My Friend, Janet Wright

Extraordinary spirit.

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What a spirit. What a force. What a unique individual.

For those who knew Janet Wright, or saw her on stage, on film, or on TV, she was the real deal. Perhaps that is a rather simplistic way to describe such an extraordinary person; she defined what it was to be a working professional in Canadian theatre and television during the last 50 years.

Janet was born in England and spent her formative years in Saskatoon. Although her parents were not in the arts, Janet and her siblings (Susan, John, and Anne) all started their careers in theatre. Janet’s first appearance at the Arts Club Theatre on Seymour Street (the Arts Club’s original home) was in a 1968 production of The Odd Couple. She played one of the Pigeon sisters at the age of 23.

My first encounter with Janet was in 1973, when she portrayed the blowsy April in Lanford Wilson’s The Hot I Baltimore. Her sister was also in the cast, as was Jackson Davies. We were all young then; we reveled in presenting an incredible script that electrified the intimate 200-seat Seymour Street stage and caused Vancouver theatre-goers to take notice—not only of the amazing cast, but in particular of Janet’s portrayal, the likes of which had previously not been seen on local stages.

The theatre scene in the 1970s was starting to explode, partly funded by government programs like the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, and the city started to attract television productions, spurred on by a growing community of actors and technicians who were nurtured by CBC radio dramas and fledgling TV shows. When noted film director Robert Altman came to town with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie to make McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Janet was a natural to play one of the free-loving women that populated the film.

One of Janet’s memorable roles at the Arts Club was as Gertie in The Sea Horse, which she portrayed in my production at the Seymour Street stage with Bob Haley (1975), and at the Granville Island Stage with Winston Rekert (1983). Janet’s earthiness, wit, and passion came through in her gutsy portrayal of a self-made woman forging her own path by running a bar on the West Coast. Directing Janet was a challenge, as she gave back as much as she took in. On the plus side, she was incredibly astute at connecting with the character was she was playing. Instinct and intelligence told her the truth of every character, including Gertie. She was never shy to disagree, and arguments were always spirited; a few choice words were usually exchanged. But I could trust Janet to find the core of the character. Her focus was always clear: “Who is this person and what does she want?” Her many critical plaudits attest to her success in achieving that goal.

Janet also developed a solid career as a director, receiving several awards for her work. Actor Robert Moloney describes working with her: “She pushed me constantly to go beyond the limits of what I thought I was capable of.” Robert was cast in Janet’s final directing gig at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, the 2015 production of Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. Stephanie Hargreaves, the Arts Club’s artist liaison, mentions Janet’s ability to cast actors who would “instinctively know what she wanted—or more importantly didn’t want—and know immediately.”

I could trust Janet to find the core of the character.

As well as appearing at the major regional theatres, Janet also co-founded Persephone Theatre in her hometown of Saskatoon, and had a solid career at Stratford, Ontario’s Shakespeare festival. Of course, Janet is more well-known for her film and television work, including appearing with George Clooney in the film The Perfect Storm. She received a Genie Award in 1992 for Best Actress (Bordertown Café) and again in 2003 for Best Supporting Actress in a Dramatic Program or Miniseries (Betrayed).

Like many of her peers, she had her ups and downs as a performer, but finally achieved more widespread success as part of the company of Corner Gas, created by Brent Butt, who says of Janet: “She has a giant wit, a giant heart, and was one of the strongest human beings to ever stride around this planet.” Her husband in the series was played by Eric Peterson, who remembers Janet as “an incredibly, wonderfully complex woman of tremendous strength and intelligence.” The series played six seasons, ending in 2009, and returned with a big-screen adaptation in 2014.

Janet’s life was often a struggle. She lost her parents and her sister Susan in a fire in Stratford in 1991. Her youngest daughter, Rachel, was killed by gunfire after breaking up a gang assault on a teenage boy in Vancouver in 2004. Janet accepted (with her husband, Bruce Davis) a posthumous Medal of Bravery for her daughter, and established an endowment in Rachel’s name. Through all the tribulations, Janet persevered with a fierce determination to keep going in what she once described as a “brutal business.” Still she kept that acerbic wit, that sardonic view of life.

Always ready to have a glass of scotch to ease the pain of the day, Janet lived on a boat for a time with Bruce—it was her ideal escape. I would meet her at the False Creek Sailing Club to propose my next project for her, and I’d look forward to her arguments for and against the particular play I had in mind. Torrents of objections to the qualities of the play would come forth, and then a laugh at the end of the conversation and an agreement to move on to working together again.

Perhaps it is fitting that for her professional career, Janet is best remembered for her role as Emma in Corner Gas. That character captured her sense of the absurd, combining it with her love of comedy. But for me, it is the memory of Janet’s fierce passion that I will treasure.


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December 12, 2016