmers and Eloise (Bob) Chalmers, a registered nurse (an uncommonly prestigious position for a woman at the time). After the birth of Sharon’s brother, John (later changed to Peter) in 1937, Eloise left her job to raise her family. Mounting social pressures in combination with Everett’s busy lifestyle, continual absence, and extramarital affairs steadily fed Eloise’s alcoholism and depression, culminating in her death in 1954. The same year, Sharon graduated from King’s Hall School for Girls in the Eastern Townships of Québec and began studying at the University of New Brunswick. She dropped out in 1955 when she married Ross Pollock, a forestry student, and the couple moved to Toronto. After enduring several years of physical and emotional abuse from Ross, Sharon left the marriage in 1964, and moved back to Fredericton with her five children. The tumultuous years of Sharon’s life leading up to early adulthood appear to have strongly influenced the critical perceptions of claustrophobic family relationships and societal strictures that would come to colour her creative work.
Pollock began her theatre career as an actress. In 1966, she moved to Calgary, Alberta, with fellow actor Michael Ball, where she gave birth to her sixth child. That same year she won the Best Actress Award at the Dominion Drama Festival for her role in Ann Jellicoe’s The Knack. Despite her success, she felt she had “no voice” as an actor and began writing plays “out of a need to confirm that the work I was doing was important” (Zimmerman, “Towards” 36). Pollock professed that seeing a production of John Murrell’s Great Noise, Bright Light marked the first time she identified with a play that she felt was truthful to her own experience (Much 209); this compelled her to write her own plays in an effort to “personalize events that were just facts before” (Wallace 122). One of her first plays, A Compulsory Option (unpublished), won the Alberta Culture Playwriting Competition in 1972 and was produced the following year by the Vancouver New Play Centre. Commissioned by the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre-in-Education programme in 1974, Pollock wrote nine plays for children, including Star Child, The Happy Prince, and The Rose and the Nightingale, none of which were published. Wreck of the National Line [Car] (Calgary: Alberta Theatre Projects, 1977) and Prairie Dragons (Calgary: Quest Theatre, 1987) remain Pollock’s best-known children’s plays.
Pollock achieved her first significant triumph with Walsh (Theatre Calgary, 1973), a play based on the historical figure of Major James Walsh, a North West Mounted Policeman struggling with moral dilemmas. Granted military responsibility over Chief Sitting Bull and the Sioux people, who fled the United States to escape punishment for killing General Custer and his men at the Battle of Little Big Horn, Major Walsh finds himself torn between his respect for the Sioux and his allegiance to his country. Pollock’s scrupulous research showed itself in the play’s acute attention to historical records and deliberate acknowledgement of ambiguous or skewed details in these records, calling into question the very nature of historiography and historical truth. The play exposes the ineffectiveness of Eurocentric political policy and bureaucracy, as Walsh is ultimately unable to reconcile his responsibility to the British government with his personal moral responsibility. With its bold political statement and innovative staging techniques, Walsh firmly established Pollock as a leading playwright and formed the thematic foundations from which her subsequent plays would draw and develop.
Like Walsh, the Komagata Maru Incident (Vancouver Playhouse production: East Cultural Centre, 1976) is a historical drama that re-visions recorded history. Employing a satirical circus sideshow theme, the play recounts the story of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamer carrying 376 potential East Asian immigrants who, in 1914, were denied entry into Canada because of the blatant racial and social prejudice of government authorities. Inspector William Hopkinson, sent by the Canadian Immigration department to negotiate with the passengers, bears witness to the appalling and rapidly deteriorating living conditions they suffer while anchored and confined to the ship for two months, and is consequently forced to question his own ethical implication as well as that of the Canadian government. The play shows a retreat from the rather restricting documentary style of Walsh and an attempt to take a more humanizing, emotional approach to historical issues.
Pollock continued this effort with One Tiger to a Hill (Edmonton: Citadel Theatre, 1981), another historical drama, set in a maximum security prison in British Columbia in 1975. The protagonist, Everett Chalmers, is a lawyer who acts as a negotiator during a hostage-taking incident. A memory play in which the narrator speaks directly to the audience, One Tiger to a Hill incites the audience’s sympathy for the dehumanized prisoners, subverting the ingrained biases of western society.
After serving as a visiting lecturer at the University of Alberta in Edmonton from 1976–7, Pollock moved to Calgary, where she filled the position of Playwright-in-Residence with Alberta Theatre Projects (1977–9). During this time, she spent her summers as head of the Playwrights Colony at the Banff School of Fine Arts (1977–80). Soon after, Pollock was chosen as the Artist-in-Residence for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (1980–2). At this point in Pollock’s career, her plays transitioned from public to private issues, increasingly incorporating overtly autobiographical details while maintaining a strong political position. As Pollock insisted, “every play has a politic” (Wallace 122); her next great success, Blood Relations, affirmed this statement.
Her first play to assume an entirely female point of view, Blood Relations (Edmonton: Theatre Three, 1980) won Pollock a Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama in 1981. The play portrays the historical figure of Lizzie Borden, a Massachusetts spinster who was acquitted in 1892 of the brutal axe murders of her father and stepmother. Ten years after the incident, Miss Lizzie and her friend, the Actress, spend the afternoon playfully re-enacting the events leading up to the murders, with the Actress playing the role of Lizzie and Lizzie playing Bridget, the maid. As Lizzie directs her friend in playing the role, the events gradually unravel toward what the Actress and the audience expect will be a true account of what really happened. However, rather than uncovering the truth, the play-within-a-play reveals the unsettling reality that “all of us are capable of murder given the right situation” (qtd. in Wallace 123), ostensibly implicating the audience as it lays blame on society as a whole. Blood Relations points an accusing finger at the imprisoning roles into which society expects women to fit as well as the unfair expectations of families and social hierarchies, and speaks to the impossibility of truth in light of the inherent subjectivity of all experience.
Generations (Calgary: Alberta Theatre Projects, 1980) takes on the prairie setting characteristic of Pollock’s self-proclaimed home, Calgary, where she maintained a permanent residence since 1977. A departure from the historical drama genre, Generations is a naturalistic play in which the invoked landscape subsumes the characters trapped within it, so that the land effectively becomes a character in its own right. The Nurlins, a family of traditional farmers, must come to terms with the changing demands of society and their consequent inability to survive if they fail to adapt. Whiskey Six Cadenza (Theatre Calgary, 1983), a finalist for the 1983 Governor General’s Literary Award, also takes place in Alberta but focuses on Blairmore, a small mining town, during the prohibition era of 1919–20. Both plays address notions of individualism and free will in the face of the crushing demands of family and community.
After serving as a dramaturge and assistant artistic director for Theatre Calgary from 1982–3, its directors commissioned Pollock to write Doc (1984), which would become her most autobiographical play to date. Doc won Pollock her second Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama (1986). Pollock once again applied her memory play style to the story of Catherine, a writer in her mid-thirties who returns to her hometown for a visit with her father, an action that forces her to confront her unresolved past in the form of her childhood self. Haunted by the memories of her mentally unstable grandmother and alcoholic mother, both of whom committed suicide many years ago, Catherine seeks to absolve her neglectful father—a revered community hero who devoted his life to medicine and politics—of the blame for her mother’s untimely death. Ultimately, Catherine’s blame rests upon the patriarchal constructions of western society that confine women to suffocating prescribed roles. Following the feminist mandate to reject traditional methods of storytelling, the play deliberately deconstructs any sense of linear time as past and present play out together, constantly interacting with one another. For Catherine, just as for Pollock herself, “[her] past in New Brunswick is a ghost story” (qtd. in Hofsess 60) to which she can only belong through memory.
Notably, Theatre New Brunswick staged a production of Doc in 1986, exposing Pollock’s personal conflicts in the very city in which they took place, ten years after the actual inauguration of the Doctor Everett Chalmers Hospital (which is mentioned in the play). To further personalize the event, Pollock herself directed the play, but retitled it Family Trappings so as not to mislead the residents of Fredericton into expecting the play to glorify a well-known local hero. Despite its critical stance and controversial revelations, the play was generally well-received by Frederictonians, including Everett Chalmers himself, who publicly commended his daughter's accomplishment.
Exploring her personal past through Doc seems to have anticipated Pollock’s return to her hometown of Fredericton in 1988. After a brief stint as artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1988, she moved back to New Brunswick to take on the role of artistic director at Theatre New Brunswick for two years before ideological differences between Pollock and the board of directors prompted her abrupt resignation and return to Calgary in 1990.
Pollock continued to delve deeper into exploring private struggles with Getting It Straight (Winnipeg: International Women’s Festival, 1988), a very short and minimalistic play written for a single actor. Eme, an escaped mental patient hiding under the bleachers at a rodeo arena, performs a rambling stream-of-consciousness monologue, using the junk she finds on the ground to illustrate the dialogue she continues with herself. Grappling once again with issues of individualism squashed by the cold bureaucracy of institution and the adversity of subjugated women, Getting It Straight portrays Eme as a victim of the oppressive patriarchal constructions imposed upon her. Two of Pollock’s more recent plays, Moving Pictures (Calgary: Theatre Junction, 1999) and Angel’s Trumpet (Calgary: Theatre Junction, 2001), also focus on female protagonists who fail to escape their confining societal roles. Nell Shipman in Moving Pictures and Zelda Fitzgerald in Angel’s Trumpet are both fictionalized representations of well-known female artists. Through these plays, Pollock discovered a way of seamlessly combining her interest in historiography and notions of truth with her interest in women’s issues, lending her plays increasing complexity that signalled her continuing maturation as a playwright. As noted Pollock scholar Cynthia Zimmerman summarizes: “The majority of Pollock’s plays have questioned social evils—racism, social discrimination, the treatment of people in groups. With the family plays, […] evil is personal, one to one” (Playwriting Women 94). By exploring issues as vital and universal as these, Pollock’s plays will undoubtedly persist in their power to resonate with future audiences, despite the inevitable changes to our social frameworks.
Apart from her published plays discussed here, Pollock also wrote dozens of radio and television plays for CBC, directed well over twenty stage plays across Canada, and continued to act, even in several of her own plays, including Getting It Straight (Winnipeg: International Women’s Festival, 1988) and Moving Pictures (Edmonton: Timms Centre for the Arts, 2004). She received numerous awards in addition to her Governor General’s awards and nomination, including an ACTRA Nellie Award for National Radio Drama (Sweet Land of Liberty, 1979), a Golden Sheaf Television Award (The Person’s Case, 1981), an Alberta Achievement Award (1983), a Chalmers Canadian Play Award (Doc, 1984), a Canadian-Australian Literary Award (1987), a Japan Foundation Award (1995), and the Harry and Martha Cohen Award for sustained and significant contribution to Calgary theatre (1999). Pollock also received honorary degrees from the University of New Brunswick (1987), Queen’s University (1989), the University of Calgary (2004), and the University of Alberta (2005). Throughout her career, she showed unqualified support for alternative and emerging Canadian theatre, instructing and mentoring young playwrights and students in an effort to foster the growth and evolution of the theatre scene. Pollock co-founded Calgary’s Garry Theatre (1992–7) with her son, Kirk Campbell, transforming an old porn cinema in a downtrodden area of the city into a hot spot for the dramatic arts. Toward the end of her career, Pollock was elected president of the Alberta Playwrights Network (1998) and went on to become the organization’s playwright-in-residence and the director of the Playwright’s Lab (2006). In 2007, she was a finalist for the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Award. Her legacy is that of a passionate and progressive presence in the development of contemporary Canadian theatre.
Corinna Chong, Spring 2009
University of New Brunswick
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Pollock, Sharon. “Afterword.” Plays by Women: Volume Three. Ed. Michelene Wandor. London: Methuen, 1984. 123-4.
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---. “Canada’s Playwrights: Finding Their Place.” Canadian Theatre Review 32 (1982): 34-8. Rep. in Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings. 2nd ed. Ed. Don Rubin. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2004. 389-93.
---. “Dead or Alive? Feeling the Pulse of Canadian Theatre.” Theatrum 23 (1991): 12-13.
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---. “The Evolution of an Authentic Voice in Canadian Theatre.” Canadian Culture and Literature: A Taiwan Perspective. Ed. Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Leung Yiu-nam. Edmonton, AB: Research Institute for Comparative Literature, U of Alberta, 1998. 114-24.
---. Fair Liberty’s Call. Toronto, ON: Coach House Press, 1995.
---. "Getting it Straight." Heroines: Three Plays. Ed. Joyce Doolittle. Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press, 1992. 85-126.
---. “How Things Are.” The Fiddlehead 96 (1973): 81-4.
---. “‘It’s All Make Believe, Isn’t It?’ – Marilyn Monroe.” Instant Applause: 26 Very Short Complete Plays. Winnipeg, MB: Blizzard, 1994. 91-5.
---. The Komagata Maru Incident. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Co-op, 1978.
---. “The Making of Warriors.” Airborne: Radio Plays by Women. Ed. Ann Jansen. Winnipeg, MB: Blizzard, 1991. 99-132.
---. “Many Brave Spirits.” Theatre Memoirs: On the Occasion of the Canadian Theatre Conference. May 21-23. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Union of Canada, 1998. 13-17.
---. “A Memoir: Sierra Leone, 2003.” Sharon Pollock: Collected Works. Ed. Cynthia Zimmerman. Vol. 2. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Canada Press, 2006. 17-27. Rpt. of “Many Brave Spirits.” 1998.
---. “Playwright: Parasite or Symbiont.” Theatre and AutoBiography: Writing and Performing Lives in Theory and Practice. Ed. Sherrill Grace and Jerry Wasserman. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2006. 295-300.
---. Prairie Dragons. Playhouse: Six Fantasy Plays for Children. Ed. Joyce Doolittle. Northern Lights Books for Children. Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press, 1989. 100-24.
---. “Reflections” [originally “Canadian Women Playmakers: Tributes and Tribulations,” speech delivered to the 4th Annual Playwrights Guild of Canada Conference, May 2006]. Sharon Pollock: Collected Works. Ed. Cynthia Zimmerman. Vol. 3. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Canada Press, 2006. 15-24.
---. Saucy Jack. Winnipeg, MB: Blizzard, 1994.
---.Sharon Pollock: Collected Works. [Walsh (1973), The Komagata Maru Incident (1976), Wreck of the National Line (1978), Sweet Land of Liberty (1979), One Tiger to a Hill (1980), Generations (1980), Blood Relations (1980)]. Ed. Cynthia Zimmerman. Vol. 1. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Canada Press, 2005.
---. Sharon Pollock: Collected Works. [Whiskey Six Cadenza (1983), Doc (1984), Prairie Dragons (1987), Getting It Straight (1988), "It's All Make-Believe, Isn't It?" – Marilyn Monroe, Constance (1992), Saucy Jack (1993), Fair Liberty's Call (1993)]. Ed. Cynthia Zimmerman. Vol. 2. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Canada Press, 2006.
---. Sharon Pollock: Collected Works. [Death in the Family (1993), Moving Pictures (1999), End Dream (2000), Angel's Trumpet (2001), The Making of Warriors (2000 stage, 1991 radio), Kabloona Talk (2005), Man Out of Joint (2007)]. Ed. Cynthia Zimmerman. Vol. 3. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Canada Press, 2008.
---. Sharon Pollock: Three Plays. [Moving Pictures, End Dream, Angel’s Trumpet]. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Canada Press, 2003.
---. “Something in the Wind: Burning or Desire? Or the Smouldering Remains of One-Vital Canadian Theatre?” Rave Review: Alberta Playwrights’ Network Newsletter 2.5 (1990): 2-3.
---. Walsh. Talonplays. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1973.
---. Walsh. Rev. ed. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1983.
---. Wreck of the National Line Car. Toronto, ON: Playwrights Union of Canada, 1977.
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---. “Women Dramatists: Sharon Pollock and Judith Thompson.” Postcolonial English Drama: Commonwealth Drama Since 1960. Ed. Bruce King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 97-117.
Demers, Patricia, and Gary Kelly, eds. Sharon Pollock. Special issue of WWR: Women Writing and Reading Magazine 2.1 (2005). 1 Apr. 2009
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---. “Ironic Images: Sharon Pollock’s Stratford Productions.” Canadian Theatre Review 114 (2003): 21-5.
---. “Postcolonial Tragedy in the Crowsnest Pass: Two Rearview Reflections by Sharon Pollock and John Murrell.” Great Plains Quarterly 26.4 (2006): 235-44.
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---. “Towards a Better and Fairer World: An Interview with Sharon Pollock.” Canadian Theatre Review 69 (1991): 34-8.