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Joy Coghill: Forever Present

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Sometimes we neglect to honour and celebrate our theatre mentors and elders while they are among us.  We feel this keenly at the passing of the indefatigable, the inspiring, the irreplaceable Joy Coghill.  Kathleen had some enviable opportunities to collaborate with Joy, so we asked her to do put some of her feelings into words.

It is too late to thank her in person for putting herself on the line for art. Joy Coghill is gone from us, her material self is gone, although we are holding fast to her spirit. It is the spirit of an artist.

A few years ago, in a casual conversation, I told Joy that I wanted to work with senior actors and students on an examination of persuasion in Julius Caesar using interactive technology. She was interested enough to continue talking about it. By then, by 2012, Joy was already rationing her artistic projects, trying to take care of her tricky heart. In the way that life imitates metaphor, Joy’s heart was in danger of giving out whenever she got involved in a project because Joy never did anything by half measures. She gave her whole heart to every act of theatre making – she actually risked her life. For Joy to say “yes” to collaborating on a project was an incredible gift. She did say “yes” to The Julius Caesar Project. We spent months outlining and preparing the project, and executing it. There were lots of moments of disagreement, tough and tumultuous, that mark a true collaboration. There was not a second when we were together that Joy was not engaged completely – she took every single moment and every single consideration seriously. The work mattered to her. If it didn’t matter, it wasn’t worth doing. She wanted to know what the effect of using cell phones and tablets onstage could mean for a scene. She wanted to experiment with the attention of actors to each other – in person and over a distance, using another communication device. She wanted to see how a crowd might react differently to a human presence in space versus a screen image, even though she thought she knew the answer. It sounds obvious, but Joy’s most valuable gift to me, to all of us in that project, was that she was present. Always.

“Live performance … creates tangible life in the audience. Something about those people being alive in the same space with you, something about being together in the space and living the same moment together, something about that is life-giving for the audience too.”

 

In the course of The Julius Caesar Project, and earlier, during the time we spent together preparing to tape a performance of P.K. Page’s Unless the Eye Catch Fire, Joy spoke about truth and art, often casually, in the context of some phrase in the text, some tricky moment of blocking, some arrangement of contracts. Over coffee and her famous scones, we sometimes dished about people we knew in common or argued the merits of a book, a painting, a play, a production that one or the other had seen. She told me, as she no doubt told others, about vocal practices she either agreed with or abhorred, philosophies of acting, ditto, why she preferred stage to television and film: “Live performance … creates tangible life in the audience. Something about those people being alive in the same space with you, something about being together in the space and living the same moment together, something about that is life-giving for the audience too.”

During those conversations, Joy also made it clear that she mistrusted compliments, she did not wish to be romanticized, and, no matter what happened, she did not want anyone writing a biography of her – no one was to speak for her, she would speak for herself.

Luckily for all of us, Gayle Murphy had interviewed Joy extensively in the early 2000s, captured her on tape and had it transcribed. Joy agreed to allow us to edit this material, always insisting that that it tell a story, that it not be boring, that she not be paraphrased. Throughout the first edit of a longer-than-book-length manuscript, I hear Joy’s voice talking about her life, the beginning of professional theatre in Western Canada, about acting, directing, theatre, spirit and art. When it stops sounding like her, I know that the transcript has wandered off and I must go back and find the trail again. Without her to check in, this work becomes even more daunting, and Gayle and I can only push ourselves to keep Joy’s standards. It’s a joyous task really, because it keeps her art in our present moment.

For Joy, art is spirit. As she said, “…theatre is the pursuit of the good…it’s worth sacrificing everything else for in your life…it has spiritual under-fittings…. It’s not about power. But it has powers that can revive and strengthen and illuminate the soul, and the soul is more important than anything else.”

The times feel dark right now. Thinking of Joy and what she believed inspires me, fills me with spirit. Thank you, Joy.  – Kathleen Flaherty

There will be a celebration of Joy’s life at Christ Church Cathedral on February 20th at 3 pm.