Taking it on the road

John Bentley Mays June 4 1979

Taking it on the road

John Bentley Mays June 4 1979

Taking it on the road


John Bentley Mays

Fame is the only excuse for existence. Take me for example. If I had been born in California I would already be a legend in my own time. — Ahrun, in George F. Walker’s Bagdad Saloon

Ten years after its creation ex nihilo, the new generation of Canadian playwrights is watching it all come together—outside Canada. Undaunted by an off-Broadway flop a season ago, David French was back in the U.S. last winter with Of the Fields, Lately, which sold out a four-week run in Westchester, New York, and is to go into New York City next season with his current hit, Jitters. John Gray’s Billy Bishop Goes to War, sprouted at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille and a

hit in both Vancouver and Toronto, is being eyed by top New York producer Mike Nichols, while Larry Fineberg’s Stratford success Eve will definitely go up on Broadway this fall. And George Walker got his best news of the season in January, when Zastrozzi was optioned by New York Public Theatre czar Joseph Papp. “The next 10 years are going to be the decade of the Canadian playwright,” predicts Lynn Holst, Papp’s dramaturge. “While American playwrights seem still stuck in the ’60s, Canadians have got a perspective on the 20th-century’s problems and a grasp of what is happening now.”

But all these Canadians, who today stand only a stage-whisper away from international reputations, might have sunk without a trace years ago had they not been nursed to maturity by the re-

markable Toronto scene that gave Canada its first bumper crop of experimental playhouses, writers, directors and actors committed to Canadian work. As playwright Rick Salutin says, “It has been a decade of triumph for the Canadian theatre.”

Where is that scene today, 10 years after its spectacular birth? In the throes of a pronounced mid-life crisis. Inflation and the dwindling of public money have hit hard at the production budgets, and the hopes, of experimental theatres. While big money has gone into face-lifts and expansions—$270,000 at Theatre Passe Muraille, $500,000 at Toronto Free Theatre—most houses have had to reduce the number of full pro-t ductions and workshops. Everybody is| hurting, but especially the playwrights. 5 “You can’t make more than $1,500 or so, 1

even from a successful show,” complains one writer, “which is tough if you like to eat.” But not surprising considering the absence of large transfer houses where hit shows can move after proving themselves in the smaller theatres. Says Ralph Zimmerman of Great North Agency, an important manager of Canadian playwrights: “Right now, there’s no place in Toronto for a hit to go. If it’s lucky, of course, a good show may be picked up by one of Canada’s large regional theatres—but its potential for a big impact in its own home town is lost.”

Money and transfers aside, however, the alternate Toronto theatre is displaying all the signs of ungraceful aging: a lot of the old daring is definitely gone and much of its “Canada First” commitment. Salutin (see box) blames the theatres for “draining off their resources to do non-Canadian shows,” but locates the heart of the problem in the “over-all swing to the right in Canada. We’re being told to play it safe.” Larry Fineberg (see box) thinks Toronto theatregoers are the villains in the piece: “Any play that disturbs or upsets or challenges them is in for an uphill fight.”

But even if Toronto theatre is in as rough shape as the Cassandras say, it’s still not as grim as it was only 15 years ago. One man who remembers—vividly—is Artistic Director George Luscombe, whose Toronto Workshop Productions (TWP) was for years a lonely herald of good things to come: “In the mid-’60s, what people did here were Broadway musicals and West End comedies. Nobody wanted to take risks on an unknown native writer.” Then, around 1967, an exotic street-culture began to take root in such spots as Yorkville Avenue and hippie-haven Rochdale College. Like its U.S. counter-

part, the Toronto movement was flamboyant, irreverent, anarchistic. But Canadian rebels had one thing to fight that Americans didn’t have: a colonial mentality—timid and derivative—entrenched nowhere more firmly than in Canada’s artistic traditions and institu-

tions. Anti-colonial sentiment might have gone the way of love beads had it not been suddenly focused in a struggle that was to change the course of Canadian theatre history.

The opening gambit was the formation of the New Directors’ Group, 10 years ago this summer, by some of the country’s most talented theatre people: among them, Martin Kinch, John Palmer, Ken Gass and Jim Garrard. The group was angry, but there was more to their rebellion. “Sure, we were antiinstitutional,” recalls Gass. “The way things were set up, the regional theatres were getting all the financial support but they weren’t promoting Canadian material. The only way to move was toward independence.”

In August, 1970, the group began the war in earnest with its Festival of Underground Theatre, 19 days of radical performances at St. Lawrence Centre, the Global Village Theatre, Rochdale College and in the streets. Not all the shows were Canadian—it was still too early for that—and many that were turned out to be pretty bad. (Sniffed Toronto Star critic Nathan Cohen: “To say that the Toronto companies whose works I attended were of impertinently inferior quality is to speak of them with loving charity and compassion.”) By the time the festival was over, it was clear that what the scene needed was not more grand gestures but incubation centres for the talent that was beginning to emerge.

One man who had seen the need even before the festival was Ken Gass, whose Factory Lab Theatre had been installed on the top floor of a garage in May, 1970. Canadian to the core—“Don’t Wait for the Yanks to Discover Canada” advised a promotional flyer—Factory dedicated itself to an exclusively Canadian program and immediately started flushing

out local writers. (One hopeful who called on Factory after seeing a street poster advertising for new plays: George F. Walker, see box.) That fall, Factory opened with a show about spastics, David Freeman’s Creeps', by the end of the 1971-72 season, Gass had

done plays by Walker, Fineberg and John Palmer, and had workshopped over 100 new scripts.

Bill Glassco’s Tarragon Theatre (a Factory spin-off) came on line in 1971, bringing a new professionalism and stringency to the rambunctious scene. A believer in the director’s active involvement in script development, Glassco encouraged David French (see box) to expand his one-act sketch about Newfoundlanders in Toronto into a play that was the theatre’s first smash hit: Leaving Home. With this successful show, and a new production of Creeps— both done in Tarragon’s first season — Glassco defined major trademarks of the new-wave Toronto theatre: in the words of theatre historian Henry Popkin, “its commitment to Canadian subject matter and its concern for people never before represented on the stage.”

Not everyone, however, was happy about Glassco’s brand of theatrical conservatism; many theatre people believed that ’60s-style freewheeling collectivity and political commitment were still crucial ingredients in the building of an independent theatre. So, committed to these ideals (and aided by a LIP grant), Tom Hendry, Martin Kinch and John Palmer established the Toronto Free Theatre, in an ancient gasworks, in 1972. Free produced a string of shows that illustrated its basic philosophy: Carol Bolt’s biography of an anarchist, Red Emma-, Michael Ondaatje’s dark play about Billy the Kid; and Michael Hollingsworth’s brilliant, violent Clear Light (closed by the police).

By the mid-’70s, the new theatres could hardly be called alternate any more. They had arrived. Ken Gass is speaking not only of Factory when he says: “It was incredible. We found out that we weren’t just a lot of crazy catalysts; we discovered we could do suc-

cessful, quality Canadian theatre.” But also by the decade’s mid-years, the golden glow of the early days had definitely begun to evaporate. “It’s damn hard to keep up the excitement,” said Toronto Free’s Martin Kinch in 1975. “We had fulfilled the first promise and many of us simply didn’t know where to go from there.” Energy was only part of the problem. There was also the astonishing success of the Canadian shows themselves. As Gass observed: “The hit syndrome took away from the most vital part of the alternate theatres, their unconventional programming and their restless search for something indigenous and unique.” Along with the temptation to lay on a steady diet of crowdpleasers came a host of growing pains: union hassles, tough negotiations and funding agencies, city inspectors, landlords and unsympathetic critics—a story of lost innocence as old as the Garden of Eden.

The Toronto theatre is still going through a very difficult transitional period. One bit of bright news came in March, when the Canada Council decided to give priority in the spending of its $8,816,000 theatre budget to Canadian plays, theatre artists and theatre administrators. But it’s still too early to say what effect—if any—the council’s decision will have on Toronto’s troubled theatres. What may be needed to get the scene moving again is not more money, but a dose of the old pugnacity. “I’m fed up with the whining and moaning you hear around town these days,” says Tarragon’s publicity director David McCaughna. “The Toronto theatre has been spoon-fed for years. Now that things are tough, people have got to start fighting. It’s just something they’re going to have to face.” And Ian McDowell, editor of finger-on-the-pulse tabloid Toronto Theatre Review, believes that despite all its headaches— and the luring-away of some of its brightest stars by Broadway—Canadian theatre is far from finished:

“We’ve had 10 years of getting attention and dollars. Now we’ve got loyal audiences, trained actors, good playwrights. It’s high time we cut out the office theatrics—all this handwringing—and put the drama where it belongs: on the stage.” ^