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Keith Turnbull 1944-2024

An extraordinary Canadian died last Sunday. Keith Turnbull, director, producer, translator, educator, was indefatigable in his support for theatre and opera, words and music. Read the obituary and marvel at the breadth of his accomplishments. And know what the obit does not even bother to mention — that for the last decades of his life, he was afflicted with an undiagnosed condition something like MS, that left him in a wheelchair.

When it says he directed an opera in Wales or Newfoundland, that means he had to fly with a power wheelchair. I was at a reunion with him and others in Toronto maybe ten years ago, after the opening of a chamber opera he’d directed, and listened to him describe what it’s like to fly without mobility — the disregard of airline staff, the endless waiting, shuffled off to a corner like a forgotten package. Laughing, he described navigating a wheelchair through the slushy, snowy streets of Montreal in winter. And yet he travelled the world for his work and never stopped. He didn’t let the limitations of his body impede him, not for a moment.

I met Keith at Neptune Theatre in 1970. I was 19, had taken a leave from university to act in a three-month-long professional tour, and afterward was a bit lost. I flew to Halifax, from which my family had moved four years before, for a brief visit with childhood friends. On the plane I ran into Christopher Banks, whom I’d met when I was a tour guide at the National Arts Centre. Christopher was now working at Neptune. “Come to the theatre,” he said. “We’ll find you a job.”

And he did, in the box office, and as an assistant to a fiery young director named Keith Turnbull. Keith was directing a quirky French farce and needed music for the entrances and exits; it was my job to find it. And eventually I did: Poulenc, perfect. As I did so, I fell madly in love with Keith, his energy, focus, dynamism, glee. I didn’t know he was gay. Nobody did. We spent so much time together, others in the company thought we were a couple. Only he and I knew that we weren’t.

Along with other brilliant, inspiring gay men whom I’ve been lucky enough to know, he remained one of the great loves of my life.

Keith went from Halifax to the Manitoba Theatre Centre and a stellar international career. A friend and I visited him once in Montreal, where he cooked a gourmet meal in an elegant kitchen specially set up for a chef in a wheelchair. His mind, as always, crackled with insight and ambition.

A devastating loss for our country and for the arts everywhere. One of a kind; a great, great soul. There will never be another Keith Turnbull.



3 Responses to “Keith Turnbull 1944-2024”

  1. Lesia Waschuk says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m so happy for you that you experienced such a wonderful working relationship and loving friendship, and are able to recall it in such detail. Both facts seem (are) such a gift. Thank you for sharing your testament to a life lived fully despite/with physical limitations and pain. As my condition deteriorates I am determined not to give up and find this duly inspiring. Not only was he an accomplished artist and giant behind the scenes but he also seems a fascinating/compelling “character and it occurs to me that he would be a wonderful subject for a theatrical piece as a “send off.”

  2. Kathy O'Brien says:

    Beth, this is lovely … when I lived in Cardiff, Wales, I was introduced to the vibrant opera scene there … I wonder if your friend was involved in any of the productions that I saw … his resilience in the face of his illness is inspiring

  3. Beth Kaplan says:

    Thanks to you both. Keith was inspiring before his illness, but afterwards he was extraordinary, because he continued to accomplish as if nothing had changed. A force of nature. Glad he inspires you, Lesia. Perhaps he did direct in Wales, Kathy. There’s a celebration of his life soon in Stratford; there will be a stellar gathering of creative people, and I will learn more about his working life, I’m sure.

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I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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