This article will discuss the formation of professional theatre practitioners, but it is important to note than many theatre professionals received much of their formation through amateur theatres, high school drama courses given by dedicated professionals and the devotion of a single English teacher who encouraged the talent of a prized student. However, it is now virtually impossible to discuss in general terms primary and secondary school theatre education for the reason that is is now tenuous or non-existent in most cases. Grade-school teaching has always (and will likely continue) to rely on an individual teacher's love of theatre. Schools change their theatre programs as budgets change and across the country, it is becoming clear, money is pumped into and drained from schools based on the whims of provincial and federal finance ministers. Programs which usually suffer first, when negative decisions are made, are the arts courses. So, in one school where a drama club might have inhabited an unused hall one year, this year the hall is used for study or as an annex to a library. So, the learning of theatre remains largely confined to mother-tongue studies with Shakespeare taught here, and Molière taught there. Again, it is almost a school-by-school (or even teacher-by-teacher) case of whether Canadian playwrights are presented at all.
All this being said, much of the beginning of theatre training in this country was confined to professionals or semi-professionals passing on the trade to young, enthusiastic amateurs. Sometimes this took the shape of actual performances, sometimes the performances were merely an extension of the love of language (as with the Jesuits teaching the neo-Classicists in the boys' schools). It became clear to many aspiring talents that if they wished to become professionals, they must continue their education in Europe. Because of the transcontinental train system, eventually amateurs were exposed to the professional standards of the European and American touring companies so a kind of theatre education was no longer reserved for those who could afford trips abroad. The teaching of theatre was being taken on by a wide number of little organizations, not the least of which were the teachers of elocution and public speaking.
The turning point occurred in this century when companies which inhabited the Hart House Theatre, and Fr. Émile Legault's enterprising Compagnons de Saint-Laurent (who somehow managed to get around the Catholic church's jitteriness around anything theatrical), began to aim at greater professionalism. In both cases, this meant, too, an expansion of the repertory away from retreads of the classics and presentation of modern text and, in some very rare cases, plays written in this country. For a short time, Fr. Legault even formed a theatre school, but this was more a worthy experiment than anything else.
Meanwhile, departments of English at McGill and University of Alberta, for instance, began to mount worthy productions of plays which went on to compete in the various drama festivals, notably the Dominion Drama Festival (another inspiration to talented young actors and designers, not to mention playwrights). Also worth mentioning was the foundation of the Banff Centre for the Arts (then called the Banff School of Fine Arts), in 1933. In 1945 University of Saskatchewan founded the first department of drama with University of Alberta following in 1947.
By the 1950s, it was clear that educational institutions towards employment in theatre were required. Dora Mavor Moore's New Play Society created a training ground (for children), and indirectly, so did Fr. Legault; several of his actors went on to form Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, which created its own school which would metamorphose into the bilingual National Theatre School of Canada/NTS in 1960. Other Legault acolytes were also involved in the formation of, first, the Conservatoire d'art dramatique in Montreal (1954) and then in Quebec City (1958).
In 1977 Malcolm Black presented his "Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Theatre Training in Canada" which studied forms of theatre training in 37 institutions across the country (including the Quebec CEGEP/post-secondary system which began to offer theatre training in the late-60s). The report suggested only two institutions in the country met the minimum: the NTS and the Vancouver Playhouse Acting School (which was disbanded in 1988).
By 1994, 63 post-secondary institutions offered some form of theatre training with 11 granting BFAs and 5, MFAs. Twelve were offering formation in arts administration.
But the institutions continue to grow. The NTS began offering courses to playwrights in 1994 while York and University of Alberta offer MFAs in this discipline.
And much of this brings us back to our opening point: the young theatre professionals turned out by these institutions are often becoming (through degree programs in theatre education) the teachers of drama in the grade schools or the actors and designers in the companies which tour or play to them (like Geordie Theatre or Youtheatre in Montreal or Young People's Theatre in Toronto). Perhaps the Grade 1+ exposure to drama/creation that is the foundation of a growing national theatre will come, not from government policy, but through the theatre professional's own concern about creating audiences for the future.
Article by Gaetan Charlebois
Last updated 2023-03-15