Some theatre critics claim that the explosion of modern professional theatre which occurred in the late 1950s began in Manitoba with the establishment of the Manitoba Theatre Centre/MTC in 1958 by John Hirsch and Tom Hendry. It then became clear that regional theatre which spoke directly to the audience was possible, even in the smaller centre of Winnipeg. Theatres established earlier, however, had already attracted a loyal local audience: notably one of the companies that became the MTC, Winnipeg Little Theatre (from 1921-37 and from 1948-58); and Hirsch and Hendry's tiny Theatre 77 (the other company that formed MTC).
Amateur theatre in Manitoba was happening as early as 1866, when a program of dramatic readings was performed in a room in Red River Hall, Winnipeg. Spectators were asked not to applaud for fear the building would collapse. The Hall was used until the Riel rebellion (1869-70) when troops forbade theatre until order was restored. Then, as in other parts of the country, soldiers began to perform themselves.
In 1870, the Ontario Rifles regiment opened the Theatre Royal and admission was charged for the first time in Winnipeg. The Quebec Rifles performed in a boathouse in Lower Fort Garry.
In 1872, local amateurs opened the Manitoba Hall - later the Opera House -with Box and Cox. By 1873, there were as many as three productions a month by the various companies and by 1875, theatre was part of daily life. An old hotel became the new Theatre Royal and Dufferin Hall was opened in 1877 by the Winnipeg Literary and Dramatic Society. City Hall had a 500 seat theatre too.
In 1877, the trend that was beginning to dominate all of Canadian culture, hit Winnipeg when a professional troupe arrived on tour. But in 1880, a local playwright emerged, Frank I. Clarke, whose Hymen's Harvest was performed by one of these touring societies.
With the Princess Opera House, opened by Hess Opera Company, Gilbert and Sullivan arrived in the prairies to stay. In 1885, the Princess saw the premieres of Captain George Broughall plays about the Riel rebellions (in which Broughall had participated). The Princess burned down in 1892 (during one of this country's myriad touring productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin).
The Victoria Hall opened in 1882 and was renamed the Bijou in 1891. The Grand Theatre, opened in 1896, burned down the next year. The Winnipeg Theatre opened in 1897 as part of a chain which specialized in huge productions.
The Walker Theatre, named after its owner, opened in 1907, was considered the heart of Winnipeg culture and was described in the opening night program as "ultramodern, ultra-luxurious [and] ultra-safe." The Walker hosted the big shows from Europe and the United States. Its success pushed other centres on the prairies to consider similar projects. Despite the Walker's success, it fell into abandonment and was sold off for back-taxes in 1936. Eventually it became the Odeon cinema.
It was by then that touring companies from outside the region began to dominate the cultural landscape.
However, some local entertainers did exist. In the 20s, the Winnipeg Kiddies, a children's vaudeville show, toured North America. Until the 20s, the Permanent Players performed at the Winnipeg Theatre.
In the 30s, and before the war, at the Dominion Theatre in Winnipeg, the John Holden Players, a stock company, proved to be a training ground for dozens of actors who went on to professional careers (including Dora Mavor Moore, Robert Christie and Jane Mallett).
Had it not been for the ongoing activities of amateurs between the wars and during WWII, indigenous theatre in the prairies might not have survived.
Manitoba currently hosts many theatre companies, playwrights, and practitioners, and the Winnipeg Fringe Festival now rivals that of Edmonton in size and popularity. Shakespeare in the Ruins presents promenade-style from the canon; Theatre Projects Manitoba is dedicated to presenting the works of Manitoba artists; and Manitoba Theatre for Young People also develops new works.
Prairie Theatre Exchange was founded in 1972 as the Manitoba Theatre Workshop when MTC abandoned its educational and outreach programs, and was instrumental in launching the Manitoba Puppet Theatre, Manitoba Drama Festivals, Agassiz Productions, and the Manitoba Association of Playwrights in 1975.
French theatre in Manitoba began in the Catholic schools run by the Grey Nuns and Oblate fathers in St. Boniface in the 1870s. From 1885 to the 1970s, the College de Saint-Boniface, run by the Jesuits, mounted productions by Moliere, Corneille, and Racine, gradually introducing more contemporary works from France and Quebec. Amateur theatres were established in small French communites in the late nineteenth century. After WWI, seventeen French theatre companies were operational, although by 1939, this number had diminished to two: Le Cercle Dramatique de Sacre-Coeur and Le Cercle Moliere, now the centre for French theatre in the province.
Other articles about Manitoba theatre in the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia on the WWW: Ron Chambers, Tom Hendry, John Hirsch, Steven Schipper, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Primus Theatre, Rainbow Stage, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.
Also see article: Canadian Theatre History.
Readings: Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly. English-Canadian Theatre. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987; E. Ross Stuart. The History of Prairie Theatre. Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1984.
Profile by Gaetan Charlebois.
Last updated 2020-05-08