THEATRE in BC encompasses a variety of live plays, musicals, multimedia and performance events, one-person shows, story theatre, busking, improvisation and powwows, staged by about 35 professional and 70 community theatre companies, as well as many other student, summer and festival groups. Increasingly, categorization is difficult as many companies and individuals draw from 2 or 3 types of performance in their work. Good theatre may be found on the mainstage at the VANCOUVER PLAYHOUSE, at a zone festival in NANAIMO, among students at a coffeehouse in KAMLOOPS, or on a school tour by an aboriginal theatre company in VERNON. British Columbians are finding their dramatic voices after 200 years of colonial and neo-colonial domination in which foreign theatre practices, usually British or American, were promoted while indigenous performances were silenced.


In the late 19th century, performances by Northwest Coast FIRST NATIONS people greatly impressed anthropologists such as Franz BOAS, particularly the hamatsa ceremonies of the KWAKWAKA'WAKW (Kwakiutl) people, featuring spectacular dancing, singing, masks and stagecraft. European settlers interrupted this ceremonial tradition, with laws banning the POTLATCH and other cultural practices, for example, but late in the 20th century there was a revival of traditional forms with First Nations performance groups such as Atlakim in VANCOUVER and Senklip in Vernon, and with the growing popularity of the powwow.

Non-aboriginal theatre, in its early decades, usually was presented by the military. BC's first play was called Nootka Sound; or, Britain Prepared and was staged at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London. This jingoistic piece depicted events during the NOOTKA SOUND CONTROVERSY (1789–94) when Britain and Spain almost went to war over control of VANCOUVER ISLAND. During the 19th century, colonial theatre in BC took place on British warships, where naval officers presented comedies to invited guests. The ROYAL ENGINEERS, a group of surveyors and artisans, performed a season of plays on board their ship the Thames City as they sailed to BC; these same "sappers," the province's first dramatic society, also built the first theatre, the Theatre Royal, in NEW WESTMINSTER, where they put on plays. (The Royal Engineers also imported the first recorded LIBRARY in BC.) The Colonial and Royal theatres were built in VICTORIA at about the same time but were operated largely by American touring troupes following the GOLD RUSH. The CARIBOO also enjoyed a flurry of theatrical activity during the 1860s, catering to the tastes of prospectors and other adventurers.

With the arrival of the transcontinental railway in 1887, Vancouver began to supersede Victoria in commerce and in theatre. Pre-WWI, the city boasted major performance spaces at the 1,200-seat VANCOUVER OPERA HOUSE, opened in 1891, and the Pantages Theatre in 1908, part of an American vaudeville circuit. In these theatres, local—or even Canadian—references were rare, though Harry Lindley, perhaps Vancouver's first resident professional, sometimes performed plays with titles such as In the Cariboo and A Scene on Hastings Street in his stock company. At the same time CHINESE theatre flourished: in Victoria as many as 5 theatres presented Cantonese Opera. During the 1930s a potent form of local theatre emerged as unemployed workers joined the Progressive Arts Club in Vancouver and performed agitprop plays such as Waiting for Lefty, a controversial, pro-worker play that the police tried to shut down. Beginning in 1940 popular summer shows, mainly operettas, were presented at Malkin Bowl in STANLEY PARK by THEATRE UNDER THE STARS. Within a decade, the company was fully professional.

Growth of the Modern Theatre

With post-WWII prosperity, professional theatre flourished, mainly in Vancouver. In 1946 Sydney RISK founded his EVERYMAN THEATRE, which became the city's first important theatre company and led to others such as Totem (founded in 1951) and Holiday Children's Theatre (1953). A theatrical boom occurred in the early 1960s at about the time the 767-seat Vancouver Playhouse opened, one of the Canadian regional theatres earmarked for major funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. Under early directors it encouraged local drama and staged such hit plays as George RYGA's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967). The ARTS CLUB THEATRE, begun in 1964, was more successful at commercial theatre. Under Bill Millerd, who took over as artistic director in 1972, the company has enjoyed substantial success, moving to a new site on GRANVILLE ISLAND in 1979 and later establishing a third stage at the renovated Stanley Theatre. Arts Club hits such as the musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and Sherman Snukal's play Talking Dirty, which ran for over 1,000 performances, are part of Vancouver's theatrical history. At the same time, John Juliani's Savage God Company was notable for its avant-garde performances, especially during the early 1970s when it staged Samuel Beckett's Happy Days in a tree trunk in Stanley Park. TAMAHNOUS THEATRE was an experimental collective practising equality and group creation; its members included John GRAY, Larry Lillo and Morris PANYCH.

In Victoria, the Belfry Theatre, especially under directors James Roy and Glynis Leyshon, has been notable for emphasizing Canadian scripts. Professional companies also exist in Nanaimo, KELOWNA, Kamloops, ARMSTRONG, FORT STEELE, GABRIOLA ISLAND and PRINCE GEORGE. These companies typically present a season of about 6 plays selected from a mix of classical, contemporary and new works appealing to a range of tastes. At their best—as with The Overcoat, a wordless musical fable based on a story by Gogol and adapted by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, or the 1998 revival of John Gray's Canadian classic Billy Bishop Goes to War—exciting works by local playwrights are given memorable productions. Meanwhile, new play development is the focus of the Playwrights Theatre Centre. Founded in 1970 as the New Play Centre, this Vancouver institution receives about 250 scripts a year. Each is scrutinized by a theatre professional; some are developed further with the help of actors; 8 are staged. Amateur community theatre groups, members of the umbrella organization Theatre BC, produce seasons increasingly similar to their professional counterparts. Community theatres normally stage 3–4 productions a year and take a spring production to the zone festivals from which some go on to compete at the annual Mainstage Festival.

Many playwrights are working in BC; in 1999 more than 60 were listed as members of the Playwrights Union of Canada. Four BC writers have won GOV GEN'S LITERARY AWARDS for drama: John Gray for Billy Bishop Goes to War (1982), Joan MacLeod for Amigo's Blue Guitar (1991), Guillermo Verdecchia for Fronteras Americanas (1993) and Morris Panych for The Ends of the Earth (1994). Until the late 1950s most serious theatre artists—actors and writers—left the province to train, despite early attempts to establish theatre schools in BC in the 1920s. In NARAMATA, Carroll Aikins, an orchardist, built a theatre on his farm under the name Home Theatre. He accepted students from across Canada; they picked apples in the morning, rehearsed in the afternoon and performed in the evening. During the same decade, L. Bullock-Webster operated his BC Dramatic School in Victoria. But these pioneers alone could not provide adequate training opportunities in the province; the need began to be met with the founding of theatre programs at UBC (1958), Vancouver City College (1965) (see COMMUNITY COLLEGES) and the UNIV OF VICTORIA (1966). By the year 2000 BC had a growing number of trained actors, directors and designers; the excitement of new, young companies was paired with the experience of several well-established ones; and Fringe Festivals—festivals of small-scale community theatre productions, which encourage local writing and production—had gathered momentum. Theatre professionals, audiences and students were looking forward to a bright future.
by James Hoffman