AMATEUR THEATRE’S CAST OF THOUSANDS
WINTER FESTIVAL SECTION
The smash revival of this and the last few seasons is the new life in the amateur theatre. This winter 100,000 Canadians will stage amatenr productions that a million more will watch. Here awe some program notes to the biggest, most unpredictable show in the land
SINCE TELEVISION first cast its benison or blight over the country ten years ago, we've been flooded with talk about Canadian theatre. A galaxy of shiny new stars has wheeled before us at Stratford and Vancouver, on professional stages in a few other cities, and on every television screen. The drumbeating for these ventures has drowned out a quieter phenomenon, the revival of amateur theatre.
This winter a hundred thousand people in every part of Canada are putting on plays for the love of it. They aren't paid a cent anti they're working with handicaps that many professionals w'ould balk at: cramped, chilly rehearsal halls and theatres, sketchy technical equipment and, above all. shortage of time. After a working day they snatch a sandwich, bundle their children to bed and hurry off to an evening's work that may stretch from seven to midnight. They act. direct, design sets, make costumes, round up properties and sell tickets with such energy and enthusiasm that a million people a year come to see them perform.
In a sixty-seat theatre in an old printing shop in Montreal. Les Apprentis-Sorciers play a sixmonth season wath month-long runs of Brecht.
Ionesco. O'Casey and Claudel. In a Winnipeg night club the Caravan Players stage French and English comedies in the round. In a B. C. town of less than 7.000. the White Roek Little Theatre plays all year round to people who often drive from Vancouver thirty-five miles away. When the Ottawa Little Theatre opened its fall season with a week of Wonderful Town it sold out all six nights in advance, and the players of Haney Correctional Institute, who won the B. C. one-act festival last year, packed a theatre for a week with a parody of a Victorian melodrama, prompting the wise-
crack. ‘‘They're so good that even the audience doesn't try to escape."
Some critics feel that a handful of bright groups like these are the only oases in a wasteland of mediocrity. “1 don't think that amateur theatre in Canada is serving any real function," says producer Leo Orenstein of CBC-TV. “These people just want to put make-up on their faces and have fun on a stage. They're play acting at putting on plays, though they may kid themselves they're serious. Most people who come to me from amateur theatre need a lot more training."
Plenty of amateurs would reply. "What’s
wrong with having fun?" They can point to some useful by-products such as raising money for charity and awakening interest in live theatre, but they don't claim that their work has Significance. For a few ambitious and talented youngsters, however, a producer's opinion is important. Now that they have something to aim for. these actors hope to use the amateur stage as a springboard to a full-time paying career. In Canada, where most professionals are still recruited from the amateur stage, little theatre is taken seriously; in most other countries professionals learn their craft at drama schools and in bit parts in commercial plavs. and dismiss amateur theatricals as frivolous.
Once an actor joins Actors' Equity Association he can't act without being paid, but Equitv actors occasionally appear in little theatre plays with F.quitv permission and a minimum fee.
Television actors, on the other hand, who aren't prohibited b\ their union from giv ing free stage performances, sometimes use little theatre to broaden their experience.
Some groups, like the Drao Players from Toronto, who won the trophy for the best production m the 1961 Dominion Drama Festival. are expressly designed to train and show oil actors. Roy Passano. an actor who formed the group. sa\s. "You don't enter festivals for fun. You hope to get picked up b\ professional people."
CBC casting supervisor Eva Langbord says.
"By covering the DDF for the Corporation I've found a number of people like Sharon Acker."
The DDF. held every spring in a different city, is the final contest among the winners of smaller festivals in eight zones of Canada. With money from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, the Canada Council, the Province of Quebec and its ow n honorary governors, the Festival runs a permanent central office in Ottawa with a staff of four who study, advise, coordinate and encourage amateur theatre groups.
“The possibility of professionalism has changed the whole picture,” says drama critic Herbert Whittaker of the Toronto Cilobe and Mail.
As well as providing a goal for individuals, professional theatre has applied the pressure of competition which is molding amateur theatre into a new form by encouraging it to try plays commercial companies can’t afford to chance.
The typical group is no longer a handful of well-meaning people meeting every Wednesday to get up theatricals, selling each other tickets to a slapdash version
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AMATEUR THEATRE’S CAST OF THOUSANDS continued from page 23
A drama critic’s assessment: “They’re so bloody uncomfortable it’s a wonder they get any audiences”
of a comedy with its guts already beaten out by a generation of bad productions. A small-town club who entered a faded Noel Coward play in a regional festival a few seasons ago was slapped down by the adjudicator so hard that it didn’t compete again for years. Now enterprising groups are likely to produce something more stimulating. As part of a campaign to raise $65,000 to build its own theatre, for instance, the University Alumnae Dramatic Club in Toronto recently presented a scries of short, experimental plays by contemporary authors like Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and Michel de Ghelderode. Helen Dunlop, past president of the Alumnae, says, "We leave the Broadway hits to commercial theatre. Now little theatre has left the church basement.”
“Theatre changes with the times, like art or music,” says Frances Jackson ot the Central Ontario Drama League. “Nowadays we're aware of psychology, looking beneath the surface, feeling as well as seeing. New groups lend to do plays they’ve seen on stage or film, but if you want good theatre you’ve got to experiment."
A generation ago. an actor guarded his amateur status like a skater or a gentleman cricketer. Now people who act for nothing shy away from the epithet "amateur" with its disparaging connotation of inexperience. "The only way to be any good in the theatre is to take a professional approach,” says Ivor Jackson, a Toronto art director currently rehearsing The Jest with the Playcraftsmen.
Robert Gill, director of Hart House Theatre at the University of Toronto, says. “A professional actor is one who knows his business. By this definition, there are plenty of professionals in the amateur theatre and amateurs in the professional theatre. I once encountered the epitome of amateurism when I was directing a play for an American little theatre group years ago. At the first reading a footman walked between me and the players. When I protested our hostess replied, ‘But my dear Bob. he has to take the orders for drinks.' "
Nowadays this attitude is rare. Most groups arc community enterprises that feel a responsibility to provide their towns with live theatre, pantomime for children and skits for local charities. Others have a special field, like Le Cercle Molière of St. Boniface who tour Manitoba with French productions to keep the French tradition alive, or the Cave Dwellers of Ottawa who concentrate on Sartre, Saroyan and plays suitable for Method acting. The Glenvale Players of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the only blind group in Canada, face extra problems of memorizing their stage positions by following strips of carpet, and learning how to look directly into another actor's face. The Barn Players of Broadview YMCA in Toronto choose plays about problems of contemporary society such as aging and refugees. 'They have played in mental hospitals, enlisting patients as backstage helpers. “They’re a wonderful audience,” says Barn president Mary Morter. “Our only awkward moment came in Anastasia, when I had to say three times, ‘I must go!' The third time a puzzled voice whispered, 'Well, why doesn't she go?”
Since drama groups of all kinds are forever in flux, forming and folding, losing members and attracting others, no one knows exactly how many there are in Canada. Richard MacDonald, the national director of the Dominion Drama Festival, estimates that we have about four thousand, counting those in schools, churches
and other organizations that get up one or two plays a year. There are about twelve hundred independent groups staging plays and of these perhaps five hundred present three to eight full-length plays a season.
Until the National Theatre School opened a year ago in Montreal, most young actors who wanted (and could afford) formal training had to study in New York. London or Paris. This means that almost all our professionals have found amateur theatre an entry or at least a useful proving ground for their talent. “In a community that has no professional theatre and no schools, little theatre is the only way you can feel what it’s like to be on the stage and to communicate with the
audience,” says Frances Hyland, who was sent to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art by the IODH and the ladies’ auxiliary of the Princess Pals on the strength of an appearance with the Regina Little Theatre.
Graduates of little theatre groups have taken roles ranging from Henry II (Christopher Plummer in the London cast of Beckct) to head dancer in the chorus line at the Roxy in New York (Joanne Williscroft from the E-Z Players of Montreal). Hal Holbrook, a Broadway actor who established himself by giving readings from Mark Twain, first walked on stage (and first met his wife) in a performance of Lady Precious Stream by the St. John’s Players of Newfoundland. Frank and Austin Willis played wath the Halifax I heatre Arts Guild. Hume Cronyn and Alexander Knox with the London Little Theatre, John Colicos and Eleanor Stuart with the Trinity Players of Montreal, Joyce Davidson with the Hamilton Players’ Guild, Chris Wiggins and Ron Hartmann with Workshop 14 in Calgary. Gary Gilfillan, the only prop man who doesn’t give Wayne and Shuster ulcers, got his start with the Playcraftsmen at Central Technical School in Toronto. Director Leon Major first won national attention with his handling of Teach Me How To Cry which won the
Dominion Drama Festival trophy for the University Alumnae in 1956. Playwrights Patricia Joudry and James Reaney saw their first stage plays. Teach Me How to Cry and The Kildeer, produced by the Alumnae. Robertson Davies’ first plays won awards in the Ottawa Little Theatre Workshop’s annual contest. Marcel Dube's first three-act play. Zone, which was judged to be the best production in the 1953 DDF. played for weeks in Montreal and made twenty-three-year-old Dubé a celebrity overnight.
Perhaps the most important products of amateur theatre are not individuals but professional companies like Montreal’s brilliant Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, whose founding members Jean Gascon. JeanLouis Roux, Georges Groulx and Guy Hoffmann began acting in their teens with Father Emile Legault’s notable Compagnons de Saint-Laurent. The Manitoba Theatre Centre, now heavily supported by the Canada Council and cited as a possible model for a chain of centres across Canada, was formed three years ago by a merger of the Winnipeg Little Theatre and John Hirsch's Theatre 77. This year the Calgary Buskins have formed the professional Harlequin Players, and two actors who began with the Théâtre de quat' sous in Montreal are directing the new Centre-Théâtre.
Toronto has several groups on the verge of professionalism including the Workshop Productions of George Luscombe, once a member of Joan Littlewood’s extraordinary Theatre Workshop in London. Last year Luscombe’s Hey Rube! baffled some people and impressed others. I his autumn he has been rehearsing his company in an adaptation of Lysistrata every night except one for the past two months. (On his free evening Luscombe went to a play. )
Though some actors use the amateur stage to court professional attention, most people get involved in little theatre just because they enjoy it. In some, theatrical ambition has stirred late, when they’re a little too old to risk family and job on the chance of success. Otheis are caught up in the glamour of greasepaint, footlights and applause. Some want to share in a creative process without carrying its whole responsibility, to watch a production taking shape and coming to life under a score of hands. Some want to project themselves on stage while others want to escape from their own tensions by hammering sets together or losing themselves in the characters they play. A few are joiners, restless or lonely people who drift from bridge club to curling club to hospital auxiliary to a season or two of little theatre.
Most are in their thirties and forties, some in their late teens and twenties, a few much older. Punch and Felicite Mitchell. of the White Rock Little Theatre, arc in their seventies. In British Columbia, a commercial fisherman becomes hanging Judge Begbie and a Coquitlam lawyer is counsel for the defense in I he Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. In Ottawa a social worker plays a prostitute and a museum curator plays a water nymph.
Many amateurs find themselves cast as carpenters, bricklayers and panhandlers, collecting funds to buy land and abandoned buildings and then raising or renovating a theatre with their own hands. Most groups find their chief problem is finding suitable space to rehearse and perform. Clubs in Greater Vancouver are discussing a plan to buy a co-operative theatre on Oak Street. I he Vagabond Players of New Westminster have created
a theatre from a fish hatchery and the Ottawa Little Theatre made one from a church. The Hamilton Players’ Guild bought a twenty-one-room house and gradually tore out walls and built two rehearsal halls, with a 150-seat auditorium. Next they’ll extend the building to the street to house a 500-seat theatre. Elsie Thomson of the Guild suggests, “Little theatre groups should start from a house with property around it and branch out as they can afford it.” Most groups are still struggling with makeshifts, rehearsing in stores and living rooms, acting in community halls with flat floors and hard stacking chairs. Mike Tytherleigh. drama critic for the Vancouver Province, says, “If it wasn't my job. I wouldn't go near most of them. They're so bloody uncomfortable it's a wonder they get any audience at all.”
Behind the scenes many clubs wrestle with conflicts as dramatic as any on stage. Theatrical atmosphere fosters a certain extravagance of temperament; a correspondent recently told the Vancouver Province, “Drama groups are hotbeds ot frustrated ego.”
Roy Passano of the Drao Players says, "As soon as you pay you'r actors you can say anything you like. But in amateur theatre a director can’t say. 'You’re not right for this part,’ and stay friends.”
Even when a clash of personalities doesn’t split groups down the middle, little theatre is susceptible to interruptions and disasters. Once a professional actor signs a contract the play is his first responsibility, but for the amateur it comes second to his regular job. which may be a hazardous one. Members of the RCAE Drama Club in Winnipeg are often transferred to another station in mid-production. and once a director was killed in an air accident the day before his play opened.
Miriam Newman of the Halilax Iheatie Arts Guild, who played the lead in The Lady’s Not For Burning in 1958. was expecting her third child the week of the Dominion Drama Festival. With an understudy in the wings. Mrs. Newman played the role in a concealing medieval costume and won the award for best actress a few days before the baby arrived.
In spite of the problem of keeping a production alive through months of rehearsal and the crippling expense of moving to a huge and unfamiliar auditorium. most groups aie grat.fied by the chance of competing in the DDF, as the Drao Players were last spring. Because their performance of Rashomon won the Central Ontario Regional Festival in March, they were invited to the finals with seven groups from other zones of Canada. On the last night of the festival, adjudicator Michel Saint-Denis gave Rashomon the trophy for best production with its accompanying cheque for $1,000, as well as awards for best actor, best supporting actor. best director and best visual presentation.
While many developments hint that little theatre is getting more professional and that the amateurs arc becoming more serious and less social, the 1967 DDF. probably in St. John's, promises to be a highly convivial affair. For centennial year the DDF’s Committee of the Future hopes to charter a boat at the lakehead and sail it down to Newfoundland, picking up contestants and well-wishers on the way. As one actor jokes. “Two weeks aboard this floating hotel will make little theatre come of age—or else set it back a hundred years.” ★