Throughout the colonial era there is a trace of theater activities in Canada, but the emergence of a separate national theater mainly occurred in the 20th century. Indigenous theatrical activities in connection with Native American rituals and narrative traditions probably date back to pre-colonial times, especially with the Nootka and Kwakiutl tribes on the west coast (British Columbia). These were associated with ceremonial cycles and tribal mythological traditions. Masks, often in multiple layers, were used, and the voice could be enhanced through the use of hollowed-out tree trunks. The actors in these ceremonial games could also disappear into tunnels. With the help of large parties, the narrative traditions of the tribes were continued.
In the mid-18th century, American traveling troops began to travel in British North America, which from 1760 included the French colony. Despite an increasing English settlement in the cities of Montreal and Quebec, the majority of the population remained French-speaking. Therefore, it is necessary to look at the development separately in the two main linguistic areas.
Professional English-language guest appearances often came with companies led by actors from the United Kingdom, some of whom were among the most famous of the time. They usually started in Montreal, where the first theater was built in 1804, and traveled around the sled in the winter and by boats on the rivers in the summer.
The repertoire was standard European as you know it from London, and it didn’t take long before the great successes were shown in Canada. As the population grew, more and larger theaters were built, and in the late 1800s there was a network of theaters that welcomed the traveling companies. The star system, as it was known in the United States, was the guiding principle of this theater development. As the settlement westward accelerated with the large waves of immigration to the prairie areas, the new towns were given their theater buildings that could accommodate traveling companions. These guest games were coordinated by agencies often based in New York, and this system remained intact until the end of World War II.
It is only after 1945 that one can talk about a Canadian theater culture of its own. An important precursor was the Hart House Theater in Toronto from 1919 and Community Players in Montreal from 1921. In this way, the new developments in European drama were communicated. An important step on the road to independent theater development was the New Plays Society, founded in 1946 in Toronto. Launched in 1953 in Stratford, Ontario, The Stratford Shakespearian Festival immediately became a driving force in the development of an English Canadian theater. New experimentation developed with Toronto Workshop Productions in the 1960s. Also important was the founding of the National Arts Center in Ottawa in 1969.
At the beginning of the 1970s, a well-developed network of coastal to coastal repertoire theaters existed in Canada, and it was in opposition to these that a new group theater movement emerged in the 1970s. One of the most important in English-speaking Canada was Theater Passe Muraille, who took on several initiatives for a new theater in Toronto from 1970. The 1972 Farm Show stands as the most important performance of this time, influenced as it was by the American group theater. with experimentation with alternative rooms and a documentary dramaturgy based on group work. Similar initiatives with the search for alternative theater spaces and work on issues related to local economic conditions emerged everywhere, such as for example. The Mummers’ Theater in St. John’s, New Foundland.
A new generation of experimental theater has emerged, and there has also developed an environment to develop a new drama related to the growing cultural consciousness of the Indians. The playwright Thomson Highway is perhaps the most important exponent. It seems that this development can mix elements from different recent forms of expression.
French-language theater (Quebec)
During the French colonial period, there was an opportunity for an interesting theater development in the area that later became the provinces of Québec and New Brunswick. From the mid-1600s, celebrations are known, which were a legacy of the Renaissance theater culture in Italy and France. It was often the Jesuits who arranged these marches and wrote the lyrics, but the Catholic Church was later to become involved in the cultural life of the colony in a way that put a damper on the development of theater over two hundred years. After the British conquest of Québec in 1760, a large part of the intellectual elite disappeared, and the Catholic Church managed a conservative cultural policy that has lasted until our time.
Nevertheless, a vibrant amateur theater business emerged from the late 18th century, and after 1830 came a wave of French intellectuals as emigrants after the troubled years of revolution in France. From the mid-1800s, the Catholic Church realized the use of theater as propaganda, which led to the emergence of religious drama. However, it was the traveling companies that in the time leading up to the Second World War stood for the most important theater offering, in line with developments in English-Canadian theater.
A separate national theater development had its beginnings in the 1920s with repertoire companies that took up new European and French-Canadian drama, but it first gained momentum with people returning from study stays in Paris during the interwar period. This also included Jean Gascon and Jean-Louis Roux, who in 1951 founded what became the most important theater in Montreal: the Théâtre Nouveau Monde (TNM). It came to prepare for a development that began with the display of Gratien Gélina’s piece of Tit-Coq in 1948, which was shown a large number of times, and which aroused interest in its way of addressing issues related to the French-language identity in Québec. European immigrants from the post-World War II era, such as Ludmila Pitoeff, and for a shorter time Jean-Paul Sartre, also helped inspire a new theater development. The well-known acting educator Michel Saint-Denis also taught the National Theater School in Montreal.
Cultural support schemes were the basis for a large number of companies, and a very distinct French-Canadian drama emerged in close connection with the development of the theater. This is especially true of Michel Tremblay, who had his pieces put on TNM, for the first time in 1968 with Belles-Soeurs. From the 1970s came a wave of new group theater and space experiments, such as the 1975 Espace Libre in Montreal.
In recent years
The 1980s produced a number of key young directors who worked in the visual dramaturgical style of the time, such as Gilles Maheu and Robert Lepage. Particularly creative, the cross-artistic experimental environment in Québec has been with Le Lieu’s performance festival as well as project groups such as Recto Verso and Arbo Cyber. Overall, there is just as much theater activity in Quebec as in the rest of Canada combined. A development of regional theaters has taken place. There are also French-Canadian companies and groups in the French-speaking communities outside of Quebec.