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Toronto Drama Bench

The Toronto Drama Bench--or as it was simply called in its early years--the Drama Bench, was founded in 1972 in response to the creative explosion in Canadian theatre and playwriting of the early 1970s. Nathan Cohen and Herbert Whittaker, theatre critics for the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail, had discussed beginning such a critics group in the mid-1960s, but had ultimately decided that without a larger body of members there was little point.

The Drama Bench came into being in 1972 when arts philanthropist Floyd S. Chalmers asked several Toronto theatre critics to help establish a series of awards for new Canadian plays to encourage Canadian writing. Chalmers brought together Herbert Whittaker, Urjo Kareda (Nathan Cohen's successor at the Toronto Star), Don Rubin of CBC Radio and Janine Manatis of CBC-TV, and asked them to act as a jury for a Canadian play award. The critics agreed to be part of such a jury but felt that the growing community of theatre critics should also be involved.

Those present at the first official meeting of the Drama Bench on October 11, 1972 reflected the wide media coverage of the burgeoning theatre in Toronto. They included Sid Adilman (Toronto Star), George Anthony (Toronto Star), Jeniva Berger (Toronto Calendar), Robin Breon (Guerilla), DuBarry Campau (Toronto Telegram), Harvey Chusid (Vancouver Sun), Arnold Edinborough (Financial Post), David Gustafson (That's Show Business), Lynne Gordon (CKEY Radio), Jack Gray (The Stage in Canada), Tova Greenberg (The Mirror Newspapers), Tom Hendry (Toronto Citizen), Gethin James (Educational Television), Urjo Kareda (Toronto Star), Janine Manatis (CBC-TV), David McCaughna (Toronto Citizen), Stephen Mezei (Performing Arts Magazine), Frank Michael (Canadian Jewish News), Mackenzie Porter (Toronto Telegram), Don Rubin (CBC Radio), Tony Stephenson (Toronto Life) and Herbert Whittaker (Globe and Mail). Whittaker was elected the first chair of the new organization.

Participants of the October meeting passed the following motion on a proposal for the formation of an organization of theatre critics and theatre writers in Toronto: "It is proposed that the functions of this organization be to encourage an interchange of ideas relating to theatre in general and the Canadian theatre in particular; [and] that this organization encourage through its collective efforts respect for the art of theatre, theatre criticism and theatre reporting in both the community and the various communications media."

The model for the new organization was New York's Drama Desk, a well-established entity which met monthly at Sardi's for off-the-record lunch chats with members of the New York theatre community and which gave out a series of performance and production awards annually. For the Toronto model, all these aspects were included as well as the possibility of establishing a set of professional guidelines for theatre critics.

In tandem with the Drama Bench's founding was the launch of the Chalmers Awards for the most outstanding new plays seen in the Toronto area that season. The first awards were made in 1972 with the Drama Bench members serving as the jury. The winning play was David Freeman's powerful drama about cerebral palsy victims, Creeps. Over the next two and a half decades, the Chalmers Awards became Canada's pre-eminent playwriting prizes, gradually growing to include several annual winners and eventually a jury that included members of the Drama Bench and members of the theatre community chosen by the Ontario Arts Council, the Awards' administrative body. In 1982, Drama Bench executive members Patricia Keeney and Jeniva Berger made a submission to the Ontario Arts Council that the Chalmers Awards be expanded to include an outstanding Children's Play Award with its own cash prizes and a jury chosen from Drama Bench members. Both Awards became an important addition to the theatre producing community, giving new and established playwrights the opportunity to gain wider visibility across the country.

In 1976, Herbert Whittaker proposed that the Drama Bench establish a career award for theatre artists of any discipline, the Drama Bench Award for Outstanding Contribution to Canadian Theatre. The Award was given to such leading artists as Dora Mavor Moore, Gratien Gélinas, Astrid Jansen, Marion André, George Luscombe, Ed Mirvish and David Mirvish, Bill Glassco, Joy Coghill, Susan Rubes and Martha Henry, Michel Tremblay, Bill Glassco, John Neville, Ken Gass, Robin Phillips, Ed Mirvish and many others.

The membership of the Toronto Drama Bench expanded and contracted depending primarily on the vagaries of the size of the free-lance and small newspaper market. The organization was active through the 1970s and 1980s, its energy only fading in the 1990s as media theatre coverage decreased and work opportunities for free-lance critics diminished. One aim of the Drama Bench had always been to encourage the establishment of similar critic organizations in other cities and in 1979 the organization was instrumental in the founding of the national Canadian Theatre Critics Association. In 1996, the Drama Bench was dissolved as a separate organization and merged with the CTCA.

Reading: Robin Breon, "The Toronto Drama Bench," Canadian Theatre Review 57 (Winter 1988), 50-51.

Profile by Jennifer Downs and Anton Wagner

Last updated 2013-07-29