Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1982)

TOBY GORDON RYAN, "Stage Left: Canadian Theatre in the Thirties A Memoir." Downsview: Canadian Theatre Review Publications, 1981. 239 p, illus 16 p, $8.95.

Robin Belitsky Endres

I met Toby Ryan and her husband Oscar in 1974, when I was researching a paper on the Progressive Arts Club and the Canadian left-wing cultural movement of the thirties. Over the course of several conversations, I learned a good deal about two little-known theatres in the depression years - the Workers Experimental Theatre and the Theatre of Action. I felt extremely privileged to meet a woman who embodied a period of theatrical history which had been virtually lost to scholarship in the field, a woman who dedicated her life to the idea that theatre should promote social change, and who had not compromised those principles. I also felt a little selfish and a little awkward, because it seemed that it should be Toby herself who could best document the era, who could and should write the book. Theoretical analyses are important enough, but when there is a possibility of an original memoir, a combination of factual data, anecdotes and interviews to bring a period to life, there can be no substitute.

Toby Ryan is a charming, intelligent and witty woman, and her book has these same qualities. Reading Stage Left is like a conversation with her that everyone gets to share. There is enough careful research to fill in the missing facts for the scholar. For anyone with an interest in Canadian theatre history, left-wing theatre, or simply the cultural ambience of the depression, the book is of equal importance. Part autobiography, part chronological history, part collective memoir (Toby interviewed participants in all the major Canadian cities), part documentation (each event includes quotations from newspapers and adjudicators at the Dominion Drama Festival) - it is a nice book to flip through, to read some sections in depth and skim others.

The general impression Toby gives of the period is unlike others I have read. Even when one is in complete sympathy with the social struggles of the times, one tends to have a rather grim image of them. Breadlines and relief camps; a sober, determined and highly disciplined socialist movement; art as propaganda. Visual art was the angular black and white lines of the woodblock or linoleum print. Theatre was all slogans and red banners, the image, indeed, conveyed by the cover design of the book. All of this is not so much contradicted, as given a different colouring which changes the feeling of the picture quite remarkably. Time and again people interviewed recall their involvement in the Workers Experimental Theatre and the Theatre of Action (and their counterparts outside of Toronto) with affection, humour and nostalgia. They speak of their colleagues and the theatrical force they helped to define with deep and moving humanism. For many, if not most, the impression is that this was the best time of their lives.

Anyone who believes that this kind of theatre took itself too seriously will enjoy the account of a fund-raising evening in Winnipeg:


 
We called it a sign of maturity to be able to laugh at ourselves ... I remember one skit where Frances Goffman came out completely wrapped up in a long cape. She took her time, then dropped the cape to reveal herself dressed in a bikini, and said, 'Workers of the world - tonight!'


The funny stories in the book are one of its best features. Harry Hoshowsky, now concert master for the North Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and his buddy Mike went to the DDF finals with Waiting for Lefty and proceeded to take on Ottawa like a socialist Mutt and Jeff. (The Vancouver City Council declared a Flag Day to raise money to send Lefty to Ottawa.) They were the guests of the carilloneur, who took them up to the Peace Tower and played 'The Worker's Flag is Deepest Red', for the edification of everyone within a ten mile radius. Lord Tweedsmuir, the Governor-General, was waiting to have his cigarette lighted by one of his guards, when one of the boys struck a wooden match on the back of his pants. The guards quickly pushed him away. 'I don't know who was more shocked, the Governor-General or Fred, who was trying to do the nice thing.'

The story has its poignant side. The members of these theatres were committed to social change ranging from reforms such as unemployment insurance to the revolutionary overthrow of the state. They believed that to convey their message in the best possible way, they had to have the best possible theatre. They were certainly as determined to master the techniques and skills of professional theatre as they were to convince their audiences of the need for social action. The only way they could obtain recognition was through the adjudication process of the staid and conservative DDF. That the DDF adjudicators awarded various prizes to the Theatre of Action and its counterparts in other cities is at once a tribute to these theatres and richly ironic. The fact that these two working class kids from the West Coast were completely dumbfounded by the accoutrments of upper class Canadian theatrical circles demonstrates how deeply rooted in social class the theatre of that era was.

Stage Left also sets the Theatre of Action and the WET in a theatrical context. The two theatres pioneered untraditional theatrical activities such as Chalk Talks, Living Newspapers, Beer and Skits evenings, an improvisation evening. Audience members suggested topics and the players worked up skits on the spot. They did a mass chant in Yiddish called Troopen, with a cast of fifty, most of whom could barely understand the language, and performed it at a Ukrainian concert where none of the audience understood Yiddish, surely one of the most truly multicultural theatre events in Canada. Wayne and Shuster, Lou Applebaum, Lorne Green, Sid Newman, were all involved at one time or another. Norman Bethune attended a rehearsal one night on his way to speak at a rally for Spain.

However, the book goes far beyond historical documentation to raise some fundamental questions about the nature of theatre, questions as important now as they were then. It was not just that the content of the plays had a social message; the profoundly democratic nature of these theatres was reflected in every aspect of their operations. They worked collectively, taking turns acting, building sets, doing publicity and all the other facets of theatre production. Everyone was expected to do these jobs and do them well. Furthermore, anyone who wanted to was given the chance to perform, so there were no stars up front and drones behind. According to David Pressman, Theatre of Action's most successful and respected director, 'I have always believed that everybody has a little bit of an impulse to act, to perform, to pretend, and that I could bring it out. Somewhere in my attitude was the thought that everybody was talented . . .'. This 'attitude', so simply stated, is at variance with the elitism and mystification of talent that pervades much of the theatre world. Yet too often contemporary left-wing theatres make a cult of amateurism, denying the importance of training or technique. Theatre of Action gave the best of both worlds. Everyone had a chance to perform, but the theatre stressed hard work, technique, respect for the standards of an audience. They ran dozens of courses, summer-long training programmes, raising money to send a few people to New York to study. There individuals would be expected to return and teach all they had learned to the others.

One very moving account best illustrates the kind of theatre this was. Miriam Hoffman, a young factory worker, came around the theatre with no particular notion of where she would or could fit in. Gradually she became involved in stage make-up. 'I remember going to see somebody, some man who was in that field. He gave me a lot of wonderful ideas .... On my own initiative, I went to the library and I sat for hours making notes and reading a lot of books ... I really loved it'. This woman, who left a hard factory job every day and spent her evenings at the theatre, received special notice from the critics for the make-up design she did for The Inspector-General.

I have a few minor criticisms of the book. There are too many newspaper reviews quoted at length, although they do demonstrate how dismal the level of journalism was in that period. Also, were the author and her editor not aware that there is a book with the same title, dealing with the same period in American theatre? (Jay Williams, Stage Left, Scribner, 1974). Finally, I was surprised that there was no mention of the role played by the Communist Party of Canada in the development of these theatres, except as it related to the content of Eight Men Speak, a play about the incarceration of Communist leaders. Both before and after 1935, when the United Front policy made it possible for greater participation from artists who were not strictly speaking marxists, the Communist Party provided a theoretical framework without which this kind of theatre could hardly have existed. Undoubtedly, the Party encouraged interested members to become involved, but does not appear to have interfered with the activities of the theatre in any way. Yet I understand and sympathize with Toby's decision not to deal with these questions. I think the reason is that we still live the heritage of the Cold War. It is a shocking thing to realize that there is still a possibility of repercussions, if not to people's careers, then to their reputations, because of membership in or association with the C.P. forty years ago. The consequence is that credit is not given where, I believe, it is justly due.

Stage Left is a sourcebook, a valuable document of a little known and sometimes deliberately censored period of Canadian theatre history. It is also an inspiration for anyone working in theatre today who is concerned with making theatre socially relevant. Two brief testimonials sum it up best. Guy Glover, active in the Vancouver Progressive Arts Players: '. . . what I experienced just made me into a human being, that's all.' And Stuart Walton, active in the Toronto Theatre of Action: 'I wouldn't exchange that experience ... for anything. It was thrilling, stimulating, stretching. You were doing something worthwhile and realizing yourself in the process.'