George Ryga, considered by many as Canada’s most important English playwright lived in Summerland from 1963 until his death in 1987. He is the inspiration for the annual Ryga Arts Festival. (Contributed)

George Ryga, considered by many as Canada’s most important English playwright lived in Summerland from 1963 until his death in 1987. He is the inspiration for the annual Ryga Arts Festival. (Contributed)

Summerland archive established for George Ryga

Renowned author wrote novels, poetry, stage plays and screen plays from Summerland home

The Ryga Festival Society is launching an initiative with the Summerland Museum and Archives to set up a special archive to preserve the memory of George Ryga and his family in the community.

Ryga, an internationally renowned author and playwright, lived in Summerland from the early 1960s until his death in 1987. His works include poetry, novels, stage plays and screen plays. His 1967 drama, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about an Indigenous woman who leaves the reserve and meets her death on Vancouver’s skid row, is a landmark of Canadian theatre.

He and his wife Norma lived in Summerland for three decades with their five children: Leslie, Tanya, Campbell, Sergei and Jamie.

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After his death in 1987 the family gradually dispersed. For a while, their former home on Caldwell Street became a retreat for writers and hosted cultural events, but upkeep of the historic property proved too expensive. The Ryga Centre closed and the house was sold in 2015.

The following year, the newly formed Ryga Festival Society launched an annual arts festival to celebrate his legacy and to carry on his quest for social justice with works by contemporary writers and artists.

The Ryga Family Archive seeks to collect any material, such as photographs, reminiscences, letters, or other documents relating to the former Ryga home and the family.

Tanya Ryga, who is a member of the festival’s advisory council, has alerted her siblings not to throw out anything, and will be contacting past friends of the family who may have items to contribute. She has already compiled a list of family documents she intends to deposit with the new archives.

Gina Payzant, another member of the advisory council, had set up the archives in Athabasca, northern Alberta, where Ryga was born in 1932, two years after his parents emigrated from Ukraine. Payzant also produced a film about the young Ryga, called Just a Ploughboy, which was shown at the Ryga Arts Festival in 2019.

Summerland archivist Julien Butler is responsible for organizing the material already in the Summerland Museum, which includes most of Ryga’s books, his typewriter and banjo. She is also digitizing photographs and original documents. Plans include linking the Summerland collection digitally with the other Ryga archives in Athabasca and at the University of Calgary.

The Archive Project is spearheaded by Peter Hay and Dorthea Atwater, co-founders of the Ryga Festival Society and long-time friends of the Ryga family.

They are working with Dick Clements, a friend of Ryga, who moved from Edmonton to Summerland in 1967 and acted in some of Ryga’s plays.

Clements, now in his 90s, is giving his archive of articles, theatre programs and memorabilia to the new collection.

To ensure the safety of these and future holdings, the Summerland Museum has installed a substantial fireproof cabinet, which is a gift from the Ryga Festival Society to the municipal institution. It is ready to store all the Ryga family documents there or still to come.

The society and the museum are jointly launching a public appeal to anyone who knew the Ryga family and might have material for the archive, to please contact Peter Hay at peterbooks@gmail.com, Dorthea Atwater at dorthea.atwater@gmail.com, Julien Butler at archives@summerlandmuseum.org or Petra Höller at info@summerlandmuseum.org.

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