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75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006

Michael Hollingsworth

Progress: Canadian Storytelling

One hundred years ago no Canadian plays were produced in Canada. Now in the 21st century, hundreds of Canadian plays are produced on a yearly basis. It is a significant achievement . The creative talent and the infrastructure to produce new works exists from sea to sea to sea. Canada is now at the beginning stage of producing its own culture. A culture that includes a diverse range of voices and visions. This is progress. Serious progress.

The favourite political system of the majority of Canadians is colonialism. They like it. French colony, British colony, now an American colony. State of the art Colonialism. Canadians have become experts at thriving inside a colony.

It has been understood from the beginning that to be “Canadian” meant that it was no good, it lacked something, it wasn’t real, it was fake, a colonial facsimile of an Imperial form, a pale imitation. For centuries this mindset severely inhibited artistic expression.

In the 19th century Canadian theatres lived on a diet of American and British hits. New York and London producers would send touring shows to Canada and clean up. Sometimes Canadian theatre groups would produce their own productions of these plays but get wiped out when the “real thing” came to town.

It is shocking how small an amount of dramatic literature exists from the 19th century. The reason of course is that there were no theatres. If you wrote a play where would you get it produced.

In the 19th century, many plays were written and published, but never performed.

In the early 20th century amateur dramatic societies, Hart House being the most prominent, would do play readings and stagings of the current popular NewYork/London playwrights. Sometimes, some members of these theatrical enterprises would create an original work that they would perform for themselves before sending it off to oblivionville.

The great change happened in the 1930s with radio.

Canadians telling Canadian stories to Canadians became quite popular. Before he co-founded the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Tyrone Guthrie worked in British and Canadian radio.

In 1931, Guthrie and the great Merrill Dennison, a Canadian author, created a 24-part radio series called “The Romance of Canada”. It was an ambitious undertaking, telling the story of Canada from the early days of New France to Confederation.

No recording of this program exists nor any script – how very Canadian. It is now a mythic production. But it happened.

In the forties and the fifties CBC radio under the guidance of Andrew Allan produced thousands of Canadian radio plays.

In 1957 the Canada Council began funding theatres. This funding was of seminal importance. The beginnings of a real theatrical infrastructure were put in place. By the early 1970s, Canada Council funding in addition to LIP and LEAP grants had created a network of theatre companies across Canada. It was a mad experiment that was wildly successful. Almost overnight dozens of theatres committed to producing original work were functioning.

The official culture of Canada is American. In 1972 I remember seeing David French’s classic drama Leaving Home at Tarragon Theatre. Seeing a play about a family from Newfoundland in search of the good life in Toronto seemed subversive. Paul Thompson’s famous collective creations at Theatre Passe Muraille.

The Farm Show and 1837: The Farmer’s Revolt re-defined the nature of storytelling. (Text became a component of the presentation and not the blue print of the production.)


What has happened in Canada since the early seventies, is revolutionary. The establishment of so many theatres across Canada committed to producing original Canadian dramas and comedies is inspiring.

Even the older, more established theatres committed to the Anglo-American repertoire produce Canadian plays. One can say that the great change that had to happen, has happened. Producing a Canadian play in Canada is no longer a big deal.


But what kind of plays are being produced.

There is the question.

I meet many aspiring playwrights who ask me for advice.

I always recommend that they take two months and read the works of William Shakespeare and Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Out of that experience you learn the craft of plot structures, and the importance of dramatic and character throughlines. If at the end of that 2-month process you still don’t know how to write a play, well’re not cut out for it. For a story teller, having to pose the question “how do I write a play” is a soul destroying experience. You haven’t even started and its over. You have to be inspired to create, but it helps to have not only a grounding in Dramatic Structure but a familiarity with all the characters and stories whose stage worthiness still moves us.

Many playwrights start by creating something of a deep, personal, visceral nature. And when that subject is exhausted, they face the tyranny of the blank page. I can personally testify how excruciating it is to be a in a small room with a blank page and 12 hours later you’re still looking at a blank page.

You really do think about giving it up.

I no longer go into a small room without a good story, because 24 years ago I was struck by the question “Why is this country the way it is”. And I began to read Canadian history.

Canada has a rich history but a poor image.

Many people think that the history of Canada is a dull deadly boring insipid gormless story. Its not. It is too gruesome and too violent to be boring. The history of Canada is not for the squeamish.

All countries have dramatized their own history.

It is how each country created its unique culture.

Canada is now joining that list because Canadian historians have done outstanding work cataloguing the Progress of Canada. All the old, self-righteous histories with a serious point of view have undergone a significant re-visioning by contemporary historians.

I use the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, the official history of Canada, as the referee for resolving disputes between dozens of various diverse sources. Reading Canadian history is an exercise in Rashomon storytelling. In the old days, many historians only agreed that something happened on a certain date. They then proceeded to articulate diametrically opposed viewpoints. The modern Canadian historians have synthesized all this information into a View. A view so powerfully articulated that contemporary events echo historical analogies. Canada now has a history that is coherent, that makes sense. We are very fortunate that all this information is readily and easily available via the internet and libraries. It is a limitless source for artistic expression and provides a context for exploring the here and now.

The prospects for the 21st century and the new generations of theatre artists are very exciting.

Copyright © 2006 Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs
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