Kareda, Urjo

Urjo Kareda, theatre director, dramaturge, arts journalist (b at Tallinn, Estonia 9 Feb 1944; d at Toronto 26 Dec 2001), was a key figure in the arts in Canada, from his earliest involvement in 1970 (as a film and theatre critic) until his death (as artistic director of the TARRAGON THEATRE). Though best remembered as a champion of original Canadian drama, Kareda's interests were far wider, encompassing opera, vocal performance, dance, film and literature.

Born in Estonia (whose language he retained), raised first in Stockholm (to which his parents escaped), and finally, from the age of 5, in Toronto, Kareda took his higher education at the University of Toronto (BA 1966; MA, English 1967), and at Cambridge (where he worked on, but did not complete, a doctoral dissertation on Tragicomedy from Chekhov to Albee). In London, he wrote arts stories for both The Globe and Mail and, under the pen name Arnold Meyer, for The Toronto Star.

Returning home in 1970 (with his recent bride Shelagh Hewitt, m 4 Oct 1969) he became the Star's film critic, under his own, less likely, name; a year later he replaced the legendary Nathan COHEN on the drama desk. Kareda's well-informed, enthusiastic and smartly written reviews helped legitimize and popularize the burgeoning Canadian theatre. At this time he also began to contribute arts stories to CBC Radio (culminating in the popular weekly segment Urjo's Diary) and to teach English literature at the U of T.

Hired by Robin PHILLIPS in 1975 as literary manager of the STRATFORD FESTIVAL, Kareda turned from assessing plays to commissioning them. Despite his best efforts, however, the classically oriented Stratford was not to become a locus of new play development. The Stratford years came to a bitter end in 1980 when, following Phillips's departure, Kareda and three associates (quickly dubbed the Gang of Four) were hired and abruptly fired as the Festival's co-heads. (The Board claimed that the Gang's proposed season was economically unviable, a charge that the four fiercely repudiated in writing.) Though he would quickly recover from this setback, physical discomfort from a near-fatal car accident in 1976 would plague him for the rest of his life.

A 1981 article for Toronto Life that lamented the decline of Canadian playwriting led to a lunch with Tarragon artistic director Bill GLASSCO, by the end of which Kareda had been offered Glassco's job. Once again, Kareda proved to be the right man at the right time. Over the next twenty years, he would turn the Tarragon into the new play centre (earning it the unofficial title of 'The Playwright's Theatre'), becoming in the process the single most respected voice in English-Canadian theatre.

His legendary ability to read and respond to up to 500 unsolicited scripts a year was just one part of a multi-pronged strategy that also included residencies and the now much imitated Playwrights Unit and Public Workshop. Every season began with an off-Broadway hit, followed by six new Canadian plays, a formula that would change only when the theatre began to bring back hit shows (Fronteras Americanas; 2 Pianos, 4 Hands; I, Claudia among them). One charge that Kareda seemed to be constantly defending himself against was that the Tarragon leaned heavily, if not entirely, towards the naturalistic, literary, kitchen-sink play. Though Kareda never saw "literary" as a dirty word, a look at any given year's playbill will show that his taste was always broader than his critics'.

His sudden death from cancer at the end of 2001 prompted a national lament not only in the world of theatre, but in journalism, broadcasting, opera and education - all fields in which he excelled; all fields that he enriched.

Kareda's honours include the Order of Canada (1995); the City of Toronto Award for the Performing Arts (1999); and the Chalmers National Award for Artistic Direction (2000).