Shirley Barrie, playwright and co-founder of the Wakefield Tricycle Company and Tricycle Theatre in London, has passed away. Her range and scope of work is amazing; her quirky personality made her the most fun to hang out with, whether it was attending a gallery opening or spending time with close friends and family.
I have known Shirley for twenty years; her son Robin was my closest friend during our undergraduate years at the University of Toronto. For many years, we spent dinners and afternoon teas and evenings with Shirley and her husband Ken Chubb, director, producer, and like Shirley, a force of intellect and wit. We would talk about art, literature, and many other things my tiny brain could barely comprehend. Shirley and Ken were like no other parents I knew or knew of, in my sheltered immigrant existence. They married young and almost immediately moved away from their close-knit families to forge their own identities in a new country, much like my own parents had. But there, the similarity ends.
Shirley and Ken moved to England and founded the Wakefield Tricycle Company in 1972; it performed over 60 plays including Shirley’s own work. After securing a building on Kilburn High Road, they opened the Tricycle Theatre in 1980; Shirley was Associate Director until 1984, during which time she wrote 10 plays. She returned to Canada in 1984 and, with Lib Spry, founded Straight Stitching Productions, which produced plays until 2003. Her play Carrying the Calf won a Chalmers Award and Dora Award, and has been published in several compilations, as has Straight Stitching. Her work writing for young audiences was put to good use in co-editing a book for middle-school students: Prepare to Embark: Six Theatrical Voyages for Young Audiences (Playwrights Canada Press, 2002). Revelation, a play she wrote in 2002, won two playwriting competitions and was produced several times. In 2006-2007, she travelled with Ken to South Africa to work as the senior story editor on the TV series Jozi-H, a 13-part hospital drama shown on CBC. Her play Beautiful Lady, Tell Me…had a successful run at the 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, Ont. (2007). Her latest play was Marguerite, based on the story of a young woman who was abandoned on a deserted island on the voyage to Canada with the Sieur de Roberval and Jacques Cartier. It played at the Alumnae Theatre in 2015.
It was an absolute pleasure being a small part of Shirley’s life and sharing her enthusiasm, recipes, jokes, and alternative medicine treatments for allergy symptoms. Shirley and Ken socialized regularly with other writers, artists, playwrights, and actors, spanning the ages of twenty to ninety. Conversations with these old friends, many of whom had known the duo for decades, were invariably fascinating and revealed what a well-travelled, well-read and yet unpretentious person Shirley was. She frequently attended shows, concerts, art openings, and any manner of events linked to art and artists; her house boasted a wealth of print, video, and photographic, and artistic evidence of her trade. Prints by artist friends, posters advertising plays performed at the Tricycle, amazing portraits of a smiling Shirley at the Tricycle and Ken as a young director with a halo of cigarette smoke around his head: these were all part of the charm. As the Executive Director of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour for 17 years, Shirley proudly displayed the work of some of Canada’s top artists on her walls. She had a knack for making and keeping friends, and enjoyed time spent with her close-knit extended family in southern Ontario, and her children and grandchild in Toronto.
Shirley leaves an impressive legacy. She was nominated for Best Toronto Playwright in NOW Magazine’s People’s Choice Awards (2015), and that year she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Playwrights Guild of Canada, an organization she served as president from 2011-2015. The Tricycle Theatre has developed a reputation in cutting-edge theater, though this month it garnered publicity as it was renamed The Kiln Theatre after extensive refurbishment. Queen Marie, Shirley’s play about comic actress Marie Dressler, initially played at the 4th Line Theatre in 2012 and is closing the Alumnae Theatre’s 100th season this month. It opened the night before the death of its playwright.