COLUMN: Reflecting on George Ryga’s legacy

Canadian playwright would have turned 87 this month

Peter Hay

Peter Hay

The summer of 1969 I started a new job as literary manager of the Vancouver Playhouse, then the most exciting regional theatre in Canada.

“You will be working closely with our most important playwright,” my new boss David Gardner told me.

“George Ryga?” I guessed.

“Yes, he is writing a new play for us which I hope to direct next season.”

That summer, 50 years ago, George Ryga stood at the peak of his literary career. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe was already the most talked about play across Canada and had just been revived to open Ottawa’s new National Arts Centre.

READ ALSO: Ryga Festival featured variety of events

A few months earlier, Grass and Wild Strawberries, a musical collaboration between Bill Henderson, his band (The Collectors) and George Ryga resulted in both a record and a record-breaking production at the Vancouver Playhouse.

I came fresh from my studies in England to direct and teach at the new Simon Fraser University, and I thought it peculiar that I could find no Canadian plays to read or teach because none had found their way into print.

Being young and brash, I decided to remedy that. And that led to my becoming George Ryga’s publisher. Soft-spoken, with penetrating brown eyes and a gentle smile, George Ryga welcomed me at his temporary apartment in Vancouver’s West End where he was battering an old typewriter. He recounted the outline of his new play, which involved a brief survey of his views on global history and politics. Then he invited me to visit him in Summerland.

Norma and George Ryga kept open house on Caldwell Street where neighbours dropped by day and night, bringing fresh produce or a guitar.

Over the next decade, as drama editor at Talonbooks, I published most of George Ryga’s works. We became close and fought many a battle together for the cause of Canadian culture. When I gave up that fight and with my wife Dorthea moved to Los Angeles, George co-signed the mortgage for our first house there without a second thought.

He visited us and we stayed in touch, working together for the last time a year before his early death on his most complex play, Paracelsus. John Juliani directed it during Expo 86.

Twenty years later, we sold our California home and returned to Summerland for the first time since the 1970s. All the Rygas were gone, Norma to a home and the children pursuing careers elsewhere.

The house had become a retreat for writers and musicians with occasional readings and songwriting workshops. But in 2014, with debts mounting and the building needing extensive repairs, the Ryga Centre closed.

The spirit of the great writer finally seemed to have departed Summerland.

But barely a year later the new Summerland Library opened with the unveiling of a permanent plaque about George Ryga. About the same time the Ryga Festival Society was formed.

READ ALSO: LETTER: Summerland festival celebrates George Ryga’s legacy

Now in its fourth year, the Ryga Arts Festival has brought here many of the artists who had worked with or are still inspired by George Ryga. His sons, Campbell and Sergei, both musicians, have returned to perform several times. So has Ann Mortifee, who wrote and performed the songs for The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

On Aug. 31, to acknowledge the 50th anniversary Grass and Wild Strawberries, the festival will feature Bill Henderson and Claire Lawrence, two of the original members of The Collectors. Their ensemble will accompany Haida singer, artist and activist Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson in a show called Interweaving.

I cannot think of a more fitting birthday present to George Ryga who would have turned 87 this coming Saturday.

Peter Hay is president of the Ryga Festival Society, which presents the Ryga Arts Festival Aug. 24 to Sept. 1 . For more information, visit www.rygafest.ca.

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