Collective Creation

In one sense, theatre has always been a collective creation, drawing on the collaborative energies of a team of artists who share the vision of the work they create.


Collective Creation

 Collective creation refers both to a particular historical practice that defined a crucial stage in the development of Canadian drama in the 1960s and 1970s, and to a collaborative method of playwriting that is still widely practised. In its most common application, collective creation refers to the technique of devising a play as a group, with or without the aid of playwright or dramaturge. Advocates of this process claim that it makes the actor a creative artist, and leads to a performance style that expresses the authentic experience of the actor-creator.

In one sense, theatre has always been a collective creation, drawing on the collaborative energies of a team of artists who share the vision of the work they create. The movement of collective creation that developed in Europe and North America in the 1960s drew on many theatrical antecedents, but it was propelled by a desire to democratize the creative process, which in the 20th century placed increasing emphasis on the genius of the director as the interpreter of the text. The Canadian movement of collective creation was influenced by the work of such groups as the Living Theatre and the Open Theatre in New York, and the collaborative techniques of directors such as Peter Brook and Peter Cheeseman in Britain and Roger Planchon in France.

The social impetus behind collective creation in Canada was the generational surge of young artists whose passion for Canadian cultural nationalism in the 1960s led to a demand for plays that probed the experience of Canadian life and history. Most of the Canadian theatres that had emerged since the introduction of public subsidies to the arts in the 1950s had shown little interest in Canadian playwriting. Coinciding with the remarkable surge of new playwriting in the 1970s (a hallmark of what is referred to as the "alternative theatre movement"), a number of newly formed companies turned to collective creation as a means of generating plays about local and regional subjects. For them, collective creation implied left-wing populism, a critique of artistic hierarchy and a commitment to local culture. These theatres repudiated the established model of regional theatre as the product of a colonized mentality, and sought to define indigenous culture by returning to historical and local subjects.

There were many such companies in the years between 1968 and 1975, but the landmark event that showed the artistic possibilities of collective creation in English Canada was THEATRE PASSE MURAILLE's celebrated documentary play, The Farm Show, in 1972. This production became a template for hundreds of similar projects across English-speaking Canada.

The process of The Farm Show has become famous because it was the prototype of a style that has come to characterize Canadian theatre in the early 1970s, and because it was the subject of a celebrated film by Michael ONDAATJE, The Clinton Special. In the summer of 1972 director Paul THOMPSON and a group of actors stayed in a borrowed farmhouse near Clinton, Ontario. Out of their conversations with local farmers, the cast improvised a documentary play that combined spoken actuality and exuberant story-telling theatricality. On the surface, the play was a series of monologues, songs and sketches (as one actor says to the audience, "it just bounces along and then it stops"), but its apparent formlessness concealed an intricate dramatic structure.

In Québec, collective creation was equally important in the development of a distinct acting style and dramatic technique. Following the pioneering work of directors like Jean-Claude GERMAIN and troupes like Le Grand Cirque Ordinaire, hundreds of small "jeune théâtre" companies came and went through the 1960s and 1970s. Most of these practised collective creation, but whereas in English Canada the process tended to favour story-telling and documentary actuality, the Québécois companies often displayed a more flamboyant theatricality that drew upon circus and clowning traditions.

As playwriting developed in Canada to the point where dramatists could make a living from their art, collective creation appeared less necessary. Even so, some of the most important and popular plays of the 1970s were collectively devised, including 25TH STREET THEATRE's Paper Wheat, Toronto Workshop Production's Ten Lost Years, and the politically radical collectives of the Mummers Troupe in Newfoundland.

The equation of collective creation with specific genres and populist ideological principles of culture and theatrical organization began to fade through the 1980s. As a process, collective creation remained popular as one set of specific dramaturgical tools that enabled theatres to write a play on a desired topic efficiently and quickly. Some companies, such as Headlines Theatre in Vancouver and Resource Centre for the Arts in St John's, remain committed to collective creation as a process appropriate to community-based culture.

In the 1990s collective creation was widely supplanted by "collaboration," in order to move beyond the anti-hierarchical political connotations that were so important in the 1970s. Despite this shift in language, the techniques of collective work are commonly practised, particularly in physical theatre and imagistic groups, feminist companies and grassroots political theatres (such as Edmonton's labour-oriented Ground Zero Productions). No longer an expression of alternative cultural practice, collective creation is now one of the repertoire of methods utilized by small theatres that, because they either pay very little or rely on volunteer commitment from their casts, can keep a team of actors together long enough to develop a play. That is a luxury which the larger, more institutionalized theatres can rarely afford.


Further Reading

  • Diane Bessai, Playwrights of Collective Creation (1992); Alan Filewod, Collective Encounters: Documentary Theatre in English Canada (1987); Ric Knowles and Skip Shand, eds, Canadian Theatre Review 97, "The Process Issue" (Winter 1998).