Named after the daughter of Ceres, sponsor of agriculture and of the changing seasons in Greek myth, Persephone Theatre was founded in 1974 by Brian Richmond, and Susan and Janet WRIGHT. Its first mandate was to deliver professional theatre from the Canadian and international repertoire to SASKATOON audiences. By 1978 Persephone's declared mandate was to serve as a community-based regional theatre for Saskatoon and its surrounding area.
Under Richmond and the Wrights (1974-76), Howard Dallin (1976-78), Ron McDonald (1978), Tom Kerr (advisory artistic director 1979-80) and Eric Schneider (1980-82), Persephone followed the standard regional theatre model, exposing its audiences to a cross-section of locally produced professional productions of older European classics and contemporary British and American fare. At the same time, it showcased Canadian, including Saskatchewan, theatrical talent. Slightly over one-third of its mainstage productions between 1974 and 1982 consisted of Canadian plays, including three premieres of local work, the most notable being Cruel Tears (Ken MITCHELL with Humphrey and the Dumptrucks, 1975). Remounted in 1976, the country-and-western opera was broadcast over national radio, toured Alberta and Saskatchewan, and represented the province at international events in Vancouver and Montréal.
Canadian (including locally commissioned) work was also featured in the theatre's youth programming. A particular highlight was Uptown Circles, a 1983 COLLECTIVE CREATION by the Saskatoon Native Survival School under the direction of Ruth Smillie (first artistic director of Persephone's Youth Theatre, 1981-84) and Maria CAMPBELL (Persephone's first playwright-in-residence, 1983-84), with Tantoo CARDINAL in the cast. Started 1979-80, the school touring program at its height in 1987-88 reached 60 000 children in 105 communities, including some in Manitoba and Alberta.
Persphone Theatre's first decade was plagued by difficulties in reconciling ambitious and sometimes conflicting community, national and international agendas with limited economic, physical and population resources, a struggle reflected in the high turnover in artistic directors. A chronic problem with theatre space worsened after 1977 when the Mendel Art Gallery and Greystone (University) theatres became largely unavailable due to increased programming demands. An attempt in 1976 to convert an older building to a theatre had to be abandoned when the new quarters could not meet fire regulations. A similar fate also met Persephone's next home, a cramped, poorly equipped church hall it occupied in 1977 and shared with 25th STREET THEATRE between 1979 and 1983.
The 1980s was a period of recovery and expansion for Persephone. By 1981, the deficit had been largely cleared through tough exigency measures and strong university and community support. In 1982, Tibor Feheregyhazi, a graduate of the Hungarian Theatre and Film College in Budapest and the National Theatre School in Montréal, assumed the artistic directorship of the theatre, bringing long-term stability to the position. In 1983, Persephone converted Westgate Alliance church into a permanent 300-seat theatre, allowing the company to increase its production standards, subscription base and in-house programming. The theatre also expanded its repertoire to include family shows and musicals as well as a second stage for more experimental, contemporary work.
During the 1990s, a worsening economy and declining population forced the theatre to cut back its Youth Theatre tour, offering it on alternate years with the Globe Theatre (Regina); abandon its second stage series; schedule more touring or co-productions; and fill its mainstage season with more comedies, revues, musicals and small-cast shows. On the positive side, the summer theatre classes for children and youth started in 1988 expanded into a year-round activity, the mortgage on the theatre was paid off in 1997 and the audience base has remained stable since the late 1980s.
While Persephone Theatre features the eclectic programming of most regional theatres, it has till now never possessed the physical or financial resources to develop facilities comparable to those of the MANITOBA THEATRE CENTRE, the CITADEL THEATRE (Edmonton), the THEATRE CALGARY/ALBERTA THEATRE PROJECTS complex or even the GLOBE THEATRE (Regina). The Saskatchewan economy, the geographic isolation of the city and its small population (slightly over 235 800 in 2005) may have constrained Persphone's growth into a major regional theatre, but its artistic accomplishments are related to its success in adapting the regional theatre model to the specific cultural, artistic and educational needs of its community. Like 25th Street Theatre, it helped to establish northern Saskatchewan's professional theatre reputation in the 1970s, and has contributed to the development of local actors and directors, some of whom now have a national profile.
Canadian work has continued to feature prominently in Persephone's programming, with 46 of the theatre's 94 mainstage productions between fall 1982 and spring 1998 being Canadian plays - ten of them premieres. However, Persephone's most interesting work over the past decade has been by former or present Saskatchewan writers. In addition to premiering plays by Drew Hayden Taylor, Barbara Sapergia, Geoffrey Ursell (Saskatoon Pie, 1982) and GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD winner Guy VANDERHAEGHE (I Had A Job I Liked Once, 1991; Dancock's Dance, 1995), Daniel MacDonald (MacGregor's Hard Ice Cream and Gas, 2005), Don Kerr (Tune Town, 2006), Persephone has also featured original English-language adaptations or translations of foreign work.
In 1988, the theatre produced the North American première of Warsaw Melody, by well-known Soviet playwright Leonid Zorin, in a translation and adaptation by Maria Boschnak and Stewart Boston, with Zorin himself becoming the first contemporary Soviet playwright to visit a Canadian theatre. A world première of another Soviet play, Joseph and Nadezhda, by Olga Kuchinka, followed in 1990. Other productions, including the English-language premiere of Prosper Mérimée's Heaven and Hell (1994), have featured new translations by David Edney of older French classics. In 1997 the theatre also presented the first English-language translation of two Catalan plays: The Vindication of Senyora Clito Mestres, by Montserrat Roig, and Antaviana, by Pere Calders, as translated by Anne Szumigalski (Governor General's Award for poetry in 1995) and Elisabet Ràfols Sagués. This was followed in 2007 by the English-language première of noted Catalan writer Manual de Pedrolo's Humanity and No as translated by Elisabet Rafols with Susan Bond. All of the above, with the exception of the Kuchinka script, were translated by northern Saskatchewan writers.
Persephone Theatre continues to define itself by its success in reconciling community, national and international agendas with limited economic, physical and population resources. It entered a new era in its 2007-08 season, when a new theatre complex built on the banks of the Saskatchewan River was completed. It houses Persephone Theatre in a 450-seat main theatre while accommodating other arts groups in a multi-purpose black box space.