I’ve been thinking of you a great deal lately and of how much I want to express my deepest sympathies for the loss of Jon. In your email to the theatre community you invited people to share with you what was in their hearts about the loss of Jon. If you will indulge me, I’d like to try to do that here.
Please allow me to add my voice to the chorus of heartbroken affection from Toronto’s arts community for the loss of such a towering figure as Jon. Not only was he the consummate professional in every way (always on time, prepared, focused on accuracy, accessible to artists) he was, as so many have testified, the very embodiment of love and support for the performing arts, especially the theatre. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Jon, through his writing, editing and active participation, helped guide Toronto’s theatre community through its extraordinary flourishing over the past four-plus decades. I can’t think of very many people about whom that can be said.
As with so many others, I began my association with Jon in the theatre. Some 30 years ago I was involved in a small theatre company with great plans to change the world. Jon was writing about theatre at the time, covering the company, being supportive, being a friend. Later in my theatre adventures, particularly between the years 1989 and 1993 (when I was running the Fringe Festival,) Jon and I were able to spend more time together and our friendship deepened. Although we’d been seeing less of each other during the past half-dozen years or so, I still thought of Jon as a good friend and our encounters were always characterized by warmth and affection.
While much of the celebration of Jon’s career has been around the amazing contribution he made through his writing, fewer mentions have been made (largely, I think, because fewer people are aware) about how strenuously Jon advocated for theatre within his own professional framework. I knew about those weekly editorial meetings at Now and I knew Jon was at those every week arguing for every column inch, fighting for cover stories, pushing to keep theatre high on Now’s editorial agenda. Unlike music and film, theatre didn’t exactly pour advertising dollars into Now so Jon had to argue for the value of theatre for its own sake, for its socio/cultural worth and for its readership appeal. We all owe a huge debt to him for those decades of dogged advocacy on theatre’s behalf.
In thinking of Jon, one of the first of his qualities that jumps to my mind, even before his intellect and his dedication, is his remarkable decency. He was a man of great integrity. I’ve come to believe that, if you want to test the true measure of a person, give them some power. As both the theatre scene and Now magazine grew over the years, Jon became a very influential member of the arts community. Yet I didn’t ever observe him to lord it or wield it gratuitously. He approached even theatre “newbies” with respect and humility. He was never spiteful, never petty and, I’m fairly certain, he never said to a front-of-house person “Do you not know who I am?” That was not Jon’s way. It was one of the many things that I loved about Jon; he always seemed utterly incorruptible.
As for my own working relationship with Jon, I can say without equivocation that the Fringe Festival’s continued existence is due in a large part to him. The first year was a pilot event. It was only to continue if successful. We were a typical arts start-up: a big idea, no marketing money, wholly dependent on editorial support from the media to get the word out. It was Jon who took it on right from the inception. Through his internal advocacy at Now, his advanced promotion of the inaugural event, his determination to see as many shows as possible and his splendid work as a theatre writer, Jon gave the event the gravity (not to mention the profile) it needed to guarantee its continuing. He also set the template for virtually all press coverage of the Fringe that would follow.
It is in thinking of those years that I find my strongest and fondest memories of Jon. They come back to me very clearly. In them, we’re sitting together on the patio of an Annex café in the spring or early summer, he’s wearing a flannel shirt and straw fedora (an aversion to direct sunlight) and he might even be indulging in one of his occasional white wine spritzers. His eyes are patient and steady, always with a twinkle of boyish excitement. The conversation moves easily from theatre and the arts to gossip (never malicious,) from politics to the personal and beyond. He is so smart, but never narcissistically so. His air of gentle erudition is always soothing. His curiosity is constant.
In those days Jon and I had a bit of a “riff” we used to do, sort of a “who’s on first” thing that developed over time. It would always begin with me heaving a great sigh and saying, “How do you do it, Jon…?” Then I would ask how he looked as if he were 30 even though he was pushing 50, or how he sees five shows a day at the Fringe and then takes a weekend break to go cover Stratford, or how he sees more than 200 shows a year and still gets excited about seeing the next show, or how he does some other super-human-theatre-writer act while making it all look effortless…
He would always smile and offer the same four-word answer: I love my work.
Theatre, as you well know, is a bit of an odd realm. There is a nomadic, band-of-gypsies quality about it that makes it almost irresistible to people looking for a place to belong (I include myself in that.) It’s not uncommon to find people working in the theatre who came from the experience of being outsiders in their previous lives (where they grew up, among their original families, and so on.) This is a big part of the magic of working in the art form: almost everyone working in it seems to be, to some degree, a bit of a freak back home. The running-away-to-join-the-circus cliché still has a basis in reality.
If Jon Kaplan (the gay, Jewish, American ex-pat, passionate art lover) had come from the experience of feeling like an outsider in his early years, he certainly discovered love, support and a place where he could express his deep passion for beauty in the Toronto theatre scene. That was a long journey. I vividly recall how upset Jon was when he failed to reconcile with his father over the fact that Jon was gay. He had made a real effort and it had been rebuffed. I know that experience was painful for Jon. It seemed to underscore his feelings of “outsidership” from his original family.
But I also know that Jon found a home here in Toronto, and a family. He found a scene that he wanted to work in, one that welcomed him and gave him a platform, one in which he was free to become an extremely prolific and talented writer and a very influential voice. And he truly did love his work.
Moreover, he was able to build a home here with you, Don; a home that he loved very much (I was, along with Keith Cole, on the moving team for when you guys moved into your apartment on Broadview.)
There’s something that I find so beautiful in that, Don. Jon was such a lovely and talented man but I’m sure (like many of us,) he had experienced times of loneliness and frustration as a younger person. The fact that he found his place among the theatre “freaks” and was able to grow to the level of greatness that he did is just marvelous. His life truly was a triumph.
I am proud to have called Jon a friend. I’m very fortunate to have known him. My life has been tremendously enriched by his presence in it. I will always think of him with the greatest fondness, the purist admiration and the sweetest love.