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In Focus: Canadian Theatre History Part 2

Toronto Downtown Skyline before the boom 1970

As the 1970's rolled around, the city of Toronto was hit with an influx of people from all over the world. As businesses were booming and the city was growing exponentially over the next ten to fifteen years, the Theatre community was also experiencing major growth.

Ken Gass opened the Factory Theatre in 1970 and with his inaugural show Creeps, by David Freeman, establishing a new 'above the underground' theatre. Its mandate, the first of its kind in Canada, was to solely produce Canadian works. He eventually partnered up with George Walker for one of the best and most lucrative relationships in the industry.

Soon afterwards the director of Creeps, Bill Glasco, who had been working with Gass, left and formed the Tarragon Theatre, whose mandate was to nurture the playwright. Theatre Passe Murraile, born out of the spirit of collective creative works, soon followed, led by Paul Thompson's innovative, Farm Show. In 1979 Buddies in Bad Times theatre, which dedicated itself to queer culture, was formed with Sky Gilbert as its first Artistic Director. The city had established, in less than ten years, the first and only companies dedicated solely to producing Canadian works.

Around this time the commercial theatre industry arose. Bolstered by Ed Mirvish (famous for turning a dollar store into an empire spreading over numerous city blocks, namely the Princess of Whales theatre) and Garth Drabinsky, who opened the Pantages (now the Canon ) these theatres produced the most popular and trendy musicals, bringing many theatre goers from all over the world to help dub Toronto one of the most vibrant theatre cities in the world.

By the late 1970's Second City was a mainstay for comedy, popularized by the successful television show SCTV. The company produced sketch comedy works based out of improvisation.

The 1980's saw a bit of a decline as there were rough political pressures to cut funding to the arts. Many companies, however, came to fruition at this time, catering to the wide variety of cultures that filled the quickly growing metropolis.

Some of these companies are: Obsidian Theatre , dedicated to plays from artists of African decent, Nightwood, dedicated to plays about women, De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre dedicated to Native culture and more recently Fu-gen dedicated to Asian Canadian Theatre artists.

Indy theatres also began growing in the city. ( Transac, the Poor Alex, The Theatre Centre and Artword). Amateur playhouses and Community theatres were everywhere. (Amicus, The Village Playhouse Alumni.) Finally the Toronto Fringe and Summerworks festivals arose to promote new, edgy and gritty works that challenged all the norms of the other theatres. This also gave emerging artists an opportunity to be seen and heard.

Soulpepper was formed from a group of Stratford alumni, unable to find enough work. Within 5 years they became the premiere company for quality works with their yearly classical repertoire, followed by the opening of the Young Centre in the newly redeveloped Distillery district.

In a very short period of time, the city of Toronto has become one of the most flourishing theatre cities in the world. Works from playwrights like George Walker, Judith Thompson, Morris Panych, Andrew Moodie, John Mighton, and Daniel MacIvor were all first produced here. There were also many French Canadian playwrights, like Michel Trembley and Gratien Gelinas, who were first translated and performed in English in Toronto.

There is a great deal of talent that lies in Toronto and the boundaries of works are limitless. With a variety of strong training grounds and established artists who have already walked the long path in every aspect of the industry, a renaissance in theatre is emerging which we will all be a part of. The past is only our prologue.


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