It is a common misconception that theatre on the North American continent began with the arrival of Spanish and French explorers and settlers.
Indigenous ceremonials and rituals evidenced a highly sophisticated sense of mimetic art, and occupied a central place in the social and religious activities of their peoples (see Indigenous People, Religion). Masks, costumes and properties were used to enhance dialogue, song and chants in performances designed to benefit the community by influencing such crucial matters as the weather, the hunt, or spiritual and physical well-being. Great ritual dramas (such as those of the British Columbia Kwakiutl people) sometimes took the form of a long cycle encompassing some 4 to 5 months of performance. Subsequent development of drama in Canada, however, was shaped by European rather than by indigenous traditions.
When Sir Humphrey Gilbert took his expedition to Newfoundland in 1583, he was equipped with "toyes ... Hobby horse, and Maylike conceits to delight the Savage people," which suggests some kind of rudimentary theatricals. The first significant theatrical events, however, were created by French military and religious visitors and settlers. The Jesuits sponsored productions of original and classical plays throughout the 17th century, until the controversial suppression of Molière's Tartuffe in 1694 brought theatrical activity in New France to a virtual halt (see Theatre, French-Language).
Québec enjoyed little public theatrical entertainment again until after the 1763 Conquest. Subsequently the British garrison in Montréal revived theatre with, ironically, productions of Molière, and was soon emulated by local francophone groups. Popular English plays were also performed by the garrisons of Montréal and Québec City; amateur thespian societies were formed, and Jesuit students once more began staging plays in their colleges.
This new theatrical impetus in late 18th-century Québec was matched by developments in Atlantic Canada. Performing in makeshift theatres in taverns and other public buildings, at first with all-male casts, the officers and men of the British garrisons promoted theatre. The Halifax garrison built the New Grand Theatre, fitted with boxes and 2 pits, which opened on 26 February 1789 with a production of The Merchant of Venice. Charlottetown built its first theatre in 1800, and by 1809 Saint John had its own Drury Lane Theatre. Thus a lively garrison and amateur theatrical tradition emerged in the Maritimes, hampered sometimes by puritanical attacks ("a Christian cannot with a safer Conscience enter into the Play-House than into a Brothel," declared a writer in the Nova Scotia Chronicle in January 1770), but confident enough to mount full-length productions from the classical and contemporary English repertoire, as well as new Canadian works. Among these was a romantic comedy called Acadius: or, Love in a Calm, the first recorded English Canadian play, performed in Halifax in 1774.
Theatrical activity in Québec and the Maritimes in the 18th century was predominantly amateur, but the growing population in both regions began to attract professional companies from the US. The first resident professional company in Canada was the American Company of Comedians, believed to have performed at the Pontiac Inn, Halifax, in the summer and fall of 1768. Another group of actors, headed by an Englishman, Edward Allen, arrived in Montréal from Albany, NY, in March 1786 for a 4-month season, then moved on to Québec City. Other professional entertainment was provided by the American circus of John B. Ricketts, whose company performed in Montréal and Québec City in 1797 and 1798.
By the end of the 18th century Canadian theatre was poised for rapid growth, and the 19th century provided a rich mosaic of theatrical development in all regions of the country. Elaborate theatres were constructed in the Maritimes and Québec. Montréal's Theatre Royal, built by a group of investors headed by John Molson, Sr, in 1825 to seat an audience of 1000, cost $30 000, and featured a Doric portico, 2 tiers of boxes, a pit and a gallery, comfortable backstage facilities and lavish decorations. The Theatre Royal at Spring Gardens, Halifax, opened in 1846 and had boxes to accommodate over 160 patrons.
By this time theatre had also firmly established itself in Upper Canada, again encouraged by amateur groups and enthusiastic garrisons in settlements on the sites of such present-day cities as Toronto, Ottawa, London and Kingston. As early as 1809 there was a performance at York [Toronto] by New York actors of The School for Scandal, but it was not until 1834 that Toronto had its first real theatre, a converted Wesleyan church.
Others followed, including the Royal Lyceum (1848) and the Grand Opera House, which opened in 1874 and burned down in a spectacular fire 5 years later. London's Grand Opera House (1881) was also destroyed by fire, but, like its Toronto counterpart, was replaced (see Grand Theatre). Numerous smaller towns across the country boasted opera houses of various sizes and longevity.
When the West began to be accessible to touring companies, theatres were among the first priorities of new communities. The Royal Engineers built a rudimentary theatre in New Westminster in 1858, and Victoria's Colonial Theatre opened in February 1860, following some years of theatrical productions performed by sailors on British ships anchored in Esquimalt Harbour. By 1891 Vancouver had a 1200-seat Opera House, and adequate theatres also existed in prairie cities. Winnipeg's Walker Theatre (1907) was especially impressive, with seating for close to 2000 and a liberal supply of ivory and marble in its fittings.
Audiences that regularly filled Canadian theatres in the 19th century were, with some notorious exceptions, mostly polite, attentive and self-disciplined. Ontario audiences were more inhibited than their Québec counterparts, whether the latter were Anglo-Canadians vigorously assaulting American visitors with sticks and canes for not removing their hats during the playing of the national anthem in a Montréal theatre in 1811, or French-Canadian students rapturously welcoming Sarah Bernhardt to Montréal in 1880. Torontonians gave Adelaide Neilson a standing ovation after her Canadian farewell performance in 1880, but the most volatile audiences in 19th-century Canada were to be found in the West. A serious race riot occurred in the Colonial Theatre, Victoria, in November 1860, when black members of the audience forced their way into areas reserved for whites; Winnipeg audiences in the 1880s were enlivened by the presence of boisterous youths and uninhibited prostitutes; Klondike theatres were often uproarious; and a performance of The Cowboy's Romance in High River (Alberta) in May 1902 ended with the director of the Great Bostock Theatrical Company wielding a club against the egg-flinging audience.
The social, cultural and educational benefits of theatre were stressed by many apologists, but the Catholic Church and some Protestants (especially Methodists) continued their strong moral opposition, holding theatrical entertainment responsible for debauchery, dissipation and sundry other ungodly habits. Bishop Bourget of Montréal issued condemnations of the theatre in pastoral letters in 1859 and again in 1872, and in 1880 Bishop Fabre forbade his parishioners to attend performances by the visiting French actress Sarah Bernhardt. In Winnipeg the Reverend J.B. Silcox delivered a sermon in February 1883 that condemned theatre for sinning against morality and decency; in Toronto, he claimed, "Within the last few years, there were scenes on the boards that would cause even the Sodomites to blush, and stop their ears for shame." And when Winnipeg playwright and critic C.W. Handscomb saw Ibsen's Ghosts in March 1904, he voiced his worry that this "unwholesome, degrading [and] disgusting" play might pollute the "wholesome prairie atmosphere."
Playwrights, Actors and Managers
Despite these handicaps, and the necessity of competing with foreign plays and players, Canadian playwrights, actors and managers began to achieve some prominence. In English Canada the turgid poetic dramas of Charles Heavysege, Charles Mair and Wilfred Campbell received little attention, but lively farces and political satires by Nicholas Flood Davin, J.N. McIlwraith and W.H. Fuller found audiences, as did the comic fantasies and masques of Frederick Augustus Dixon, conventional melodramas by McKee Rankin and the historical romances of W.A. Tremayne. Rankin also achieved recognition as an actor, both in Canada and abroad; and Tremayne wrote for American actor Robert Mantell, a popular star in Canada.
Many Canadian actors spent much of their time performing in the US and Britain: Julia Arthur worked with Henry Irving in London, and later founded an American touring company; Margaret Anglin, who, it was said, could wring emotion from a keg of nails, was renowned for her productions of Greek plays in Berkeley, Calif; Franklin McLeay spent 5 years of his brief career with Wilson Barrett's company in London; Marie Dressler made her name in American vaudeville; and Henry Miller, who began his career in Toronto in 1878, became well-known as an actor-manager in New York.
There were, however, Canadian actors who made their livelihood primarily in Canada. John Nickinson managed Toronto's Royal Lyceum Theatre from 1853 to 1859, and his daughter, Charlotte Morrison, ran a successful stock company in Toronto in the 1870s. Ida Van Cortland (with her husband, Albert Tavernier) toured her company from Winnipeg to St John's in the 1880s. The 7 companies of the famous Marks Brothers toured melodramas to small-town Canada regularly from 1879 to 1922, making a great deal of money in the process. Melodramas were also the staple fare of actor-manager H. Price Webber, whose company travelled throughout the Maritimes, Québec and New England until 1915. At the turn of the century Harold Nelson, one of the country's first acting teachers, began a remarkable career producing Shakespeare, melodrama and comedy across the western provinces.
Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, Canadian producers, actors and playwrights faced overwhelming competition from foreign touring stars and companies. This competition seriously retarded the development of indigenous professional theatre. In 1911 critic Bernard K. Sandwell bemoaned the annexation of the Canadian stage by US theatre magnates such as Charles Frohman, the Shubert Brothers and the powerful New York Theatrical Syndicate formed in 1896. The British Canadian Theatrical Organization Society (1912) attempted to balance American influence by organizing tours of British actors. The result was that British and US managements, by acquiring controlling interests in Canadian theatres, held a commercial and cultural stranglehold on the country's theatrical growth. The Trans-Canada Theatre Society (1915) was Canadian-owned, but its purpose was to organize tours by foreign companies.
The process had begun, haphazardly, a century before, first with the arrival of minor actors from the US, then with major stars from America and Europe. Virtually every leading actor from Edmund Kean onwards performed in Canada. Kean acted in Montréal and Québec City in 1826, and scores of actors followed: W.C. Macready, the Kembles, E.A. Sothern, Charles and Ellen Kean, Charles Fechter, Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Sarah Bernhardt, Coquelin, Helena Modjeska, Tommaso Salvini, Laurence Barrett, Julia Marlowe, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, John Martin-Harvey, Mrs Fiske, Mrs Campbell, Robert Mantell, the Kendals, Ben Greet and Johnston Forbes-Robertson, as well as distinguished companies from Dublin's Abbey Theatre and England's Stratford. As dedicated professionals, these performers brought good acting and, sometimes, good plays, but most saw Canada as a theatrical appendage to the US, with some commercial potential. WWI interrupted the touring circuits. Escalating costs, competition from film and radio and the Depression then combined to end touring companies. Foreign touring stars and companies helped create and sustain a tradition of theatregoing, and they gave impetus to the building of many excellent theatres. But when the touring era ended, Canada, having failed to nurture its own professionals, was left with negligible professional theatre.
Visiting companies still appeared in Canadian theatres, and resident foreign repertory companies performing popular Broadway and London plays sometimes established themselves. One example is Vaughan Glaser's company in Toronto (1921-27). There were also intermittently successful Canadian professional and semiprofessional companies working throughout Canada. At the beginning of the century the Winnipeg-based Permanent Players ran for 21 consecutive seasons at the Winnipeg Theatre, and Ontario-born Mae Edwards toured her company in Ontario and the Maritimes until 1935.
The John Holden Players performed in Bala, Ont, and Winnipeg in the late 1930s. Sidney Risk's Everyman Theatre Co, which originated in Saskatchewan as a student touring company, opened in Vancouver in 1946 and performed a classical repertoire throughout the West for many years. Toronto's Jupiter Theatre started in 1951, and in Ottawa the Canadian Repertory Theatre, with actress and director Amelia Hall, was prominent in the early 1950s.
Toronto's New Play Society, though benefiting throughout its history from volunteer help, operated for some years on a professional basis. Founded by Dora Mavor Moore (1946), the NPS succeeded in developing Canadian talent in all areas of theatre. Plays by Morley Callaghan, Harry Boyle, John Coulter, Mavor Moore, Lister Sinclair and Andrew Allan were produced in the theatre of the Royal Ontario Museum. NPS also originated the famous annual touring revue Spring Thaw. Dora Mavor Moore contributed to the creation of the Stratford Festival and many NPS actors appeared there.
Nevertheless, Canadian theatrical activity in the first half of the 20th century was predominantly amateur. Having relied heavily on imported theatre for a century or more, Canada had no established professional base on which to build when the imports declined. When a growing national self-awareness demanded theatrical expression, it was largely amateurs who were available to provide it. The need for theatrical self-expression was enunciated by Governor General Earl Grey in 1907 when he created the Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition for the encouragement of dramatic arts throughout the Dominion. The competition was held annually until 1911, and was by invitation. Unlike the later Dominion Drama Festival, there was no regional screening process, and Canadian judges were used. The Earl Grey Competition was short-lived and had only a minimal effect on Canadian theatre, but vice-regal approval of theatrical endeavour was a welcome change from puritanical opposition by church authorities.
Grey's initiative coincided with important developments elsewhere in amateur theatre. In 1908 the Arts and Letters Players of Toronto was formed. Dedicated to serious noncommercial theatre, and performing in cramped quarters in the Old Court House of Adelaide St, the company was at the forefront of the Little Theatre Movement. Led by Roy Mitchell, the Arts and Letters Players demonstrated the value of innovative and experimental theatre with productions of plays by Maeterlinck, Yeats, Tagore, Synge and Lady Gregory.
When the University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre opened in 1919, it absorbed the ideals and energies of the Arts and Letters Players, and Mitchell became the new theatre's first director. Hart House Theatre fostered the distinguished careers of many directors, actors and playwrights, among them Bertram Forsyth, Raymond Massey, Carroll Aikins, Dora Mavor Moore, Edgar Stone, Merrill Denison, Herman Voaden, Jane Mallett, Andrew Allan, Robert Gill, Kate Reid, Barbara Chilcott, Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, William Hutt, Donald Sutherland, Charmion King and Donald and Murray Davis.
Other Little Theatres emerged and sometimes flourished - the Ottawa Drama League (1913), the Vancouver Little Theatre (1921), the Community Players of Winnipeg (1921), the Montréal Repertory Theatre (1930) and the Halifax Theatre Arts Guild (1931), for example. At the Sarnia Drama League (1927), Voaden experimented with "symphonic expressionism" and generally challenged theatrical norms. By the 1930s all major cities, as well as many smaller communities, had an established amateur theatre.
In an attempt to co-ordinate and give some focus to amateur theatre activity in the country, the Dominion Drama Festival was formed in 1932. Initiated by Governor General Lord Bessborough, and relying heavily on the influence and expertise of Vincent Massey, the DDF organized bilingual competitions and regional drama festivals from which the best productions were selected to compete in the annual final, held in a different city each year. In 1970 the DDF was succeeded by Theatre Canada, which survived until 1978. The DDF outlived its purpose, as amateur enthusiasm, however skilled, was overtaken by professional expertise. Yet the DDF can justifiably claim a major contribution to 20th-century theatre. By providing incentives and opportunities for actors, playwrights, designers, directors and technicians, and by building and maintaining audiences across the country, the DDF helped create the circumstances that made possible a fully professional theatre.
Other early 20th-century amateur activity of note occurred in the universities. The lead was taken by western Canada, particularly at the University of Saskatchewan, where the first chair of drama in the British Commonwealth was founded in 1945; U of A established a department of fine arts in 1946 and the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts produced the early works of Gwen Pharis Ringwood and other Canadian playwrights. Drama and theatre programs, the majority of them established in the 1960s, are now found at universities and colleges in every province.
In many instances the universities, unfettered by commercial considerations or social convention, have premiered deserving plays by Canadian and foreign playwrights. The universities have also provided a vital educational and training service in all aspects of theatre production, history and criticism (see Theatre Education). Another form of amateur drama emerged and briefly flourished in the Depression years. The Progressive Arts Club was formed in Toronto in 1932 for the development of a militant working-class art and literature.
From PAC developed the Workers' Experimental Theatre, consisting largely of groups of unemployed workers who performed short plays and political skits on topical issues wherever they could find a space, which was frequently outdoors and often on picket lines. The most celebrated production of the Workers' Theatre was Eight Men Speak (1933), a full-length play based on the trial and imprisonment of 8 Canadian communists. The play was later banned in Toronto and Winnipeg. The Workers' Theatre, with its international political and cultural links, had a unique excitement and inventiveness, but faded after the Depression and left no lasting mark on subsequent developments in Canadian theatre.
Progress of Professional Theatre
A vital impetus to continued progress of professional theatre came from the 1951 Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. Chaired by Vincent Massey, the commission made recommendations that led to the formation of the Canada Council in 1957.
The transition from a predominantly amateur to a predominantly professional theatre began with the founding of the Stratford Festival in 1953. Thereafter, professional theatre rapidly began to consolidate itself. The Crest Theatre opened in Toronto in 1954, and the Canadian Players, an offshoot of the Stratford company, undertook tours throughout the US and Canada. The founding of major regional theatres and government acceptance of a responsibility to fund the arts revitalized professional theatre. Unlike the professional theatre of the 19th century, however, the new professionalism had national as well as international interests, and the early 1960s opened a phase of advancement in Canadian theatrical arts of greater scope and intensity than anything previously witnessed in its 350-year history.
Contemporary Canadian Theatre
The second half of the 20th century was marked in Canada by the development of a nonimported professional English-speaking theatre and, more importantly, by a struggle to define both national and regional idioms. By the 1990s, 4 categories of production activity existed: a Broadway-style, fully commercial theatre, built primarily around musical extravaganzas; a wide range of regional and festival theatres producing a mainstream mix of classics, world hits and original work; a group of "alternate" theatres producing new and often controversial plays; and a radical "fringe" which drew on new writing and performing talent.
Early Contemporary Directions
The musical extravaganzas which assumed "centre stage" in the late 1980s and 1990s had forerunners in the contemporary Canadian theatre scene. Vancouver's TUTS or Theatre Under the Stars began producing American musicals outdoors in 1940 in Stanley Park's Malkin Bowl. Winnipeg's Rainbow Stage has performed a similar summer season since 1954.
In Toronto, American musical theatre was performed in tents by Melody Fair (1951-54) and Music Fair (1957-61), and Tyrone Guthrie borrowed the idea of the tent for his Stratford Festival in 1953. A more indigenous musical revue was Spring Thaw, which ran from 1948 to 1971. It enabled Mavor Moore to finance his own early Canadian musicals, Sunshine Town (1954-55), based on Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, and The Optimist (1956), drawn from Voltaire's Candide.
The Canadian musical comedy triumph of the 50s was My Fur Lady (1957-58), which made a million dollars on a cross-Canada tour and helped launch the careers of Brian Macdonald and Galt MacDermot, the composer of Hair. Smaller pocket theatres, primarily in Montréal and Toronto, produced some of the first cabaret revues and original plays of the postwar period. For example, Up Tempo ran from 1956-1965 in Montréal, while Toronto's Clap Hands revue was successful enough to be taken to London (1961-63).
Canada's national independence in the theatre world was aided by a number of developments in the 1950s. Tom Patterson's founding of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in 1953 (and the offshoot Canadian Players in 1954) gave Canada a proud classical base that would achieve international recognition and provide the impetus for the consolidation of professional theatre. In 1955 Canadian Actors' Equity was formed, although it did not achieve complete autonomy from its American parent union until 1976. The founding of the colingual Canadian Theatre Centre in 1959 (which closed in 1971) provided Canada with official representation at the International Theatre Institute and performed a valuable networking function. And finally, the opening of the National Theatre School in Montréal in 1960, which trained students in both languages, completed the setup required for national expansion.
The important Regional Theatre Movement in Canada was fostered by the Canada Council after 1957 under its arts supervisor, Peter Dwyer. Partially subsidized, nonprofit stock companies were gradually established in principal municipalities from coast to coast. Many had presumed that Toronto's Crest Theatre, which evolved out of Hart House Theatre and Donald and Murray Davis's Straw Hat Players, would become the "regional model," but this honour went instead to Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre. Founded by John Hirsch and Tom Hendry in 1958 out of a merger of 2 amateur groups, MTC attained full professionalism within 4 years, thereby demonstrating the value of government support for the arts.
Summer festivals and winter stock companies sprouted: the Vancouver International Festival (1958-68); the Shaw Festival in 1962; the Vancouver Playhouse and Halifax's Neptune Theatre in 1963; the Charlottetown Summer Festival in 1964; Edmonton's Citadel in 1965; the Globe Theatre in Regina in 1966; the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montréal in 1967; Theatre New Brunswick in Fredericton and Theatre Calgary in 1968; Ottawa's National Arts Centre and Montréal's Centaur Theatre in 1969; and Toronto Arts Productions (later CentreStage and the Canadian Stage Co) at the St Lawrence Centre (1970). Theatre London (now the Grand Theatre Co), Sudbury Theatre and Victoria's Bastion Theatre (1971-88) all went professional in 1971, leaving Newfoundland as the only province without a regional theatre.
Throughout the 60s, Canada's nonprofit professional theatre received money from all levels of government and from private sources, reaching subsidization levels as high as 50%. In addition, a great deal of money was spent constructing facilities. Civic centres, opera houses and huge multipurpose auditoriums were erected, usually to help celebrate various provincial anniversaries or Canada's 1967 centenary. Regrettably, most of these large playing spaces were unsuitable for the new Canadian troupes. However, the era of ballet and opera in hockey arenas was over, and the new buildings reopened the touring circuits for American plays, musicals and palladium-type entertainments that had not flourished since the 1920s.
The 1960s and Dreams of Nationalism
The 60s saw dreams fulfilled and smashed. Tom Patterson's 1962 hope for a Yukon festival in Dawson City lasted only one summer. In 1963 Montréal lost a beloved roadhouse, Her Majestys, while in Toronto Ed Mirvish rescued the Royal Alexandra from the wreckers. Touring got a boost in the early 1960s when Stratford successfully sent several of Tyrone Guthrie's Gilbert and Sullivan productions to London and New York, and took Shakespeare and Molière to Chichester in 1964.
Among the original dramas, Len Peterson's The Great Hunger (1960, publ 1967) stood out, as did Hey, Rube! (1961), one of the initial "collective creations" produced by George Luscombe's Toronto Workshop Productions (1959-88). Robertson Davies' Love and Libel (1960) and Eric Nicol's Like Father, Like Fun (retitled A Minor Adjustment, 1966-67) were failures in New York. But in 1967 John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes cracked the off-Broadway jinx.
In Toronto, the Crest Theatre and the Canadian Players (1954-66) collapsed in 1966, causing shock waves. A new organization, Theatre Toronto, made a bid for world-class status in 1968-69. Its production of Rolf Hochhuth's Soldiers caused a stir in New York and London, but the company itself lasted only 2 seasons.
Centennial Year marked a watershed for Canadian nationalism. The Canadian Theatre Centre hosted an international theatre conference, Colloquium '67, in Montréal in association with Expo '67. A few important plays were produced: George Ryga'sThe Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Ann Henry's Lulu Street, James Reaney's Colours in the Dark, and the 1965 musical version of Lucy Maud Montgomery's enduring hit Anne of Green Gables, which toured the nation. However, the Centennial celebrations brought to a head the discontent felt for many years over the dearth of English-Canadian plays. Although Canada had produced dramatic writers such as Coulter, Davies, Herbert, Nicol, Peterson and Ryga, as well as Lister Sinclair, Bernard Slade, Patricia Joudry, W.O. Mitchell, Arthur Murphy and Wilfred Watson, Canadian plays were seldom seen on regional stages. The winter stock companies and summer festivals were labelled "dinosaurs," producing only imported or "museum" theatre, and they became targets for a jingoistic slanging. The second tier of Canada's professional structure was about to happen, the "Alternate Theatre."
Alternate Theatre and the Canadian Cause
The first groups to provide an alternative to the regional companies lacked a national mission. These included Vancouver's Savage God (1966-80), Toronto's Passe Muraille (1968-) and Canadian Place Theatre at Stratford (1969). These alternate theatres produced American Vietnam or "hippie" dramas that utilized the newfound freedoms of nudity and explicit language. Passe Muraille's Futz (1969) and the year-long run of Hair at the Royal Alexandra (1970) fall into this category. A 1970 Canadian Festival of Underground Theatre in Toronto was a catalyst. But it took Ken Gass's Factory Theatre Lab (1970-) and Bill Glassco's Tarragon Theatre (1971-), both in Toronto, to dramatically shift the emphasis to original plays and provide the "alternates" with a Canadian cause.
In the summer of 1971 the Canada Council, at the instigation of theatre officer David Garder, convened a think tank in the Gaspé on "The Dilemma of Canadian Playwrighting." It recommended that a 50% subsidy should entail at least 50% Canadian content. This conference was followed by a larger and more public gathering at Niagara-on-the-Lake, which led to the formation of Playwrights Co-op (now the Playwrights Union of Canada), designed to foster the publishing of original dramatic works.
The 1970s saw hundreds of new plays produced and printed, an exciting turnaround as Canada's professional theatre became more truly Canadian and accessible. Notable writers of this period were Carol Bolt, Peter Colley, Michael Cook, Rex Deverell, David Fennario, Timothy Findley, David Freeman, David French, Joanna Glass, John Gray, Cam Hubert, Ken Mitchell, John Murrell, Sharon Pollock, James Reaney, Erika Ritter, Rick Salutin, George F. Walker and Tom Walmsley. Eventually, even the regional theatres clambered on the band wagon, picking up the new hits produced by the " alternates" and giving them major mainstage productions.
Between 1971 and 1974 2 federal make-work schemes, Local Initiatives Programs and Opportunities for Youth, directed funds into theatre. New alternate groups sprang into being such as Edmonton's Theatre 3 (1970-81); BC's horse-drawn puppet theatre, Little People's Caravan (1970-), which became the Caravan Stage Company in 1976; Vancouver's experimental Tamahnous (Chilcotin for magic) (1971-); Wolfville, NS's Mermaid Theatre (1972-); Magnus Theatre Company Northwest in Thunder Bay (1972-); Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Workshop (1973-), in 1981 renamed the Praire Theatre Exchange; Theatre Aquarius from Ottawa, now located in Hamilton (1973-); Toronto Free Theatre (1972-87), which merged to become the Canadian Stage Company; Toronto's Actor's Lab Theatre (1973-91); and Famous People Players (1974-), a blacklight puppet troupe employing young mentally handicapped adults. The isolated English summer festival at Lennoxville, Qué (Festival Lennoxville, 1972-82), was dedicated to repeat showings of lesser-known Canadian plays but, unlike Ontario's Blyth Festival (1975-), originated no drama of its own.
The Newfoundland Pattern
Newfoundland reversed the national trend and produced a fine alternate theatre before it went "mainstream." Chris Brookes's highly political Mummers Troupe (1972-82) not only revived the 19th-century Christmas tradition of mumming but with dramas like Gros Mourn (1974) and They Club Seals Don't They? (1978) brought Collective Creation techniques to bear on social injustices. They also established the 200-seat LSPU Hall (Longshoreman's Protective Union) as the creative home for original drama in St John's - now the Resource Centre for the Arts.
Newfoundland's Codco stage company (1973-79), also disguised as WNOBS (White Niggers of Bond Street), had a lasting influence. Codco performers such as Tommy Sexton (1957-93) and Greg Malone polished a comedy duo with the Wonderful Grand Band and then scored on CBC-TV in 1986-88 with their satiric S and M Comic Book Show. Cathy Jones had a great hit with her one-person show Wedding in Texas and Other Stories (1986-87), as did Andy Jones earlier in Out of the Bin (1984) and Mary Walsh with Bloomsdays (1982), her evocation of James Joyce.
In 1986 the RCA staged a retrospective of past shows in a special "Decade of Performance" season and, in the summer of 1986, The Best of Codco toured successfully. From 1988 to 1993, the CBC sponsored an outrageous Codco TV series that attracted a cult following. It was succeeded by This Hour Has 22 Minutes, a spinoff satire of the news headlines. The Plays of Codco was published in 1992 by Peter Lang.
Mainstream regional theatre in Newfoundland spun off the alternate groups. Rising Tide Theatre (1978-) evolved as a splinter group from the Mummers Troupe and performed early collectives like Daddy ... What's a Train? (1978). Then, under Donna Butt and David Ross, they moved into the 1100-seat, government-operated Arts and Culture Centre and began to produce larger, well-made plays in a determined bid to become Newfoundland's eastern regional theatre. Other St John's companies include Sheila's Brush (1979-), bringing folklore to schools; the Newfoundland Shakespeare Company (1983-); and Elysian Theatre (1986-). On the West Coast, the Stephenville (summer) Festival of the Arts began in 1979, while Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador (1981-) makes its base at Corner Brook.
Trends of the 1970s
The 1970s saw the expansion of theatre companies continue. Some of the most interesting to develop included Vancouver's New Play Centre (1970-), which shared the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island with the Carousel Theatre for young audiences (1974-); Calgary's Alberta Theatre Projects (1972-) and Arete Mime (1976); Saskatoon's 25th Street House Theatre (1972-) and Persephone Theatre (1974-); Thunder Bay's Kam Theatre Lab (1974-); Edmonton's Northern Lights Theatre (1975-) and Theatre Network (1975-); Vancouver's Green Thumb Theatre for Young People (1975-); Victoria's Belfrey Theatre (1975-); The Mulgrave Road Co-op (1977-) in Guysborough Town, NS; and in Toronto, Open Circle (1972-82), Toronto Truck (1971-), Theatre Plus (1973-93), North America's 2 renowned satiric ensembles, The Second City Comedy Cabaret (1973-) and Yuk Yuk's Komedy Kabaret (1975-), and Autumn Leaf (1980-), which since 1990 has specialized in presenting the experimental music-theatre of R. Murray Schafer.
During the 1970s, plays that pleased Canadian audiences seldom received acclaim abroad. Tarragon's presentation of James Reaney's Donnelly Trilogy (1973-75) and its autumn 1975 national tour under the banner of the NDWT (Ne'er Do Well Thespians, 1975-82) was a great success at home. On the other hand, Broadway saw Tarragon's Hosanna in 1974 and, in 1976, Charlottetown's Kronberg: 1582 (renamed Rockabye Hamlet), a pop-rock musical treatment of Shakespeare's masterpiece, but neither received plaudits. Canadian productions exported to Britain in the mid-1970s rarely saw the West End but toured the more obscure provincial circuits or turned up on the fringes of the Edinburgh Festival. When The Ecstasy of Rita Joe and Murrell's Waiting for the Parade were given London presentations in 1975 and 1979 respectively, they were dismissed as "melodrama" or "deadening worthiness."
Nationalism and Protectionist Policies
During the mid-1970s nationalistic controversy developed around the issue of theatre personnel and direction, sparked by the beginning of the Robin Phillips era at Stratford (1975-1980). The importation of British directors such as Phillips and the late Peter Coe at the Citadel 1978-80 provoked protectionist policies. In 1980 a crisis over leadership at Stratford rocked the nation's cultural community and threatened the very existence of the renowned festival. Ironically, succeeding artistic directors John Hirsch, John Neville and David William, although Canadian citizens, were not born in Canada. Finally, in 1993, the single Canadian-born leader, Jean Gascon, was joined by a second Montréaler, Richard Monette, to satisfy nationalist criteria at Stratford. Despite the brouhaha, directors like Phillips have enriched Canadian theatre. The latter's application of a repertory/ensemble system at London's Grand Theatre (1983-84) turned out to be too radical an approach for the entrenched regional subscribers. But his return to Stratford in 1986 as the director of Cymbeline, his subsequent appointment as head of the Young Company (1987-88) and his director generalship of the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton (1990-95) were acclaimed successes.
Into the 1980s: Some Growth, Some Faltering
In some parts of Canada, the mid-1970s through the 1980s was a time of expansion and even new building. On 13 November 1976 the Citadel opened the first phase of its new theatre complex and in 1984 unveiled Citadel Phase II, ending with 5 theatres linked by an indoor tropical garden and waterfall. On 14 September 1985 Calgary's $80-million Arts Centre opened - a 6-level home to Alberta Theatre Projects, Theatre Calgary and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. In Vancouver the popular Arts Club Theatre (1964-) added 2 extra theatre spaces on the Granville I restoration project, first in 1979 and then in 1983. In Toronto on 29 January 1987, CentreStage and Toronto Free Theatre completed an historic merger destined to provide Toronto with a supercompany on a heightened scale.
But all was not growth and success. In Halifax, financial losses forced Neptune to close its doors for 8 months during 1976. It survived, but money shortages continued to limit the growth of theatre in Nova Scotia until the mid-1990s. 1976 also saw the Olympics in Montréal and the poorly organized performing arts festival (or "cultural Olympics") that accompanied it. Calgary's Winter Olympics in 1988 were better planned. In response to the election of the Parti Québécois in November 1976, federal monies were made available for 1977-78 "unity" tours of Canada by the National Arts Centre companies in both languages. But more valuable were Rick Salutin's Les Canadiens (1977) and David Fennario's bilingual Balconville (1979, publ 1980), both at Centaur.
The 1970s saw the first signs of an extended economic recession that would change the tone and direction of Canadian professional theatre. Funding cutbacks necessitated smaller-cast and commercially "saleable" plays. Comedies, musicals and thrillers began to dominate the playbills, with works such as Same Time, Next Year (1975, publ 1975), 18 Wheels (1977, publ 1987), One Night Stand (1977, publ 1977), Eight to the Bar (1978, publ 1979), Jitters (1979, publ 1980), I'll Be Back for You Before Midnight (1979, publ 1985), Automatic Pilot (1980, publ 1980), Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii (1980, publ 1982), Rock'n Roll (1981, CTR 1982), Talking Dirty (1981, publ 1983), Broue (1979, in English as Brew, 1983) and B- Movie, the Play (1986). The balanced subscription seasons of the regional and larger alternate theatres started to give way to open-ended runs and a scramble for transfer-houses.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Toronto saw the emergence of a host of theatre companies with special group identities: companies devoted to women's interests such as Redlight (1974-78), Nightwood (1979-), Company of Sirens (1987-), Empress Productions, (1988-); for seniors, The Smile Company (1972-); for children, Young People's Theatre (1966-), Theatre Direct Canada (1976-), Erewhon (1979-); for gays and lesbians, Buddies in Bad Times (1979-); female impersonation, La Cage (1986-); musical theatre, Comus (1975- 87); and technological experiments such as Videocabaret (1975-).
Multicultural Theatre has also flourished in Toronto, especially since 1975, when an annual multicultural festival began to be held there. The city's ethnic diversity is served by groups such as Théâtre française de Toronto (1967-, formerly Le Théâtre de p'tit bonheur) and the bilingual Theatre Ensemble (1987-); Black Theatre Canada (1973-88), Theatre Fountainhead (1974-90), We Are One Theatre, Sugar 'n' Spice, Theatre in the Rough and Theatre Wum (1991-), all for blacks; and 2 Jewish organizations, the Leah Posluns Theatre (1977-94) and the Nephesh Theatre Company (1978-).
Although the Forest theatre at the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont, began to produce an annual dramatic pageant in 1948, Indigenous theatre began to enter the mainstream in the 1970s. Chief Dan George drew attention to the value of theatre as a means of focusing on Indigenous problems with his Canadian performance in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe and subsequent Hollywood films. Early groups specializing in Indigenous theatre were the Tillicum Theatre of Nanaimo, BC (1973-75), and the Atchemowin ("storytelling") group in Edmonton (1976-), remembered for their CBC-TV soap opera series Muskeg Flats (1978). Since 1974 there has been a Native Theatre School in Ontario - renamed in 1994 the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. George Kenny's student play October Stranger toured Ontario and was taken to the Monaco festival of amateur theatre in 1977. Indigenous Theatre Festivals were hosted at York University (1980) and at the Curve Lake Reserve near Peterborough (1982), attracting first peoples' troupes from around the world. And in 1983 Native Earth Performing Arts, the major Toronto theatre venue for indigenous peoples, was formed.
Northern Delights Theatre Company and Sudbury's N'Swakamok Native Players (Ojibwa for "where three roads meet") toured northern Ontario in 1984 and 1985. In 1986 the CBC produced a 6-part TV drama series called Spirit Bay using Indigenous performers. Also in 1986 Linda Griffiths' adaptation of Maria Campbell's story of a Métis woman, Jessica: A Transformation, won "best Canadian play" at the La Quinzaine internationale du théâtre festival at Québec City. In 1987, Tomson Highway's Rez Sisters captured a Dora Mavor Moore award for outstanding new play of 1986 in the Toronto area and was runner-up for a Chalmers Award. His sequel, the raw and passionate Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989), won the Chalmers and 4 Doras and was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award before touring to the NAC in 1991 and going on to a 6-week run at the Royal Alexandra.
Indigenous companies active in the 1990s include the Sen'Klip Theatre from Vernon, BC, the Sweetgrass Players in Calgary, Four Winds Theatre in Hobbema, AB, Winnipeg's Awasikan Theatre, and the De-ba-jeh-mu-jig (or storytellers') Theatre on Manitoulin Island, Ont. New playwrights finding recognition are Daniel David Moses, Shirley Cheechoo, Floyd Favel and Drew Hayden Taylor, among others, while in Hollywood and in Canada, actors Graham Greene and Gary Farmer pursue cinematic careers.
Indigenous theatre groups have also formed in the North. In Labrador a Creative Arts Festival involving thousands of students from over 20 communities has been held annually since 1976. One Inuit drama group from the tiny village of Nain, Lab, the Nanuksuamiut (People of the Country), have committed themselves to original work and have begun to broadcast radio plays in both Inuktitut and English. Their 1983 stage production of Sinnatomanguik REM (Dream Sleep) represented Canada and Newfoundland in the International Multicultural Theatre Festival in Calgary. Tunooniq is Canada's most northerly company, based since 1986 at Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. Their play Changes depicted how Inuit culture has been almost wiped out by Europeans. One of their actors, David Qaminiq, came south to Toronto in 1993 to play the storyteller in the drama Whale at Young Peoples' Theatre.
The Effects of Funding Cuts
Since the late 1970s theatres have battled government funding cuts blamed on successive recessions. Corporate sponsorship was sought for individual productions and, for the first time, some independent entrepreneurs eschewed subsidy and mounted shows for private profit. Ed and David Mirvish successfully toured Stratford's 1982 production of The Mikado, one of the company's Gilbert and Sullivan revivals of the early 1980s, in Britain, the US and across Canada. Coproductions and co-operative exchanges have helped some companies cut costs. A stunning, Bunraku-inspired puppet production of Strindberg's A Dream Play in 1977, for instance, was sponsored by 4 different theatres, as was Paul Ledoux's and David Young's original evangelical rock musical Fire (1985-86).
Cross-country touring has extended the life of productions such as Ten Lost Years (1974-75), Cruel Tears (1975, publ 1977) and Paper Wheat (1977-78, publ 1982). Moneymakers receive extended runs. The Mousetrap has continued unbroken at Toronto Truck since 19 August 1977; Regina's The Trial of Louis Riel has played every summer since 1967 and Charlottetown's Anne of Green Gables since 1965. The first contemporary theatrical production to draw audiences for an extended run was Spring Thaw (1948-71), the New Play Society's comedy revue which appeared annually for 24 years and was reincarnated in 1980 and 1986.
Another approach to making theatre pay has been to combine it with eating and drinking. Literally hundreds of late night cabaret revues appeared in the 1970s and early 1980s until SCTV, The Frantics and Kids in the Hall charted the course for sketch comedy as a television commodity rather than a stage experience. Lunchtime Theatre had been tried by Montréal's Instantheatre between 1965 and 1971. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s the chief exponents were Citystage in Vancouver (1972-86), Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary (1975-), Northern Light (1975-) and Nexus (1982-) in Edmonton, and Solar Stage in Toronto (1978-). As for dinner theatre, since 1979 His Majesty's Feast in Toronto has combined chicken and ribs with a rowdy evening of English Music Hall patter, songs, dances and audience participation hosted by King Henry VIII and his jester.
One of the most ambitious and prosperous dinner theatres (beginning in 1975 and continuing in popularity into the 1990s) was Stage West, a sextet of supper clubs, in Edmonton (1975-), Regina (1977-82), Winnipeg (1980-85), Calgary (1982-), Palm Springs, Calif (1983-84), and Mississauga, Ont (1986-). After sampling its buffet, the Stage West audiences sat at their tables for saucy farces fronted by yesterday's American TV/film stars. In the mid-1980s murder mysteries were popular. Staged "murders" (dinner included) are still popular in dining rooms, at resorts, on train trips or boat cruises rather than in playhouses. After the body falls, the audience participates in tracking down the murderer and the motives, while the anonymous actors (amateur and professional) blend in with the paying guests and improvise their characters in response to the would-be sleuths.
Nudity and Eroticism
All-nude revues were also money-makers in the 1980s. In Toronto O! Calcutta! ran for over a year and Let My People Come thrived from 1981 to 1989. But nudity and eroticism could also be controversial. Passe Muraille's erotic I Love You Baby Blue (1975) had its 12-week run interrupted, but not closed, by the police. Also controversial were Vancouver's Touchstone Theatre (1976-) collective's Sex Tips for Modern Girls (1985-86) and CentreStage's explicit Toronto production of Wedekind's Spring Awakening (1986). Especially intriguing was the f-word furor accompanying Charlottetown's 1987-88 summer production of the Elvis Presley music play Are You Lonesome Tonight?
In some cases, controversy threatened grants. Buddies in Bad Times, for example, came under the gun in the 1990s for works like Drag Queens on Trial and Ban This Show (Sky Gilbert's exploration of the life and photography of Robert Mapplethorpe).
The One-Person Show
Since the late 1970s, the one-person show has been called upon to save money. It had been tried as early as 1965 by John Drainie (Laugh With Leacock) and in 1970 by both Paddy Crean (The Sun Never Sets) and Tony Van Bridge as G.K. Chesterton. The popularity of this dramatic form in subsequent years makes one wonder if the prevalence of the soliloquy in contemporary playwrighting has been influenced by solo performances. Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978-81, publ 1981), Linda Griffiths's Maggie and Pierre (1979-81, publ 1981) and Viola Léger as La Sagouine (1974 in French, 1979 in English) were probably the most noteworthy early exponents. Later examples include Alan Williams's Cockroach and Texas trilogies, Kenneth Brown's Life After Hockey, Dan Needles's Wingfield Trilogy, Marshall Button's Lucien, Joan Macleod's Jewel (1987), Sandra Shamas's Laundry Cycle, Robert LePage's internationally acclaimed Vinci and Needles and Opium, Guillermo Verdecchia's Fronteras Americanas (American Borders), which won the Governor General's Award in 1993, Karen Hines's Pochsy's Lips and Oh Baby, and George Seremba's Come Good Rain. Other Canadians doing memorable solo work include Diane Flacks, Ken Garnhum and Daniel MacIvor, amongst many others.
Tight money has spurred invention in the marketing and administration of Canadian theatre. In 1983 Toronto borrowed the NYC idea of half-price tickets from downtown kiosks on the day of the performance. Pay-what-you-can Sunday matinees have become standard. Small theatrical organizations in the large urban areas economize by co-operatively renting a single playing-space. For example, the Theatre Centre in Toronto has housed up to 30 groups. Many theatres (Tarragon and Canadian Stage, for example) make money renting extra performance spaces. Nomadic troupes like Toronto's Necessary Angel (1978-) are not identified with any specific theatre but take their personality and quality of work from their director. Companies such as Stratford, Shaw and London's Grand Theatre, as well as Edmonton's social-action Catalyst Theatre (1978-), have sweetened their budgets by turning productions into films and videotapes for the lucrative TV market.
Tight money has also created casualties amongst small and middle-range companies. Some companies which closed or went bankrupt in the 1980s and 1990s include: The Mummers Troupe in Newfoundland; Citystage and Westcoast Actors in Vancouver; Bastion in Victoria; Theatre 3 in Edmonton; Stage West in Regina; Agassiz in Winnipeg; Festival Lennoxville; the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montréal; and the Stephen Leacock Festival of Humour in Orillia, Ont. Toronto was hit badly with the loss of Open Circle, NDWT, the Phoenix, Adelaide Court, the Pauline McGibbon Centre, Theatre in the Dell, the Variety and Teller's Cage dinner theatres, Toronto Workshop Productions, Theatre Plus, the Leah Posluns Theatre, Black Theatre Canada, Theatre Fountainhead, and the magazine Scene Changes (1973-81).
In Ottawa, Penguin, Theatre 2000, and the bulk of the National Art's Centre's indigenous theatre program were some of the nearly 30 casualties. Ironically, in spite of the recommendation by the Applebaum-Hébert Report in 1982 that the NAC curtail its inhouse productions, the centre has pursued its mandate to provide a showcase for the finest regional companies. In the new spirit of co-operation (as, for example, in their 1987-88 season), the NAC entered into coproductions with Citadel, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Blyth Festival, CentreStage, and even the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC.
The Emergence of Fringe Theatre
A new development of the 1980s was the emergence of many fringe theatre companies, not usually permanent groups, but rather occasional make-work productions brought together under various festival umbrellas across the country. The first and most famous of these is the annual August fringe theatre event (re-named each year) held in Edmonton's Old Strathcona district.
First organized in 1982 by Brian Paisley, then artistic director of the Chinook Theatre (1978-), the 9-day Edinburgh-inspired Fringe Theatre Festival has increased its audience each year and attracts up to 150 nonjuried entertainments, often from as far away as England, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Africa, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Florida, the Caribbean and California. The first-come-first-served companies pay an entry fee for their performing space, and provide their own production and transportation expenses in return for 100% of the box office sales. At the end of the millennium, Edmonton's fringe still set the standard. Attracting up to 300 000 people, the smorgasbord of indoor and outdoor shows is enlivened by buskers, food stalls and beer tents.
Vancouver was the next city to pick up on the concept, and by 1991 a cross-Canada fringe circuit had been created. Entertainers could set out in late May from the East and end up on the West Coast in mid-September. The 3-and-a-half month odyssey would include engagements at Fringe Festivals in Montréal (started in 1991), Toronto (1989), Winnipeg (1988), Saskatoon (1990), Edmonton (1982), Victoria (1987) and Vancouver (1985). Other locations, which tend to come and go, have included Halifax (The Atlantic Fringe Festival) (1991-), Kingston and Manotick (south of Ottawa).
The Freedom to Fail: A Fringe Mantra
Because there are no evaluative criteria, attractions vary from the highly polished to those "in process"; the freedom to fail is a fringe mantra. Audiences seem to enjoy the postmodern gamble in selecting events from a diverse menu. Fringe theatre is also a grassroots exercise in small-scale capitalism and, as such, surprisingly comparable to the expensive commercial megamusicals, particularly in the way both cater to tourist audiences. In production values, however, they are diametrically opposed. Together, they demonstrate the very different strategies adopted to make theatre independent of government subsidies. While the fringe events are joyous summer binges catering to off-beat tastes and small pocket books, the megamusicals attempt to draw large generalist audiences willing to pay high ticket prices.
The fringe concept has been applied to one winter event, the celebration of New Year's Eve. Vancouver inaugurated the concept in Canada in 1987. By the mid-1990s there were at least 14 cities in Canada, from Fredericton to Victoria, sponsoring a nonalcoholic family festival of buskers and street theatre known as" First Night."
Although fringe events do not normally encourage new play development as part of their mandate, some playwrights, like Edmonton's Stewart Lemoine, introduce a new work almost every year. In other Canadian cities, small, experimental productions have been cultivated under festival umbrellas designed to showcase new writing. In Toronto these include Factory Lab's week-long Brave New Works series; the Theatre Centre's research and development workshops; Buddies in Bad Times' Rhubarb! and 4-play festivals; Tarragon's Spring Performing Arts Fair; Nightwood's Groundswell; and an annual feminist cabaret consisting of original 5-minute selections.
The fringe phenomenon seems to have inspired an additional quartet of festivals in Toronto which are dedicated to the development of new work. Mayworks began in 1986 with labour as its theme and is the largest such venture in North America. Under the Umbrella (1991-), Summerworks (1989-), and September's Up Front Festival (1991-), all cater to original plays in a number of different venues.
The Summer Season
In the 1980s and 1990s the explosion of popular summer entertainments - everything from hot air balloon contests to fireworks competitions - often included a folkloric or historical component. Others have garnered renown as comedy events. Montréal's Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs, which began in July 1983 as a small French celebration, mushroomed after 1985 into a mammoth 10-day international and colingual comedy extravaganza with 115 to 200 acts from countries around the globe. On television this "Cannes of Comedy" was a springboard for Canadian comic talent, launching the North American career, for example, of Québec's singing impressionist André-Philippe Gagnon. The late John Candy hosted it twice. Vancouver followed suit in 1987 with its International Festival of Comedy on Granville Island, making use of many of the same street entertainers that had delighted visitors to Expo '86. June is the month for Toronto's Peoples Comedy Festival (1992-), organized by Yuk Yuk's impresario Mark Breslin. It grew out of the Molson Comedy Releaf Festival (1989-91), which had raised money for reforestation.
In an older tradition, Ottawa's Odyssey Theatre (1986-) presents Commedia dell'arte in "theatre under the stars" at Strathcona Park. And on the East Coast, Halifax held Buskers '87, its first annual international competition for street performers. This 10-day Buskerfest offered a People's Choice Award of $10 000, and was a logical successor to the 1982 Dartmouth Festival of Clowning. Cape Breton's 1985 Festival Bras d'Or featured 3 weeks of plays and the revue The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island. It became The Cape Breton Summertime Revue (1986-), "the most successful stage show in Atlantic Canada," which annually tours throughout Nova Scotia and, since 1993, cities in Ontario.
Summer Stock Theatres
Summer stock theatres have been popular in Canada since the late 1940s. Flourishing in the mid-1990s were BC's White Rock Theatre (1976-) and the Sunshine Theatre in Kelowna (1977-); Nova Scotia's Ship's Company, which performed homemade drama on the decks of the resuscitated Kipawa Showboat; and BC's Caravan Farm Theatre (1970-). King's Playhouse in Georgetown, PEI, was housed in a heritage theatre that dated from 1897. Destroyed by fire in 1983, it was faithfully restored in time for their 1984 season. There is a particularly heavy concentration of Straw Hat ventures in Ontario's cottage country, with several moving away from the familiar pattern of American or British comedies and mysteries to plays with specifically Canadian themes. These include the all-Canadian Blyth Festival, the Muskoka Festival (1972- ) at Gravenhurst and Port Carling, the Kingston Summer Festival (1993-) and Theatre Orangeville (1994-).
Shakespeare alfresco proved popular in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s. Vancouver's Bard on the Beach (1990-) in Vanier Park, which began in 1983 as the Vancouver Shakespeare Festival, is book-ended by Dick's Kids Productions (1993-) performing against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean in Logy's Bay, near St. John's, Nfld. In between are Montréal's Touring Repercussion Players (1988-), the Ottawa Shakespeare Festival (1991-), Toronto's Dream in High Park, produced by the Canadian Stage Company since 1983, Manitoba's Shakespeare in the Ruins (1994-), where the audience moves around the ruins of a Trappist monastery, and Nightcap Theatre's Shakespeare on the [River] Saskatchewan (1985-) in Saskatoon. Some are under canvas; others brave the elements. All endure the distractions of extraneous noise.
In the summer of 1987 there were 3 productions of The Tempest in Toronto: Dream in the Park's traditional version; an intriguing colonial interpretation with Haida spirits at North York's Skylight Theatre; and the Toronto Studio Players Theatre school adaptation called Tempest in a Teapot. The Skylight's 1500-seat outdoor amphitheatre was completed for its 1988 season but lack of finances curtailed a roof covering. The innovative and tented Saskatchewan Festival began with A Midsummer Night's Dream on a golf course, graduated to a futuristic Tempest featuring a swimming pool, and went on to a guerrilla warfare Macbeth, set in Central America. Their acclaimed 1989-90 modern dress production of Romeo and Juliette turned the feuding families into French and English. Located on a Prairie highway, the truck-driving, beer-drinking Montagues were directed by Gordon McCall, while the graceful francophone Capulets were guided by Québec City's Robert LePage.
In 1986 Toronto's Future Shakespeare Company produced an all-female Julius Caesar, and in 1995 Janet Wright played the title role in Necessary Angel's mixed gender King Lear.
Nontraditional Theatrical Forms
A nontraditional summer theatrical form to emerge in the 1990s goes by the name of Community Play Projects. The Spirit of the Shivaree in Rockwood, Ont, was the first to be done in 1990; the second, Pa' Ko'pi'cik/ The Gathering, appeared in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask, in 1993. These are large, nonurban, outdoor spectacles in which the community represents itself; sometimes simply dramatizing its historical past, but just as often acting as a vigilante force to redress a local wrong. The first symposium on the form was held in 1994 at Fort Qu'Appelle, hosted by Regina's Common Weal.
Populist Theatre and Special Interest Groups
Mime festivals had been held in centres like Vancouver and Montréal since 1978, but the recession took its toll on many groups. Vancouver's Beaux Gestes folded in 1988 due to late-arriving grants and, by 1989, the International Mime Festival was postponed and in jeopardy because of reduced funding.
The Winnipeg-based Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance began in 1981 to sponsor a biennial international festival of left-of-centre theatre in Thunder Bay. Called Bread and Circuses, it attracted a dozen nations, many of them Third World. But, by 1991 in Edmonton, the festival ironically called itself Bread and Water.
Another populist direction in the 1980s and 1990s has been women's theatre. In response to the 1983 publication of a study on the Status of Women in the Arts, a Women in Canadian Theatre conference was convened at York U in August 1985, followed by the First International Conference on Women in the Performing Arts at Vancouver, September 1986. A second International Conference on Women Playwrights at York U's Glendon College in May 1991 proved fractious rather than helpful. More productive was The Gathering, a biennial festival of short plays dealing with women's issues begun at Theatre Passe Muraille in 1992.
Young people's theatre has expanded since the mid- to late 1970s in response to popular demand. Since 1978, the remarkable Vancouver Children's Festival has spawned a string of similar international spring festivals in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Montréal, and, in 1983, Calgary also played host to World Theatre Mosaic, a congress of the best in amateur theatre from around the globe.
Many guest countries have brought their theatrical treasures to Canada, often in reciprocal response to similar Canadian cultural exchanges abroad. In 1985 Vancouver laid out the welcome mat for an Asia-Pacific Festival featuring groups from India, Korea, Malaysia, China and the Soviet Union. However, in 1987, the same festival suffered organizational problems and financial losses in 1987 when transferred to the site of Expo '86. Toronto, another multicultural city, sponsored the Brecht: 30 Years After conference (1986), which saw the North American debut of the Berliner Ensemble; Holland's Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1987), which also toured to Montréal and Ottawa; Italy On Stage (1987 and 91), a multidisciplinary arts festival including theatre, opera, ballet, music and the visual arts, catering to the large Italian community in the city; and China '87, a summer twinning of Toronto and Chongqing which featured acrobatics, dance and art.
Since 1967 Toronto's Caribbean community has sponsored Caribana in the summer, with its spectacular "mas" (masquerade) parade and steel drum music, followed by a "jump-up" on Toronto Island, all reminiscent of the Carnivals in Trinidad and Tobago. In the 1990s, however, even this joyous occasion, which attracts 1.5 million participants and onlookers, was sometimes dogged by money woes.
Canadian Theatre in the International Context
The 1980s saw the emergence of 3 major international theatre festivals: one in Toronto, one in Québec City and one in Montréal. In Toronto, predecessors such as Onstage 81 (sponsored by the Toronto Theatre Alliance), the 1983 International Theatre Congress (sponsored by Equity Showcase at Harbourfront) and the 1984 Toronto International Festival (organized by the late Muriel Sherrin to celebrate Toronto's 150th anniversary and Ontario's bicentennial) , proved to be one-time-only events. However, out of all this international activity, the Du Maurier World Stage finally metamorphosed at Harbourfront in 1986, and continues to be presented every other year.
In Québec City, Alexander Hausvater and Rachel Lortie's La Quinzaine internationale du Théâtre (International Theatre Fortnight) (1984-90) floundered when provincial and municipal funding was withdrawn. After a bitter power struggle, government funds were redirected in 1992 to the French-language Carrefour internationale du Théâtre de Québec (International Theatre Crossroads of Québec), headed by Pierre MacDuff and Michel Bernatchez.
In Montréal, the biennial international Festival de théâtre des Amériques (1985-) was founded by Marie-Hélène Falcon. It was created to accompany the 1985 International Theatre Institute's World Congress held in Montréal and Toronto, and has continued to take place in odd-numbered years (with Toronto and Québec City holding their festivals in even-numbered years). Originally, the Americas Festival highlighted a north-south perspective with much Latin theatre brought from South America, but by 1989 it had branched out to become another multicultural display case.
International festivals have provided Canadian artists with opportunities to see the best from abroad and, alternatively, to perform around the world. Since Théâtre Repère's 6-hour trilingual Dragon Trilogy was seen in 1987, the work of Robert Lepage has been performed to great acclaim everywhere. His monumental Seven Streams of the River Ota made its debut as a work-in-progress at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994.
John Krizanc's Tamara, originally directed by Richard Rose for Toronto's Necessary Angel at Onstage '81, went on to become a major success for over 10 years in Los Angeles. It opened there in 1984 and won 6 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards in 1985. It also enjoyed a 3-year run off Broadway (1987-90) and has been produced in Mexico, Argentina, Warsaw and Milan, making Tamara Canada's longest-running and most successful theatrical export to date.
Increasingly, Canadian productions and talent can be regarded as exportable commodities. Billy Bishop Goes to War was the first theatrical "hat trick," scoring raves in Canada, New York and London in the early 1980s. In the UK, Tarragon's 1986 tour of Michel Tremblay's Albertine, in Five Times, Nightwood's collective This Is For You, Anna and Dennis Foon's New Canadian Kid were received blissfully.
In 1993, Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love won him the London Evening Standard Drama Award for "Most Promising Playwright." These are only a few examples of the many successful productions that have been seen around the world.
Contemporary performers who regularly play Broadway or the West End in London include Hume Cronyn, Len Cariou, Brent Carver, Victor Garber, Jeff Hyslop, Andrea Martin, Roberta Maxwell, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Plummer and the late Kate REID. Canadians familiar in Hollywood include Dan Aykroyd, Geneviève Bujold, the late John Candy, Jim Carrey, Michael J. FOX, Rick Moranis, Mike Myers, Leslie Nielsen, Catherine O'Hara, Keanu Reeves (who returned in 1995 to break box office records at Manitoba Theatre Centre playing Hamlet), William Shatner, Helen Shaver, Martin Short and Donald Sutherland and Kiefer Sutherland.
Increasingly, Canadians have won awards for their work abroad. In 1985 Toronto-born Des McAnuff won a Tony for his Broadway direction of the Huckleberry Finn musical Big River, while the 1986-87 NY Drama Desk named Toronto's Teresa Stratas best actress in the musical Rags. Canada's first big year for Tony Awards in musicals was 1993. Garth Drabinsky's Toronto-produced Kiss of the Spider Woman won 7, including one for Cranbrook, BC's, Brent Carver as its leading player. (Both received Canadian "Doras" a month later in the same categories.) In 1995 Drabinsky would repeat the NY phenomenon with Show Boat.
McAnuff was also awarded his second Tony for directing Tommy and "adopted" Canadian Andrea Martin was named Best Performer in My Brilliant Career. Another Canadian director garnering plaudits abroad was Edmonton's John Caird, responsible at London's Royal Shakespeare Company for codirecting Nicholas Nickleby, Cats and Les Misérables. Canadian set and costume designers won special mention at the Prague Quadrenniale of Scenic Design in 1975, 1979 and 1983.
Rise of the Megamusical
The mid-1980s saw the rise of the megamusical as the prototype of a new commercial phase. In 1985 Cats was given a lavish Canadian production by entrepreneurs Marlene Smith and Ernie Rubenstein in Toronto's partially renovated Elgin Theatre, a production favourably compared to its London and New York antecedents. Its 2-year run (13 March 1985-13 March 1987) grossed $40 million and 4 national touring companies kept it alive until 1992.
Cats signalled a new era for the impresario and the search began for Toronto theatres that could be set aside for long commercial runs. The Mirvishes (Ed and, beginning in 1985, his son David) turned the venerable Royal Alexandra Theatre into a venue for large and long-running Canadian productions. In 1986 Kismet was produced in the summer in collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company. In 1986-87 and 1987-88 the Royal Alex presented entire seasons of Canadian productions and coproductions including, in 1987, shows shared with the Old Vic Theatre in London. With the 1989-93 Canadian version of the blockbuster musical hit Les Misérables, followed by Crazy For You (1993) and the McAnuff Tommy (1995), it became clear that Canada was capable of producing international commercial properties on a par with the best in the English-speaking world. In 1993 the Mirvishes had architect Peter Smith build the 2000-seat Princess of Wales theatre to house Miss Saigon, confirming Toronto's transition to a"Broadway North."
In 1989, Smith/Rubenstein and the Mirvishes were joined by a third producer, Garth Drabinsky. Ousted from his position as chairman of Cineplex-Odeon, Drabinsky was allowed to retain his live entertainment division, the Imperial Pantages Theatre and the Canadian rights to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, which he had obtained in London. Drabinsky's Live Entertainment Corp handsomely remodelled the Pantages to a black and gold Broadway playhouse and opened Phantom in September 1989 for a record-breaking run.
Late in 1989 the beautifully restored Elgin/Winter Garden complex opened under the direction of Smith and Rubenstein, bringing to 3 the number of newly refurbished vaudeville theatres completed that year. Drabinsky rented the Elgin for 2 Webber musicals, Robin Phillips's nuanced production of Aspects of Love (1991-92), coproduced with the Citadel Theatre, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1992-93), starring Donny Osmond. Both shows toured in the US with good return and Dreamcoat came back to Canada in 1995. In the summer of 1992 Drabinsky hired Phantom director Hal Prince to remount Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Bluma Appel Theatre (in Toronto's St Lawrence Centre for the Arts). This production won high praise in London's West End, where it settled in for a healthy stay. Amid racial controversy, Drabinsky then presented Hal Prince's generous and big-hearted revival of Jerome Kern's Show Boat in October 1993 and, a year later, took the Canadian production to New York, where it received rapturous reviews and 5 Tonys. At the helm of Livent, Drabinsky went on to produce Ragtime (1996), Parade (1998) and Fosse (1999) before he was ousted for alleged financial irregularities.
For the first time there were 2 Canadian musical productions playing victoriously on Broadway at the same time - and Garth Drabinsky was hailed a "Canadian Ziegfeld." In 1994 Drabinsky set his sights next on Vancouver, asking Moshe Safdie to design a second, 1800-seat, Ford Centre for the Performing Arts there.
Commercial Writing in the 1980s and 1990s
While Canadian musical productions received international acclaim from the late 1970s through the 1990s, the writing/composing of Canadian material intended for commercial consumption lagged behind. Notable efforts include: Charlottetown's Anne of Green Gables and Rockabye Hamlet; The Citadel Theatre's West End and Broadway-destined Flowers for Algernon (1978-79) and the Treasure Island adaptation Pieces of Eight (1985); Cliff Jones's Hey Marilyn (1980) and Duddy (1984), the musical reworking of Mordecai Richler's novel; Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth's Durante (1989-90); and Andrew Sabiston and Timothy Williams's Napoleon (1994). Of these, only Anne of Green Gables and Duddy made use of Canadian themes and settings.
To find Canadian content you have to look to the smaller chamber musicals such as John Gray's Don Messer's Jubilee (1985) or Health (1989); Jim Betts's hockey spoof Thin Ice (1987) or study of the artist Tom Thomson, Colours in the Storm (1990); Raymond Storey and John Roby's nostalgic look at a swing era pavilion, The Dreamland, seen at Blyth in 1989 and given a full-scale remount at Canadian Stage (1991); Cathy Elliott's Fireweeds (1992); Ann-Marie Macdonald and Nic Gotham's jazz opera nightmare Nigredo Hotel (1992); or Frank Moher and Gerald Reid's McLuhan: The Musical (1994).
A few Canadian producers have attempted commercial runs of imported stage material. Gemstone Productions made money with The Dining Room in 1984, but had less success with The Sunshine Boys (1986) and Sullivan and Gilbert (1988). Toronto playwright George F. Walker has proven to be viable at the box office. In 1990, after an 8-month run at the 200-seat Factory Theatre, Garth Drabinsky backed a rare transfer of Walker's Love and Anger production to the 800-seat St Lawrence Centre for a 2-month stay. Walker himself gathered 11 gambling investors, under the name Shared Anxiety, to back a 12-week rerun of his Theatre of the [Film] Noir and turned a profit. And, in 1994, Nothing Sacred, his brilliant 1988 dramatization of Turgenev's 19th-century novel Fathers and Sons, enjoyed a limited success at the 1000-seat Winter Garden.
While contemporary Canadian comedy is appreciated by mainstream, local, national and international audiences, the theatrical forms which nurture it tend to be part of the counterculture. Theatresports, a form of improvisational theatre, achieved popularity in many parts of the country in the 1980s and 1990s. This distinctive game, in which improvisational teams compete like a sporting match, originated with Calgary's Loose Moose Theatre (1977-) and national theatresports tournaments are held regularly with entrants from Calgary, Toronto, Halifax and Vancouver participating. Theatresports teams from Canada also compete internationally, and one Toronto trio, The Out of the Way Players (1982-), won the 1983-84 International Improv Olympix and Ripley's Believe It Or Not recognition for the world's longest improvisational performance (48 nonstop hours). Late-night improvised soap operas and sitcom parodies have also become popular, Star Trek being a favourite target.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a growth of clowning in Canada and the birth of such clown companies as Toronto's Theatre Smith-Gilmour (1980-) and Theatre Columbus (1983-), and the Small Change Theatre (1982-) in Edmonton. Toronto's "Clowns of Horror," Mump and Smoot, surfaced in 1987 and became cult favourites on the Fringe circuit; David Craig's dwarfish buffoon "Napalm" (1990-) sets out deliberately to offend; and Karen Hines masterfully satirizes the illness of the age through her sickly, white-faced Pochsy (pron poxee)(1992-).
Theatre in Canada in the 1990s continued to be influenced by over a hundred small experimental groups, many of which are constituted around special interests or concerns while others challenge political or social values. In the latter category, Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre (1981-) had to close a revival of Blake Brooker's Holocaust satire, Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp to avoid contempt charges during the retrial of James Keegstra. They turned the occasion into a "Banned in Alberta" benefit cabaret to cover the losses. Vancouver's Headlines collective (1981-) is unabashedly political and issue-oriented, presenting works about land claims, real estate crises, nuclear disarmament, sexual harassment and logging abuses.
Theatre in the Maritimes during the late 1980s and 1990s manifested similar trends to those in other parts of Canada, with alternate or radical groups taking on an innovating role and a concern for issues-oriented theatre. Halifax's Kwacha Playhouse (1983-93), for example, catered to the large black community there. Short-lived as it was, artistic director Walter Borden's tough-talking, moralistic drama God's Trombones has been performed extensively, including a 1990 performance in Springhill's medium-security prison.
In 1985, Neptune North, Neptune's second stage, established itself in a former Salvation Army building on Cunard St in Halifax with the hope that it would become a home for small alternate companies. The Atlantic Fringe Festival (1991-), too, has played a part in uncovering promising new groups such as Two Planks and a Passion, Jest in Time, and the Irondale Ensemble Project. Contact Theatre (1985-), seating 200 on the campus of Fredericton's St Thomas University, became a second stage for TNB. Founded in 1983, Enterprise Theatre was a haven for young playwrights, producing pertinent, small-cast shows reflecting the Maritimes.
In 1984, Fredericton's Comedy Asylum (1982-89) came up with The Maritime Mixed Grill, a revue which travelled nationally in 1987-88. In PEI, the Island Community Theatre Performance Group was founded in 1981 to provide winter fare to balance the busy summer season. They hold an annual "New Voices" playwriting competition and have produced dramas like Michael Hennessey's The Trial of Minnie McGee (1983), a true story about a downtrodden Island woman who poisoned her 6 children. It has been frequently revived. Additional small companies in PEI include Charlottetown's Theatre Bandwagon (1982-), a political collective, and Theatre After All.
By the mid-1990s, Neptune Theatre's long-delayed plans for renovation and enlargement were underway, prompted by the resounding accomplishment of their own Les Misérables production. And in the summer of 1995 the Atlantic Theatre Festival opened in Wolfville, NS, an ambitious attempt to create a classical festival of Stratford calibre in the East.
Theatre and Disabilities
Contemporary Canadian theatre has increasingly recognized the needs of the disabled and has been appropriated by groups who want to explore theatrical means of communicating their own messages. Wheelchair access, earphones for the hard of hearing, and signing from the side of the stage have become routine in many theatres across the country. In 1990, Toronto's Equity Showcase Theatre production of The Elephant Man utilized signing actors who physically shadowed the speaking players. David Freeman's cerebral palsy drama Creeps (1972) was a benchmark, as was the founding of the Famous People Players blacklight troupe 2 years later.
Through the 1980s a host of theatrical groups were built around the needs of persons with disabilities. The Show of Hands company was developed for the deaf in 1982. Blind or visually impaired actors have been integrated regularly into the Glenvale Players (1945- ), and in 1983 Insight Theatre ensemble was created especially for this group. Children with reading problems were helped in Calgary with educational workshops called Readers Theatre, while a group of Toronto actors formed Performers for Literacy to promote literary skills. Brantford, Ont's, Rolling Thunder troupe (1985-) acted from wheelchairs. For a time this group was directed by Gordon Paynter, a blind actor-author who went on to become a standup comic known to open a performance with, "Well, you smell like a good audience!" Rolling Thunder and Vancouver's Theatre Terrific (1986-), another wheelchair group, both toured schools. Toronto's Queen Street Mental Health Centre has employed patients in stage plays since 1991, under the Workman Theatre Project. These ventures are representative of interest throughout the country in theatre that includes, and plays to, the disabled. Other Toronto groups absorbing developmentally handicapped adults into theatre performances are Contact Theatre and the Meta Players.
Contemporary Canadian theatres have, from a position outside academia, fostered the writing of new plays, a tradition which can be traced back to the Ottawa Little Theatre which, since 1939, has been sponsoring a one-act-play competition. In 1986, a survey by the Playwrights Union revealed that of 324 plays produced by a sampling of 65 major companies, there was a total of 59% Canadian content, 30% new works and 29% revivals. The job of helping authors to develop good plays has been taken on by several groups including Vancouver's New Play Centre, Edmonton's Workshop West, the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre and Montréal's Playwrights Theatre Workshop. Many companies across the country employ, when they can, a resident playwright or dramaturge.
The Banff Playwrights' Colony, founded in 1974, is a 6-week summer program in which works-in-progress are read/performed by professional actors. The playwright consults with other playwrights to polish and refine a text for actual production in a Canadian theatre. Over the years the Stratford Festival, too, has quietly workshopped new Canadian plays, usually for production by other companies.
In 1987, Calgary's Alberta Theatre Projects inaugurated their Play Rites Festival, while Centaur Theatre hosted a first Canadian Young Playwrights Festival, attracting 83 entries from writers under the age of 18. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Le Centre d'essai des auteurs dramatiques (the French Tryout Centre) and Playwrights Workshop in Montréal have combined to promote new works. In 1985-86 they coproduced and toured "Transmissions", a joint translation of plays by Marie Laberge and George F. Walker.
Contemporary dramatists from the 1980s include Jim Betts, Blake Brooker, Anne Chislett, Sally Clark, James DeFelice, Dennis Foon, Norm Foster, Ted Galay, Sky Gilbert, Linda Griffiths, Paul Gross, Don Hannah, Christopher Heide, Tomson Highway, Margaret Hollingsworth, Michael Hollingsworth, Lawrence Jeffery, David King, John Krizanc, John Lazarus, Paul Ledoux, Stewart Lemoine, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Joan MacLeod, Michael Mercer, Frank Moher, James W. Nichol, Gordon Pengilly, Steve Petch, Kelly Rebar, Banuta Rubess, Rick Shiomi, Sherman Snukel, Kent Stetson, Raymond Storey, Allan Stratton, Eugene Strickland, Judith Thompson, Charles Tidler and Peter Eliot Weiss, among others.
Playwrights making an impression in the 1990s include Gordon Armstrong, David Carley, Robert Clinton, Brad Fraser, Robert Fothergill, Patrick Friesen, Robin Fulford, Connie Gault, Maureen Hunter, Wendy Lill, Bryden MacDonald, Bruce McManus, John Mighton, Greg Nelson, Morris Panych, Jason Sherman, Carol Shields, Michael Springate and Colleen Wagner.
The 1980s and 1990s have seen a move to preserve and restore landmark theatres as well as some new facility construction. Three Toronto vaudeville houses have been restored, as has the Orpheum in Vancouver and the Imperial/Capitol in Saint John. New architecture included the Sudbury Theatre Centre, opened September 1982; the Arts and Culture Centre in Yellowknife, NWT, launched May 1984; and the 1500-seat Thunder Bay Community Auditorium, unveiled in October 1985.
At Harbourfront in Toronto, the Premiere Dance Theatre was built in 1983 and a former ice-house became the du Maurier Theatre Centre in 1986. The Famous People Players and Buddies in Bad Times had new permanent facilities in 1994, but proposals for a Toronto ballet/opera house were shelved in favour of restructuring the O'Keefe Centre. Toronto saw the doors open on the Princess of Wales Theatre and North York's Ford Centre in 1993, and a few years later the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts was opened in Vancouver. A pleasing trend has been to name some Canadian theatres after revered practitioners: Denise Pelletier, Fred Barry and Paul Hébert in Montréal and Québec; Nathan Cohen, Robert Gill, Joseph Green and Jane Mallett in Toronto; Tom Patterson in Stratford; Joseph Shoctor in Edmonton; Dorothy Somerset in Vancouver; and Gwen Pharis Ringwood in Williams Lake, BC.
Canadian theatre in the mid-1990s measured the distance which had been covered since World War II. With over 168 nonprofit companies and a host of independent commercial enterprises, Toronto has emerged as the world's third-largest centre for English-language theatre, behind only London and New York. The battle for recognition of Canadian talent at home and abroad was being won. An ongoing dialogue had been established between French and English theatre, despite the ironic persistence of the possibility of separation. Indigenous and multicultural theatre had become important components of the contemporary theatre scene. Theatre has responded to a society increasingly fragmented into "limited identities" by "producing marginality," theatre for all ages, all genders, all languages, all interests.
By the 1990s theatre was being delivered to the Canadian public at 4 recognizable levels: a self-sufficient, profit-making commercial theatre producing mammoth musicals for extended runs; a regional and festival theatre which had survived through partial subsidization, corporate sponsorship, coproductions and heightened marketing; an alternate theatre which had modified its dedication to Canadian originals and whose artistic directors moved on to assume control of the larger mainstream theatres; and a sprawling, feisty, innovative fringe theatre which was constantly redefining the nature of the theatre itself. The infrastructure grew as well. There were now organizations such as PACT (the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres), the Toronto Theatre Alliance, with over 200 members, the Association of Canadian Designers, The Canadian Theatre Critics Association and even a Council for Business and the Arts.
But as funding diminished, a fresher and more light-hearted national identity was being forged, and a genuine comic sensibility grew to match the new maturity in writing. As Robert Wallace commented in Contemporary Canadian Theatre, "Canada is still in the process of creating itself as a character in the play of world events" but Canadian playwrights begin "to write the land alive. " From its minimal postwar beginnings Canada's contemporary theatre had been transfigured.