Theatre | The Canadian Encyclopedia



In Canada there is a theatre tradition associated with the stage. Today, we are exposed to theatre through a variety of broadcast media - radio, television, film, video and Internet - as well as on amateur and professional stages across Canada.


  Theatre, as it is being defined today, is a moment of performance, a moment which exists in the act of its creation and then disappears. Those who write about theatre often separate the idea of drama, defined as a show on stage or the acting out of a script created by a writer, from performance, which can be viewed as part of the way we act out our lives and experience them. When scripts are published, they might be termed dramatic literature. These texts, however, are not all that make up theatre, and, in fact, performances have their own kinds of texts, though these are sometimes physical or visual rather than written. Defined this way, theatre is present in politics, in religion, in the way we participate in the rituals of daily life. There is also a strong element of theatricality in public spectacles such as military and other parades, political conventions, Royal visits, public ceremonies, protest demonstrations and graduation ceremonies. As Canada's population becomes more ethnically diverse, public spectacles are becoming more varied and Canada's theatre richer. (An earlier definition of theatre - to which some people still subscribe - limits the term to the presentation of dramatic scripts on stage.)

In Canada there is a theatre tradition associated with the stage. Today, we are exposed to theatre through a variety of broadcast media - radio, television, film, video and Internet - as well as on amateur and professional stages across Canada. All theatrical displays share certain characteristics although the form, music, colour and degree of audience participation vary.

Dramatic texts, conceived as stories and conveyed through dialogue and stage directions, are the written scripts from which stage performances are created. Canada has rich histories of DRAMA IN ENGLISH and DRAMA IN FRENCH. Published scripts form a distinctive genre of literature; writers of such texts are referred to as playwrights or dramatists.

Scripts can also be less formally recorded, sketching dialogue or situation and merely suggesting a performance text - the layer of action, sound, colour and form which animates the written text. Scripts for COLLECTIVE CREATIONS (performances created and acted by a group of people) are sometimes not as detailed as are individually authored dramas, although these performances are often meticulously catalogued in rehearsal journals. Improvisational theatre is rarely captured in written form, although an outline may be created to permit other improv artists to attempt another version of a successful episode.

MUSICAL THEATRE incorporates singing and dance, and here the script of the playwright (the book) is only one aspect of the production, enhanced by a score and choreography. In musicals, production values (such as costumes and special effects) are often very important. OPERA replaces the spoken word with songs (arias and recitatives). These lyrics, called the libretto, entirely carry the narrative. A performance text rounds out the full record of the opera. Occasionally in an opera, parts or all of the libretto are half-sung and half-spoken in a stylized form of vocalization called Sprechstimme.

Theatre history, which we have generally recorded in Canada in both English- and French-language traditions (seeTHEATRE, ENGLISH-LANGUAGE and THEATRE, FRENCH-LANGUAGE) and are now beginning to record in other languages as well, is largely the history of performed scripts. Theatre critics and historians, who may deal with the live stage or with the many genres devised for the broadcast media, assume the malleability of dramatic texts and, today, attempt to capture and analyze the wide variations in performance. Their historiographies try to place drama and performance within its historical and social context.

Theatre is not a term easily applied to television, radio or film, which transmute dramatic texts into fixed and repeatable performance events. When we speak of ENGLISH-LANGUAGE TELEVISION DRAMA or FRENCH-LANGUAGE TELEVISION DRAMA, ENGLISH-LANGUAGE RADIO DRAMA or FRENCH-LANGUAGE RADIO DRAMA, for example, we refer to subgenres such as soap operas, cop shows, docudramas or murder mysteries as well as to filmed versions of stage performances. Radio plays were important in the development of Canadian society, and we have often aimed to explain national issues and national identity to ourselves through radio and television drama. Many people feel such television dramas are crucial to guard Canadian culture against the incursion of American media into Canadian homes.

Today, many live performances are videotaped, but it would be a mistake to think that such archival tapes truly capture the essence of the performance: what they do is record the camera's perspective of one performance event. A film or video version of a live performance can capture what one group did when acting a text, but it cannot at the same time reproduce the reactions of the audience and the way the performers responded to such reactions. By arresting the performance in a moment, film and video versions change the aesthetic (and sometimes the politic) of the performance; they move the event from performance to chronicle, from a live theatrical event to a viewing mediated by technology. The two experiences are different.

The electronic media lend themselves to seemingly realistic forms of documentation since the camera appears to present a naturalistic viewpoint, to make things appear exactly as they are in real life. In fact, the electronic media allow for a high degree of fabrication in dramatic presentation. It is this possible confusion between the real and the appearance of reality which many commentators warn is a negative consequence of electronic forms of theatre in our lives. We have tended to consider drama as an expression of truth expressed through mimesis (the imitation of life which already exists), but today many people argue that performance and, especially, repeated performative acts (dramatic moments that "name" us) actually create what we later come to believe has been true all along. Such notions raise many fundamental questions about the relationship between representation and reality.

The term FESTIVAL THEATRE can refer to shows that are carnivalesque, full of creative spectacle and spontaneity. It is also applied to an organized program of theatrical presentations chosen to attract audiences with very specific theatrical tastes. There are many Shakespeare festivals, for instance, and summer musical and light comedy festivals are popular. The gala, celebratory nature of such festival theatre draws audiences who not only enjoy the special event, but help to pay the bills.

Theatre requires financial support (from audiences or from other sources) to move the creative idea from a concept on the page to a physical realization. The degree of funding that is necessary varies, of course, depending on the type of company: amateur groups and not-for-profit collectives require fewer funds than, say, commercial theatres. Some theatres are free to their audiences and some charge very high ticket prices. Television and film are very expensive to produce. The question of where financial concerns intersect with or overwhelm artistic concerns is a pressing issue within the politics of theatre, especially in an age of television. And theatre is a highly political art form.

Theatre funding is both an ongoing problem and an issue. Since the ROYAL COMMISSION ON NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ARTS, LETTERS AND SCIENCES published the Massey Report in 1951, government funding has played a role in shaping the development of companies and of theatre buildings, especially the large regional theatres in major cities, like the MANITOBA THEATRE CENTRE, theVANCOUVER PLAYHOUSE and theCITADEL THEATRE in Edmonton. Critics have sometimes suggested that funding agencies have dictated the types of drama available to audiences, and controlled the styles of companies which have formed. Some theatre companies in Canada are formed around a group of actors (and other professionals) who may perform in one theatre or move from space to space; others are formed around an administration which operates a theatre building and engages a cast. Companies which form around individuals usually express the concerns of these people and generally produce committed and often experimental productions. Such companies may mount controversial plays, plays which speak to the concerns of marginalized groups or simply plays which reflect the particular tastes of the group, but they face enormous financial struggles and often disband. Companies formed around theatre spaces are usually able to employ richer production values, but their overhead expenses or the opinions of their boards of directors may limit the kinds of work they can produce. Commercial theatres in larger centres mount elaborate productions and must, therefore, appeal to large, mixed audiences. Canadian companies are currently seeking a balance among producing standard plays from the (often European and American) canon, showcasing established Canadian plays, and taking risks on local playwrights or contemporary subjects.

Some temporary companies (sometimes made up of only one actor) find a venue in Canadian FRINGE THEATRE FESTIVALS which take place from coast to coast. These companies operate on a shoestring, form and disband quickly, can normally employ only rudimentary production values, and range widely in quality. But fringe festivals seem to capture a need in people to act out or share in the acting out of basic human concerns.

If fringe festivals encourage the formation of small companies around an accessible production venue, community theatre could be said to encourage groups to coalesce around shared interests or concerns. Of course, in the broadest sense, all theatre grows from a community and the term "community" itself has many meanings. Community theatre can mean amateur theatre, groups of people from the locality who come together to mount shows. It can also mean theatre produced by groupings of people (not necessarily living geographically close together) who come together for a particular purpose: such theatre often encourages highly participatory theatre intended to prompt political action, heal a rift or soothe the hurts of social injustice. Feminist, Native and gay theatre collectives have used plays or performance art in these ways, as have groups formed around social agencies or schools or shelters. Other community theatres form to celebrate particular events or re-enact historical moments. Still others have become ongoing companies which operate year round or during annual festivals.

Theatre companies perform in a variety of performance spaces, from school auditoria to elaborate performance complexes like the NATIONAL ARTS CENTRE in Ottawa. THEATRE DESIGN in Canada varies according to the period and region in which theatres were constructed and no single style predominates. Perhaps the earliest theatre constructed in Canada was the New Grand Theatre, built in 1789 for the British military garrison in Halifax. The ROYAL ALEXANDRA THEATRE, built in Toronto in 1907, is still used for performances today, as are many elegantly refurbished historical structures across the country such as the Orpheum and Stanley theatres in Vancouver. A major period of building for the arts began after the publication of the Massey Report. The STRATFORD FESTIVAL theatre opened in 1957. Canada's centenary in 1967 prompted more building, and through this period a number of regional theatres were built across the country. These became major venues for theatrical presentations, often with several stages of various sizes and styles along with rehearsal and technical facilities. There are also many theatres in schools, colleges, universities, churches and community halls. Today, the many performance spaces in Canada vary tremendously in equipment, audience facilities, acoustics, visibility and rehearsal space, but they are part of almost every community.

To a large extent, architecture and facilities (along with budget) dictate the magnitude of production values a playwright may request or a director may incorporate into any show. Lighting design and STAGE AND COSTUME DESIGN all depend upon what can be done, as well as upon the creativity of the designers. Major shows in Canada today utilize a staggering number of electronic and computerized mechanisms, talented fabricators and large stage crews. Small productions, which cannot duplicate these effects, are often able to encourage in their audiences a level of participation which compensates for (or, some might argue, surpasses) these technical feats. Ultimately, the effect of any production comes down to the skill of those who make it and small companies, like large ones, often employ people with amazing skills. As Canadian theatre has developed, so have its related arts so that Canadian designers and technicians (including those who work in film and television) have become internationally regarded, as have other professionals including producers, directors and actors.

The circus is a wonderful amalgam of theatrical spectacle, music and athleticism. Although circus is an old form, the CIRQUE DU SOLEIL demonstrates how contemporary it can be and how close it actually is to its cousin, the narrative drama. The circus, like the parade, features the ancient tradition of clowning. Clowning is meant sometimes to entertain, sometimes to initiate and sometimes to heal. For many, a childhood encounter with a clown marks the entry into the theatrical. Although children may have seen drama and performance on television long before they first see a clown, it is the confrontation with a costumed zany which places before them a manifestation of fantasy and of their own projected selves.

The history of Canadian theatre is a history of people coming together to create the unique blend of words, movement, music, colour, costume, myth, self-awareness and collective desire that is theatre. Only by opening the definition of the art form wide enough to allow for all these expressions can we begin to capture all that this term implies.

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