Alan Filewod

The discourse of Canadian theatre history assigns priority and value in terms of the evolution of the theatrical profession and the dramatic repertoire. The example of the Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance suggests that alternative models which repudiate the ideological terms of that course are disallowed as insignificant.

Le discours pratiqué par les historiens du théâtre au Canada tend à valoriser son sujet/objet en termes de l'évolution soit de la profession théâtrale, soit du répertoire d'oeuvres dramatiques existantes. L'exemple qu'offre la Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance suggère que tout modèle "alternatif" qui contesterait les termes idéologiques de ce discours se trouvera par ce fait même marginalisé.

Researchers interested in political theatre in Canada - a subject of much greater complexity than one might expect - do not have to dig far before coming across a curious problem. Passing references will be found to something called the Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance (CPTA), as well as the Ontario Popular Theatre Alliance, the Popular Theatre Alliance of Manitoba and the CPTA Nova Scotia. Some local media coverage of some of the work sponsored by these organizations will be found, especially the five national festivals of popular theatre held since 1981. But our poor researchers will soon be driven to distraction by the absence of any critical writing that considers just what the CPTA is, where it came from, and what it does. The CPTA and the work of its members have largely been overlooked by those who write the history of contemporary Canadian theatre. There is no mention of it, for instance, in standard texts such as Benson and Conolly's English Canadian Theatre, although the CPTA is demonstrably a product of the alternative theatre of the 1970s, and as such represents the evolution of an important tradition in Canadian theatre.

Briefly, the CPTA is a network of individuals and theatre companies committed to the application of theatre for social development. Its own development since its founding in 1981 reveals a transformation that suggests the need for a redefinition of contemporary political theatre in Canada and which challenges the assumptions by which we construct theatre history.

The first steps to establishing a formal alliance of theatres committed to programs of social action came in 1978, when Chris Brookes, then artistic director of the Mummers Troupe, convened in Newfoundland a meeting of representatives of left-wing and collective theatres from across the country. Delegates to that meeting were introduced to Ross Kidd, a Canadian who had just returned from several years in Zambia and Botswana, where as an adult educator he had pioneered the use of theatre as a tool of popular education. Kidd's African work inspired many of the Canadians he met, but in fact, as Kidd himself wrote in a letter to George Lee of the Memorial University of Newfoundland's Extension Department, he had been inspired by a Canadian example. Chris Brookes's article on the Mummers Troupe's historic 1973 intervention in Sally's Cove, published in This Magazine, 1 had encouraged him to begin experimenting in popular theatre in Botswana.2 In the ensuing years, Kidd had become a principal organizer and teacher of popular theatre in the Third World, working extensively in Africa, the Philippines and Bangladesh; consequently a case can be made that the Canadian experience of popular theatre, which begins with community intervention companies like the Mummers Troupe and Theatre Euh!, is related both historically and methodologically to the popular theatre movement of the Third World.

A year after that meeting, the Mummers Troupe's internal crisis over the contradictions of collective work methods and centralized administrative decision-making came to a boil, and the Canada Council Theatre Office called a meeting of companies it identified as collective in order to resolve what it saw as a crisis over collective structures. The meeting disproved the Council's identification of collective working methods with collective management. Of the dozen groups at the meeting, only three, Kam Theatre, Great Canadian Theatre Company and Mulgrave Road Co-op, actually functioned under some sort of collective management, and even in those cases the collective operated under a board of directors and specific jobs were assigned. The meeting showed that the crisis of collective structures was a bogus one, occasioned by a schism in one company, but it did succeed in engendering a sense of solidarity among groups that shared a populist approach to their work. At the end of the meeting the proposal for an association of like companies came forward but was not acted upon. In large part the proposal was an expression of discontent with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), which at the time was perceived by these companies as primarily interested in the management problems of large theatres.

The resolution came in 1981, when Kam Theatre, a left-wing collective in Thunder Bay, sponsored an event called Bread & Circuses: A Festival of Canadian Theatre. The companies attending this festival were small, non-Equity, politically engaged, and for the most part collective in their approach to playwriting. The performances followed a week long workshop, organized by Ross Kidd with financial support from CUSO, which brought a dozen Canadians together to exchange skills with popular theatre workers from seven African and Caribbean nations.3 During the festival, some of the workshop participants drew up a proposal for a formal association. Previous attempts to organize such an association, most notably at the 1979 collectives meeting, had run into an insurmountable obstacle - the inability to define a common ground and purpose. Now this obstacle was overcome by the acceptance of the term 'popular theatre.' It was at this point that the term effectively entered wider usage in English Canada. By introducing the term, Ross Kidd had given the workshop participants an instrument that enabled them to define their commonality clearly and which relocated the defining criteria for political theatre to the active collaboration with a community in the process of struggle.

The original intention of the founders was that the CPTA was to be exclusively an alliance of professional companies, although it was admitted that the definition of professional must necessarily be flexible. A separate category for individual memberships was accepted but with resistance from those who saw the organization as a left-wing alternative to PACT. For that same reason amateur companies were to be excluded from company membership but could apply for individual membership. This provision of course failed to anticipate the later realization that in popular theatre the distinctions between professional and amateur are problematic at best.

The original principles of the CPTA articulated a vision of popular theatre which owed much to the collective tradition of alternative theatre. The political definition of popular theatre was a subject of considerable debate when the idea of the CPTA was proposed at the festival's plenary. The term had been introduced in the workshop that preceded the festival to convey political engagement, but was accepted by the companies attending the festival as a description of their shared populism. Some of the groups attending the festival, such as the feminist Tomorrow's Eve and Rising Tide Theatre (the dissident product of the Mummers' schism) balked at the original principles because of the left-wing agenda inscribed in them:


a) . . . we believe that theatre is a means and not an end. We are theatres which work to effect social change.

b) We see our task as an ongoing process in which art is actively involved in the changing nature of the communities in which we live and work.

c) We particularly attempt to seek out, develop and serve audiences whose social reality is not normally reflected on the Canadian stage.

d) Therefore our artistic practice grows out of a social rather than private definition of the individual.

e) Therefore there is a fundamental difference of purpose, priorities and aesthetics which separates us from the dominant theatre ideology in Canada today.4

Lacking funds, the new association remained inactive until 1983, when Catalyst Theatre, which by that time had emerged as perhaps the most innovative popular theatre in North America, sponsored the next festival, Bread & Roses, in Edmonton. Its program expanded the profile of the CPTA with the inclusion of Québécois political troupes: le Théâtre Sans Détour and le Théâtre du Sang Neuf.5 This festival also saw the introduction of Augusto Boal's forum theatre methodology (which invites the audience to replace the oppressed character in the play and try out various solutions to the problem posed) to English Canada when Sans Détour performed some forum pieces in English. The impact of Boal on the subsequent development of popular theatre in English Canada has since been profound, to the point where at Bread & Butter, the most recent of the CPTA festivals, three of the ten companies attending performed forum theatre projects on subjects as diverse as public housing, Aids and parenting.

Bread & Roses established a biennial tradition that was followed in Winnipeg in 1985 with Bread & Dreams; two years later the festival relocated to Sydney, N.S., as Standin' The Gaff. By the time of the 1987 festival, popular theatre had clearly consolidated into a movement very different from that envisioned by the founders of CPTA only six years previously. Now instead of an alliance of professional companies, the CPTA had evolved to include as well a broader network of community based groups and individuals, many of whom were not theatre professionals but popular theatre facilitators and development educators. This evolution may be perceived in effect as the gradual appropriation of the popular theatre alliance by the very sector its founders sought to exclude.

This reorientation of the CPTA can be demonstrated by comparing the programs of Bread & Circuses and Bread & Butter, held in Guelph in June 1989. The companies that performed at Bread & Circuses in 1981 represented the populist and collective theatres which had surfaced in the 1970s; they were the political left wing of the professional theatre. That program included Catalyst Theatre; Theatre Energy, a collective based in the interior of British Columbia; Resource Centre of the Arts, successor to the Mummers Troupe in Newfoundland; Mulgrave Road Co-op; Théâtre Sans Fils and Great Canadian Theatre Company. In contrast, few of the troupes at Bread & Butter met the Canada Council's criteria of professionalism. The festival saw performances from such companies as Puente Theatre, comprised of Hispanic refugee women from Victoria; Siyakha Cultural Productions, an emigre South African troupe based in Toronto; Second Look Community Arts Resource, an inner city Toronto forum theatre collective; Le Groupe Montréal Serai, a Southeast Asian community theatre based in Montreal; and Tunooniq, an Inuit theatre from Baffin Island. If some of these groups are not professional, neither are they amateur as the term is accepted by critics and historians. Their activity suggests that the polarity of professional and amateur which has been so instrumental in the writing of theatre history is no longer adequate to describe the relationship of communities in struggle and marginalized art workers to the institutional structures of Canadian theatre. This development is now receiving some recognition from arts councils: Canada Council's Touring Office funded Tunooniq's trip to Guelph, and in October 1988 the Ontario Arts Council sponsored a meeting of popular theatres which drew over 80 representatives from across the province. That meeting led to the formation of the Ontario Popular Theatre Alliance and indicated a willingness on the part of OAC to consider the special needs of popular theatre as a distinct category to be addressed on its own terms.

The reorientation of the popular theatre movement challenges the processes by which we as theatre historians construct our subjects and the mechanisms by which we legitimize them. The critical traditions that validate aesthetic judgments are the products of an ideology to which popular theatre is necessarily opposed: the ideology that perceives art as an autonomous social activity subject to its own laws of function and beauty. Popular theatre by principle is designed to embody the consciousness and express the experience of the audience to which it is targeted, and thus its aesthetic principles are those of that particular audience community. Those standards are frequently different, often 'lower' than those of educated critical tradition; they refer generally to local and mass culture rather than canonical authority.

This question of particularization challenges traditional precepts of dramatic theory, which objectify text as a self-integrated organism and which only recently have found ways to admit the function of performance as a textual language. Popular theatre is a medium which repudiates traditional notions of literary textuality, and which challenges the precepts by which we normally assess performance. If as text and performance it challenges the authority of aesthetic judgment, how then do we define its aesthetic standards? This question is important because the assignment of aesthetic value is one of the tools theatre historians use to assess historical significance.

The writing of theatre history is influenced by an ideological mechanism by which theatrical productions are validated critically and institutionally within the sphere of professional art. Works which do not attain these standards - which are enforced by critics, professional associations such as Actors Equity and PACT, and funding agencies-are disallowed. The terms of disallowance are familiar and rarely questioned: they include such familiar terms as political, regional, alternative, or amateur. This model depends on the notion of professionalism for its coherence; when that model is challenged, as it is by popular theatre, it is paralysed. It is for this reason that critics have been unable to distinguish between political and popular theatre. This is the case with Benson and Conolly in English Canadian Theatre, who cite as examples of political theatre George Luscombe and Rick Salutin, whose project has been the radicalization of the professional stage.6 The general inability to perceive political theatre except in relation to the development of professional theatre and the canon of published playtexts also accounts for the inadequate assessment by theatre historians of the contribution of the workers theatre movement of the 1930s vis à vis the Dominion Drama Festival.

The evolution of popular theatre in Canada repudiates the conceptual structure of professional theatre. In the prevailing discourse of Canadian theatre, which constructs the history of theatre in this country as a movement towards the legitimization of the theatre as a profession, that repudiation is disallowed as essentially peripheral. The problem is compounded by the fact that popular theatre also repudiates the notions of textuality which justify our construction of the theatrical profession. In that general discourse the development of a dramatic canon is presented as one of main ends of theatrical evolution. In this sense textuality becomes an aesthetic and structural criterion for assessing historical significance. Theatres that have contributed towards the canon, such as Tarragon and Factory Lab, are assessed as major, whereas theatres that contribute little to the canon, such as Stratford and most of the regional theatres, are criticized as somehow lacking in their cultural duty. This system of value has been largely accepted by the funding agencies, which have tended to reward companies that encourage indigenous playwriting. And in fact this issue of the canon was a major factor of the nationalist debate of the 1970s.

Popular theatre, however, questions the fundamental precepts of textuality as literature. Popular theatre is often created collectively in rehearsal by improvisation and adapts to the particular contexts of each new audience. It often lacks the stabilizing structure of a literary text which exists as the referent for each new performance of a literary drama and which is the subject and object of the performance. Its interaction with an audience, which frequently, as in forum theatre, is invited to intervene in the performance, means that any critical evaluation must necessarily be an analysis of the politics of the audience and the social circumstances of the production. But theatre historians are not trained as political analysts. Moreover, popular theatre calls into question the class allegiances of theatrical funding, and theatre historians tend to be nervous around questions of class analysis. Consequently popular theatre is perceived in our discourse as a marginal project by scholars who can only approach it with an empiricist historical model which finds its centre in the notion of a professional institution.

This historiography is not simply conservative; it advances the hegemony of an ideology that is at best unsympathetic and at worst hostile to the notion of a politicized art which repudiates the precepts that underlie our common understanding of theatre in Canada. The marginalization of popular theatre serves to remind us that as theatre historians we are implicated in a particular conceptual ideology, in the service of which we construct history to justify our investment in it.




Alan Filewod

1 CHRIS BROOKES, 'Useful Theatre in Sally's Cove,' This Magazine 8, 2 (1974): 3-7
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2 KIDD to LEE, nd, Mummers Troupe archive
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3 Companies represented at the workshop included Catalyst Theatre, GCTC, Kam Lab, the Mummers Troupe, Theatre Energy, Theatre Max, and the Turtle Island Collective. Popular theatre workers were invited from St. Vincent, Grenada, Dominica, Jamaica, Nigeria, Zambia, and Tanzania
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4 Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance, Statement of Principles, adopted May 1981
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5 Neither Théâtre du Sang Neuf nor Théâtre Sans Détour formally joined the CPTA. In 1987 Théâtre Parminou joined and is at present the only Québécois theatre in the alliance
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6 EUGENE BENSON and L W CONOLLY, English Canadian Theatre, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp 86-88. The more traditionally constructed notion of 'formal' political theatre typified by Salutin and Luscombe is inextricably entwined with the history of the popular theatre movement, and because of its identification with the institutions of professional theatre (and consequent dependence on arts council funding) has in fact suffered more from government funding cuts and conservative pressure than the popular theatres
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