Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring 1986)

CARROLL AIKINS AND THE HOME THEATRE

James Hoffman

Carroll Aikins founded the Home Theatre in Naramata on Lake Okanagan in British Columbia in November 1920. Having just had his play The God of Gods produced at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England, Aikins, adhering to the 'Art Theatre' principles of Gordon Craig and Maurice Browne, began the Canadian Players, a training company intended to mount and tour indigenous drama on a national scale. Recruiting instructors from the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, he commenced work in his theatre building which was designed in collaboration with Lee Simonson of the Theatre Guild. The company produced a regular season of new works by such authors as Synge, Gilbert Murray, and Anatol France. When the venture closed, Aikins went on to direct for several seasons at Hart House Theatre in Toronto in the late 1920s. This paper includes a brief biography of Aikins, a survey of the Canadian Players, a discussion of Aikins' ideals, as well as a consideration of the practical problems and eventual closure. There is also a chronological listing of the plays produced by the Home Theatre.

Carroll Aikins fonda le Home Theatre en Naramata, sur le lac d'Okanagan, British Columbia, en novembre 1920. Après avoir joué The God of Gods produit au Birmingham Repertory Theatre en Angleterre, Aikins, s'inspirant des principles du 'Théâtre des arts' de Gordon Craig et Maurice Browne, fonda les 'Joueurs canadiens', un troupe de formation, dans l'intention de monter une tournée de pièces indigènes à l'échelle nationale. Recrutant des instructeurs du Neighborhood Playhouse à New-York, Aikins commença à travailler dans son propre théâtre, lequel fut décoré avec la collaboration de Lee Simonson du Theatre Guild. La troupe produisit des pièces nouvelles dès sa première saison régulière: pièces de Synge, Gilbert Murray et Anatol France. Quand le théâtre, ferma les portes - c'était la fin des années 1920 - Aikins déménagea à Hart House à Toronto. Annexées à ce journal sont: une brève biographie d'Aikins, une études des 'Joueurs canadiens', une discussion sur les idéaux d'Aikins ainsi qu'une réflection sur les problèmes pratiques d'une fermeture éventuelle, et une liste chronologique des pièces produites par le Home Theatre.

If the newspaper and magazine articles of the early 1920s are to be believed, Canada enjoyed many theatrical 'firsts' in 1921 and 1922: 'the first national theatre in Canada'; 'the first Canadian Little Theatre'; 'the first Greek drama presented in Canada'; 'the first Passion play ever given in Canada'; and the first 'dome-horizon' - a form of cyclorama - to be installed in Canada. The writers of these turgid phrases were reflecting both the wish for and the fact of - however incipient - a national cultural renewal that was especially manifest in the post World War I years. What is surprising in this case though is that all these claims of 'first' refer not to several progressive theatres in urban Montreal or Toronto, but to one theatre located in the middle of an orchard in the sparsely populated rural hills of central British Columbia. This paper will examine the development and operation of Carroll Aikins' Home Theatre as it flourished briefly and perhaps even for a moment brilliantly in the early 1920s.

Carroll Aikins was born in 1888 in Stanstead, Quebec, and while not born into a theatrical family nor directly encouraged towards the performing arts he was, because of his temperament as well as his family background, inclined in a number of ways to the written and spoken arts. Several of his forebears were noteworthy public figures. His maternal grandfather, the Hon. C.C. Colby, was Member of Parliament for Stanstead from 1867 to 1891, president of the Privy Council under Sir John A. Macdonald, wrote Parliamentary Government in Canada (Montreal 1886) and was a notable debater in the House of Commons. Maclean's Magazine (1 January 1921) commented that there were 'Many people ... even now, who remember his splendid oratory and the crowded chamber that greeted his too few speeches Aikins' paternal grandfather was James Cox Aikins, lieutenant-governor of Manitoba (1882-1888) and also, as Secretary of State (1869-73, 1878-80), a member of Sir John A's cabinet. His uncle, Dr. Charles W. Colby, was a longtime professor at McGill University, who specialized in early Canadian history and wrote Canadian Types of the Old Regime (New York 1908). His obituary notice in the Montreal Gazette (12 December 1945) cites his lifelong 'mingling of academic and business interests', his 'cultivated mind', and 'his life of varied service', an epitaph that in many ways characterized his nephew, Carroll. Aikins' father was John Somerset Aikins, a successful businessman in real estate and insurance, who, before his abrupt death while Carroll was in his mid-twenties, was also a Member of Parliament. Carroll's book Poems (Boston: Sherman, French, 1917) was dedicated to the memory of his father:

Greater than temples, greater than the song
Of priest and chorister at their craft and art,
Are the nice balances of right and wrong
That swing to mercy, in a good man's heart.

Carroll, in his own upbringing, also seemed destined for some form of public life appropriate to one born into comparative wealth and good family connections. Moved to Winnipeg a few weeks after his birth, he attended an Anglican private school, St. John's, and seemed a regular child. Someone 1 who met him when he was fifteen describes a spirited, youthful carousing at a swimming hole. He attended McGill but left after one year because, according to his daughter,2 formal education appeared not to be vitally necessary; besides, enjoying sufficient means, he had 'too many options - he could do anything he wanted without a degree'. Also, it was discovered at this time that he had a spot on his lung indicating suspected tuberculosis. Thus it was that he commenced several years of living and touring abroad for health and educational reasons.

He made a study tour of Europe, went to school for at least one academic year in France and travelled for awhile with his mother through Germany. Dates and details are hard to find, and there is no record, by his own hand or even second hand, of his discovery of modern European theatrical innovation, whether by visits to the playhouses or by his readings or by discussions with others. It is likely that, as a cultivated person in the process of acquiring a broad, humanistic education, he included an up-to-date theoretical knowledge of drama as part of his learning; and as the thoughts of the contemporary dramatic prophets like Craig and Appia were enunciated in idealistic, even religious tones, they probably greatly appealed to this eager, Anglican youth from a country just beginning to entertain possibilities of a new, national drama. Certainly he acquired a visionary and abstract rather than a practical understanding of the theatre, for when he began his work in the Home Theatre it was, as one commentator stated, 'a dream of a great adventure' by someone who 'previously knew nothing of theatre problems.' 3 Indeed, the picture of Aikins that emerges both in his farming affairs and in his Home Theatre work is of an inspired, spontaneous, slightly aloof artist, rather than a systematic, organized man of business. And with a wealthy family capable of financially bailing him out, as they sometimes did, he could afford to indulge his dreams. But only, however, within limits: he was often nearly broke, and was reported, by the mid-twenties, to be tying ribbons on selected fruit trees only, since he could not afford to spray the whole crop.

Aikins' theatrical ideas took shape during the period of the 'new' theatre as proclaimed by effusive visionaries. Aikins must have encountered in some fashion the precepts of that passionate Wagnerite Adolph Appia, perhaps through one of his influential brochures and books, published in the 1890s, which described and illustrated the importance of light as a unifying equivalent of music, and Craig, who by 1908, was elaborating his extravagant dreams of directorial creativity in The Mask and in other writings. Aikins, with a reading knowledge of French and German, probably acquired these and other documents of the European art theatre. During the time of the Home Theatre he was noted for his large collection of books on the theatre. It is easy, in any case, to see the influence of Craig and Appia in his close, perfectionist attention to details and simple yet highly suggestive artistic use of stage settings and lighting - all rendered by the poet-director.

The pre World War I era was the age of the new artistic director and it is probable that Aikins witnessed the work of Granville-Barker at the Court theatre in London during the 1904-1907 years, or in New York in 1915, with the New York Stage Society, or the work of Reinhardt in his groundbreaking productions in London and New York in 1911 and 1912. There can be little doubt that Aikins was present and made personal contacts at the English repertory theatre that had formed on the heels of the Court in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, for it was at the last that his play The God of Gods was produced in a two-week run in 1919, with a set designed by Barry Jackson himself. The influence of these companies, which were to England what the little theatres were to the United States, can be seen in Aikins' emhasis [sic] on ensemble acting and the encouragement of new playwrights, as well as in many of the construction principles of theatre building. His style at the Home Theatre was theirs: he wanted to purify the theatre of its commercial, box-office nature - he announced to newspapers that the venture was strictly not profit-making. He was an experimenter more interested in new ideas than traditional methods. He emphasized participation: a glance at an early program reveals that he involved a cross-section of the community, from farm-hands to landowners, in a theatre of communal self-expression, people who were to be, in Maurice Browne's words, the 'raw material' 4 of the new drama.

But perhaps the strongest contender for the role of Aikins' spiritual mentor was Copeau: in his efforts to stage the poetic, to purify and simplify stage settings and maintain high standards even at the price of sequestering his work from the masses, this French dramatist - especially as he and his company were resident in New York from 1917 to 1919, may have contributed the most idealism to an impressionable Aikins. Copeau, like Aikins, worked in the isolation of the country and attempted to train young actors in the very purist ways of the art theatre.

By this time Aikins was in direct contact with several members of the newly-created Little Theatre movement in the United States. A frequent visitor to the United States, he must have visited both the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York (established 1915) and the Chicago Little Theatre (1912) because in establishing the Home Theatre Aikins received encouragement, advice and even personnel from these significant theatres, which, like their European counterparts, were formed to display newer dramas and recent stagecraft methods. The Neighborhood Playhouse, like the Home Theatre, was small, was first occupied by enthusiastic and idealistic amateurs, and was situated, as its name suggests, among a cross-section of the populus in the lower east side. From this theatre Aikins hired Florence Levine, a dance and movement instructor; and from the Washington Square Players, also of New York, he gained invaluable consultation on theatre and lighting design from Lee Simonson.

From the Chicago Little Theatre Aikins received the friendship and inspiration of its director and one of the leading lights of the American Little Theatre movement, Maurice Browne, who had written 'The Temple of a Living Art' (The Drama November 1913) about the 'fire that tests and purifies' (p 177) that the American dramatist of tomorrow will endure as he established a true art theatre. It is interesting to note, incidentally, in the light of Aikins' subsequent attempt to establish a national Canadian drama in 1920, Browne's statement that by 1913 there was in the United States no theatre 'of even national, far less international importance.' (p 164)

For the sake of his health and to offer Carroll a living, his father sent him to the Okanagan area of British Columbia in 1908, close to Naramata, where the first section of the eventual 100 acres of sage-covered, hilly lakeside property, later named 'Rekadom' - meaning 'house by the water' - was purchased for the purpose of developing a fruit growing operation. Four years later, in 1912, Carroll married Katherine Foster, daughter of the American Consul-General at Ottawa. With her personality and background (she was educated at Vassar) she was to be an ideal partner in the Home Theatre venture, performing major roles, directing and assisting with the teaching. During World War I, having been refused the opportunity of military service because of his health, Aikins supervised the work of his orchards and engaged in a number of creative projects.

He was seriously writing at this time and published his book of poems which displayed the romantic, 'Oh drench me in the sun's downpouring light / Or give me starflung passionate delight!' ('Prayer'); the religious, 'I see God in my orchard every hour' ('in the Orchard'); and what can only be described as the work of a dreamer, 'So do I write with pen and ink / The dreams I dream, the things I think' ('Sardonyx'). He was completing The God of Gods, a melodramatic play about a 'devout Indian maiden' who loves an outcast singer but is tricked by the conniving chief's son into unwittingly killing her lover, after which she flings herself to death from a precipice. Billed on the Birmingham Repertory program as 'An American-Indian Play', the production featured an orchestra playing a hodgepodge of pieces such as 'Pawnee War Song and Dance,' 'Cherokee Cradle Song,' 'Dakota Scalp Dance,' and 'Omaha Tribal Melodies' - surely, like the play's plot, a blend of native Indian motifs with familiar European, theatrical style. The English reviewers generally liked the play, praising it as a 'rare artistic delicacy', 5 with special commendations for the acting, the lighting, the 'quaint and weird' 6 tribal music, and the script, which was felt, although with perhaps a few too many echoes of Lord Dunsany, to be 'good, original work [that] deserves a wider popularity.' 7 One personal problem for Aikins was that he was unable to travel to England at this time to see the production, even though it provoked interest sufficient to bring about another staging at the Everyman theatre in London in 1931.

The same year (1919) Aikins was busy in theatrical endeavours at home. To assist the war effort, he produced at Naramata, probably in the Opera House, Oliphant Down's The Maker of Dreams, with proceeds going to the Red Cross. He also, while his play ran in Birmingham in November, travelled to the Cornish School in Seattle, an interdisciplinary fine and performing arts institution, where Maurice Browne was guest teacher. Carroll and Katherine saw the school's production of Shaw's The Philanderer, and were encouraged to found a new kind of theatre. Katherine recalls:

That November we went to Seattle to meet the Maurice Browns [sic] and see their production of The Philanderer, at the Cornish School of Drama. We enjoyed the production and the theatre talk that followed in the next few days, and liked Maurice Brown [sic] and his wife, Ellen van Volkenburg, who encouraged the idea of a 'Little Theatre' in the Canadian west. In the course of the play we heard a voice behind us say: 'What is a philanderer?' and that too convinced us that more sophisticated theatre was needed west of the Rockies.
    My husband became very busy with plans for building a small theatre combined with a utilitarian packing house.8

That winter Aikins spent designing the theatre building. For assistance he appealed to Lee Simonson, who seems to have commented upon and approved Aikins's own drawings. Simonson likely designed and strongly recommended the particular lighting equipment which was purchased in New York. Again, there are no extant letters or other communications between Aikins and Simonson, nor are there any sketches or drawings of the theater building; with Aikins' well-known spontaneous methods of working, it is likely that the building was informally drawn, and improvised as he went along. Although it caused much commentary after its opening, the theatre project, especially as it was being constructed, was a well-kept secret and one wonders whether there was an extended period when he maintained the option to complete the structure simply as a well-situated barn or storage shed. A small item in the Penticton Herald (3 June 1920), exactly five months before the official opening of the theatre by the Prime Minister of Canada, announced only that: 'Mr. C.C. Aikins is constructing a very fine packing and storage house on his fruit property.' Also, he couldn't have been too busy discussing or promoting his theatre that summer: the same newspaper noted that he and his wife took a month-long motoring trip through the Caribou area during July and August.

One local paper, however, the Penticton Standard (26 May, 1920), did manage to note that something special was occurring:

Mr. Carroll Aikins, of Naramata, works in a quiet way. He has financed and built on his property, one of the coziest, most modern, and up-to-the-minute theatres it is conceivable to devise, and all without the usual blare of trumpet and newspaper advertising that accommodates enterprises of much less importance than that in which Mr. Aikins is engaged. He built the theatre primarily for the education and training of Canadian actors and the Naramata building will be, or is, the home of the Canadian Players. It is the intention of Mr. Aikins to offer the public the higher class productions of the legitimate stage and the residents of the Southern Okanagan will be fortunate in this respect.


The theatre was officially opened 3 November 1920, by Prime Minister Arthur Meighen who no doubt welcomed, in those days of social unrest culminating in the Winnipeg General Strike (of which he was an active, principal antagonist), this pleasant, non-controversial cultural event flowing with national ideals. In a program produced for the opening Aikins wrote:

We feel that we have reached that point in our history where we may look for a Canadian literature to record Canadian achievement; and it is in that faith that we have built this theatre for the giving of Canadian plays by Canadian actors. We hope that it will be used by the young actor as a training-ground for his abilities, and by the young poet as a testing-ground for his work; and we have great pleasure in offering it to them, for the service of beauty and for a true expression of  the Canadian spirit.


This statement was published in Maclean's Magazine (1 January 1921), which also contains what seems to be the only extant photograph of the outside of the Home Theatre - somewhat obscured, unfortunately (but naturally enough), behind a row of fruit trees.

The theatre occupied the second storey above an eight-foot-high concrete fruit packing and storage room, the foundation measuring 80 by 40 feet. The theatre itself was a wooden, shiplapped structure pitched roof that featured three large dormers on each side by three cupola-like air vents, the entire edifice resembling, especially with its raised fly space over the west end, a country church, or, as one contemporary observer noted, a temple, with 'The fruits of the earth packed for consumption beneath; the fruits of the mind given to humanity above.' (Maclean's 21 January 1921) Situated on a rolling benchland several hundred feet above and about half a mile from Okanagan Lake, the theatre dominated the local view and was clearly visible even from across the lake in Summerland, where residents, paying 500, rode across on a ferry to see the plays.

Audiences came from Naramata (the townsite is about a mile from the location of the theatre), Summerland, Penticton (about eight miles away), and from other parts of the Okanagan. Aikins, in keeping with Little Theatre ideals, seems not to have encouraged a strictly élitist audience. There are reports of how the Indians from a reservation across the lake came to watch the plays and were particularly impressed with the lighting effects. There were also special guests, like W. R. MacInnes, vice-president of the CPR, Maurice Browne, and members of the University of British Columbia Varsity Players.9 This audience saw fairly recent, modern plays produced in a simple, yet often powerfully evocative manner by (mainly) dedicated young student actors; Aikins sometimes requested the spectators to refrain from applause in order to maintain the special atmosphere, disallowed curtain calls, and appended to the programs blank sheets for the audience to write critical comments to be returned to Aikins.

The audience walked from the ground up a long stair to the north side of the building (see illustration) and entered a long, narrow foyer decorated, in Katherine Aikins' words,

... with [a] small gate-legged table, Chinese chairs, chests of drawers, and on the walls were hung a few photographs: the English actress [Susan Richmond] who took the leading role in the English production of The God of Gods, a signed picture of Pavlova, and some photographs of our own group.


There was seating for 100 persons in twelve rows of 'mission-style' benches, or pews, which ascended gently upwards from stage floor level in the front to about five feet at the back. Access to the more elevated rear rows was by means of a stair of six or seven steps from the foyer through what appears to be a small aisle to the middle of the seating. The first six benches went straight across, about twenty feet in length, the rear benches were split by an aisle. Above, the roof peaked directly over the centre of the benches, and throughout the atmosphere was simple, rather austere, in a color scheme of 'white, subdued in a harmony of greens and soft, velvety greys.' (Maclean's, 1 October 1921)

The stage was on floor level and extended, from the first row of seats, to the back wall approximately thirty feet, assuming the benches to take about fifty of the available total length of eighty feet. The width of the acting area was probably twenty feet - at least at the proscenium.10 Above the stage was a fly area, two stories high and therefore about twenty feet from floor to grid. In the fly space there was a form of grid made largely from wire and piping - staples of the fruit farmer - that held the various lighting instruments and curtains. There were 'wooden perches', a kind of catwalk arrangement that allowed technicians to install and adjust lights. To each side of the fly space was a dressing room, one for men and one for women, the latter equipped with a shower.

On the stage level, along the entire length of the back wall was the permanent plaster cyclorama, or 'sky-dome' as it was then labelled. To one side of the stage, at stage left, there was in the wing space a small costume storage area. The identical space at stage right was used for an entranceway into the long and narrow scene shop which, like the foyer on the opposite side, ran most of the length of the theatre, a distance of about sixty feet. Inside the shop there was, again in Katherine's words,

... a large paint table designed by my husband with compartments for different colours of calciums, brushes and all painting requirements. In this room were also tools for making scenery flats, covered with burlap, beaver-board for silhouettes of mountains or houses and towns, and lumber for simple platforms and steps for interiors. There were gray flannelette curtains that took the lights beautifully. And also material for making costumes was there. Everyone had to turn his or her hand to the various arts or crafts of stage sets and lighting.


The shop, like the foyer, could only have been about ten feet wide.

The lighting system seems to have been designed by Lee Simonson and manufactured in New York, with additional advice from Maurice Browne. The system, capable of handling 10,000 watts of power, was described in Theatre Arts Magazine (January 1922):

Mr. Aikins received the assistance of Maurice Browne and Lee Simonson in the selection of his lighting equipment - probably the most modern and complete in Canada - and it represents the combined ideas of these two practical artists of the theatre. Mr. Aikins did the actual work of installation and arrangement of lights, after the wiring was completed. The battery of twenty dimmers controlling spots, X-ray borders, strips, floods and house lights, is in turn controlled by a master dimmer, the entire 'lighting organ' a masterpiece of modern designing. And not only because the lighting facilities are so complete, but also because they are used in the most flexible manner by means of the clamps and pipe battens, is the stage a valuable experimental ground for young artists.


Mrs Aikins reports that the dimmer box was kept on a platform just in front of the first row of seats and could be raised or lowered (so the dimmer was below floor level) by a system of jacks, which causes one to wonder where the lighting operator worked during a performance. One former student, Muriel MacDougall (née Evans), interviewed by telephone (18 March 1985), recalled that the lighting person operated the controls from a position in the stage left wing.

The first production of the Home Theatre, although not the first official one, was staged in the fall of 1920 and it was not auspicious. Using 'boys working on the farm and other locals' (Katherine Aikins) Aikins mounted Synge's The Tinker's Wedding. In the words of Mrs. Aikins, 'It was a ridiculous play to attempt as a "first". We played it just once to a farm audience and friends and there wasn't a smile to encourage us. We knew how terrible it was but learned a lot from it.'

Part of that winter the Aikins spent recruiting students for the proposed school. By means of travelling to larger centres, giving addresses to drama clubs and the like, and by articles in magazines, Aikins promoted the venture. Mrs Aikins says the 'response was astonishing', although there is no record of numbers of inquiries, interviews or auditions, and even in its heyday the school never had more than a dozen or so students. About this time an old barn was remodelled into a communal dining room. In the spring of 1921, Carroll was in Penticton to watch the University of British Columbia Players Club touring production of Pinero's Sweet Lavender; after the performance he met the cast and described to them his own plans for the Home Theatre. He interested two members of the cast, Dorothy Adams and Muriel Evans - and possibly one or two others, as yet unconfirmed - who were among his first students, joining the company some months after that first production by locals.

The first official student production took place on four evenings in late June 1921, with a double bill by two American playwrights, The Neigbbors, by Zona Gale and Will-O'- The- Wisp by Doris Halman, and several songs by two visiting artists, 'Miss Craig, Miss Monica Craig' between the plays. Whatever plans Aikins had for the nationally-oriented Canadian Players, his actor 'students' were so far still persons young and older from Naramata and nearby Penticton: the nationally-recruited students had not yet appeared. Only one of the names on the program of this first official production appears on subsequent programs. Nor was Aikins yet staging Canadian drama although the scripts were recent, and in Halman's work, he was offering a product of the groundbreaking playwright's classes of Professor George Pierce Baker.

The production was well received locally, with 'demand' requiring a request performance. The Penticton Herald (25 June 1921) praised the 'artistically produced' work: 'The excellence of the performance was such that one is tempted to criticize the acting by the standards from which one would judge more experienced performers.' Even the Vancouver Province (1 July 1921) took notice in a review that, while complaining of some 'inevitable crudities' in the production, such as ' ... the electricians, unfortunately, put[ting] an evening sky on their plaster background for a daytime scene', was quite impressed with the overall work and with Aikins' courage and willingness to experiment.

Immediately following this production Carroll and Katherine Aikins were in Seattle for ten days to attend the official opening of a new theatre at the Cornish School. They also discussed arrangements to bring performing groups from that school to the Home Theatre. The Herald (27 July 1921) reported that Maurice Browne and Alkins 'plan to co-operate eventually in forming a circuit for their repertory companies'. Plans called for visits to the Home Theatre of two musicians, Dean Wells and Francis Armstrong, Adolph Bolm, a choreographer and former dancer in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and the Seattle Repertory Company in productions of Shaw's The Philanderer, Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Ficke's Dr Faust. Only the two musicians, however, ever performed at the Home Theatre, in August of the same year.

In July, six students arrived, two of whom at least were from Vancouver, members of the UBC Players Club, and one, Aileen Beaufort, from Edmonton, where she had worked in amateur theatre. Muriel Evans, who had just completed her first year at the University of British Columbia, regarded the Home Theatre as a place to 'learn acting'. She and Dorothy Adams spent two summers at Naramata. The first summer she reports staying with three other girls in a little shack about a mile from the theatre, at a neighbour of the Aikins. They were roomed and boarded for one dollar a day. At the Aikins farm they picked fruit during the mornings and were paid a dollar a day. Lunch was provided in the orchard, and about 1 pm they commenced classes in the theatre, working there in the evenings as well.

Sessions were held in every aspect of the theatre: there was instruction, mostly from Carroll Aikins, in acting, voice, mime, set and prop construction, and lighting. Katherine Aikins also assisted with the vocal training and scenework. As for a regular curriculum though, it was, in Evans' words, 'a hit and miss affair'. Aikins, a man of ideals and dreams, was not concerned with organization; he taught 'whatever happened to strike him - his blue eyes would sparkle and he'd be inspired, [but] he was no planner'. Aikins brought a great variety of material, poems, play excerpts, prose readings and the like, for use in the classes. One of his own poems was spoken accompanied by music as part of the intermission entertainment in his first season. There is little doubt that he was a good, if maddeningly disorganized, teacher. Dorothy Somerset 11 (interview, 18 March 1985) took acting classes from him in Vancouver in the mid-1920s and confirms that he was 'a fine teacher of acting ... he had great imagination and was highly creative'.

In August Ellen van Volkenberg, wife of Maurice Browne and notable performing artist in her own right, presented at the Home Theatre an evening of her famous imitations, in which she mimicked Ethel Barrymore in the lead role in Barrie's Alice Sit By The Fire. She also managed to play all the other roles in this one-person show, a feat that greatly impressed the local audience.

In the next month the second student production took place, with performances of The Maker of Dreams, by Oliphant Down, and a segment of the Gilbert Murray translation of Euripides' The Trojan Women. By now the idea of the enterprise seemed to be almost as thrilling as the actual work. Even Gilbert Murray himself, according to a note in the Summerland Review (9 September 1921), had 'taken a great interest in the Home Theatre and its work'. To assist the cause, he refused to accept a royalty for this production. Again the press was generally appreciative and marvelled at the artistic simplicity of the setting and effects and the truthfulness of the acting. The Penticton Herald (21 September 1921), however, felt that the work on the whole was not as good as that in the first production and complained that it was a major mistake to cast a girl as Pierrot in The Maker of Dreams; as for The Trojan Women, it was 'a trifle too heavy, both for the audience and the players ... it is a piece which requires the very highest art in its performance and this can hardly be expected from students.'

But by now the enterprise had caught the imagination and mood of the times, leading to international notice. Theatre Arts Magazine (January 1922) described the operation in some detail, believing that Aikins was one of the 'new type which has come into the experimental theatre,' called his work 'utopian' and concluded that his theatre was a place, indeed a 'shrine', where true Art would fluorish. Billboard (11 March 1922) in an article headed 'Gem of a Little Theatre', told its American and British readers of a 'unique enterprise' to offer free training for talented Canadian actors who would tour Canadian plays.

There never was a tour, however, during this first season nor during the second in 1922. Judging from the reviews of the productions, the comments of those who knew and worked with him, and the fact that Aikins had only new, very unpractised performers, together with his free-wheeling manner of rehearsing, one cannot help but conclude that he had a long way to go before he could mount a successful tour. The element of costs, too, was always a problem for him. More than once, his family in Manitoba had to bail him out of difficulty. Betty Clough,12 writing of Aikins, tells how he never opened his bills but instead threw them into an old top hat; when some money was available, he would select one at random and pay it.

By the summer of 1922, after an April production of The God of Gods at Hart House Theatre in Toronto, Aikins was working with students from Vancouver, Edmonton, and London, Ontario. Florence Levine, a dance instructor from the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, was also at the Home Theatre instructing in movement. The first production of this season was as close as the group ever came to an authentic, original 'art' production. Victory in Defeat was subtitled in the program as a 'study in spiritual progress in the life of Christ'. Close to the purist spirit of Craig and Appia, it featured a series of eleven carefully lit black and white tableaux, each in silhouette behind a scrim, with titles such as 'The Adoration of the Child', 'On the Steps of the Temple', and 'The Betrayal'. Each was preceded by an appropriate reading from the Bible, and the actors did not move during the scene, while distant, meditative music was heard. This production, probably as much for its novelty as its artistic or entertainment qualities, obtained for Aikins his best reviews. Even the Christian Science Monitor (9 September 1922) took notice, publishing a photograph of one of the scenes, and found the production 'completely convincing, and one revealing, in its sincerity and simple beauty, the high ideal behind it.' The 'art' purity of the production, and indeed in the style of the Canadian Players, was shown in the players' names not being revealed - there are only blank spaces opposite the dramatis personae, since, again according to the Monitor, 'Owing to the nature of the play it was considered wise not to reveal the names of those taking part, and since none of them is working for commercial gain or for personal glory, it is of small matter. Their aim, with that of the director and owner of the theatre, Carroll Aikins, is to serve - to infuse new life into the theatre.'

Despite this high promise, however, there was only one more production by the Players. In August Synge's Riders to the Sea was staged along with Anatole France's The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, a play that Aikins may have seen in Granville-Barker's important production for the New York Stage Society in 1915. A dance drama was performed between the plays, under Levine's direction, with music by Henrietta Michaelson, a pianist apparently recruited from New York. Although good work was done and national commentary grew, it was to be the final effort of the company; there seems not to have been a sudden momentous decision to halt the venture but rather a slow, and likely a pained realization that the project could not continue. It is ironic that in early 1923, as the Home Theatre was effectively, if not actually finished, a number of magazine articles appeared, each glowing with the accomplishments and promise of the theatre, one of them (National Life, February 1923) concluding, 'With any kind of luck, Mr. Aikins should succeed. The field is wide open. There are no competitors.'

The main reason for the termination was that the prices fell drastically in the apple market in the fall of 1922, and the Aikins' business affairs, and therefore their continued subsidy of the theatre, were badly threatened as debts mounted. Only one tantalizing, untitled, and undated newspaper clipping in Aikins' scrapbook hints of any desperate attempts to salvage the operation:

The friends of Mr. and Mrs. Carroll Aikins, in appreciation of their great service to the artistic life of Canada, have organized the Canadian Players' friendly Society.
    The first and immediate object of the society is to secure to Mr. and Mrs. Aikins the continued use of the Home Theatre stage lighting equipment which has passed from their possession. This equipment has been offered to the directors for a reasonable sum which they hope to obtain by contributions from all who believe with them that the closing of the Home Theatre would be a serious loss to the Canadian people.


A search of the local newspapers of the years following 1922 reveals no resident or touring shows playing at the Home Theatre. In time it seems to have become a storage and recreation area; his daughter and neighbors recall playing games such as badminton inside. No one interviewed can recollect with exactness the fate of the structure. It was dismantled, probably during World War II, and its parts were used in the construction of the Aikins' estate house, which stands today near the lakeside. The original foundation of the theatre remains, covered with a low pitched roof, and is still used (although no longer owned by the Aikins) as a fruit storage shed.

In sum, the accomplishment of Aikins in his Home Theatre was that, besides achieving a number of apparent 'firsts' in Canadian theatre, he for a brief while realized the dream of a Canadian art theatre. He understood, even as they were barely taking root in the United States, the ideals of the modern European theatre, and, as poet, dreamer and enthusiast, he possessed the personal qualities needed to implement principles of the art theatre in the construction and operation of the Home Theatre. Clearly, in his efforts to establish the Home Theatre and the Canadian Players, his goals were admirable: to stage plays from the modern world repertory and Canadian plays in pure 'art' productions free of commercial or even normal amateur methods; to bring these to Canadians at Naramata and other towns large and small by means of touring; and to form a kind of international touring circuit of such plays with Maurice Browne in Seattle.

It is Aikins' credit that he completed his theatre and was in production only a season or two behind Hart House Theatre in Toronto, that he opened his first production five months before the much larger Vancouver Little Theatre Association commenced operation, and that he accomplished this in rural British Columbia, distant from sources of assistance, artistic or otherwise, inspiration, example, or even, as was the case with many urban little theatres, endowment. He managed to bring creditable productions of Synge, Gilbert Murray's Euripides, and even special staging events like his pure light and sound work, Victory in Defeat, to residents of the Okanagan, whose other theatrical options at the time were the occasional minor English actor on tour - sometimes a tatty affair: one, a Lawrence D'orsay, being described as 'dreary' by the Herald (19 October 1921) - annual visits by the UBC Players Club, amateur dramatic evenings, the Dominion Chautauquas, and, of course, the movies. He did for a while establish an ongoing school for the training of Canadian actors in the newer ideals of the theatre, and several of them returned for a second summer. At least one, Dorothy Adams, went on to a successful professional acting career in California, while another, Aileen Beaufort, went on to spread the inspired message of the Home Theatre in several articles.13One report 14 says he trained actors from six provinces.

But, like many British Columbia pioneering pipe dreams, whether in gold mines or in the theatre, the Home Theatre was caught in the boom-or-bust marketplace and fell victim to a fruit market that only one year after giddy success had turned disastrous. The fact that Aikins was a far better dreamer and poet than a farmer only expedited the end of his financial and physical commitment to this idealist theatre. Thus he never formed his permanent company of actors, nor did he ever stage a Canadian play, or even inspire one person to continue his work locally or elsewhere. It was, indeed, a brief and promising two-year existence, more important for what was believed and what was attempted rather than for what was done. Some of the reasons for its demise were built into the little theatre movement itself: the rarified, often impractical principles (the tiny theatres that were favored allowed few of the masses to participate, much less be audience); the disdain of the box office; the uncertainty about whether to emphasize participation or production; and the frequent reliance on generous, private subsidy. The Home Theatre, like the Neighborhood Playhouse and many other little theatres of the post-World War I era, was only a brief, if inspiring moment in the genesis of modern North American theatre, and, for Canada, is another good example of the wonderful 'mixed grill' that, according to Robertson Davies,15 characterizes so much of our theatre history.

Notes

CARROLL AIKINS AND THE HOME THEATRE

James Hoffman

1 WILLIAM ARTHUR DEACON. 'A theatre on a farm, a brief account of a wonderful and inspiring attempt to establish a Canadian drama,' National Life February 1923, p 11
Return to article

2 Carroll Beichman, whom I visited at the Aikins' estate at Naramata and interviewed in August and September 1984, and to whom I am very grateful for her co-operation, especially in making available family scrapbooks and the Poems
Return to article

3 RUTH KERR, 'The Home Theatre of the Canadian Players' Theatre Arts Magazine January 1922, p 67
Return to article

4 MAURICE BROWNE 'The Temple of a Living Art' The Drama November 1913, p 165
Return to article

5 Review of The God of Gods, Birmingham Dispatch 10 November 1919
Return to article

6 Review of The God of Gods, The Stage 13 November 1919
Return to article

7 See note 5
Return to article

8 From an unfinished memoir, written by Katherine Aikins, and quoted in its apparent full length in Betty Clough's 'Carroll Aikins', Okanagan Historical Society Forty Second Annual Report, 1978 pp 116-122. The original memoir seems now to be lost
Return to article

9 The University of British Columbia Players Club was founded by Frederic G.C. Wood in 1916. The first production was Fanny and the Servant Problem; subsequently, spring tours through the interior of B.C. of productions such as Pinero's Sweet Lavender became regular
Return to article

10 The width of the acting area could have been larger - Aikins had the full 40-foot width of the building available. I have assumed the scene shop wall extended almost to the back (stage) wall, thus removing any forestage right space. This would be done to balance the similar, although much shorter, parallel wall stage left, and together these two wall sections would form the proscenium. It is possible, however, that Aikins ended his long scene shop just after the first row of seating; this would have given him a generous, wide forestage
Return to article

11 Dorothy Somerset (1900 - ) is a well known theatrical figure in British Columbia theatre. Trained in the United States (Radcliffe) and in England (Central School of Speech and Drama), she began in 1932 a distinguished career as teacher and director in Vancouver, becoming, in 1958, the first head of the newly created theatre department at the University of British Columbia
Return to article

12 CLOUGH 'Carroll Aikins' see note 8
Return to article

13 See her articles 'Pioneering the Canadian Stage' Vancouver Province 24 August 1921, and 'Carroll Aikins: Home Producer' Canadian Magazine April 1923
Return to article

14 AILEEN BEAUFORT 'Opens Season With First Passion Play,' Vancouver World 15 July 1922
Return to article

15 See DAVIES' 'Mixed Grill' Theatrical Touring and Founding in Nortb America ed. L.W. CONOLLY Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982
Return to article