Flags fly at half-mast at the National Arts Centre in honour of Jean Roberts, former Director of Theatre and Artistic Director of English Theatre

Ottawa (Canada) – It was with great sadness the National Arts Centre learned of the death of Jean Roberts, former Director of Theatre and Artistic Director of English Theatre from 1971 until 1977.

Jean Roberts’ contributions to Canadian theatre were significant. She was appointed Director of Theatre at the National Arts Centre in 1971, and under her leadership the NAC greatly expanded its theatre activities, particularly in producing plays by Canadian playwrights. She gave John Coulter, James Reaney, Timothy Findley and Michael Cook important new productions, as well as those of works by Joan Littlewood and Peter Handke. 

A new staging of John Coulter’s play Riel in 1975 was one of many milestones in Jean’s tenure. The creators of this major bilingual production included many of the finest people working in Canadian theatre at that time – actors Jean Gascon and Albert Millaire, composer Gabriel Charpentier and costume designer Francois Barbeau. The widely praised production is considered a landmark production in Canadian theatre.

“Jean Roberts made an enormous contribution to establishing the theatrical tradition in this country,” said NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Jillian Keiley. “Her belief in telling Canadian stories on the national stage was so important — and it remains so today.”

During Jean Roberts’ tenure the NAC’s scenic shops and craftspeople began to build a national reputation for excellence.  Landmark productions, Oh What A Lovely War (1973) directed by Jean and designed by Brian Jackson, and The Rivals (1972), directed by John Neville with set design by Maurice Strike, set high in-house production standards.

Jean Roberts initiated many innovative programs while at the NAC. She created the Student Young Company, a company of high school students brought into the NAC to work with professionals on the creation of plays which were then performed at high schools in the national capital region.  The Hexagon, a resident NAC professional theatre company, took theatre to young audiences. She also established a writer-in-residence program for the NAC. The first writer-in-residence was Timothy Findley, who completed his play, Can You See Me Yet? while at the NAC.

Jean left the NAC in 1977 to become Director of Program Development and Production for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Drama).  She continued to teach, direct and produce plays on a freelance basis.

Born in Perth, Scotland in 1926, Jean Roberts studied in Belgium and at the University of Edinburgh (1944-47).  She began a career in the theatre working as a scenic painter for the Perth Repertory Theatre in Scotland.  She was hired as an assistant stage manager at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1949 (now the Royal Shakespeare Company) and later served there as a stage manager. Eventually she became an assistant director, working closely with many of the most distinguished artists in the British theatre, including Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Tyrone Guthrie, Peggy Ashcroft, Peter Brook and Richard Burton.

Jean emigrated to Canada in 1956 with her partner Marigold Charlesworth, settling first in Calgary before moving to Toronto. In 1959 she became production manager with Crest Theatre (Toronto), one of Canada’s earliest professional theatre companies. That same year she became co-artistic director with Marigold of the Red Barn Theatre, in Jackson’s Point, Ontario. The professional summer theatre, which they helped establish with William Whitehead, would run for more than 60 years, and help propel the careers of many of Canada’s most accomplished Canadian theatre actors and directors.

Jean produced a winter theatre season at Toronto’s Central Library Theatre in 1962, acted as head of the production course at the National Theatre School (Montreal), and was on the staff of the acting course.

In 1965, Jean Roberts and Marigold Charlesworth were appointed as co-artistic directors of the Canadian Players, an important early Canadian professional theatre company which eventually merged with Crest Theatre and ultimately became known as Theatre Toronto.  

In 1966, Jean acted as a consultant to the National Arts Centre for its Festival Canada program.

She was co-chair of the National Theatre School’s Professional Council and a member of its Board of Governors.  She also served on the Board of the National Ballet School (Toronto) and was an Associate Director for the Stratford Festival. From 1967 to 1971 Jean was a theatre officer at the Canada Council.  She received the Maggie Bassett Award and the Toronto Theatre Alliance Award in 1984, and was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2006.

Flags at the NAC are at half-mast in honour of Jean Roberts.