Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring 1986)

'A LOCAL HABITATION AND A NAME': OTTAWA'S GREAT CANADIAN THEATRE COMPANY

Léa V. Usin

The history of the Great Canadian Theatre Company of Ottawa is traced since its founding in 1975 by a group of students and teachers of Carleton University, Nationalist, leftist and populist in aim, the company was established by Bill Law (first Artistic Director), Greg Reid, Lois Shannon and Robin Matthews, whose play A Woman is Dying was their first inspiration. After a number of years without a base, the company built its own theatre in 1982. The article quotes extensively from the Members Handbook setting out the company's goals, the primary one being the presentation of Canadian plays by Canadian theatre practitioners. The theatre's political emphasis is compared with other theatre groups in the Ottawa area.

Cet article retrace l'histoire de la Great Canadian Theatre Company d'Ottawa depuis sa fondation en 1975 par un groupe d'étudiants et professeurs à l'Université Carleton. D'inspiration nationaliste, gauchiste et populiste, la Compagnie fut établie par Bill Law (qui en fut aussi le premier Directeur artistique), Greg Reid, Lois Shannon et Robin Matthews, et la pièce de celui-ci, A Woman is Dying, fut sa première inspiration. Après plusieurs années d'existence nomade, la compagnie fit construire son propre théâtre en 1982. Le présent article puise abondamment dans le Manuel des membres afin d'illustrer les objectifs de la troupe, don't le principal était la production par des Canadiens d'oeuvres canadiennes. Pour conclure, l'orientation politique de la compagnie est comparée avec celle d'autres troupes sises dans la région capitale.

In the Ottawa phone directory the Great Canadian Theatre Company follows the Great Canadian Soup Company, and at least one critic has asked whether GCTC is a theatrical fast-food outlet.1 In fact some of the theatre's early troubles can be traced to its name, which has variously been termed 'fanciful,' 2 'ludicrous,' 3 'immodest,' 4 and at best 'charmingly quixotic.' 5 Quite a response to what was originally meant as a spur-of-the moment, almost generic, working title - and certainly intended ironically.

The name most seriously put forward in the beginning was 'Square One', since according to Robin Mathews, that is the place in which Canadian theatre always finds itself.6 The publicity releases for 1984-85, however, suggest that the company is beginning to take its name more seriously; therefore, this paper will examine how 'great' the last ten years have been. It will focus first on critical reaction to GCTC's mainstage offerings; second, it will examine whether GCTC has met its own objectives and how these compare to those of other Ottawa theatres; and last, it will attempt to analyze how GCTC has developed and changed over the years, and why it has managed to survive, to become in 1984 Ottawa's only professional English theatre company.

The Great Canadian Theatre Company has always had a definite point of view. Its nationalist, leftist, populist agenda was clearly established by the founding members of the company, a group of students and teachers involved with Carleton University's Sock 'n' Buskin theatre society. Dissatisfied with the lack of Canadian material being done, they produced Robin Mathews' play A Woman is Dying. Emboldened by success and full houses, Greg Reid, Bill Law (Artistic Director 1976-78), Lois Shannon, and Robin Mathews discussed founding an all-Canadian alternate theatre company. They were joined by Larry McDonald (Artistic Director 1978-81), and shortly after by Helen Holt, Paul McLoughlin, and Douglas Campbell. Financing the first season with $6000 of their own money, they found themselves ready to open by mid-summer of 1975. Their willingness to risk their own money on the venture convinced hitherto recalcitrant city officials to aid them by donating the use of the playing hall.7

On July 29, at the Commerce Building of Lansdowne Park, the civic exhibition grounds, and in the middle of a stifling heatwave, the actors donned their furs and parkas and performed Herschel Hardin's Esker Mike and his Wife Agiluk. They awoke next morning to the Ottawa Journal's headline: 'Extravaganza of ineptitude'. The reviewer went on to explain:


 
I didn't hate all of the production of the play by a new group ludicrously named The Great Canadian Theatre Company, but I hated a lot of it. ... even as an amateur production the actors showed an almost complete lack of awareness of such things as nuance, shading, movement and speaking properly. ... As a group the players were unconvincing, inadequate, sloppy, and embarrassing.8


Other deficiencies noted were bad sightlines, slow lighting cues, crude makeup, the hot auditorium, and directing that did not go beyond rudimentary traffic management. The vehemence of this review was hardly balanced by the mild encouragement in the Citizen: 'This is not an outstanding production - the elements of grandiosity just aren't there. But it's entertaining enough. Everything about the production is adequate for a young company - it's a good start.' 9 Fortunately, the next production, staged in November, was a great success. Created especially for GCTC, Bernie Bedore's Yonder Lies the Valley is a humorous and entertaining compilation of fact and legend based on early local history. The play presents three separate phases in the development of McNab Township, starting with the Laird of McNab, who in his megalomania attempted to set up a feudal estate, much to the dismay of the early Scottish settlers. The second section deals with the Irish immigrants, who had been lured by land agents' promises of an idyllic land and easy riches, and who now faced the reality and disillusionment of the cold, harsh country. The last section consists of vignettes of the lives of the lumbermen and rivermen of the region. Whether it was the skilful characterizations, the intriguing stories, the lively pace of the show, or simply the ballads, step dancing and fiddling, the production appealed to everyone.10 The reception was even warmer when the show toured to Arnprior, Renfrew, and Eganville. The results were so gratifying that after mounting Reaney's Names and Nicknames in March 1976, the company re-staged Yonder Lies the Valley and between July 1 and August 15 the play was seen in 22 cities, towns, and communities throughout eastern Ontario.

Encouraged by their venture with new material, the company opened its second season with the première in October 1976 of Selkirk, a drama by Mathews that examines the relations among power, politics, and justice in the early days of the Red River Settlement. The play focusses on the character and ideas of Lord Selkirk and his dream of creating in the Canadian west a society and refuge for the poor and the downtrodden from the British Isles. Unfortunately, the settlement threatens the expansionist ambitions of the North West Company, and this leads to years of harassment of the settlers, culminating in the Seven Oaks Massacre of 1816. Despite these events, Selkirk maintains that the situation can be resolved fairly in the courts. He holds firmly to his liberal and gentlemanly beliefs long after even his wife has accepted the necessity for revolutionary violence. According to one critic, the first act was very strong, and although the second could have been improved by editing, overall the production was lively, fascinating, and professional.11 This show was followed by two plays by Carol Bolt: a specially revised-for-Ottawa version of Buffalo Jump in February and Shelter in June. The critical reaction to these productions typifies the reception accorded GCTC. The alternate press, such as community, student, and union newspapers, though aware of production faults, approved of both the presentations and the choice of material, commenting that the show was 'in line with the work of Theatre Passe Muraille or Toronto Free Theatre, and that is the highest praise I can muster.' 12 In contrast the established press tended to feel that the company was doing its best but with unsatisfying material, which was labelled 'messy', 'feeble', and exhibiting a 'shortage of ideas'.13

The third season continued with works that exhibited a political and social conscience: in November the company staged Gerald Potter's Chaudière Strike, the story of a large Ottawa-area labour dispute in 1891 that lasted for five weeks and involved more than 2,500 men. The play itself first shows the audience, through an extended mime, the entire process of lumbering, from the forest logging operations to the final product emerging from the mills. It then alternates scenes of the homelife of one of the strikers with scenes of the confrontation between the workers and the management, thereby attempting to show both the personal and the collective, political aspects of the strike. Overall the play consists of many short scenes, some written in a realistic style and others consciously presentational in their use of caricature and song. Critical reaction was unanimous: the play 'limped along on leaden feet,' 14and was little more than an 'abortion' consisting of 'watered-down Theatre Passe Muraille,' 15and 'a Woolworth's basement plastic copy' of The Farmers' Revolt. 16 It was convicted of 'clumsy dialogue, awkward acting, a jerky disjointed story, a theatre that is far too cramped.' 17 [sic] The next production, the première of Mathews' For Love - Quebec in January 1978 received mixed responses. Based loosely on the events of the October crisis, the play was called 'a fine piece of theatre, brimful of life,' 18 and 'without a doubt, the finest piece of theatre Mathews or the GCTC have produced to date.' 19 Others found it didactic, rhetorical, shallow, unfocused, limp, unresolved, clichéd, and superficial.20 The critic from Le Droit claimed it was the worst play he had seen in years.21 To finish the season GCTC chose to do Company Town, the Mummers' collective about Buchans, Newfoundland, and its fight with the American Smelting and Refining Company. Despite the dangers inherent in reviving a collective originally done by another group, about a place so far removed, the production was a success: 'dramatic, witty, beautifully disciplined show', 'good crisp acting' with 'compassionate regard' and 'spontaneous naturalness', said the Citizen's critic.22 'Among the best actors Ottawa has to offer'. volunteered the CBC reviewer.23

For their fourth season, 1978-79, GCTC ambitiously mounted five mainstage productions: Rites of Passage by Cam Hubert (B.A. Cameron) in September, Far As the Eye Can See by Rudy Wiebe and Theatre Passe Muraille in December, Henrik Ibsen on the Necessity of Producing Norwegian Drama by John Palmer in February, What Glorious Times They Had - Nellie McClung by Diane Grant and Company in May, and The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock in July. Rites of Passage, guest directed by Svetlana Zylin, is an interesting study in critical reactions. The Citizen called the production powerful, moving, haunting, impressive, exhilarating, well cast, well staged, and thoroughly entertaining.24 Jacob Siskind, not noted for being overly generous, wrote in the Ottawa Journal: 'The audience had just been through a personal catharsis found all too rarely in the theatre today.' 25 For him it was a mesmerizing performance. The same show, same cast, performed the play at Toronto Free Theatre in late November. According to the Globe and Mail the play was 'endlessly dreary' though the cast was 'rather good'. 26 Gina Mallet in the Toronto Star called it 'an earnest, solemn first draft of a workshop idea' and said the acting 'has a certain purity, somewhat similar to the work done by inspired amateurs.' 27 McKenzie Porter in the Sun summed it up as 'a second-rate play' where 'the direction ... is merely adequate', the 'design ... is undistinguished', and 'the acting is only a notch above the amateur level.' 28 Only Chris Hallgren in Scene Changes gave a thoughtful, helpful, analytic, and ultimately sympathetic, though by no means laudatory, evaluation of the Toronto performance.29 The remainder of the season provoked no great commentary. Far As the Eye Can See received mixed reactions - generally favourable comments with occasional reservations about its size and scope. Ibsen on the Norwegian Drama was ignored by the media, and What Glorious Times They Had was considered well done even if the script was accused of having a certain condensed, Reader's Digest quality to it.30 For The Komagata Maru Incident the comments approved of both script and production.

After such an extensive fourth season the company pulled back somewhat and did only three mainstage productions in each of the following seasons. In August 1979 they started with Rex Deverell's Boiler Room Suite and got a generally good response. One critic saw it as 'a turning point, both in material and performance.' 31 Another reviewer commented that it 'easily competes with the best the NAC has to offer in drama at this time.' 32 The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, performed in November, did not fare quite as well, being termed ragged, uninspired, and dated.33 The last production of the season, an original collective revue called Yes Pierre ... There Really is A Canada, was mounted in May 1980. It incorporated works by such authors as Margaret Atwood, Milton Acorn, Geoffrey Ursell, and Robin Mathews, and satirized such subjects as Pierre Trudeau, Norman Bethune, MacKenzie King, Lester B. Pearson, Yosuf Karsh, the RCMP, the CPR, and CBC's The National. It also was called raw, awkward, and uneven, but was generally forgiven these shortcomings because it was also acid, cruel, satiric, and hilarious.34

Yes Pierre had been staged in a local restaurant as was the opening show in September of the next season, Redtape, Running Shoes and Razzamatazz, a revue on the unlikely topic of public housing. It managed to be lively, funny, biting, and sobering all at once, and so successful that it was revived again the following summer and toured through public housing projects as agit-prop drama.35 The next production in October, again performed in a local restaurant, was the première of David Fennario's autobiographical play, Changes, performed by Simon Malbogat and greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm. James Reaney's King Whistle!, about the 1933 Stratford strike, was the last play of the season in March. An enormous production, it combined professional and amateur actors and even used a local highschool marching band. Predictably the play and the production had weaknesses, though it was generally commended for inventive and skilful staging.36 As shall be seen later, this production marked the end of GCTC's first stage in more than one way.

The following season, 1981-1982, saw only touring school productions, and fund-raising events such as the five-day round-the-clock 60-play marathon, read by local celebrities, politicians, and media personalities. GCTC had decided to end its peripatetic existence - which had variously taken it to a Quaker meeting hall, a restaurant, a nightclub, Carleton's Alumni Theatre, and the Old Firehall, a renovated but cramped community centre - through the acquisition of an industrial garage that was renovated in 1982 at a cost of nearly $400,000, raised from federal, provincial, and municipal grants as well as 700 private donations. It now houses a 218-seat theatre plus offices, technical facilities, box office and lobby.

To open their new home GCTC produced its most ambitious show yet. It is also the show that current Artistic Director Patrick McDonald and Playwright-in-Residence Arthur Milner both consider their best effort to date.37 Opening on 29 September 1982, Sandinista! was a collective creation about the struggle in Nicaragua that led to the overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1979. Encouraged by relief groups such as Oxfam-Canada, Interpares, and CUSO (who provided a grant), McDonald and Milner along with actress Naomi Campbell travelled to Nicaragua to conduct first-hand interviews and research. The script itself tries to incorporate both political and social analysis. Although the opening scenes serve to give some of the political and historical background and context, the play quickly focusses on the stories of six individuals and tries to illuminate the struggle from their personal perspectives. Through the inclusion of revolutionary songs, chorus-like groupings, and the device of having the leaders of the struggling factions shouting slogans from opposite sides of the stage, the play gains a somewhat presentational effect. After its première in Ottawa, the production toured across Canada the following summer, to Winnipeg, Medicine Hat, Edmonton (at the Bread and Roses Festival), Saskatoon, and Regina, often performing to sold-out houses and standing ovations. Meanwhile, the remainder of the season consisted of hosting the Tamahnous production of Last Call in October, and mounting George F. Walker's Filthy Rich in February and Kelly Rebar's Checkin' Out in April. In the latter two cases the productions were praised for good acting, design, and directing, but the scripts themselves were seen as faulty.

The ninth season opened in September 1983 with a double bill consisting of My Mother's Luck by Helen Weinzweig and Nightcows by Jovette Marchessault. This latter play, a lyrical mythical allegory of cows as goddesses, performed by Montreal actress Pol Pelletier, was especially different from the usual fare at GCTC. The following production in November, 1997, a futuristic detective story about computer technology and social revolution, written by Arthur Milner and the GCTC company, was extremely well received. The play posits a society that is divided into two classes: a powerful, technologically literate elite, and a seething mass of the unemployed, disadvantaged, and dispossessed. While investigating the attempted sabotage of a nuclear power plant, the hero, an eccentric detective who would rather be a hermit, discovers for himself the extent of the schism and comes to realize that the inevitable outcome of this division must be violent social revolution. This theme of intrigue was also present in the next production, the première of S: Portrait of a Spy, Rick Salutin's adaptation of Ian Adams' novel about a 'mole' inside the RCMP's security services. Solicitor-General Robert Kaplan, minister responsible for the RCMP, was part of the opening night audience and called the play 'distorted' but 'fine entertainment'. 38 In March Available Targets by Steven Bush and Tony Pearce explored the sexual dilemmas of modern males, and in April Mixed Company's production of Life on the Line by Allen Booth and Stephen Bush looked at the anxieties and alienations of modern man. All of this season's productions received strong, positive reviews.

Finally, the tenth season presented Walker's The Art of War in September; Andy Jones' touring one-man show Out of the Bin in October; Jim Betts' Mystery of the Oak Island Treasure, the first mainstage 'family' show, in December; in February, the Anna Project's collective This is for you, Anna, about Marianne Bachmeier, who in court shot the man accused of murdering her daughter; and in April, Milner's Cheap Thrill, a comedy-drama about poverty in the midst of plenty. Side Effects, a collective concerned with the effects of the pharmaceutical industry on women's health, previewed in June and then toured nationwide during the summer. Again, the entire season was generally praised and admired by the critics. The eleventh season consists of Mummy by Louisette Dussault; Ghosts of the Madawaska, a family play on local material by Bill Freeman; Theatre of the Film Noir by George F. Walker; Letter from Wingfield Farm by Dan Needles; and Zero Hour, a new play about the CIA by Arthur Milner.

It is apparent from this survey that the fare at GCTC is not radically different from that at companies such as Passe Muraille or Factory Lab. It shares with such troupes the ideals of collective creation, promotion of Canadian culture, and a broadly leftist ideological viewpoint. Critics have at times used these similarities to accuse GCTC of being a pale imitation of the Toronto alternate theatres. Nevertheless, it should be noted that with people such as Mathews among its founders, GCTC has had little need to look to other theatres for direction and inspiration. In fact it could be argued that the questions raised and arguments advanced by spokesmen such as Mathews are partly responsible for creating a climate that fostered the development of the entire alternate movement. Even if some of GCTC's policies and aims are derivative (whether consciously so or not is not important here), the company has nevertheless offered throughout its ten-year existence a valuable and unique contribution to theatrical life in Ottawa. According to Mathews, the members of the company were very insistent from its inception that they did not wish to imitate Toronto theatre, but wanted rather to create a theatre that was specific to Ottawa, and yet which would be of a quality and interest that would make other places want to see its work. It is instructive in this regard to examine more closely how the company's specific goals were originally articulated, to evaluate whether they were fulfilled or modified, and also to look at how the work of GCTC has compared with that of other Ottawa theatres of the same period.

GCTC started with a three-fold mandate: to mount only Canadian plays; to use local Canadian theatre practitioners, whether amateur or professional; and whenever possible to base works on material relating to Ottawa and the region. An undated 'Members Handbook' elaborates these ambitions into seven separate goals: 39

1. To offer the community in which we live a chance to see plays written by Canadians.

Unarguably, they have fulfilled this aim. Over ten years the theatre has presented at least 35 major shows as well as workshop productions, a substantial programme of touring children's shows, numerous agit-prop dramas at demonstrations and rallies, and even a programme of Christmas mumming at various locations around the city.

2. To encourage the development of Canadian playwrights by staging original works.

More than a third of the mainstage offerings have been premières, and the number is even greater for the children's shows. Robin Mathews seems to have received more encouragement than most, until disagreements over the script of 1997 caused him to withdraw from the company. The current playwright-in-residence, Arthur Milner, was commissioned to write All I Get is Static for the National Museum of Science and Technology and a national tour is projected. Nonetheless, there has not yet appeared a relationship similar to that of French and the Tarragon or Fennario and the Centaur, though this is a reflection partly of the emphasis given at times to collective creation.

3. To encourage the development of theatrical skills within the community by creating for Canadian citizens a company exclusively devoted to their needs.

This statement is difficult to analyze. Certainly, GCTC has been in the forefront of helping actors, directors, designers, and writers in the Ottawa community. In contrast, the NAC did not hold local auditions until the spring of 1978. Additionally, in respect to the national community, if there are specific skills that are needed for Canadian works, GCTC has provided the opportunity to work on them and thus develop a Canadian theatrical voice and national cultural sensibility.

4. To develop to the point that we can contribute to the livelihood of Canadians who have chosen the theatre as their career.

During the 1984-85 season GCTC employed a full-time staff of nine people and provided part-time or casual jobs for another 180 individuals. The salaries aren't magnificent - $225 a week - but it seems enough to keep at least some talented people from emigrating to Toronto. The touring children's programme is a necessary adjunct to supplement what would otherwise be untenably meagre employment opportunities.

5. To constitute ourselves in such a way as to allow for participation by those who have not chosen theatre as a 'career', but who wish to involve themselves seriously in a company such as ours; practically, this involves staging some plays with evening rehearsals.

The nature of lay involvement has changed radically. Since the acquisition of the new building, the company has been professional, with the primary amateur involvement taking the form of student apprenticeships. It used to be that the Board of Directors was composed entirely of very actively involved staff members (who at one point were each required to contribute $500 annually to the company to prove their commitment), but now, because of pressure from various granting agencies, there is a more independent board with substantial representation from the community at large. It is still too early to say whether such a drastic change at this level will have major repercussions.

For the last two, and most contentious points, I am reversing the order in which they appear in the 'Handbook.'

7. To produce only Canadian plays, utilizing only Canadian talent, 'Canadian' being defined as citizenship, which is available to landed immigrants after three years' residence.

This is the clause that resulted, especially in their early years, in a great deal of controversy and even animosity. A common critical tactic to challenge this goal covertly was to applaud in principle GCTC's desire to concentrate on Canadian plays, but to deny that the play that was currently being staged was worthy of production. More blatant and virulent were attacks such as that by the Ottawa Journal's critic, Maureen Peterson. Reviewing Bolt's Shelter, Peterson wrote of the 'come-on that smacks of fascism' and of 'rabid nationalism, the kind that borders on racism.' 40 It is worthwhile to quote at length from this review to see the extent to which GCTC's position could be distorted.


 
The program speaks of this small company of Canadians 'concerned about the lack of Canadian Theatre in Ottawa.' Here's another loaded phrase: 'Because they believe in the viability of Canadian theatre and culture ... ' I fail to see by what standards the GCTC judges its little band of zealots the only Canadian Theatre in Ottawa, and it is offensive to suggest that if one doesn't believe in them one doesn't believe in 'the viability of Canadian culture.' ... The program for Wednesday night's performance did not include birthplaces of the five women in the cast, so I can't vouch for their purity. Pure Canadians? What if they are only first generation Canadians? Is that pure enough? I know the play they were performing - Shelter - was written in Canada, but I confess I haven't checked Carol Bolt's family tree. The funny thing is, it isn't a bad play and it wasn't badly done. Not great mind you, but then what do you expect from a company that spends so much energy on pomposity and self-righteousness?


Compared to this the theatre's own statement of intent in the 'Handbook' is a model of moderation:


 
Members occasionally wonder how we justify the last-listed purpose, and why this aim is specifically set forth in our constitution. Is this not excessively narrow? Does it not smack of censorship? We think not. The vast majority of plays performed in this country are not Canadian. The status quo in this country amounts to a de facto censorship of Canadian plays and prejudice against Canadian talent. The status quo is a network of artistic directors who are either foreign or foreign-trained. They quite naturally prefer to stage plays with which they are familiar, and to import actors, designers, etc. who have been trained in a tradition of theate that is peculiar to these plays. They are supported in these endeavours by many Canadian directors and producers who continue to feel that excellence is something that comes from somewhere else. We are against this kind of 'accidental' censorship of Canadian culture. We are not against things foreign in principle. But we have to insist that in practice we are being swamped by imported culture. We believe, in principle, that our culture ought to be enlivened and stimulated by a truly international presence in our midst. In practice however, at this particular moment in our history, we feel that to be broadminded and tolerant is to pay special attention to the preservation of a minority culture: OURS. There are many theatre companies in this country which produce no Canadian plays; certainly there is room for a company which produces only Canadian plays.


The history of Canadian plays on the Ottawa stage tends to support GCTC's position. Between 1949 and 1956, the Canadian Repertory Theatre staged very little Canadian material. The Theatre Foundation of Ottawa from 1957 to 1966 brought in Spring Thaw and My Fur Lady, but other tours it sponsored were of British, American, and European plays. The Town Theatre, established by the Foundation in 1967 and closing in 1969, feared that audiences were not yet ready for avant-garde and Canadian plays and consequently did not mount any. And, as James Noonan has pointed out in his paper 'The National Arts Centre: Fifteen Years at Play,' 41 a promising start at the NAC did not lead to any major commitment to staging Canadian works. In fact, there seems to have been marked resistance to the idea until the second half of the seventies, when, it could be argued, the NAC appears to have jumped on the bandwagon after others had arduously blazed the trail. Even if we were to accept the NAC's programming policy as sound and to consider that it meets the terms of its mandate adequately, it is clear that Ottawa was not and is not currently inundated by Canadian content outside the confines of Parliament. With the demise of the NAC's resident English company, the only other major producer of anglophone theatre in the city is the Ottawa Little Theatre, which claims as its territory the plays already tried and proven on the stages of the West End or in New York.42

The main alternatives that existed were Theatre 2000 and the Penguin Theatre Company. Founded in 1978 by Paul Helm, Theatre 2000 was intended to provide a showcase for the works of Canadian playwrights. However, it collapsed in February 1983 because of a deficit and audience indifference. In addition to some interesting and innovative Canadian drama, Theatre 2000 also began to rely heavily on the modern classics, such as Ondine, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman, but often without the requisite financial, technical, or artistic resources to do them justice. The other important theatre of this period, Penguin Theatre, was founded in 1976 by Don Bouzek and folded in 1983. Although it did produce a large number of new and interesting Canadian plays, it was not restricted by its mandate and also staged an eclectic collection of works from Shakespeare to Brecht.

6. To be sympathetic to the production of plays that stimulate a critical analysis of our social reality.

I have left this point for last because, although this goal has not been abandoned, it has certainly shifted significantly in its emphasis over the years. It may also be here that we can find the key to the survival, though precarious, of GCTC. (In fact, their position has been steadily improving: an average attendance of 70% and a doubling of the season subscription list to over 900 for 1984-85.) A rough analysis of the plays presented over the ten years reveals some interesting trends; since the most marked divergence occurs after the acquisition of the new theatre in 1982, it is useful to treat the first six seasons as one group and the last three as another.

Some changes are small. The plays in the first group are entirely devoted to Canadian subjects. By contrast the second group already contains both Sandinista! and This is for you, Anna, and the CIA is on the agenda for 1985-86. There has been a slight increase in the emphasis on women and their concerns since 1982, but not a drastic shift. In the first group Yonder Lies the Valley, The Chaudière Strike, Red Tape, Running Shoes and Razzamatazz, and to some extent Buffalo Jump, all deal with local events or concerns. In the second group S: Portrait of a Spy is set in Ottawa, as is Cheap Thrill, though both plays deal with broader concerns. Quite notable is the absence since 1982 of plays dealing with native peoples and racial conflicts; in contrast, the earlier group contains Esker Mike, For Love - Quebec, The Komagata Maru Incident, and Rita Joe. Also missing since the move into permanent quarters are plays dealing in a major way with labour and unions, whereas between one-fifth and one quarter of the earlier GCTC productions deal with these questions, both through agit-prop plays and works such as Buffalo Jump, The Chaudière Strike, Company Town, and King Whistle!. Another very significant change has occurred in the number of plays based on events in Canadian history. Group one contains Yonder Lies the Valley, Selkirk, Buffalo Jump, The Chaudière Strike, For Love - Quebec, Company Town, Far as the Eye Can See, What Glorious Times They Had - Nellie McClung, The Komagata Maru Incident, and King Whistle! Against this, which represents slightly more than half of the early plays presented, after 1982 there is only the fictionalized account of S: Portrait of a Spy. In fact the bias for historical subjects has been replaced by a trend towards stories with a large fictional or fantasy component, often involving adventure and mystery. Along with this there has been the tendency to do plays that are set some time in the future. Before 1982, the closest candidates for the fictional category are Shelter, Boiler Room Suite, and to some degree For Love - Quebec. Since that time, however, we find Last Call, Filthy Rich, 1997, S: Portrait of a Spy, Available Targets, The Art of War, The Treasure of Oak Island, and Cheap Thrill. Additionally, although many of the earlier plays incorporated humour as a component, a larger number from the later group are primarily comedies. The somewhat didactic historical plays with scenes of comic relief have given way to works that make their point through entertaining fiction and satire.

By far the most important difference between the groups, though, is in the area of politics, and this is also by far the most difficult area to define and analyze effectively. The distinction to be made is between what I shall refer to as public politics and personal politics. Although these areas overlap almost inextricably (and in fact some of the works deal with both facets), the contrast is between plays that present and examine political action as it takes place in the public arena - such as the establishment and overthrow of governments, or the conduct of meetings, protests, strikes, and marches to change public policy - and, on the other hand, plays that deal with the political implications of various types of individual behaviour or that look at the personal and psychological ramifications of political events, by examining through private conversations and relations the political ideals, aspirations, and frustrations of the characters under scrutiny. This type of play is still clearly political, but a large portion of this second category in GCTC's recent repertory is taken up with plays that treat psychosocial issues such as culture, identity, and, of greatest importance, sexual and emotional relationships, or the politics of romance. In the first six seasons, about three-quarters of the plays focussed on public politics and only half that number looked at private politics. In the last three seasons the situation has almost reversed, with three-quarters being devoted to the private sphere and only two out of fifteen plays dealing with public politics as a major concern.

As an example of this shift, it is instructive to look at the critical commentary on Sandinista!, the most obviously political play done since the acquisition of the new building. Naomi Campbell, who was part of the fact-finding team that travelled to Nicaragua, explained in a newspaper interview that 'We approached (the Nicaraguan revolution) as a social issue rather than a political issue', and that 'the focus is people rather than a country's politics'. 43 To one critic, this emphasis on the personal led to 'some pretty maudlin melodramatics'. 44 Another speculated that fear of 'the dreaded agitprop label' might explain the emphasis on the 'personal dynamics', but that 'somehow, in bringing together the personal and the political in this production, both elements suffer from clichés and a lack of clarity'. 45 Reg Skene wrote that although 'excellently presented', the play was 'light on political analysis and heavy on emotional effect' and that 'the play's appeal is through personal emotion. Our sympathy is a reaction against the unfair, barbaric and merciless treatment of individuals by a repressive regime. The political issues underlying the conflict are irrelevant to this and we tend to ignore them'. 46 Diane Bessai arrived at a similar analysis, and wrote that 'Humanity takes precedence over ideology in this show; it is not a political tract, nor strictly speaking documentary'; even though the use of a satiric chorus reflects 'the old agit-prop methods of political theatre ... on the whole the play relies on the suspense of melodramatic action and character empathy.' 47 In contrast to such comments, however, there were also critics, such as Keith Ashwell in the Edmonton Journal, who were relieved not to be confronted with a more explicitly political play, and who were glad that the potential propaganda of the play was successfully subordinated to its artistry.48 This spectrum of critical responses obviously poses a quandry for GCTC. On the one hand, Milner has stated, 'You don't just want to do a play about the desperation of people. You want to do a play about the struggle.' 49 On the other hand, he is pleased that 'some critics and viewers have straddled the political area to accept the play as a theatrical work.' 50

The degree of change in the orientation of GCTC is also highlighted by the fact that the idea for Sandinista! might have originally arisen from earlier agit-prop work. According to Milner, 'We wrote a short play and performed it for the INCO strike, about 3 or 4 years ago, during a rally here to support the strikers, and part of that play ... had to do with INCO's connections in the Third World.' 51 This play was part of an agenda that saw GCTC perform at rallies and meetings for a number of organizations such as the Public Service Alliance, the Civil Liberties Association, Project Ploughshares, the Canadian Veterans of the Spanish Civil War, a Postal Workers' Benefit, and a Prisoners' Justice Day Rally.

The shift that has taken place in programming certainly parallels GCTC's changing audience constituency, though it is difficult to say whether the audience is changing in response to a new programming approach or whether GCTC is perhaps unconsciously coming to terms with the interests of a changed audience. According to Mathews, McDonald, and Milner, the early support and audience membership came largely from the organized labour sector. In return the company staged agit-prop plays at rallies and benefits. Mathews eventually became the only member of the company who still strongly favoured retaining this approach. For instance, he says that for the 1982-83 season he recommended that GCTC stage Eight Men Speak to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its first production and he feels that it is significant that, despite his having witnessed a successful revival of the play in Halifax, it was set aside and preference given to Filthy Rich.

Today, McDonald freely admits that GCTC is quite consciously targeting its advertising towards the so-called Yuppies, though it should be noted that in Ottawa this group includes a large number of former political activists who now work as civil servants and who are consequently denied the right to direct political expression. Can GCTC, with its modified but still socially-aware programming, appeal to and awaken their dormant political consciences, thereby saving itself from having to turn to staging 'the melodrama of individual plight'? 52 Is it possible for GCTC to reflect a general shift from world-changing revolutionary political action to ego-rearranging psychosocial and personal examination and not be accused of selling out to liberal and counter-revolutionary bourgeois elements? Can GCTC maintain artistic, political, and financial integrity, and, if a compromise must be made, in which direction should it go? The 'Members' Handbook' attempted to deal with the problem by stating that the primary commitment should be to good theatre: 'If we produce a socially-conscious drama that is a bad play, rather than a light farce that is a good play (provided the latter's "implicit" view of things is not offensive, e.g., racist, sexist, etc.), then a special committee should be formed by the membership to lynch those responsible!' Clearly, GCTC is still in no danger of being considered a company that does only 'light farce' and it continues to retain a unique political profile while at the same time attaining professional standards of production. judged by the goals it set for itself, GCTC must be considered a success.

Notes

'A LOCAL HABITATION AND A NAME': OTTAWA'S GREAT CANADIAN THEATRE COMPANY

Léa V. Usin

1 GINA MALLET 'Play's fanfare ruins integrity' Toronto Star 27 November 1978
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2 MAUREEN PETERSON 'GCTC's name continues to detract from its quality' Ottawa Journal 16 June 1977, p 34
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3 FRANK DALEY 'Extravaganza of ineptitude' Ottawa Journal 30 July 1975, p 16
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4 AUDREY M. ASHLEY 'A "great" company for Canadian plays' Ottawa Citizen 19 July 1975, p 60
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5 AUDREY M. ASHLEY 'Garage home for theatre with a social conscience' Ottawa Citizen 3 October 1981, p 33
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6 ROBIN MATHEWS interview with the author August 1985. Except where otherwise indicated, all statements attributed to Mathews are from this interview. I am grateful to Professor Mathews for graciously agreeing to meet with me.
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7 MATHEWS
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8 DALEY 'Extravaganza ...' It should be noted that Daley had been the Artistic Director of the defunct Town Theatre (1967-69), and had been a major figure in theatre in Ottawa.
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9 ELIZABETH DUNCAN 'Young company picks new play' Ottawa Citizen 30 July 1975, p 71
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10 BETTY SWIMMINGS 'History on Stage' Ottawa Citizen 28 November 1975, p 77
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11 PAT SMART 'Theatre: A lively historical drama' Ottawa Penny Press 7 November 1976, p 13
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12 MICHAEL CARROLL 'Buffalo Jump: excitement in the firehall' Ottawa Penny Press 27 February 1977, p 2
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13 AUDREY M. ASHLEY 'Messy Canadian play: Buffalo Jump misses' Ottawa Citizen 17 February 1977, p 71
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14 BETTY SWIMMINGS 'Strike play lays off excitement' Ottawa Citizen 10 November 1977, p 38
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15 MICHAEL CARROLL 'Chaudière: abortion in the Old Firehall' Ottawa Revue 17 November 1977, p 2
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16 MAUREEN PETERSON 'Strike play pitiful' Ottawa Journal 11 November 1977, p 33 This is a particularly virulent review, containing comments such as: 'Vic Tanny's should offer them a group rate, for one thing. And once they learn how to stand they might try walking and one day, God willing, they may be ready to speak a few lines.'
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17 CARROLL 'Chaudière ...'
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18 MICHAEL PRENTICE 'Carleton professor's play: For Love - Quebec full of life' Ottawa Journal 19 January 1978, p 40
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19 ERIC LEWIS 'For Love - Quebec: Mathews' play best GCTC effort to date' The Charlatan (Carleton University) 20 January 1978, p 7
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20 DAVID ROWE '"for love, Quebec" limp, unresolved' Ottawa Today 19 January 1978, p 19
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21 'Si la crise d'octobre m'était contée ... tout de travers' Le Droit 19 January 1978, p 33
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22 BETTY SWIMMINGS 'Wit, tight discipline make play a delight' Ottawa Citizen 22 June 1978, p 77
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23 ROBERT HARRIS review of Company Town, CBC Radio's 'CBO Morning' 22 June 1978
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24 BETTY SWIMMINGS 'Right play, right cast make Rites' Ottawa Citizen 7 September 1978, p 67
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25 JACOB SISKIND 'Rites of Passage: Audience wanted more' Ottawa Journal 7 September 1978, p 31
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26 BRYAN JOHNSON 'Theatre: TFT's Rites nothing but dreary passage' The Globe and Mail 25 November 1978
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27 MALLET 'Play's fanfare ...'
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28 MCKENZIE PORTER 'Rites more like wrongs of Passage' Toronto Sun 28 November 1978
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29 CHRIS HALLGREN 'Rites of Passage' Scene Changes January/February 1979, p 44
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30 BETTY SWIMMINGS 'Glimpse of suffragette era amusing and diverting' Ottawa Citizen 31 May 1979, p 79
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31 AUDREY M. ASHLEY 'Canadian play balances fact, fantasy' Ottawa Citizen 30 August 1979, p 60
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32 DON NICHOL 'At last: a native play with universal vision' Sunday Post of Canada 2 September 1979
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33 BETTY SWIMMINGS 'Play's bite lost on opening night' Ottawa Citizen 30 November 1979, p 36
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34 ALAN FILEWOD review of Yes Pierre ... There Really is A Canada CHEZ-FM, 29 May 1980
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35 AUDREY M. ASHLEY 'Public Housing revue hard-hitting and humorous' Ottawa Citizen 25 September 1980, p 75
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36 AUDREY M. ASHLEY 'Impressive staging saves strike drama' Ottawa Citizen 19 March 198 1, p 71
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37 PATRICK MCDONALD and ARTHUR MILNER, interview with the author, May 1985. Unless otherwise specified, all comments by McDonald and Milner originate from this interview. Sandinista! was recently given 22 performances by a group in Australia, who remitted over $860 Australian in royalties to GCTC.
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38 Quoted in 'The Ottawa Scene' The Globe and Mail, 11 February 1984, p 3
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39 The probable date is in the late seventies. The handbook can be found in the theatre's archives, which Peter Robb kindly made available to me. I wish to thank him along with Patrick McDonald and Arthur Milner for all the assistance given me in preparing this paper.
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40 PETERSON 'GCTC's name ...'
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41 Theatre History in Canada 6, 1 (Spring 1985) pp 56-81
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42 Mathews relates an enlightening anecdote that once when GCTC contacted the OLT for help in filling a particular role, the OLT suggested the name of a certain actor but then expressed the worry that he might not after all be suitable because he had a Canadian accent.
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43 Quoted in 'Play to explain Latin American revolution to Canadians' Regina Leader-Post 23 June 1983
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44 JOHN CHARLES 'Politics as Drama: Viva Sandinista' Edmonton Sun 17 June 1983, p 52
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45 DENISE BALL 'Production style makes problem' Regina Leader-Post 27 June 1983, p B14
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46 'Story of revolution excellently presented' Winnipeg Free Press 2 June 1983, p 26
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47 'Sandinista Plus Two' NeWest Review September 1983, p 18
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48 'Fine theatre outweighs propaganda' Edmonton Journal 16 June 1983, p C6
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49 Quoted by ROGER AMOROSO in 'Sandinista: A new Great Canadian Theatre Company play about people in Revolution' Ottawa Revue 30 September 1982, p 11
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50 RANDAL MCILROY 'Hot issue opens Gas Station: Ottawa company tackles politically based drama' Winnipeg Free Press 31 May 1983, p 33
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51 AMOROSO p 11
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52 BARRY LORD 'Letters' Ottawa Citizen 26 February 1977, p 30
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