Alberta Order of Excellence member John Murrell

John Murrell

John Murrell is a celebrated and influential Alberta playwright who has made equal contributions to the canon of Canadian literature and the Canadian arts community. His plays have been translated into 15 languages and performed in 30 countries around the world.

John’s connection to the natural world lends a strong sense of place to all of his plays. From his homes and offices in Calgary and at The Banff Centre, he creates vivid stories and settings that have captured audiences around the world. His characters often reflect the Alberta personality, aiming their sights high and expecting great things from the future and the world around them.

Those stories began to take shape when John was a junior high school teacher in Hanna and, later, in Calgary. Struck by the lack of plays appropriate to his students’ age and written in a Canadian voice, he set about creating works for his classes to perform. John soon left teaching to follow his passion to become a full-time playwright.

In 1975, John began work as Playwright in Residence for Alberta Theatre Projects. In 1977, he wrote Waiting for the Parade, a work that has become one of his best known and most often performed pieces. The story follows five women struggling to come to grips with a changing world and their own changing lives on the Calgary home front of World War II. Waiting for the Parade was the first of three John Murrell works to win the Chalmers Best Canadian Play Award.

His reputation as a unique voice in Canadian theatre was further enhanced with Memoir, a play depicting the final days of legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt. It received national and international recognition, including an extended three-year run in Paris, and continues to be performed in Canada and around the world. John Murrell’s stature as a playwright grew with terms as Associate Director of the Stratford Festival from 1978 to 1980 and Head of the Canada Council Theatre Section from 1988 to 1992. During that period, he added to his body of work with successful plays such as Farther West (1981), New World (1984), and Democracy (1990). The latter play received awards from the Canadian Authors Association and the Writers Guild of Alberta Awards. His success continued with The Faraway Nearby in 1995, for which he received his third Chalmers Award. In 2002, he received the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.

John’s ability to capture the rhythm of Canadian speech and reflect the realities of modern life has also led him to be recognized in another field - that of theatre translation. His translations of plays by authors such as Chekhov and Ibsen are highly regarded and frequently performed, bringing new life and new audiences to classic works.

In addition to writing, John Murrell has dedicated his time and expertise to arts administration and education. He teaches both by example and by lending direct support and insight to writers and actors. His generosity has helped many emerging Canadian artists hone their craft.

The Banff Centre has been an enduring fixture throughout John’s career, both as an artist and arts administrator. He began as a participant and, later, Head of The Centre’s Playwrights Colony. He became Theatre Arts Director/Executive Producer in 1999, taking over leadership of the Centre’s programs for theatre, opera, and dance.

Banff serves as an inspiration for John. It’s a place where he feels most at home, drawing hope and vision from the awesome beauty of the setting and the energy of his fellow artists and administrators at the Centre. He maintains a busy routine, working to lead and develop artistic programs, serving as a touchstone for companies around the world that present his plays, and continuing to create new works. His latest venture is Filumena, an opera he created together with Calgary composer John Estacio.

Despite his considerable reputation, many honours, and varied roles, John Murrell’s ultimate goal in life is a simple one: to be useful to others. He is motivated by the desire to entertain, but also to offer insight which will prove inspirational or helpful to others in their lives or relationships. “I would like life for all of us to be something extraordinary every day,” says Murrell. “I like to have a sense of discovery every day - some personal or public observation that is new.”

He has clearly been a success in that pursuit, offering the gifts of enjoyment and discovery to his audiences, students and fellow artists throughout his career.