Downtown, in Theatre Row, are 11 companies, all within a one-mile radius, prompting one enterprising business manager to suggest that the TTC King subway stop be renamed, simply, Theatre. In the roller-coaster ’70s, theatre in Toronto has grown from the basement of Rochdale College to over 35 professional groups spread across town. Audiences can drive as far north as Willowdale, as far south as Queen’s Quay; another group clusters on the west side, and cabarets are liberally sprinkled everywhere. Toronto is touted as—and is—the second largest theatre-producing centre in North America, superseded only by the Big Apple.
In one splashy week last year there were nine openings; this season they’re spread out, the publicity hype subdued. Toronto Truck Theatre inaugurated its new $250,000, 500-seat Bayview Playhouse in late August with That Championship Season, complete with search-
lights, black limos and imported champagne. The locale may have been new, but Jason Miller’s creaky tale of a jock reunion had a patina of antiquity embossed on it. Truck’s little-theatre style (The Mousetrap and Neil Simon and such) has remained intractably intact.
All that bubbly had barely lost its fizz as five new shows opened early in October. Horse-drawn carriages delivered coauthors Walter Learning and Alden Nowlan (The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca), to Toronto Arts Productions at the St. Lawrence Centre. Firstnighters could tootle from this Holmesian confection to the grittier world of Chicago losers as Phoenix opened David Mamet’s American Buffalo the same night. There was Salome Bey’s bouncy new blues musical, Indigo! If Basin Street was overbooked, just down the road film director Claude Jutra graced Theatre Passe Muraille with his bawdy, extravagant Commedia Dell Arte. Truck was also back, with the more sedate Emlyn Williams’ Playboy of the Weekend World, the kind of well modulated one-man show to which you could happily take your mother (or her mother, for that matter).
No special fanfare announced that theatre in Toronto has survived 10 years, first as a “new wave” of four Canadian-only theatres, later as a renaissance of over 35. For a group of arts’ graduates, Toronto’s artistic directors have proven themselves excellent business managers: almost every one has real estate, the latest and perhaps most remarkable being Adelaide Court, the $2.3-million central core reconversion partially paid for, ironically, from the profits of Open Circle’s nine-month run of Israel Horovitz’ The Primary English Class, an American play. The competition for audiences has become fierce and this year’s offerings are apparently perfect pacifiers for audiences.
Knowing that every penny counts and every show must pay its way, theatres are under the gun and survival instincts are already sharply honed. The most “successful” theatres last year were the most commercial, producing timetested American and British plays, by and large steering clear of Canadian scripts. Arts cutbacks, grant freezes, unemployment, inflation, all rear their ugly heads. Several hundred shows will be opening in the next nine months,
competing with television specials, movies from The Dream Factory, hockey games, discos, rock concerts and each other.
But theatre is unpredictable, impermanent, its very essence surprise. Last year, Toronto Workshop Productions rose phoenix-like, show after show playing to sold-out houses. Les Canadiens, The Club, Flowers and Salomé with Lindsay Kemp and his company of boa constrictors and boys in (and out of) leotards, sent Toronto’s basically conservative audiences into paroxysms of praise. This year, TWP has had to cancel its first two shows and has yet to announce replacements.
Toronto Free Theatre too, is cloaked in mystery, a gaggle of critics having recently arrived at a press conference to discover the event cancelled. Despite TFT’s season brochure having already been printed, it’s being kept under tight security; the only concession to the awaiting crowd is the intelligence that five of the six plays will be Canadian.
Canadian plays do make up the backbone of several individual seasons. Tarragon Theatre, the most successful venue so far for new Canadian works, may have opened with Lillian Heilman’s polished potboiler Toys in the Attic, but Artistic Director Bill Glassco plans five of his seven shows Canadian, including Jitters, a comedy by David French (Leaving Home), his first new work in three years. “I chose Toys because the script was immediately exciting to me, an ensemble vehicle for six actors. It has proven there’s a hunger in Toronto for solid, well-crafted plays. Our Racine in the spring will be more of an experiment. But please don’t forget that we’re also doing Rick Salutin, Michel Trem-
blay, Steve Petch and John Gray. I’d never give up the thrill of opening a new play.”
Even Leon Major, the beleaguered boss of Toronto Arts Productions, the city’s putative civic theatre, is getting into the act: his new version of The Trojan Women, billed as a collaboration between himself, poet Gwendolyn MacEwen and jazz composer Phil Nimmons, opens late this month. A series of defaming exposés and a year-long battle with the press has kept Major in the news; today, cooled off, he keeps his voice lowered when talking about his plans. “We’ve started well, we’re doing nice business. The Trojan Women will be our second Canadian play and it feels good. The artistic juices are working. Sure, I want to draw an audience, but commercialism should be the result of the excellence of a production.”
Major’s trouble, along with that of almost every other theatre in town, is that something just had to give when the arts curtailments came in. Only the Factory Theatre Lab, with its revived workshop series, makes claims for organic development and the majority of its workshops will feed its own production rate: Hrant Alianak’s Lucky Strike, George F. Walker’s Rumours of Our Death and Carol Bolt’s long-awaited A Girl in Flames. Open Circle’s developmental bent will have to be satisfied with merely a production of George Ryga’s opus, Prometheus Bound, both of its other shows being American— Mackerel, a new comedy by Horovitz and The Belle of Amherst, starring
Clare Coulter in the Emily Dickinson role Julie Harris created on Broadway.
Looming are fewer, possibly better, productions: no more shabby sets, no more half-finished scripts, no unpublicized shows that fade quietly into the night. The heyday of playwright and director is dimming as the new eliteactors, business managers and publicists—unseat them. For 10 years Toronto has been a playwrights’ city, and frequently the playwrights (John Palmer, Martin Kinch, Ken Gass, Alianak) have operated as directors. They’ve
trained a cadre of actors in their small theatres; now the fruition is shiningstunning performances as those actors sink their teeth into a wider variety of roles. Director Pam Brighton’s Theatre Plus production of Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi used Diane D’Aquila and Susan Hogan of Toronto Free Theatre, Maja Ardal of TWP and Mary Ann McDonald, a Theatre Plus discovery, as British playwright Pam Gems’s four women struggling within a changing world. Susan Hogan, like Clare Coulter, Fiona Reid, Barbara Gordon and Brenda Donohue, is luminiscent onstage; and there’s a trend to good-looking, masculine men, as opposed to character actors. R. H. Thomson has inherited that mantle, but Booth Savage as the betrayed gunman in Lucky Strike, David Renton as the charmingly austere Sherlock Holmes and Ken Ryan as the unscrupulous aging athlete in That Championship Season, are the journeymen on which to gaze. And it’s the solid directors like Brighton (three hits in a row) who are sought after.
Out of the church basements and into the chic locales. The government’s machetes have cleared the path to a threepiece-suit jungle.
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