Founded in 1932 to encourage the production of amateur theatre across Canada, and to support the many Little Theatre organizations, the Dominion Drama Festival was an annual event held each spring at a different city. It comprised a series of regional competitions, judged by a traveling adjudicator, the winners of which would compete in the national Festival, adjudicated by another judge. Prizes were awarded for the best performance of a full-length play in either English or French, for best director, visual presentation, best actor, and best actress. Prizes were also awarded at the regional level, including for the best presentation of a play written by a Canadian.
Founding members included the Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Bessborough, playwright Herman Voaden, Vincent Massey, Ernest Gaskill Sterndale Bennett, Martha Allan of the Montreal Repertory Theatre, Col Henry C. Osborne of the Ottawa Drama League, Lady Margaret Tupper of the Winnipeg Little Theatre, and Rupert Harvey, a British actor-director who became the Festival’s first adjudicator. Adjudicators were bilingual, and from England or France until after WWII. They included Harley Granville-Barker, Betty Mitchell, David Gardner, Sean Mulcahy, and Herbert Whittaker.
The First DDF was held in Ottawa in April 1933 on Shakespeare’s birthday, with companies from eight provinces presenting one-act plays and excerpts from full-length plays.
Among the actors who gained theatre experience in the DDF competitions were Robertson Davies, William Hutt, Frances Hyland, John Colicos, Kate Reid, Douglas Rain, Amelia Hall, Gratien Gelinas, and Andre Brassard. New Canadian plays by Robertson Davies, Marcel Dube, John Coulter, and Patricia Joudry also gained national attention through the DDF.
The DDF also played a role in the construction of a national identity and a national theatre, through its insistence on retaining a bilingual mandate. However, it fostered a conservative approach to theatre, and discouraged the participation of politically or socially disruptive plays. It also favored productions of foreign plays. By the 1950s, the social aspects of the annual competition had almost eclipsed the plays, with balls and receptions, and dinner parties in formal attire.
The DDR was suspended during WWII. Following the war, the development of professional theatres began to challenge the primacy of the DDR in the theatre culture of Canada. Professional actors no longer worked in amateur productions, and the newly formed Canada Council (1957) funded only professional involvement. In 1970 the DDF was renamed Theatre Canada, showcasing amateur productions without the element of competition until its demise in 1978.
Source: Herbert Whittaker. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.
Further information: Betty Lee. Love and Whiskey: The Story of the Dominion Drama Festival. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973.
Profile by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University
Last updated 2019-03-13