Opening the curtains to the Montreal theatre scene

How Canada democratized the stage

Taneeshaa Pradhan, Social Media Editor

                                                                                                                          ACT I

                                                                                                            Enter Canadian Theatre.

In 1949, Vincent Massey led the Massey Commission in an investigation of Canadian cultural and intellectual production. After its completion, the commission declared the country guilty of ignoring home-grown artistry in favour of foreign cultural products. While the American monopoly over publishing was a part of the problem, the commission ultimately placed the bulk of the blame on the Canadian public for failing to champion a national artistic identity. As the commissioners wrote: “Canada is not deficient in theatrical talent, whether in writing for the stage, in producing or in acting; but this talent at present finds little encouragement and no outlet.”

Early Canadian theatre owed itself mostly to Europe. Typically, theatres would produce classic plays written in the Old Country, rather than screenplays by local talent. In response to countless productions of Shakespeare and Molière, scholars, critics, and playgoers involved in the commission raised the question: What constitutes an authentically Canadian theatre? With a country-wide creative landscape buzzing with untapped potential, the custodians of Canadian theatre were hopeful that the commission’s promise of federal support would solve the nation’s dependence on imported scripts.

It's hard to delve into the roots of early Canadian theatre without coming across its explicitly nationalist and colonialist themes. Erin Hurley, a professor of drama and theatre in McGill’s English department, explained in an interview with The McGill Tribune that Canadian theatre originated as a mouthpiece for the settler-colonial state.

“The first theatrical production that theatre historians point to is Le Théâtre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France ,” Hurley said. “It features Indigenous peoples in it, and it is about conforming to the wishes of the French king, basically saying, ‘Welcome colonialism!’ So, this is the sort of groundwork for theatre in what we now call Canada.”

After the recommendations of the Massey Commission were implemented, Canadian theatre expanded its support beyond the interests of the state. It became a creative outlet for marginalized groups, who experimented with the form’s social and political potential. Quebec, for example, is home to a rich theatrical history that supported the formation of the women’s experimental collective, as well as Yiddish and Black theatre companies. But while many artists and theatregoers now recognize the oppression of marginalized groups, the theatre continues to grapple with productions like Robert LePage’s SLAV , a play that was taken off the stage in 2019 for its offensive portrayal of enslaved Black people. Quebec’s reliance on American and European productions may now be a thing of the past, but the province continues to struggle with the remnants of its settler-colonial past in its mission to accurately represent and highlight marginalized communities.

                                                                                                                          ACT II

                                                                                                            Enter Institutionalization.

As the years progressed, Montreal became the ideal backdrop for some of the most iconic moments in Canadian theatre.

The opening of the Theatre Royal, which many consider Montreal’s first theatre, marked the beginning of a new era for cultural production. While plays were performed in Montreal long before this landmark opening, typically they were limited to temporary structures such as warehouses, converted stores, and circus venues. The Theatre Royal was the first permanent building dedicated to the theatrical mission, serving as a manifestation of the city’s increasing desire to platform entertainment on the stage. Staging over 111 full-length productions, the building was home to productions of Shakespeare, the Restoration authors, and Tit Coq, one of Montreal’s first major local plays.

In response to suggestions by the Massey Commission, an Act of Parliament established the Canada Council for the Arts in 1957 to manage the endowment of grants and services for theatre professionals, among other professionals and organizations dedicated to the arts, on a national level. The rising institutional support for the performing arts spurred the development of infrastructure to support Canadian theatre.

“The big story of the development of Canadian theatre starts with provincial and federal arts funding, [which] allow for the building and sustaining of theatrical institutions,” Hurley explained. “The joke in a lot of Canadian theatre studies is that Canada was really good at building theatre, like the building, and somewhat less good at building the theatre. There was a big emphasis on the buildings, and those buildings go on to spawn the regional theatre system.”

At the same time, government officials, clergymen, and popular dissenters often policed the content of theatrical productions. These cases of censorship were often influenced by societal prejudice. Whether it was a production that hired Belgian actors to bypass a temporary ban on French performers or a feminist play that upset the patriarchal attitudes of audiences, theatre that expressed its support for marginalized groups did not have protection to fight for artistic freedom.

Over time, this censorship was contested during a period of collective creation by actors, directors, and performers, who established unions to regulate the working conditions of theatre professionals and prevent censorship by external bodies. The development of nationwide training programs, too, played a part in legitimizing Canadian theatre as a professional practice.

“Union formations, like the Union des Artistes, preceded [the creation of] Canadian Actors Equity to allow for training and working structures that implemented a collective creation phase in the 1970s,” Hurley said. “The institutionalization of funding bodies [...] also allows for the proliferation of training programs such that actors, directors, playwrights, designers, and technicians have the training to participate in these professional level funded shows. That's a big moment in terms of building a Canadian theatre.”

                                                                                                            Exit Institutionalization.

                                                                                                                          ACT III

                                                                                                    Enter COVID-19 and Digital Theatre.

In the last two years, the arts have been ravaged by COVID-19. As digital theatre transformed from a distant possibility into the industry standard, however, this temporary foray into the online world proved that the stage is more than capable of adapting to the occasion. Nonetheless, the consequences were immense as the average theatregoer’s interest in watching productions online could scarcely compete with the desire for in-person theatre.

Overnight, recreational spaces in Montreal closed due to the pandemic. Theatrical institutions in the city scrambled to find methods to save money while remaining productive. Many actors, artists, and employees in the cultural sector reported feelings of hopelessness, which led to an increased risk of mental illness as they grappled with unemployment and financial loss. Coupled with the logistical constraints of staging shows without an audience at full capacity, these factors put an undeniable strain on local theatre. As the Massey Commission predicted decades ago, government grants and initiatives were among the most important sources of monetary support keeping the theatre scene alive.

“When COVID hit, major French language theatres [in Montreal] shifted relatively quickly to using their grant money to support in-house artists,” Hurley explained. “Instead of having rehearsals, they would have a workshop period.”

During the two-year break from live performances, many artists developed original work. This creative period has led to a surplus of productions, since the backlog of plays awaiting to be showcased increased exponentially during the pandemic. In this saturated theatrical landscape, emerging creators may find it even more difficult to produce their first play.

The lack of a live audience led many major theatre companies to experiment with digital theatre. And, although the industry became well-acquainted with digital theatre during the pandemic, it returned to the loving embrace of live performances as soon as restrictions were lifted. The lessons of digitized theatre may go on to inform future innovations in the field that incorporate customizable digital environments and spotlight playwrights, performers, and other theatre artists who skillfully experimented with the stage during its online era.

                                                                                                    Exit COVID-19 and Digital Theatre

                                                                                                                          ACT IV

                                                                                                                Enter Student Theatre.

Theatre is a fundamentally organic and democratic art form––educational institutions across the world can attest to the medium’s ability to spark change. On campus, the student theatre community attracts a variety of individuals looking to get involved in, around, or behind the stage. The opportunities are endless.

Supporting student-written plays since 1921, Players’ Theatre stages a variety of English-language shows that are organized entirely by students, while the McGill Savoy Society produces plays by popular authors. In general, McGill fosters a rich theatrical culture—it is home to Tuesday Night Cafe, Franc-Jeu, McGill Improv, and a Drama and Theatre program in the English department.

With the return of in-person performances, theatre is once again thriving on campus. Maya Earn, U1 Science, recently stage-managed the play Everyone is Annoying, produced by the Players’ Theatre. She finds theatre to be a creative relief from the analytical focus of her degree.

“There's nothing like live theatre,” Earn said. “It's a much different experience than watching something on film or watching TV. There's a lot of work that goes into it and I find that it's a very important part of the arts community that I think sometimes gets pushed under the rug a little. For students, it's such a good extracurricular [...] to get out of your comfort zone and be a part of something other than your work.”

Even during the two-year period when productions shifted entirely online, student theatre at McGill continued in the digital sphere. Daniel Benjamin Miller, BA ‘21 and a producer at The McGill Savoy Society, admitted that the lack of a live audience was a learning experience for the club. “I can attest to the impact of Pinafore,” Miller wrote in an email to the Tribune. “[As a] fully remote show, it was a new form for all of us, both in the cast and in the audience. Theatre, as a form, is about feeding off the audience [...] which is rather hard without having one in the same room. But it's also about choreography—and I don't just mean dancing and blocking. It's about nailing the exact pacing—this is the heart of the performance. Working on an online substitute for theatre taught me a lot about the process of performing.”

These theatre clubs don’t just teach students the basics of on-stage performance and stage management. They are also centres of community building that support emerging playwrights in sharing narratives that may not be endorsed by mainstream theatre houses.

“I stage-managed a short play by an Indigenous writer last semester for Players’ Theatre, and it was honestly a really great experience,” Earn said. “I've made friends through [student theatre], and it has allowed me to have a creative outlet that I wasn't sure I was going to be able to have during the last few years. It's student-run at every step of the way, and I'm really enjoying that.”

Despite the hospitality of student theatre at McGill, getting involved can feel like a daunting step. Miller emphasized that it can be as simple as watching a performance on stage.

“The performers need you; there's a symbiotic relationship between those on stage and those in the seats,” Miller wrote. “Becoming an active audience member can lead to joining a cast or orchestra, too [....] There are great opportunities in all of these fields, and student theatre programs are designed to make those opportunities available to you.”

                                                                                                                Exit Student Theatre.

                                                                                                                          ACT V

                                                                                                                      Enter Epilogue.

Despite the monopoly of streaming services in the cultural landscape, live theatre remains an irreplicable experience for performers and audiences alike. For all of its advantages, the advent of digital theatre proved that the experience of watching a performance can only be simulated to an extent.

“No remote performance can compare with in-person theatre. It is not and cannot be the same,” Miller wrote. “Having the performers together, rather than apart, is the only way to create a natural performance. It will always be more polished, more interactive, and more spirited. For opera and musical theatre particularly, the impact is even more pronounced, as you really need to be together to create music like that—ask anyone who's tried to do it remotely.”

Miller is right: Theatre inspires something that films and books can’t. Theatre is a living thing. Every production is open to the performer’s interpretation, and even the most well-known narratives can be radically reinterpreted. Performers and directors alike have reimagined The Taming of the Shrew to allow Katherine’s character to transcend the misogynistic limits of her historical context and regain her autonomy as a survivor of spousal abuse. In some productions, Katherine is submissive; other times, she is subversive. Elizabeth Taylor’s Katherine winks at the audience to inform them of her subtle impudence in the movie adaption from 1967, while Garrick’s 18th-century version depicts an obedient Katherine who bends to her husband’s will. It is clear, in this case, that a difference in interpretation can change the course of a woman’s life.

Why does theatre still matter? James Baldwin summarized it best: “You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.”

                                                                                                                Exit Canadian Theatre, Epilogue.

Illustrations by Xiaotian Wang, Design Editor