Skip to content


Hello! I live in New Mexico and run a business I began in 2012 called Ziryab’s. If you want to know about that business visit the website.

I began my directing career in Toronto, after returning home and beginning the slow recovery from a particularly brutal graduate school experience at Tulane University in New Orleans. I can sum up my experience at graduate school with some advice:

  • Always seek mentors who believe in your work.
  • Run from those who think mentorship consists of inflicting pain with the excuse that it will toughen you up for the “real world”.
  • Don’t live by the motto “Never Give Up” when it requires you to prove your value to people incapable of seeing it.

The highlight of those years was two summers at Williamstown Theatre Festival. But it was confusing. I was working with incredibly talented actors at the beginning of their careers while sitting in on rehearsals as an Assistant Director with true greats. There, late into the night, I was able to direct workshop productions, one with Peri Gilpin (later to be Roz on Frasier), one with Alison Janey (she’s too well known to bother mentioning her credits), and one with Damian Young whose career has given him some of the best guest roles in such television shows as Law & Order, The Good Wife, Californication, House of Cards, Homeland and Ozark. Other actors I worked with whose careers I have not followed were just as stunningly talented.

During the day at Williamstown, I was giving notes from Nikos Psacharapolous to people like Christopher Reeve, Rob Lowe, and Amy Irving. I was the assistant director on Streetcar Named Desire with Blythe Danner, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Walken! Two of my workshop productions were chosen to be shown on stage in The Best of the New Generation. Yet back at Tulane, my professors seemed to take my success at Williamstown as an insult. They doubled down to prove my lack of ability and went out of their way to publically prove to everyone that they were not wrong, I wasn’t that good! This, as you can imagine, made it difficult to gain the necessary cooperative spirit from designers and performers. Eventually, I was denied my MFA (after 4 years) because, according to Buzz Podewell, he had given me every opportunity and I just didn’t have the talent a theatre director needed.

I mention all this not just to air my bitterness, which unfortunately still lingers, but to explain why I believed the only way for me to shine as an artist was to steadfastly ignore my desire to belong to mainstream theatre. I felt that the hyper-masculine sensibilities that dominated art had proven deadly to my particular vision and style. In other words, if I spent my time trying to get into mainstream theatre, I would lose my vision and what I had to offer. I had hoped that success would eventually lead to a position in mainstream theatre.

Yet I still wanted to be involved at some level so I volunteered to work as an Assistant Director. I don’t know if it is still true, but most theatres will accept free help and I was lucky enough to be in the position several times to offer it. I worked for Richard Greenblatt on a play with music called Genuine Fakes with Brenda Bazinet and Henry Czerney. I worked with Michelle George (I worship this artist) on two John Lazarus’s children’s plays and I worked with Martha Henry at the Grand on “A Walk in the Woods” with the support of an Ontario Arts Council Grant.

In between, I found work at various jobs in commercials and television mostly as a driver, production assistant, and craft service person. This all led to landing an awesome job as an Assistant Carpenter for Edge and Bratton and helping build Phantom of the Opera.

The money from this well-paid job allowed me to write a Canada Council Explorations Grant application, which I won and used it to produce the premiere of the play “Shots” by Charles Evered. It was Far Fetched Productions’ first play. Not much ever came of that except bragging rights that I did it.

I was at a loss as to what to do next until I began working with a kindred spirit in a little cafe. Across from the counter from where we worked were women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Vogue. Of course, we talked and talked about image and beauty and expectations and our struggles. I pitched her an idea inspired by Maurya Wickstrom’s performance art pieces with Zone West. Sandra Jensen (then Jensen-Kabayama) agreed to partner up with me to collaboratively create a theatrical production in reaction to these magazines. We entered the Toronto Summerworks Festival without a script and got to work. The result was one of the hits of the festival called “Suzi Got Her Lips Tattooed”.

George Olds in Xtra Magazine said the play was “performed by the strongest ensemble casts I’ve seen in years…” and called it “powerful” and my directing “razor sharp”. He ended his review with “It would be unfair to single out one performance over another. I will simply state that this was excellent theatre. Kudos all around.” Heady stuff. It was Mira Friedlander words that changed the course of my life when she wrote: “Two scenes stand out for their honesty and raw emotional power” in The Toronto Star. I had written those two scenes and this is how I became a playwright.

I was a tentative playwright though. Success with Suzi allowed me to more easily find fantastic actors willing to be in my work so I relied on their talent and my directorial skills to cover for some of my insecurities as a writer. Until I wrote Slut about 10 years later, I would rely on throughlines that relied heavily on themes and ensemble acting. But the successes just kept coming. I wrote “Good in Bed” and once again had a fabulous cast. H.J. Kirchoff in the Globe & Mail wrote: “McFarlane shows a dab hand with lively, intelligent gag lines, and often touches on the hard truths of relationships.” One and a half months later I opened “Shut Up” at Summerworks with another great cast. Mira Friedlander in The Star said that “this high-velocity production keeps you hooked all the way”.

Three in a row? The successes could keep coming, could they? One year later I produced with the company The Education of Johnny – the Making of a Man, a play with music, at the Tarragon Theatre. We financed this with fund-raisers if I recall correctly, including an illegal speakeasy (!) Apparently a fourth success was possible. The night we opened we had four reviewers show up and I had a spontaneous nose bleed. H.J.Kirchoff’s headline in the Globe & Mail read: “Boy grows-up fantasy well told, superbly acted.” Well!

I don’t know if it was the new relationship that stopped me from writing for the next four years or my money woes or maybe just feeling there was no possible way I could repeat my successes. But, my relationship troubles inspired a new play called “I Love You So Much I Wish You Were Dead” which premiered at the Toronto Fringe. Mira Friedlander wrote, in Variety magazine no less, that is was: “perceptive, funny and angst ridden” but the most incredible review of my life came from H.R. Kirchoff which was: “Brenda McFarlane is one of the brightest young writer-directors around these days…”

What was next for me? Well, there was nothing next for me. There was no path to making a living as a director or a playwright at that time and probably not much today. I had the proof that I could create popular theatre and attract and work well with talented actors. But that meant nothing to anyone. I had invited Artistic Directors to see my work but none had ever shown up. I have lots of skills but am dramatically, woefully lacking in others. One of them is self-marketing. I could not, would not, and was not capable of calling anyone directly for help. And my bad experience at Tulane made me deathly afraid that the magic of my success could not exist if I had to defend it in a world I felt steeped in intellectual posturing.

Instead, I hoped that my particular kind of talent would be embraced in the land of television. I was accepted into the Canadian Film Center and, at the same time, I was asked to join the Tarragon’s Playwright’s Unit. Unfortunately, once again, my attempt to gain success within the mainstream failed and failed well. Urjo Kareda and Andy McKim were decidedly unimpressed by me as was everyone I worked with at the CFC. It was a sad and difficult time. I once again, didn’t know how to fit in or how to get my work to appeal to the powers that be.

With some vague notion that Holywood be more welcoming to my particular type of female-based humor, I moved to Los Angeles. What followed was a pretty dark time for me, with a few moments of triumph. In my first year, I finished a one-woman play called Slut when Heidi Weeks asked me to write a 20 minute monologue for an HBO Comedy audition. The play morphed into an hour-long comedy that premiered in Toronto. And four years after my last play, I had yet another hit and perhaps my biggest. We began to sell out and we later produced it in Los Angeles and in NYC. It was published by Original Works Publishing and is available on amazon.

During this time, I also won an award for best dramatic spec script at the prestigious Austin Film Festival.

I returned to a play I had begun at the Tarragon Film Festival called Husband in a Coma with the intention of finding a theatre to produce it. I was never able to find one. This sort of stalled me in my playwriting. I just didn’t feel able to produce another play by myself, I wasn’t equipped financially, nor did I have the connections or time necessary. And, without any hope of having something produced, I was unable to find any reason to write.

Until I was talking with Celeste Sansregret who is a friend, writer and performer and she responded enthusiastically to an idea I had for a new play called “Dog Gone”. Since she was willing to perform in it and was willing to help produce it, I began writing it last summer during the Toronto Fringe. Since then, she regrettably had to drop out for practical reasons but by that time, I was committed. Although aging playwrights isn’t a sexy story line, the truth is this is my return to theatre, more than 30 years since I began.

I feel “Dog Gone” is the best writing I’ve ever done and I can’t wait to present it to the Winnipeg audience. To be continued….