Playwright Shirley Barrie on telling the story of “I Am Marguerite”

It’s not every day that audiences have the opportunity to hear the playwright of the play they are about to see, talk about the journey of getting it to the stage.  But on Sunday April 12, prior to the 2pm matinee performance of I Am Marguerite (which just opened on Friday), about 30 lucky people in Toronto got that opportunity.  And for FREE! Picture

Introduced with the reading of her bio by Ellen Green, Shirley Barrie is an award-winning playwright, has co-founded two theatre companies (one in London, England; one in Toronto), is a Past President of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, and many of the plays she’s written are about fascinating women in history – for example:  Beautiful Lady, Tell Me… (the notorious 1909 murder of Ethel Kinrade in Hamilton, Ont.), and Queen Marie (the Ontario-born comic actress Marie Dressler, a star of vaudeville and silent films).

As Shirley herself admits, she is “attracted to stories of women who refuse to play by the rules.”   The genesis of I Am Marguerite goes back to about 1989.  What we see onstage today is the fourth time Shirley had written Marguerite’s story, in one form or another: a testament to the compelling power of the story – it kept drawing her back.

The first version was a radio play, which was broadcast in 1990.  It was very different – in that version, an older Marguerite, now returned to France, tells her story to a group of schoolchildren.

The second version came about because Shirley felt that she had “not done justice” to Marguerite, so started on a stage play.   Trying to expand her options for production, she actually wrote the play so that it could be performed by two or by five actors.  In retrospect, “not a particularly good idea”!  However, the play was produced with 2 actors in Prague (1993), and with 5 actors in Cornerbook, Nfld (1997).

In 2003, Shirley participated in an intensive workshop with Tapestry New Opera Works ( ), and had to come up with a libretto for one of the assignments.  She wrote a brief lyric scene about Marguerite de Roberval. Then director Molly Thom, who has worked with Shirley for about 15 years and directed several of her plays, commissioned Shirley to write an opera libretto based on a pared-down version of the story in the play.

Around 2012, after the opera project had stalled, Molly challenged Shirley to adapt the libretto into a stage play. Shirley was initially reluctant to re-visit the story she’d worked on for so long, but decided she would do it differently this time.  “I wanted to play with the actors’ voices, with repetition,” she explains, “and with the rhythm of language and the separation of thoughts.”  She also wanted actions speak as loudly as words. Having seen the script, I can attest that the resulting work looks quite different on the page; the format does not look like a standard play.


Daniela Pagliarello as Marguerite de Roberval in "I Am Marguerite" by Shirley Barrie, directed by Molly Thom.  A world premiere for Alumnae Theatre Company, April 10-25, 2015.  Photo: Bruce Peters

Daniela Pagliarello as Marguerite de Roberval in “I Am Marguerite” by Shirley Barrie, directed by Molly Thom. A world premiere for Alumnae Theatre Company, April 10-25, 2015. Photo: Bruce Peters

One of the things Shirley is often asked is DID THIS REALLY HAPPEN?  “The bare outlines are true,” she told us.  In fact, there are three published accounts of the event from the 16th century – one by the Queen of Navarre!  The known facts are that in 1542, Jean-François de Roberval marooned a noblewoman (accounts vary on whether she was his sister or niece, but most agree that she was related) and her lover on what is probably one of the modern-day Harrington Islands, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, that came to be called at the time Îles de la demoiselle.   And that she was eventually rescued by a French vessel. Everything else in the play is supposition, based on clues Shirley was able to find in her research.

And don’t forget:  much of the initial research was pre-internet!  Yes, back in the distant days 25 years ago, of haunting libraries and waiting for old reference books to be found in the stacks.  Shirley first discovered Marguerite’s story in a 1970’s children’s book called Wilderness Women: Canada’s Forgotten History by Jean Johnston.  (Interesting side note:  the similarity of Peter DeFreitas’ costume design to an illustration of Marguerite in that book is quite startling)  “The story really spoke to me,” Shirley says.  One of her treasured moments was going to the National Archives in Ottawa and reading the Queen of Navarre’s Heptaméron, a wee little book bound in disintegrating leather, published in 1558!  This book of short stories contained a rather disguised and religion-slanted version of Marguerite’s tale.  “If that was the first or only account I’d come across,” Shirley confesses, “it would not have held my attention.”

 Later research – aided by the internet – led her to “a great site; a treasure trove of information”.

When inspired by a historical event with different versions of the story, a writer chooses one with which to make connections and “weave strands”.  It’s actually much harder to write a play when the subject is well-known – Shirley shared that her current project is a play for 4th Line Theatre about L.M. Montgomery, beloved author of the Anne of Green Gables books!

In a brief Q&A section, Ellen Green asked about Shirley’s role as the author in rehearsal for I Am Marguerite.  Director Molly Thom quickly piped up, “In my opinion, the author belongs at rehearsal.”  Shirley noted that the contracts from Playwrights Guild of Canada stipulate that the writer should be there, especially for a first production.  [This production at Alumnae Theatre Company is a world premiere.]   “I think it’s important to be there – theatre is a very collaborative process,” she adds.  “And I have a very good working relationship with Molly”.  Molly asserts that having the playwright present at rehearsals is “a gift to actors!”.


The talk whizzed by in about 45 minutes, until producer Ramona Baillie called time and ushered us out of the auditorium so that stage manager Kelsey Rutledge and ASM Kimberly de Jong could set up for the 2 pm matinee.    The people who had listened to the talk were joined by a whole bunch more for the matinee.

It was my first time seeing the show in full performance mode (read account of a dress rehearsal in April 1 post), and this time I seriously teared up on hearing the beautiful music (“Marguerite’s Theme”) that composer James Langevin-Frieson had created for the ending.   Read a review of the show at


I Am Marguerite runs to April 25.  Purchase tickets in advance at , or reserve by phone (416-364-4170 box 1) /e-mail ( and pay cash on arrival. Box Office does not accept in-person purchases by credit or debit card.  Wednesday tickets are 2-for-1; Sundays PWYC; Thu – Sat $20.

1 Comment

Filed under 2014/15 Season, I Am Marguerite

One response to “Playwright Shirley Barrie on telling the story of “I Am Marguerite”

  1. Molly Thom

    Terrific reporting, Tina. You scribbles are very accurate. it was an excellent session.

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