Theatre for Young Audiences

Vancouver became the first Canadian city to enjoy professional theatre for children when Joy Coghill and Myra Benson founded Holiday Theatre in 1953. Other early companies were Theatre Hour in Toronto and Les Jeunes Comédiens in Montréal.


Theatre for Young Audiences

 Theatre for Young Audiences was a 20th-century phenomenon, reflecting the relatively recent view of childhood as a separate and protected time of life with specialized needs and concerns. A precocious and energetic Russian actor, Natalie Sats, began the first theatre for the young to be performed by adult professionals in Moscow, shortly before the 1917 revolution. Similar groups were established in England, the US, France and Czechoslovakia in the years between the two world wars.

Vancouver became the first Canadian city to enjoy professional theatre for children when Joy Coghill and Myra Benson founded Holiday Theatre in 1953. Other early companies were Theatre Hour in Toronto and Les Jeunes Comédiens in Montréal. Repertoire performed by these pioneer troupes was dominated initially by plays from the US, England and France. Holiday Theatre produced many American adaptations of fairy tales, and Theatre Hour and Les Jeunes Comédiens chose English and French theatre classics for their high-school audiences. As they matured these companies began to commission Canadian works.

Two companies formed in the 1960s eventually encouraged local writers, though they began with foreign fare. La Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale (Montréal) was founded in 1964 to perform classics for adolescents but after 1968 included recent Québec plays and winners of an annual playwriting contest. In the late 1960s Regina's GLOBE THEATRE toured Saskatchewan schools with scripts by British playwright Brian Way. His technique of participation - asking audiences to advance the plot and help the hero by contributing noises, ideas and imaginary objects - became popular and influential. Canadian playwrights who wrote successful participation plays include Paddy Campbell, Len Petersen and Rex DEVERELL. The 1975 appointment of Deverell in residence as a playwright for young people was a first in Canada.

In the 1970s when Simon and Pierre, Talonbooks and the Playwrights Co-op (later Playwrights Canada Press) began to publish new scripts for young people, writers could anticipate multiple performances of their works. Although many TYA companies devise their own material or include a director or actor who doubles as playwright and most scripts play for one season only, some are published and a few of these are widely performed. One such is Dennis Foon's New Canadian Kid, a play about immigrant children in which the Canadians speak gibberish and only the newcomer speaks English.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of groups producing theatre for young audiences increased from under 20 to over 70, including Mermaid Theatre in Nova Scotia; Theatre New Brunswick's Young Company; Theatre Five, Carousel Players, Hexagone and l'Hexagone, Jabberwock and Sons Full Theatre Company, Theatre Direct Canada and the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ontario; Théâtre des Pissenlits, Marmaille, Théâtre Soleil, Cannerie, Bebelle, Théâtre de Carton, Théâtre de L'Oeil, Grosse Valise, Théâtre des Confettis, Amis de chiffon and Youtheatre in Québec; Persephone Youth Theatre in Saskatchewan; Manitoba Theatre Workshop and Manitoba Theatre for Young People in Manitoba; Citadel-On-Wheels and Theatre Calgary's Stage Coach Players, Trickster and Calgary's Quest Theatre in Alberta; and Green Thumb Theatre, Axis Mime, Carousel Theatre and Kaleidoscope in BC.

In 1977 Young People's Theatre (now Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People) in Toronto became the first Canadian company to have its own building devoted exclusively to entertainment for young audiences. Alberta Theatre Projects, established in 1972 "to bring history to life" for schoolchildren, also brought its audience to a special theatre, the historic Canmore Opera House in Calgary's Heritage Park. With its move to the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts (now the EPCOR CENTRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS), the company shifted its priorities to its adult season at the same time that Theatre Calgary dropped its school touring arm, the Stage-Coach Players. A new company, Quest Theatre, stepped in to fill the needs of the young audience.

The 1980s saw a shift away from theatre for young audiences by several of the major regional companies. Whereas the artistic direction had originally included a commitment to work for young people, limited resources and changing personnel led to a concentration on work for adults that was seen as more prestigious for these companies. Although this shift changed the "theatre for all ages" nature of the regional companies, it encouraged, particularly in the west, the birth of new groups and new approaches. In Vancouver, the decision by the Playhouse to close down its school tour was instrumental in the founding of Green Thumb Theatre. In Edmonton the closure of Citadel-On-Wheels led to the introduction of the Family series, a popular subscription series of plays held in the MacLab Theatre and the formation of Chinook Theatre.

A uniquely Canadian phenomenon has been the success of the multiday Children's Festivals that now span the country. Although theatre is only one of the many disciplines presented, Canadian companies are showcased and receive profile and attention through the festivals. Events held annually in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Winnipeg and Montréal have engendered similar events in smaller cities such as Saskatoon, Thunder Bay, Regina and Prince George.

Most companies consider school tours a vital part of their mandate and bring live theatre to a cross-section of young Canadians. The economy of means imposed by touring sometimes leads to ingenious solutions to problems of small casts, 45-minute plays and rudimentary technical resources. Long runs in original plays encourage neophyte actors to develop skills in creating and then sustaining characterizations for dozens, sometimes hundreds, of repeat performances. Close connections with the schools also present problems: educational content is implied, if not dictated, with extensive study guides required from companies with limited resources to research and write them. Budgets often strike first at live theatre; artists feel isolated and miss media and peer feedback; and touring one-act plays for months of two-performance days in school gymnasiums is gruelling and exhausting.

The cutbacks in the educational system have put pressure on companies relying on school touring to develop extensive workshop programs. As fine arts are seen as one curriculum area to trim, schools are replacing the year-long commitments to week-long programs, and TYA companies are being asked to provide residencies rather than performances. The effect this will have on scripts and audience development remains to be seen.

Since 1980 contemporary concerns have taken their place beside the archetype, history and legend in the repertoire. Subjects have included the prevention of sexual abuse, the issues of immigration and illiteracy and the concerns of peer pressure and schoolyard violence. A trend of the 1990s was the emergence of in-house programming for teenagers with Green Thumb Theatre in Vancouver and Manitoba Theatre for Young People in Winnipeg leading the way. Innovative influences sometimes enter the mainstream of Canadian drama through works developed for and with children. For example, James REANEY, poet, playwright and teacher, often conducted workshops with children to allow their energy, grace and open attitude toward myth and metaphor to contribute to his singular scripts. Also, because many young professionals find their first work in theatre of the young, they often bring fresh thinking to old problems. In particular, collaboration between playwrights, directors and designers produces striking and memorable effects.

Improvisation, mime, mask work, collective creation and puppetry enrich our theatrical vocabulary and expand the boundaries of style. Distinctive Canadian styles of writing and production have developed, creating live performances that speak directly to the dreams of Canada's young people in compelling theatrical forms.


Further Reading

  • Joyce Doolittle and Zina Barnieh, A Mirror of Our Dreams ... (1979).