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Modern Theatre in Context: A Critical Timeline

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Eric Peterson in 'Billy Bishop Goes to War', 1978

The fresh confidence in Canadian drama burgeons: 1971 proves a groundbreaking year for English-Canadian theatre. Following on from, and at least in part in reaction against Factory Theatre Lab and the New Play Centre, additional theatres emerge in both Toronto and Vancouver, while regional theatres emerge in other places: notably Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. All are dedicated to promoting new Canadian plays, with two being led by emerging playwrights.

In Vancouver, John Gray and Larry Lillo found Tamahnous Theatre (first called Theatre Workshop), where Gray's most successful piece, Billy Bishop Goes to War, is premiered in 1978, confirming Tamahnous as the city's leading alternative theatre. As well as an extended national tour, there are productions in Washington, New York, London, and the Edinburgh Festival. At the same time in Toronto Bill and Jane Glassco, upset by "sloppy production standards" at Factory Theatre Lab, found Tarragon Theatre and dedicate it to the development of Canadian plays by writers that include, over the years, David French, David Freeman, Michel Tremblay (in translations by Bill Glassco and John Van Burek), Carol Bolt, Sharon Pollock, Erika Ritter, Allan Stratton, Judith Thompson, Don Hannah, Ken Garnhum, and Jason Sherman. The position of Tarragon as Toronto's leading small stage is confirmed when artistic direction is taken over in 1982 by Urjo Kareda, former literary manager of the Stratford Festival and theatre critic for The Toronto Star, and then after Kareda unexpectedly early death in 2001, by the well-established director Richard Rose.

A third stage to open in Toronto later the same year was Toronto Free Theatre, founded with a mandate of free admission and free experimentation, at 26 Berkeley Street. Its first board of directors includes Adrienne Clarkson (whose stellar career was to culminate as Governor General), Judith Hendry, K. Gray Perkins, Richard Schouten, and most significantly the playwrights Tom Hendry, Martin Kinch, and John Palmer. Its first production, Tom Hendry's How Are Things with the Walking Wounded? opened in 1972. It quickly made a name for aggressive theatre with John Palmer's The End, Martin Kinch's April 29, 1975, Hrant Alianak's Passion and Sin and Michael Hollingsworth's Clear Light. However, already by 1976 the realities of being not only artistically but financially "free" struck home, and the theatre was forced to offer a subscription season; and in 1988 it was swallowed by the new Canadian Stage Company. Even so, Toronto Free's Policy Statement, "To provide … a milieu in which talented newcomers can learn and work. A School. A place of growth. An opportunity" was to be echoed by several later companies.

Outside the major centres of Vancouver and Toronto, 25th Street Theatre founded in Saskatoon by Andras Than and other graduates of the University of Saskatchewan - also with a mandate to produce new Canadian plays. And a very different kind of theatre emerges in Windsor, Nova Scotia. This is the Mermaid Theatre, founded by Evelyn Garbary, together with Tom Miller and Sara Lee Lewis. Later moving to Wolfville, they develop a unique style of puppetry and of Theatre for Young Audiences, drawing on legends of the Mi'kmaq Indians, as well as adapting contemporary children's literature. Their highly imaginative style of presentation has won Mermaid an international reputation, and engages them in extensive touring.