George Luscombe

George Luscombe, stage director (b at Toronto 17 Nov 1926; d at Toronto 5 Feb 1999). One of the seminal figures in modern Canadian theatre, George Luscombe's career focused almost exclusively on Toronto Workshop Productions, the left-wing ensemble he founded in 1958 and directed until 1988.
George Luscombe, stage director (b at Toronto 17 Nov 1926; d at Toronto 5 Feb 1999). One of the seminal figures in modern Canadian theatre, George Luscombe's career focused almost exclusively on Toronto Workshop Productions, the left-wing ensemble he founded in 1958 and directed until 1988.


Luscombe, George

George Luscombe, stage director (b at Toronto 17 Nov 1926; d at Toronto 5 Feb 1999). One of the seminal figures in modern Canadian theatre, George Luscombe's career focused almost exclusively on Toronto Workshop Productions, the left-wing ensemble he founded in 1958 and directed until 1988. More than any other figure he gave English Canada a theatrical voice and vocabulary.

Growing up in a working class district of Toronto in the early days of World War II, Luscombe's theatrical efforts were agit-props for the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF) Youth Club, for which he put together a song-and-dance troupe to perform for striking workers on picket lines. Seeking more advanced training, Luscombe moved to England where for 5 years he worked as an actor in Joan Littlewood's famed Theatre Workshop in London. There he was introduced to the techniques of Stanislavksi and Laban. Luscombe's own method, which he developed over the next 3 decades, drew upon Littlewood, Stanislavski and Laban in equal measures.

Returning to Canada, Luscombe founded his own Workshop Theatre in 1958 (renamed Toronto Workshop Productions when it began full-time operations in 1963) with the intention of building an ensemble in the Littlewood mode. Like his mentor, Luscombe preferred to write his plays in rehearsal with group theatre techniques, using mime, actor-generated sound effects and presentational performance to renew classical texts, or more commonly, to adapt non-dramatic works.

Although he directed dozens of ensemble plays, Luscombe's reputation rests upon a handful of productions that helped redefine Canadian theatre at a crucial stage of development in the 1960s and 1970s. His first international hit was Chicago '70, a living newspaper about the trial of the Chicago Seven, with an Alice in Wonderland motif, developed and performed while the trial was in progress. It ran for over a year in Toronto, played for 3 months in New York, and toured to Europe.

Luscombe's greatest achievement was a trilogy of documentary dramas on working class history that began in 1974 with his most celebrated production, Ten Lost Years, written with Jack Winter and musician Cedric Smith. In this adaptation of Barry Broadfoot's oral history collection about the Great Depression in Canada, Luscombe juxtaposed story-telling, dialogue and music in a complex collage. The original production ran for 3 months, followed by a 3-month national tour in 1974; it was revived in 1975, and again for 3 months in 1981. The following productions in the trilogy, The Mac Paps (1979), about Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and The Wobbly, (1983) about the International Workers of the World, used similar techniques but failed to recapture the immense popularity of Ten Lost Years.

Throughout his career, Luscombe preferred to adapt non- dramatic sources, either oral history or novels (The Good Soldier Schweik, Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth). He believed firmly that his plays were never finished and insisted that the playwright was part of the collaborative ensemble. In 1986 he stepped down as artistic director and terminated his affiliation with TWP 2 years later in a controversial dispute with his board of directors, which abolished the theatre soon after. He then dedicated his efforts to teaching in universities until illness forced his retirement in 1995. His honours include honorary doctorates from York University and the University of Guelph. He was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1981.


Further Reading

  • Neil Carson, Harlequin in Hogtown: George Luscombe at Toronto Workshop Productions (1997); Alan Filewod, Collective Encounters: Documentary Theatre in English Canada (1987).