Martin Morrow*

In the 1990s, Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock said something to me that has always stuck in my head. “The faces on the stage,” she observed, “aren’t the faces on the street.” I can no longer remember the exact context for her remark, though it may well have related to a woeful lack of cultural diversity in Canadian theatres at the time—and perhaps more explicitly to a dearth of “ethnic” performers in contrast to the country’s multicultural population. By extension, I am certain it was a critique of English Canada’s major public theatres, which were then predominantly mounting productions of British and American plays and musicals, generally those that had recently enjoyed success on Broadway and in London’s West End.

Bruce Hunter as the polar bear Angu’juaq and Jani Lauzon as Huumittuq in The Breathing Hole at the 2017 Stratford Festival.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Today, Pollock’s remark is happily becoming dated. I write this having just seen a revival of her 1970s immigration drama The Komagata Maru Incident at the Stratford Festival, Canada’s largest theatre festival, where the cast consisted of actors of Chinese, South Asian and aboriginal ancestry, with only one white performer, in the role of a German. A weekend previously at Stratford, I had watched the premiere of a new Canadian play concerning the Arctic and its native Inuit people, The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy, which featured a large multiracial cast under the direction of Reneltta Arluk, the first Inuit director to stage a show at the festival.

These productions reflect an overall trend toward a greater diversity on English Canada’s stages, a trend given a significant boost of late by the Canada Council for the Arts. Under the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (a one-time drama teacher), the council—Canada’s federal arts funding agency—has had its budget doubled and has set about restructuring its grants to, in the words of its CEO Simon Brault, “create a larger space for emerging artists and artists from culturally diverse communities.” It is also making a significant investment in Canada’s historically under-represented Indigenous artists.[1]

Funding incentives aside, Canadian theatres have every reason to become more diverse. The communities they serve are changing their racial make-up and must be cultivated to grow theatre audiences. Either that, or theatre becomes increasing elitist—the preserve of white, well-to-do patrons—and, by extension, increasing irrelevant to the culture at large. At the same time, the artists coming out of Canada’s theatre schools have begun to reflect the country’s diversity and their work is often informed by their own cultural backgrounds.

In Toronto, the largest and most multicultural of Canada’s cities, there are professional theatre companies devoted to representing African- and Asian-Canadians.[2] Buddies in Bad Times, the city’s long-standing queer theatre, has also begun exploring LGBT issues within different cultural contexts in works such as Tawiah M’carthy’s Obaaberima, a solo performance about the life of a Ghanaian “girlboy.” So, too, the venerable feminist company Nightwood, which has presented works such as Nirbhaya, Yaël Farber’s searing docu-drama about misogyny in traditional Indian culture.

Factory Theatre, another well-established company (founded in 1970), under current Filipina-Canadian artistic director Nina Lee Aquino, has made diversity its byword. For its 2016-17 season, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Confederation (Canada’s “birthday”), it deliberately programmed plays dealing with the Canadian experience outside the white mainstream. Its most singular recent success, however, was a revival of a popular Canadian play from the 1980s, David French’s tender romance Salt-Water Moon, given a radical reinterpretation by Indo-Canadian director Ravi Jain in which its two characters, a white boy and girl in 1920s Newfoundland, were played by actors of Afghani and Vietnamese descent. The production has since toured to other theatres in Canada and received a commercial remount in Toronto.

Ania Soul as the Musician, Kawa Ada as Jacob Mercer and Mayko Nguyen as Mary Snow in Factory Theatre’s Toronto
production of Salt-Water Moon. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

Elsewhere, artistic directors have been cannily cultivating new communities. In suburban Vancouver, the Richmond Gateway Theatre co-presents a festival of shows from Hong Kong companies, performed in Cantonese with surtitles, to reach out to the region’s large Chinese population. And as a new generation takes over Canada’s legacy theatres, the artistic directors themselves reflect a greater diversity. Like Aquino, Richmond Gateway’s Jovanni Sy is of Filipino origin, while Stafford Arima, the new artistic head of Theatre Calgary, is a Japanese-Canadian who directed the 2015 Broadway musical Allegiance starring George Takei (Star Trek) and Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon).

It is also no longer enough that casting is multiracial or colour-blind—the creators, too, must be diverse. Canadian Stage, an otherwise forward-thinking Toronto company known for presenting avant-garde work by the likes of Robert Lepage and Marie Chouinard, provoked a minor tempest on Twitter when observers pointed out that its 2016-17 season consisted entirely of shows with white writers and directors. After a deluge of angry Tweets bearing the hashtag #CanStageSoWhite—a nod to the 2016 Oscars controversy—the theatre’s artistic chief, Matthew Jocelyn, was compelled to make a formal apology.

Not long ago, Jocelyn could have pointed to a lack of non-white creative artists in the Canadian theatre, but that excuse won’t cut it today. Some of Canada’s most exciting younger talents now come from minority groups and their artistry is not limited to portraying their cultural experiences—although they do that very well, too. Note two much-toured popular successes of recent years: Kim’s Convenience, a Korean family comedy-drama by Ins Choi, set in a corner grocery store, which has been turned into a Canadian television series; and A Brimful of Asha by the aforementioned Ravi Jain and his mother, Asha Jain, in which the pair recount her humorous attempts to arrange his marriage in India. One of Canada’s hottest directors right now is Weyni Mengesha, an Ethiopian-Canadian (and the great-great-granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie) who is equally comfortable directing the revisionist work of African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and the history plays of Shakespeare.

Rosie Simon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Ronnie Rowe Jr. in a scene from Kim’s Convenience,
produced by Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Ah, Shakespeare. His name had to come up eventually. One would have to be willfully blind to describe all the diversity in new Canadian theatre without acknowledging that the country’s two largest, oldest, best-attended theatre festivals remain devoted, in true colonial style, to the work of dead white European males. The Stratford Festival, which boasts a 240-member repertory company and an annual budget of $62 million (Cdn), is the biggest Shakespeare festival in North America, while the Shaw Festival—also located in southern Ontario, with a budget of $31.5 million (Cdn) and a rep company of 160—is dedicated to both the plays and (more significantly these days) the intellectual rigor of the Irish dramatist-philosopher Bernard Shaw. Being major tourist attractions, with large numbers of American visitors, the pair also rely strongly on classic musicals and family fare as a staple of their programming. Here, as noted at the beginning of this article, diversity is more likely to be found in the casts and creative teams, and to influence a director’s interpretation of the classics—for example, Jillian Kieley’s feminist treatment of Euripides’s Bakkhai at Stratford in 2017, or Peter Hinton’s contemporary version of Pygmalion, with South Asian actor Harveen Sandhu playing Eliza Doolittle, at the Shaw in 2015.

Video 1

Director Peter Hinton discusses his Shaw Festival production of Pygmalion

The theatre communities across Canada are anchored in most of the larger cities by a public “regional” theatre, which, like Shaw and Stratford, still relies on musicals, classics and family entertainment for most of its box-office revenue. (Ticket sales for the regional theatres typically represent a third of their overall budget.) These companies also continue to do popular contemporary American and British plays, but decades of funding incentive, among other factors, have led many of them to develop and produce new Canadian writing as well. In the major cities, smaller theatres have been able to devote themselves to more experimental work, or even to a specific genre. Often, these smaller companies, which are more readily able to tour their work, have become English Canada’s theatrical ambassadors, notable examples being Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre, Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre, Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre and Toronto’s Why Not Theatre, all of whom have presented their work internationally. Stratford and Shaw, in contrast, have only occasionally toured shows, with Stratford instead channeling its outreach efforts into filming its Shakespeare productions and screening them in cinemas. One big Canadian theatre, however, has become determined to make a name for itself in New York. In 2017, Soulpepper Theatre, which runs a repertory company of more than 40 resident artists and produces in Toronto year-round, made the unprecedented move of renting a prominent Off-Broadway venue, the Pershing Square Signature Centre on 42nd Street, and presenting a showcase of 12 productions and concerts during the month of July.[3]

Nadien Chu, Ellen Close and Georgina Beaty in All the Little Animals I Have Eaten by Calgary’s
One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre. Photo by Andy Curtis

New York is, indeed, still perceived as the Holy Grail for many working in Canadian theatre. Toronto, a 90-minute plane ride away, has a long history as a launch pad for commercial shows with Broadway ambitions and countless Canadian theatre artists have thrived in New York. Less common is the Canadian-made work that finds Broadway success. That is why Canadians were over the moon at the rave reviews which followed the 2017 Broadway opening of Come From Away, an uplifting musical by Torontonians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, set in Gander, Newfoundland, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 U.S. terrorist attacks.

Video 2

Highlights from Come From Away

Such New York successes inevitably, if ironically, capture more Canadians’ attention and no doubt help to grow audiences for theatre at home. And there is always room for growth. In 2014, the latest year for which there are statistics, Canada’s not-for-profit (that is, public) theatre (including musicals and opera) had a total attendance of 7 million people over 26,900 performances. (Canada’s total population that year was 35.54 million.)[4] Although the fortunes of the public theatres are partly tied to government funding and corporate sponsorship, and, therefore, vulnerable to economic and ideological factors, there has been steady growth over the last five years. The Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT) estimates that there are about 500 professional theatres in English-speaking Canada today and reports that its own membership—147 theatres as of 2017—has increased by four to seven companies every year. Production in that time has remained constant and will likely go up once the new Canada Council money begins to show its effect. However, public theatres also depend on funding from their cities and provinces, which is inconsistent; the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, for example, recently cuts their arts budgets.[5]

A life in the theatre remains a precarious one, too. The Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, which represents a range of professional performing artists, from actors, singers and dancers to directors, choreographers and stage managers, currently has about 5,700-5,850 members. Of those, only some 1,530 are working under contract on any given week. And the average annual income for a member is a poverty-level $16,777 (Cdn), although many supplement that with work in film and television, teaching and other employment. The average income from all sources is $41,670 (Cdn).[6]

Nonetheless, Canada’s English-speaking theatre continues to get a fresh injection of talent from the country’s theatre schools and the quality of the work onstage is stronger than ever. That fact has been recognized internationally, not just with the Broadway success of Come From Away, but with the acclaim for the much darker and more complex Betroffenheit, a dance-theatre work about grief by Vancouver-based choreographer Crystal Pite and actor-director Jonathon Young, which in 2017 won Britain’s Olivier Award for best new dance production. Meanwhile, Hannah Moscovitch, who in a short time has become one of Canada’s leading playwrights for such witty, prickly plays as the disturbing post-Holocaust romance East of Berlin and the chilling childhood psycho-drama Little One, received Yale University’s $150,000 (US) Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize in 2016—the first Canadian dramatist to receive the honour.

Vancouver’s Kidd Pivot and the Electric Company Theatre’s Betroffenheit won Britain’s 2017 Olivier Award for
best new dance production. Photo by Michael Slobodia

These are, indeed, exciting times to be a theatre critic in anglophone Canada—challenging, too, given the cultural diversity on display. Reviewing a work by, say, Indo-Canadian actor-dancer-playwright Anita Majumdar begs some knowledge of classical Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi dance, while the musical plays of queer, feminist Caribbean-Canadian performer-playwright d’bi.young anitafrika call for a critic’s appreciation of West Indian dub poetry. This is emphatically not a time for a decline in the kind of popular but vigorous mainstream criticism that can alert potential new audiences and enrich the experience of regular theatregoers. And yet, that is the case, thanks to the ongoing downswing of print journalism due to the internet. The drop in print revenues—and the inability of newspapers and magazines to compensate for it with their online editions—has led to cuts in staff and freelance writing at Canada’s daily newspapers and caused most of its arts-friendly alternative weekly papers to fold. Staff theatre critics are retiring and not being replaced, freelance critics have been let go and those that remain find themselves writing for an ever-shrinking news space.

Cliff Cardinal wrote and stars in the acclaimed one-man play Huff, which explores the tragic lives of young people
on Canada’s First Nations reserves. Photo by Jamie Williams

The situation has given more prominence to online criticism, with the rise of dedicated theatre-review websites, although the reviewers are seldom paid and the quality of criticism is wildly uneven. Yet, even the best of them, featuring fine, penetrating professional criticism, tend to only attract the already-devoted theatre patron and members of the theatre community. The likelihood of the average reader stumbling upon a theatre article or review and having her or his interest piqued is far less, now that computer algorithms effectively put blinders on the internet user. That is of little benefit to theatres seeking to expand their audiences. On a positive note, however, the democratic platform of the internet has allowed for many more voices to join the critical conversation. And in an increasingly diverse country, a diversity of opinions is something to be welcomed.


[1]New Investments: The future of Canada’s arts sector,” by Simon Brault, Canada Council website, Nov. 14, 2016.
[2] The Obsidian Theatre Company, founded in 2000, has a mandate to produce the work of Canadian and international black playwrights; fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Company, which was launched in 2002, similarly has dedicated itself to developing and producing work that reflects the Asian experience.
[3] See: “Here’s One Canadian Theater Company That Isn’t Afraid to Show Off,” by Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Times, June 20, 2017.
[4] Information published by Statistics Canada, Oct. 19, 2016.
[5] Information provided by Meg Shannon, PACT Membership and Communications Manager, in an email to the author, Sept. 19, 2017.
[6] Information provided by Lynn McQueen, Communications Director, Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, in an email to the author, Sept. 22, 2017.

*Martin Morrow is the President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and a two-time winner of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Award for excellence in critical writing. He has served as chief theatre critic of the Calgary Herald (1988-2000), Fast Forward Weekly (2003-06) and The Grid (2011-14). Since 2010, he has been a theatre critic and arts writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. He is also the author of Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit, a chronicle of the seminal Canadian avant-garde company.

Copyright © 2017 Martin Morrow
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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English-Canadian Theatre: Embracing a Country’s Diversity
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