Province of western Canada with a population of 4,371 million in 2019, and a flourishing and vibrant theatre scene since the end of the nineteenth century. Christmas festivals in Edmonton as far back as 1879 included dramatic readings and recitations. After the railroad reached Edmonton in 1891, the population grew and a local theatre was established: the Edmonton Amateur Society was formed in 1891, the Garrick Club in 1900, and the Edmonton Operatic and Dramatic Society in 1903.
In May of 1892, the first professional troupe to visit Edmonton arrived and the town's sheriff, W.S. Robertson, built the first real theatre in 1982, which he named Robertson's Hall, but which burned down in 1906. In summer 1904, the Thistle Rink Theatre began to present plays until the Opera House was built in 1906 and the Rink reverted to roller skating in the summer. Alexander Cameron, who had built the House, also built the Kevin Theatre behind it in 1907 - which burned less than two months after it opened; however Cameron quickly built the Dominion Theatre on the same plot in 1908. In 1906 the first Empire opened for vaudeville (which never caught on). The Dominion changed hands in 1911 and became the Majestic and then closed for good in 1914. The Opera House became the Lyceum Theatre in 1910.
The second Empire opened in 1909 and proved suitable enough to receive big names like Sarah Bernhardt and Johnston Forbes-Robinson. But it was the third Empire, opened in 1920, that was seen as one of the finest theatres in the country.
Calgary had its first group, the Calgary Amateur Music and Dramatic Club, in 1884, and boasted a fine theatre, Hull's Opera House, by the 1890s. With the formation of the Calgary Operatic Society in 1895 came the ubiquitous Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. 1912 saw the opening of the Grand Theatre and a visit from Forbes-Robinson to inaugurate the building. In the 20s, the Calgary Little Theatre was using the building. By 1921, the town boasted many theatres, including the Capitol, the Royal, the Princess, the Monarch, the Empire and the Lyric. By then, touring companies from outside the region began to dominate the cultural landscape. Had it not been for the ongoing activities of amateurs between the wars and during WW II, home-grown theatre on the prairies might very well have been a moot point.
The creation of the Banff School of Fine Arts (now Banff Centre for the Arts) by Elizabeth Sterling Haynes and E.A. Corbett in 1933, also set the stage for the development of Alberta artists and a Western dramaturgy. Working for the University of Alberta's Department of Extension, Haynes travelled throughout the province conducting workshops, lecturing and directing. Esther Nelson continued her outreach work in the province from 1949 to 1960, working with school and community theatre groups.
Two women playwrights also gave Alberta communities and their histories a voice, in live performance and on the radio. Gwen Pharis Ringwood's folk plays and community pageants enacted the rituals and customs of people from diverse cultures. Elsie Park Gowan's stage plays examined the restricted lives of rural women in Alberta, and her epic radio plays and community pageants enacted the social history of Edmonton.
The first professional theatre between Winnipeg and Vancouver in thirty years was established by Edmonton lawyer, Joseph Harvey Shoctor in 1965 in a former Salvation Army building, and appropriately named the Citadel Theatre. During its early years, the Citadel produced only one Canadian play, Gratien Gelinas’ Yesterday the Children were Dancing (Hier, les enfants dansaient), but it did help to develop a theatre culture in the city. The Citadel flourished during the oil boom of the late 1970s under Artistic Director John Neville (1973 to 1978), who orchestrated the construction of a multi-staged theatre complex. Neville also actively encouraged the production of Canadian plays by Michel Tremblay, John Lazarus, David Freeman, and Sharon Pollock (A Compulsory Option in 1973, and The Komagata Maru Incident in 1977). Under the artistic direction of yet another British import, Peter Coe, the Citadel poured its resources in wanna-be Broadway musicals, but also staged important Canadian plays such as George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1978/79 season), Sharon Pollock’s One Tiger to a Hill (1979/80), and John Gray’s Billy Bishop Goes to War (1979/80). The Citadel also programmed W.O. Mitchell’s The Kite (1981/82), The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon (1982/83), and Back to Beulah (1987/88). During the tenure of A.D. Robin Phillips the plays of John Murrell also made an appearance: Democracy (1991/92) in the small Rice venue, and Waiting for the Parade (1991/93) on the large proscenium Shoctor stage. From 1999 to 2016, Artistic Director Bob Baker premiered many new Alberta plays, including a Depression-era political murder-mystery, The Aberhart Summer (2000) by Conni Massing, Doing Leonard Cohen (2002) by One Yellow Rabbit’s Blake Brooker, and three new plays by Vern Thiessen: Einstein’s Gift (MacLab stage, 2003), Shakespeare’s Will (Rice stage, 2005), and Vimy (MacLab 2007). Current AD, Daryl Cloran strikes a balance between mega-musicals, Canadian co-productions, and new works by Alberta playwrights.
Theatre 3 was founded as an “alternative” to the Citadel in 1970 by Mark Schoenberg, a professor at the University of Alberta, focusing more on non-commercial works. Theatre 3 offered a season of all-Canadian plays in 1972/73, and premiered Pollock’s Blood Relations in 1980, as well as Frank Moher’s adaptation of a short story by Henry Kreisel, The Broken Globe (1976). Following its closure in 1981, it was reborn as the Phoenix Theatre, which featured a controversial American and British modern repertoire, and developed a young and hip Edmonton audience under the leadership of Bob Baker, followed by Jim Guedo, until it too encountered financial difficulties and closed in 1997.
Two alternative and experimental theatres in Edmonton, were founded with a specific mandate to develop and produce Canadian plays: Theatre Network and Workshop West Theatre. During the 1980s, Edmontonians enjoyed a wealth of new Alberta plays. Between 1985 and 1995, under the artistic direction of Stephen Heatley, seventy per cent of Theatre Network productions were scripted by Alberta writers, including Frank Moher, Robert Clinton, Raymond Storey, Ian Fergusson, Greg Nelson, Brad Fraser, Lyle Victor Albert, and Ronnie Burkett.
Catalyst Theatre, founded in 1977 as a social action collective, shifted its focus to the development of Alberta gothic works by co-directors Jonathan Christenson and Joey Tremblay, and then macabre musicals by Christenson and designer Bretta Gerecke, such as Frankenstein, Nevermore and Hunchback.
Teatro La Quindicina, a company which features the comedies of manners of Stewart Lemoine has enjoyed considerable popularity since 1982. Northern Light Theatre has also contributed to the development of new works since 1975, most recently featuring the socially provocative plays of AD Trevor Schmidt. Shadow Theatre, founded in 1992 by John Hudson, has featured the new plays of David Belke and other Alberta playwrights, as well as modern American works.
The Edmonton International Fringe Festival, founded in 1982 by Brian Paisley, has contributed immensely to the development of new plays and playwrights, and inspired a Fringe Movement in cities across Canada every summer.
In Calgary Theatre Calgary (founded in 1968), and especially Alberta Theatre Projects (founded in 1972) have premiered new Canadian works. ATP's annual playRites Festival (founded by D. Michael Dobbin in 1987, directed by Bob White until 2010, then by Vanessa Porteous until 2013) has added dozens of plays to the repertoire, including the black comedies of Eugene Stickland and Ron Chambers, and the insightful, moving works of Mieko Ouchi and Stephen Massicotte.
Both One Yellow Rabbit and Ghost River Theatre have engaged in experimental performance art. Theatre Junction (1991) premiered several of Sharon Pollock's works, and is now engaging in multi-discipline performance art. Small companies such as Ground Zero Theatre , and Sage Theatre also privilege new Canadian works.
Other related articles in the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia: Canmore Opera House; Rosebud Theatre; Concrete Theatre; Fringe Theatre Adventures; Clifford E. Lee Award; Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Awards (Sterling Awards).
Further reading: John Orrell. Fallen Empires: Lost Theatres of Edmonton 1881-1914. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2008.
E. Ross Stuart. The History of Prairie Theatre. Toronto: Simon and Pierre, 1984.
Anne Nothof, ed. The Alberta Advantage: An Anthology of Plays. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2008.
Anne Nothof, ed. Theatre in Alberta: Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English, vol 11. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 2008.
Anne Nothof, ed. Canadian Theatre Review 136: Alberta Theatre. Fall 2008.
Also see the CTE article:Canadian Theatre History
Profile by Gaetan Charlebois and Anne Nothof
Last updated 2020-01-09