Theatre Education | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Theatre Education

 Theatre education is a term which traditionally has been applied to the training given to theatre professionals, whether that training is provided in a university setting or by a professional school.

Theatre Education

 Theatre education is a term which traditionally has been applied to the training given to theatre professionals, whether that training is provided in a university setting or by a professional school. More recently, the term has been extended to include everything from the education of academics in the history of theatre and drama to the training given to young children in theatre appreciation. Precision in applying the term is not always easy since academics, drama educators and theatre professionals often derive some of their training from the same sources.

Influence of Immigrant Teachers

In the 19th century, people became theatre professionals by apprenticing with professional or semiprofessional companies. This training was often supplemented by tutoring in private academies and, by the second half of the 20th century, amateur theatre companies had become a training ground for aspiring professionals (see LITTLE THEATRE MOVEMENT). Canada's first professional actors, directors and designers would therefore have been influenced by immigrant teachers and would have exercised their first talents in amateur productions.

In Québec, a 1694 ban of the proposed production of Molière's Tartuffe loosed a deluge of church disapproval. Public theatre in French languished for many years because of the Church's opposition, although church-run educational institutions encouraged in-house performances of plays carefully chosen for their moral content. Beginning in 1907 people wishing to work in the theatre could take courses at the Lasalle Conservatory, join professional companies or go to France to study.

Theatre Schools

The dynamic priest, Father Émile LEGAULT, who founded the influential Compagnons de Saint-Laurent in 1937, founded a short lived theatre school of good reputation 10 years later. Influenced by Copeau and Barrault in Paris, he brought the ideals of the new French theatre back to French-Canadian actor training. The THÉATRE DU NOUVEAU MONDE opened an acting school in 1961, and in 1954 the Conservatoire d'art dramatique was established in Montréal, followed by a sister conservatory in Québec City in 1958.

The National Theatre School of Montréal was founded in 1960 on the artistic principles of adviser Michel Saint-Denis. Still regarded as a major acting and design school, it offers separate training in French and English.

The University Milieu

Until the early 1960s there was no thorough training in the theatre arts at the college level. Most universities followed the English tradition of offering credit courses in dramatic literature and criticism, while regarding practical work as an extracurricular activity best left to student drama societies, departments of extension, and intercollegiate festivals. There were early signs of campus drama activity. The University Dramatic Club of Montréal, using mainly McGill personnel and alumni, staged Shaw's Arms and the Man for the first Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition (Ottawa, 1907).

During the winter of 1914-15 the Department of Extension at the University of Alberta distributed plays and dispensed production advice to Alberta communities. The University of British Columbia Players Club (1915-58) was the first all-student society. Hart House, at the University of Toronto, was established in 1919 with a mandate to encourage and develop amateur drama activities on the campus. Within a decade almost all universities had a student drama society. By 1930 McGill's Department of English was presenting plays for children.

In central and eastern Canada it was often the English department that first offered academic respectability to courses in drama. However, it was not until 1941 that a few theatre courses were tentatively offered by the McGill Department of English. In 1957 Canada's most successful college musical, My Fur Lady, was presented by McGill students.

Growth was much faster in the western universities. Following the American pattern of offering degree programs that included some practical courses, the University of Saskatchewan founded Canada's first department of drama in 1945, offering a BA in drama. The University of Alberta followed with a drama division in 1947. The BANFF CENTRE FOR CONTINUING EDUCATION began as the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1933, and has since offered a wide spectrum of theatre courses. The University of Alberta was the first to offer professional training programs: the BFA in acting and design (1966), and the MFA in design and in directing (1968). In 1966 the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama was founded at the University of Toronto, offering the first PhD in drama.

An important date in the history of theatre education in Canada was the publication of the "Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Theatre Training in Canada" (Black Report) in 1977. It established minimum requirements for acceptable professional training and evaluated both anglophone university programs and professional schools. At the time, no university program met the minimum requirements in the areas of theatre design and production management, although the universities of Alberta, British Columbia and Regina and RYERSON POLYTECHNIC UNIVERSITY in Toronto were all identified as meeting the minimum requirements in other aspects of professional training. The only 2 professional schools which met the minimum requirements for actor training in 1977 were the National Theatre School of Montréal and the VANCOUVER PLAYHOUSE Acting School (1975-88).

In Québec, the development of theatre training programs took a slightly different direction through the 1960s and 70s, partly as a result of the CEGEPs. Two CEGEPs in the Montréal area, Sainte-Thérèse and Sainte-Hyacinthe, offered training to actors, technicians and designers by the end of the 1960s. Today, Québec is noted for its pre-university college programs. Québec students have been able to take a 3-year specialization in theatre before enrolling in university. In the 1970s French-speaking universities began drama divisions, notably at the University of Ottawa, the University of Québec at Montréal and at Sherbrooke.

In 1977, when the Black Report was published, 22 institutions in Canada offered professional or pre-professional programs, while another 15 offered programs with some form of drama specialization. Statistics published by the Canadian Conference for the Arts in 1993 showed a total of 63 universities and colleges offering programs in theatre and drama, with 11 granting BFA degrees and 5 granting MFAs. In 1994 the universities of British Columbia, Calgary and Victoria offered an MFA in directing and design; the University of Alberta offered graduate programs in design, directing and playwriting while at York University students could specialize in acting, playwriting, criticism, production or design.

Six colleges and 6 universities in Canada offered degree programs in arts administration in 1994. The universities of Victoria, Toronto and BC all offered PhD programs in drama. Students entering university programs in 1994 with specific goals - to become stage or costume designers, technical experts or playwrights, for example - could choose from among many schools.

In 1994 there were 3 full-time theatre schools in Canada. The Conservatoire d'art dramatique de Montréal and its sister conservatory in Québec City have developed distinct styles, the Montréal school emphasizing traditional acting technique - with a focus on the actor - while the Québec school pursues collective creation - with a focus on technical theatre and design. The National Theatre School of Canada, which accepts up to 16 students per year into each of its 3-year acting programs, is eclectic in its approach. It has always had strong ties with the STRATFORD FESTIVAL, and many of its students have found work there.

A few programs exist in Canada to aid theatre professionals who wish to advance their training or experience. Equity Showcase in Toronto offers professional development courses to working actors and provides members of Equity the opportunity to mount small-scale productions as "showcases" or for artistic exploration. Federal and provincial governments in Canada provide funds and programs to aid in the training of artists. Theatre Ontario, for example, provides several professional apprenticeship programs, supplies professionals to assist and train community theatre groups, holds trial auditions for people starting out in the business, and offers courses in all areas of theatre. At the federal level, the CANADA COUNCIL provides grants to both professional training institutions and to individuals.

Playwright Training

Playwright training has long been considered an important aspect of theatre education. In the 1930s competitions, particularly for one-act plays, were held by the Canadian Author's Association of Montreal and the Department of Extension at the University of Alberta. Organizations such as the Montreal Rep theatre under Martha Allan and the Sarnia Drama League offered prizes for Canadian plays to be produced by their groups. The Banff Centre (formerly Banff School of Fine Arts) began instruction in playwriting in 1935. Gwendolyn Pharis RINGWOOD, the program's most famous graduate, was a student in the first class. The DOMINION DRAMA FESTIVAL encouraged playwriting by giving a trophy for the best production of a Canadian play.

As of 1994, many playwriting programs were offered in Canada, including a 2-year program at the National Theatre School which is open to only 3-4 students per year. York University offered a BFA in playwriting while both York and the University of Alberta offered MFAs in this specialty. Further training usually takes place in workshops at artist-driven play development centres such as The Playwrights' Workshop in Montréal, the Betty Lambert Society in Vancouver, the Manitoba Association of Playwrights, the Alberta Playwrights Network and the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre. Alberta Theatre Projects runs "playRites", one of Canada's most important festivals for new plays. The PLAYWRIGHTS' UNION OF CANADA promotes the work of Canadian playwrights, publishes and catalogues Canadian plays, manages amateur royalties, provides a critique service and arranges reading engagements for authors.

Drama has long been taught in schools, usually as an adjunct to literature classes. Today, however, drama in the classroom is perceived as having several distinct functions. The primary focus is on the use of creative drama and improvisation to aid in the child's mental, physical and emotional development. Theatrical devices are often used in the classroom to teach academic subjects such as history. Professional theatre companies tour to schools presenting plays which may be on the reading curriculum or which may be used to promote discussion on social or health issues. And, in secondary schools, plays are still presented with the educational intents of teaching language skills, fostering self-confidence, and developing a knowledge and appreciation of drama and theatre.

Not surprisingly, drama education has become a teaching specialty. High school teachers could take a Bachelor of Education in drama at the universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan as early as 1948. By 1993, 20 universities in Canada offered undergraduate degree programs in arts education. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education currently offers an MA, MEd, PhD and EdD in drama education.


Status of Theatre Education in English-speaking Canada, 1999

Theatre education in 1999 spans the continuum from the dramatic play of toddlers to senior adult recreational drama.

Theatre Education for Children and Adolescents
At the pre-school level, the root of adult theatre, symbolic dramatic play in which children are both playwright and actor, is the foundation of early literacy and social development. Nursery school, day care and kindergarten encourage imaginative play and, occasionally, performance. Specialized training in facilitating early childhood play occurs in many community colleges and several universities with graduate courses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). Private agencies like the Hanen Early Language Resource Centre, Toronto, provide caregiver-child remedial training in play deficits.

School drama education varies from a subject in its own right (from kindergarten to grade 12 in Alberta) to integration as a learning methodology across the curriculum in many elementary classrooms. Alberta elementary and middle school curricula also explore elements of performance which increase gradually to a high school emphasis (as in other provinces) on theatre. Provincial drama festivals provide training through workshops with theatre artists. Professional touring theatres for young audiences and a few resident companies in major cities educate through curriculum and social issue plays.

Theatre Education in Universities and Colleges
Students may choose from 160 drama/theatre programs at 33 universities, 9 university colleges and 17 community or independent colleges. Among 18 possible study fields, 71 programs focus academically on general theatre arts or drama, 26 on performance, acting or voice and 23 on production, design or technical theatre. Thirteen institutions grant BFAs in areas like drama/theatre arts, acting, secondary school drama, directing, performance, production, design or technical theatre while 6 grant MFAs in these fields or in playwriting or interdisciplinary studies. Academic PhDs for theatre scholars are available at the Universities of British Columbia, Alberta, Calgary and Toronto.

Community colleges emphasize practical theatre training for amateur groups, aspiring professionals or pre-university students. From Cape Breton to the Yukon certificate programs of 1-2 years duration or diploma ones lasting 2-3 years focus on developmental drama, performing arts management, acting, voice, stagecraft, costume, production and musical or technical theatre. Some college courses may transfer to university undergraduate degrees.

Three universities (Dalhousie, University of Windsor and McMaster University) and 3 colleges (Langara, Sheridan and the Canadian College of Performing Arts) offer specialization in musical theatre. A computer-based performance degree in drama and music is offered at the Technical University of British Columbia. Arts Management degrees may be pursued at the Universities of Calgary and Lethbridge or in certificate/diploma programs at the University of Ottawa and Capilano Community College. Occasional theatre courses are also offered in English, Liberal Arts, Comparative Studies, Modern Languages, Continuing Education or Extension departments, and drama/theatre methods frequent classes in Business (Western), Environmental Studies (York) and Medicine (McMaster).

Eighteen drama education teaching degree programs including one at Maskwachees Cultural College, Hobbema, Alta, exist presently. Some are exclusive to Education (Manitoba; Saskatchewan; Alberta), Arts (Brock) or Fine Arts (Windsor; Calgary) while others, like the University of Lethbridge, combine skill-based drama courses in the Theatre/Drama Department with equivalent time/courses in Education. The Universities of Winnipeg, Queen's, York, Regina and Redeemer College also offer integrated BA/BEd degrees. Individual drama teacher education courses are available as electives within regular pre-service programs in some institutions or through additional qualification summer courses. Graduate drama education is available at OISE/UT.

The Association for Canadian Theatre Research promotes inquiries in all aspects of theatre while Modern Drama, a refereed journal, and provincial drama education newsletter/journals disseminate theory and practice.

Professional Theatre Education
With no professional theatre educator certification required in Canada, companies and artists create ingenious ways to sustain their professional development. The independent studio training implosion of the1990s is evident in Theatre Ontario's listing of 26 acting studios and 53 independent artist-educators who may simultaneously be part-time university instructors and practising professionals. Laurin Mann's 1996 survey of 44 Toronto acting teachers indicates 75% trained in Canada, 84% in universities, 65% in studios, 56% in theatre schools or arts training centres, 25% via experience or company classes and 16% through college courses. Studio teachers instruct novice to master classes and in some cases entire programs. Hundreds of professional theatres across Canada provide artist development through workshops, forums, roundtables, lectures, coaching, mentoring, apprenticeships or residencies. Artists may receive training support through federal and provincial government grants or the Canada Council.

From the West Coast's Playwright Theatre Centre to the East Coast's Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, playwriting workshops and residencies are offered by most theatre companies. The Playwrights Union of Canada, the Alberta Playwrights' Network, the Saskatchewan Playwrights' Centre, the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and Playwrights Atlantic Resouce Centre promote and assist scriptwriting and development of Canadian plays.

Theatre Education for the General Public
Training sessions for recreational or amateur drama enthusiasts are also offered by local, regional and provincial arts or cultural councils like the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, community centres or recreation departments, religious or educational institutions or theatre societies and community theatres. A demographically expanding sector, senior adult recreational drama, is supported by university extension courses at Ryerson Polytechnic University and the University of Alberta and through many local groups such as The Nostalgic Thespians in Windsor, Act II Studio in Toronto, and the Bonnechere Valley Players in Nepean, Ont. Some of these are offspring of the Dominion Drama Festival/Theatre Canada or the Canadian Child and Youth Drama Association.

All Canadians have access to the programs above and several sponsored by the federal government. The Native Canadian desire for performing artist education inseparable from their culture manifests in training at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto, the En'owkin Centre in Penticton, BC, and Maskwachees Cultural College, apprenticeships for local Micmac artists at Nova Scotia's Two Planks and a Passion Theatre and Aboriginal Arts courses at the BANFF CENTRE. Cross-cultural retreats, playwright residencies, professional workshop and public performance readings like those of the George Ryga Centre promote multi-ethnic theatre education. The Toronto Theatre Alliance and Headlines Theatre develop inclusive theatre education for all cultures. Black Artists in Action offer summer programs for youth; shameless hussy productions features feminist theatre. On the millennial cusp, our diverse forms and voices interact and multiply throughout the continuum.

As the 1978 Black Report observed, theatre education in Canada remains eclectic and produces more graduates than jobs.


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