Manitoba History: Review: E. Ross Stuart, The History of Prairie Theatre: The Development of Theatre in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 1833-1982
by Carol Budnick
The publication of Ross Stuart’s history of prairie theatre has been eagerly awaited by theatre historians who know that the Canadian west has a long and interesting history of theatrical entertainment that dates to the early days of settlement.
The author’s background suggests he is qualified to write such a history. After studying theatre at the University of Alberta, he completed an M.F.A. at Carnegie Mellon University, specializing in directing, and a doctorate in theatre at the University of Toronto. In addition he has been chairperson of the Theatre Department at York University and president of the Association for Canadian Theatre History.
Stuart has produced a survey that provides an introduction to the study of prairie theatre for the beginning researcher. As such, the book is a contribution to the study of Canadian theatre history, a field in which there is a lack of reliable secondary works. Especially needed are histories that cover an extensive geographical area.
The book is divided into four parts, each of which corresponds to a stage in the development of theatre on the prairies. Part one, entitled “Theatre in Pioneer Times,” discusses early amateur dramatic organizations, touring companies that were the main source of professional theatre up to the early 1920s, vaudeville, and the theatre construction that took place before the Great War. The next two sections describe the type of theatre that developed when touring by professional companies was gradually curtailed. Thus Stuart discusses the growth of community-based amateur theatre which began in the 1920s to fill the gap left by the dearth of professional entertainment, the Dominion Drama Festival, and the provincial drama associations that fostered this increase in amateur theatrical activity. In his third section Stuart considers educational theatre as another alternative to professional theatre. Here he writes about the establishment of drama departments at the universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the teaching of theatre at the Banff School of Fine Arts. The final portion of the book describes the rise of a new professional theatre in the 1960s and the 1970s in various prairie cities.
Stuart’s narrative is largely concerned with developments in major urban centres in the prairies; therefore, the book is a history of theatre in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, and Saskatoon, although other centres are mentioned. For each of these centres the author describes the various amateur and professional organizations, their activities and the succession of individuals that ran them in an account that at times reads like a catalogue.
Some attempt has been made to give the reader information about western Canadians’ taste in theatre by listing the plays performed by certain companies in selected years and by briefly mentioning the work of some prairie playwrights. To aid the reader, an index to plays referred to in the text is included. This index gives the author of the play and his national origin.
For those especially interested in Manitoba history, the story of theatre in Winnipeg is certainly not slighted in this book. As the first city to acquire a population large enough to support amateur theatre and to be visited by professional touring companies, Winnipeg is depicted as something of a model which was emulated in other centres. The better touring attractions that people in Alberta and Saskatchewan enjoyed were sent to them by Winnipeg theatre manager C. P. Walker, who had organized a circuit of theatres across the prairies. When Walker was no longer able to bring the best professional theatre to the city it was the Winnipeg Little Theatre, founded in 1921, that in Stuart’s words (p. 89) “became a model for similar ventures in other Canadian cities.” And, in 1958, it was the Winnipeg Little Theatre that was one of the organizations that amalgamated to form the Manitoba Theatre Centre, an event which Stuart calls one of the “two seminal events in contemporary Canadian theatre history,” (the other was the founding of the Stratford Festival), for MTC “launched the regional professional movement that led to the establishment of theatre companies in every major city in Canada.” (p. 170).
In the preface to his book Stuart accurately sums up the nature of the achievement his book represents. He describes his history (on p. 9) as “comprehensive but not definitive,” for “it stresses facts rather than opinions or theories.” Further on he writes (on p. 10) that from his research he was able to create a picture of prairie theatre that is “impressionistic: the overall outline is clear but many of the details are hazy.” He recognizes that these details are being filled in by others doing research on narrower topics, and he cites the work of John Orrell on Edmonton theatres, Annette Saint-Pierre on Francophone theatre in Manitoba and Douglas Arrell’s work on Harold Nelson, to which could be added Reg Skene’s dissertation on Winnipeg theatre.
Given the broad time span and large geographic area Stuart has chosen to cover, his history cannot be much more than a superficial survey that identifies topics of research to be pursued at length by others. Unfortunately his decision not to follow scholarly practice in providing footnotes and complete identification of archival materials has reduced the usefulness of his work. Neither the lengthy bibliography he has provided nor the references to sources in the text can compensate for the lack of proper footnotes.
Page revised: 24 April 2016Back to top of page