Multicultural Theatre | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Multicultural Theatre

Several common traits - particularly the wish to preserve the culture and language of the country of origin and to instil a sense of community ties - can be found as the driving motivation behind any theatre group formed within a recent immigrant community.
Kwakiutl Winter Dance
This dance is being performed at a southern Kwakiutl village on Quatsino Sound. Elaborate theatrical performances were an important part of Northwest Coast native life (watercolour by Gordon J. Miller)
highway, tomson
the playwright first gained recognition with his play The Rez Sisters (photo by Thomas King).

Several common traits - particularly the wish to preserve the culture and language of the country of origin and to instil a sense of community ties - can be found as the driving motivation behind any theatre group formed within a recent immigrant community. Some of the earliest ethnic theatres were formed in the 1930s, creating theatre exclusively for their own communities. Ukrainian, Hungarian, Finnish, Latvian and Yiddish-language theatres prospered on a grassroots level.

In the years following the Second World War, increased immigration from European nations led to a surge of activity in the European multicultural theatre sector. Because professional theatre artists were among the new immigrants, their new energy and talents brought the work to professional or near professional standards.

This movement peaked in the 1970s and early '80s. The increasing sophistication of English Canadian theatre and the implementation of an official policy of multiculturalism provided an environment in which ethnospecific theatre flourished. In 1972, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed a minister of state responsible for multiculturalism and established the Multiculturalism Directorate within the Department of the Secretary of State. Government support was now available for theatres that had previously relied mostly on community support for their revenues. Organizations such as the Ontario Multicultural Theatre Association (OMTA) (1970-1990) and the National Multicultural Theatre Association (1975-1987) were active at this time, hosting annual festivals and acting as a liaison between their membership and other theatre agencies.

By the mid-1980s, however, cracks began to show in the fundamental assumptions built around "multiculturalism" in the Canadian arts. Prior to 1965 immigration laws favoured European immigrants over visible minority immigrants - Asians, Blacks, South Asians or Latins. By the early 1980s these visible minority communities were producing mature theatre groups and artists; meanwhile, the European ethnospecific theatre groups went into decline as the younger members of their communities entered the mainstream English and French professional theatres.

Visible minority groups and artists continued, however, to be poorly represented both in multicultural organizations such as the OMTA and in the professional English and French theatre industry. Shunted between arts councils and the Department of Multiculturalism, visible and cultural minority theatre artists grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of access to mainstream Canadian theatre and the difficulties of gaining reliable funding for their groups.

In the late 1980s, arts councils and theatre associations across the nation began reassessing their policies, eventually leading to the dismantling of discriminatory practices and culturally prejudicial definitions of theatre in the early 1990s. In 1988, Canadian Actors' Equity Association held the First National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting in Toronto, advocating on behalf of professional actors of colour. The following year, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) held a similar conference, which was the springboard for Into the Mainstream, a directory of visible and audible minority ACTRA members, published in 1990-91, 92-93 and 94-95 and later succeeded by Mainstream Now! (launched in 2005).

As an increasing portion of the tax-paying population receiving a disproportionately small return in arts funding, culturally diverse artists demanded change. Projections showed that by 2001 over 17% of the Canadian population and over 45% of the Metropolitan Toronto population would be a visible minority. Arts councils and agencies began a flurry of studies regarding access to funding by cultural and racial minority artists. In 1990 the Ontario Arts Council published its report, followed by the Toronto Arts Council and the Canada Council in 1992.

Serving the most culturally diverse municipality in the nation, the Toronto Arts Council has proven the most effective of the three in implementing recommendations that emerged in all three reports: (1) increasing representation of artists of colour on all juries and committees; (2) redefining "professionalism" in a way that recognizes talent, training and systemic barriers to sustaining a financially viable career; (3) reassessing discriminatory prejudices that favour work produced within a European-based theatrical tradition; and (4) implementing proactive hiring policies that draw more arts administrators of colour into the infrastructure of the funding system.

The Canada Council for the Arts also identified the culturally diverse community as a strategic funding priority, along with the youth community and Aboriginal community. In 2002-03, the council distributed about $10.9 million in direct and indirect funding to culturally diverse artists and arts organizations - an increase of more than 50 per cent from the previous year. In 1999-2000, the council introduced 2 dedicated programs to support culturally diverse communities: the Capacity-Building Program to Support Culturally Diverse Artistic Practices and the Assistance to Culturally Diverse Curators for Residencies in Visual Arts.

In 1990, Cahoots Theatre Projects of Toronto hosted Write About Now, a conference of visible minority playwrights that included guest speakers Tomson Highway, Rick Shiomi and Maria Campbell. Access was not just an issue of actors on the stage, but of developing new voices, new writers and a theatre aesthetic that corresponded to the pluralistic demographics of Canadian society.

In some respects, this had already begun in the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) and popular theatre sectors. Beginning in the 1980s companies such as Green Thumb Theatre in Vancouver, Quest Theatre in Alberta, Youtheatre in Montréal and Theatre Direct, Straight Stitching Productions and We Are One Productions in Toronto produced work for and about increasingly diverse young audiences. Popular theatre groups also have a long history of tackling issues of exclusion and discrimination in their work, drawing in First Nations artists, artists from recent immigrant communities and artists of colour.

In the 1980s, Ground Zero developed strong grassroots links with the Latin and Filipino theatre communities. Headlines Theatre in Vancouver, in partnership with the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs, produced NO'XYA' (Our Footprints), an articulation of the reasons behind the tribes' land claim, and toured the show nationally and to New Zealand (1987-90). Far in advance of their peers in established subscription-based companies, TYA and popular theatre groups recognized and responded to the changing demographics and cultural make-up of post-1965 Canada.

By the early 1990s, the word "multiculturalism" had been displaced by terms such as "cultural diversity,""intercultural" and "cross-cultural." The tangled and charged issue of "cultural appropriation" that began in the literary community hit the theatre scene in 1993 with protests around the Toronto productions of Miss Saigon and Showboat.

In small theatre and experimental theatre, "non-European" theatre practices gained new acceptance, informing a period of experimentation. A host of companies such as Native Earth Performing Arts, We Are One, Black Theatre Workshop, Theatre Wum, Modern Times Stage Company, the Firehall Theatre and Cahoots Theatre Projects challenged the notion of a culturally homogeneous Canadian theatre.


Ukrainian theatre began in Canada as early as 1906 in the mining areas of the Sudbury basin and in Manitoba, which was the main centre of Ukrainian dramatic activities in the early days of settlement in Canada. The steady development of Ukrainian theatre continued through the 1930s and 1940s, diminishing somewhat after the war and enjoying a resurgence after the 1970s. The Ukrainian Dramatic Ensemble "Zahrava," founded in 1956, performed well into the 1980s.

The Canadian Ukrainian Opera Association (CUOA) formed in 1974 and produced large-scale operas such as Natalka Poltavka at Toronto's MacMillan Theatre in 1984, featuring international performers along with groups such as the Canadian Ukrainian Opera Chorus and the Vesnianka Dance Ensemble. The CUOA also appeared in gala concerts at Massey Hall, Roy Thomson Hall, Hamilton Place and Carnegie Hall, New York.

Ukrainian children's theatre played an important role in both Winnipeg and Edmonton, where the Ukrainian Story Theatre for Children integrated Ukrainian folklore in bilingual productions. Attracting large audiences and strong community support, all these groups were active at least until the early '80s, but have since folded. Efforts to develop new groups are under way, particularly in Alberta, where Dzherelo Children's Theatre began producing in 1993.

The second-generation Ukrainian experience found its voice with playwright Ted Galay. After Baba's Funeral, about a Ukrainian family gathering, speaks intimately of cultural and generational differences within the family. Produced in Toronto and Winnipeg, After Baba's Funeral won the 1981 Canadian Authors Association Award. Chysta Productions' Just a Kommedia, Nika Rylski's satirical look at the tribulations of growing up Ukrainian in Canada, toured Canada and went to Expo '86 in Vancouver after its premiere in Toronto in 1984.

Italian-Canadian theatre, like Ukrainian-Canadian theatre, has progressed from a vibrant ethnic community theatre to activity in mainstream professional theatre. Although community theatres Piccolo Teatro (1949-1976), founded by Bruno Mesaglio, and La Compagnia dei Giovanni (1969-1982), founded by Alberto di Giovanni, no longer exist, other groups sprang up including Le Maschere in Montréal, founded in 1974, and Pirandello Theatre Company in Toronto, founded in 1992. Professional artists such as actor/director Tony Nardi and playwrights Maristella Roca, Vittorio Rossi and Toni Ellwand have created work, primarily in the professional theatre, that reflects both their Italian and Canadian sensibilities.

Similarly, Jewish-Canadian theatre has progressed from a vital community base to expression on the professional mainstages. The distinguished Yiddish Theatre in Montréal, founded in 1956, has made the Saidye Bronfman Centre its home since the early 1970s. In the 1970s other Jewish theatres presented English-language productions that reflected Jewish concerns and sensitivities, including the Jewish Heritage Theatre in Vancouver and Leah Posluns Theatre in Toronto. In 1987 the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre was founded and, dedicated to the presentation of theatre that speaks of Jewish and multicultural issues, has become the only professional theatre in Canada to produce full seasons of plays on Jewish themes.

In the 1990s, contemporary Jewish theatrical expression moved to the mainstages. Successes included Jason Sherman's provocative The League of Nathans (1992), Three in the Back, Two in the Head (1994), Reading Hebron (1995) and The Retreat (1996), and the collective creation of The Theory of Relatives that brought together artists Daniel Brooks, Leah Cherniak, Richard Greenblatt and Diane Flacks in 1993.

Hungarian theatre in Ontario experienced a flurry of activity in the 1930s with major presentations organized by the Catholic Circle and by Hungarian left-wing organizations in Toronto. In the mid-1950s, Sándor Kertész, a professional actor and director, emigrated from Budapest to Canada where he founded the Hungarian Art Theatre in Toronto in 1958. At its height, it produced up to five openings a year - the operettas of Emmerich Kalman, Franz Léhar, and Johann Strauss, and the occasional European drama or popular American comedy translated into Hungarian. No longer in existence, the Hungarian Art Theatre was replaced in Toronto by the New Hungarian Theatre.

The community support given to Finnish theatre through the Depression until the present day has resulted in one of the most resilient ethnic theatre companies in the country. Founded in 1932, the Finnish Social Club produced four shows a year in its Scarborough hall, up until the 1980s, after which it continued to produce at least one event per year. Their repertoire has contained an interesting cross-section of Canadian, British, American and Finnish drama, including Gratien Gélinas' Bousille and the Just, as well as plays by Finnish playwright Mika Waltari.

Like the Finnish community, the Czech, Latvian and Lithuanian communities once maintained active and vibrant theatre companies that have since slipped into decline. The Latvian D.V. Theatre was active for over 30 years, drawing from Latvian high school drama groups, touring in Canada and the U.S. and presenting a mixed program of up to four plays a year until the 1980s. Hamilton's Lithuanian drama group Aukuras, founded in 1950, was active into the late 1980s.

Toronto's Lithuanian Aitvaras was also extraordinarily active, touring to the American Midwest and earning awards at the Lithuanian Theatre Festival in Chicago. The New Czech Theatre, with a varied program of classic Czech works and English-language works in translation, produced distinguished work in Toronto from 1970 into the early 1990s.

New theatre groups, based in more recent immigrant communities, have sprung up, eclipsing the older European groups. Young and active theatres can be found in the Turkish, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, Latin-American, South Asian, Caribbean and African communities, particularly in the urban centres of Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver. The Canadian Turkish Youth Drama Group based in North York produces original Turkish-Canadian works.

The Filipino community in Greater Toronto supports three companies: Kabataan Filipino Youth Theatre, Culture Philippines and the politically oriented Carlos Bulosan Cultural Workshop. In the South Asian community, a number of new groups have sprung up including the Ismailia Theatrical Society in Toronto and Teesri Duniya in Montréal. The annual interdisciplinary Desh Pardesh Festival in Toronto, which ran until 2001, included a theatre component showcasing new and original South Asian works for stage, shorter skits and monologues.

A notable feature of the 1990s was the fluidity with which many culturally diverse artists developed their careers. The Iranian community in Toronto, for example, sustains two community theatre groups, the more classically oriented Namaysh-Khaneh Iranian Theatre, and Honar Playhouse, which produces original works in Farsi. Soheil Parsa, a professional actor and director from Iran, chose, however, to develop his works for a broader alternative audience through his Modern Times Stage Company (MTSC).

Led by a co-artistic directing team of Parsa and Peter Farbridge, MTSC blends and fuses Western theatre sensibilities and Persian theatre traditions in an exploration and development of an invigorating physical theatrical style. MTSC's efforts have ranged from innovative productions of Brecht's A Man's a Man and Genet's The Balcony to astounding translations and adaptations of Iranian playwright Bahram Beyza'i.

Developing a distinct visual style and a non-verbal aesthetic, the company was lauded for its production of Beyza'i's The Death of the King, a play banned in Iran under the Islamic regime. Featuring a powerful multicultural cast, The Death of the King was awarded a Dora Award for best new play in the small theatre category and received an additional five nominations in 1994. Since the 1990s MTSC has continued to create culturally inclusive, alternative theatre experiences for their audiences. Aarash, adapted by Parsa and originally a co-production with Theatre Passe Muraille in 1998, toured to Cuba and Iran and as recently as 2010 was presented again in Toronto as well as in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Colombia. Another notable production was Ahmed Ghazali's The Sheep and the Whale (2007), a co-production with Cahoots Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille.

In Montréal, Teesri Duniya, a community-based group originally founded in 1981 to stage Hindustani plays by celebrated Indian playwrights, began producing original works, including Land Where the Trees Talk and No Man's Land, both by artistic director Rahul Varma. No Man's Land chronicles the sufferings of an Indian family that flees the violent partitioning of India and Pakistan to settle in Québec. The play, which hypothesizes the plight of a family in an independent Québec, became the object of a heated controversy but was eventually produced in 1992. A revised version, Trading Injuries, was produced by Sally Han for CBC Radio Drama in 1993. Today Teesri Duniya, which began as primarily a South Asian group, is an all-inclusive organization whose membership and artists come from a wide range of ethnic and racial backgrounds, truly embracing the multiethnic, multiracial and multilingual make-up of Québec and Canada.

The MT Space, founded in 2004 in Kitchener, Ont. by theatre artist Majdi Bou-Matar, explores the cultural intersections between people, their histories and their forms of expression. The company's 2005 production The Season of Immigration to the West toured across Canada and its 2007 Pinteresque: Exit Strategy was performed at Theatre Passe Muraille as part of the SummerWorks Festival.

Black Canadian Theatre

Black theatre groups have existed since the early 19th century in Vancouver and Halifax and in small communities such as Ontario's North Buxton and Amherstburg. The first major breakthrough, however, occurred in 1942 in Montréal with the Negro Theatre Guild's production of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures, produced by Don A. Haldane with stage design by Herbert Whittaker. The show was first produced at Victoria Hall, then transferred to Her Majesty's Theatre. In 1949, the group's production of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones won a Dominion Drama Festival best-actor award for Percy Rodriguez. In the 1960s, the company began to produce plays that reflected the interests of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. After the emergence of the Black Theatre Workshop around 1968, however, the Guild was not able to sustain itself.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the formation of several Black theatre companies. In 1964, the Drama Committee of the Trinidad and Tobago Association began producing theatre and developing its artists. The Committee quickly matured into the Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), which produced its premiere production, How Now Black Man? by Montréal writer Lorris Elliott, in 1970.

BTW has a long production history alternating between the presentation of contemporary Black Canadian work and works from the international Black theatre repertoire. Works produced by BTW include The Black Experience by Clarence Bayne (1975), Hector Bunyan's Prodigals in a Promised Land (1982), Marvin: Dream of a Lifetime by Dwight Bacquie (1988), and a remount of Richardo Keens-Douglas's children's play The Nutmeg Princess (1994), originally produced by Amah Harris's company Theatre in the Rough. These were followed by Andrew Moodie's Riot (1998-1999), and Dennis Foon's New Canadian Kid (1998-1999). In 1999 BTW received a $100 000 Millenium Fund grant from the Canada Council, and revitalized its Youth Performer's Initiative, an intensive training program for Black youth. The company's work includes The Crossroad/ Le Carrefour (2000) by Kossi Efoui, Afrika Solo by Djanet Sears (2002, reprised as a school tour in 2006), Wade in the Water by George Elroy Boyd (2004), Blacks Don't Bowl by Vadney Haynes (2005-2006) and The Lady Smith by Andrew Moodie (2006).

Production credits from the international repertoire include Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain, Joseph A. Walker's The River Niger, and David Westheimer's My Sweet Charlie in the 1970s; Ntozake Shange's acclaimed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enuf (1985); George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum (1987); Mustapha Matura's Playboy of the West Indies (1993) in co-production with Centaur Theatre; and Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa! (1998-1999).

Over its long history, BTW has been the artistic home for recognized artists such as Errol Slue, Jeff Henry, Walter Borden, Winston Sutton, Lorena Gale, Marvin Ishmael and Dwight Bacquie, and has been instrumental in the development of hundreds of Black theatre artists working across the country.

Two other noteworthy companies are Toronto's Theatre Fountainhead, founded in 1974 by Jeff Henry, and Black Theatre Canada (BTC), founded in 1973 by Vera Cudjoe. Following Henry's intention to develop and produce works of Black playwrights, his professional company performed the works of Wole Soyinka and Errol Sitahal, Henry's own play Africa in the Caribbean, and The Cold Snap by Prairie-born Linda Ghan, which deals with the West Indian immigrant experience (1983); the musical fantasy The Obeah Man, written by and starring Richardo Keens-Douglas in a role that won him a Dora nomination (1985); and Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot in 1986. The company ceased productions in 1990 due to financial strain.

Cudjoe's goal in pioneering Black theatre in Toronto was to share the culture of Black people with the larger community. To this end BTC took productions into schools and ran successful workshops. BTC's accomplishments included productions of School's Out by playwright Trevor Rhone, Peter Robinson's Dem Two in Canada (1979), Daniel Caudeiron's More About Me (1979) and Leon Bibb's One More Stop on the Freedom Train, a musical about the underground railroad in Ontario. Produced in Toronto in 1984 and revived in 1985, the show toured across the country and played at Vancouver Expo '86 in the Canadian Pavilion as part of the Arts Against Apartheid Festival. Financial difficulties caused BTC to suspend operations in 1988. Theatre Fountainhead closed shortly afterwards in 1990.

Winnipeg's Caribbean Theatre Workshop, founded at the University of Manitoba, and Nova Scotia's "Kwacha" (meaning "Dawn of a New Day" in Zambian), founded by Walter Borden in 1984, produced interesting work in the 1980s but were not able to survive into the '90s despite critical and audience successes. The activities of these companies in trying to train and develop artists - activities "outside of the realm of professional theatre" - were deemed questionable by arts councils, while multicultural agencies rejected them because the work was "too professional."

Despite these challenges, things were promising for Black theatre and many prominent artists began to emerge. Djanet Sears' one-woman show Afrika Solo (1987) earned her a Dora nomination and she won many Canadian awards with Harlem Duet (1997), which was revived at the Neptune Theatre in 2000 and at the Stratford Festival in 2006.

In 1988, Marvin Ishmael inaugurated We Are One Theatre Productions with Sweet Pan, a lively musical play incorporating a live steel band and carnival costumes. With a mandate to develop theatre that reflects the Caribbean-Canadian experience, We Are One synthesized Caribbean story-telling traditions, steel band and calypso into its theatre and had a strong reputation for its new work for young audiences.

The Caribbean focus of We Are One augured the beginnings of a distinctly Caribbean-Canadian theatre and a rising community of artists such as actor/story-teller Richardo Keens-Douglas, actor/director Amah Harris and her Theatre in the Rough company.

Another notable group, Theatre Wum, also rose to prominence in the early 1990s. With a mandate "to explore African continuities," founding artistic director Colin Taylor mounted six productions between 1991 and 1994, starting with Jeff Stetson's The Meeting, about a fictional meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (1991), and followed by Radiance of the King in September of the same year, Suzan Lori-Park's The Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1992), and Titus Andronicus and The Urban Donnellys (with Theatre Passe Muraille) in 1993. Taylor's rigorous experimental approach and his provocative theatrical choices earned him the John Hirsch Award for directing in 1993. In 1994, he was appointed artistic associate at Theatre Passe Muraille and he has garnered directing credits at established theatres such as the Tarragon Theatre, the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) and Alberta Theatre Projects.

The feminist Nightwood Theatre, in its efforts to develop emerging women playwrights, made significant contributions to Black Canadian theatre, producing the lively Wonder Quartet, written by Diana Braithwaite and directed by Djanet Sears (1992), and the one-woman re-telling of creation myths, Dryland, written and performed by Pauline Peters and directed by Diane Roberts (1993). At Young People's Theatre, In Search of Dragon's Mountain, about inter-racial friendship in an apartheid South Africa, won a Dora Award for outstanding production in the theatre for young audiences sector (1993). And after years of effort in the small theatre community, writer/performer George Seremba earned a Dora for outstanding new play for Come, Good Rain in 1994. A searing account of life in Amin's Uganda, Come, Good Rain has since been produced in Ottawa, Montréal, Los Angeles and London, England.

Toronto's b current was founded in 1990 with the mission to develop new works rooted in the cultural, social and political experience of the Canadian and international Black diaspora. Throughout and since the 1990s they have offered both full and workshop productions as well as the rAiz'n the sun training program for young and emerging Black artists and the rock.paper.sistahz festival, an annual festival of performance work by Black women artists and artists of colour.

AfriCan Theatre Ensemble from Toronto was founded in 1998 by its artistic director Modupe Olaogun, creating an avenue for cultural exchange between Africa and Canada, and recognizing the creative dialogue between Africa and its diaspora. The ensemble's performances include the Canadian premiere of Ola Rotimi's The Gods Are Not to Blame (1998), Rotimi's Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again (2000), Zakes Mda's And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses (2001), Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman (2004), Donald Carr's The Full Nelson (2005) and Efua Sutherland's Marriage of Anansewa (2008/2009).

Obsidian Theatre Company, founded in 2000 in Toronto, is dedicated to the exploration, development and production of the Black voice on the Canadian stage. Their production history includes The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God by Djanet Sears (2001-02), The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (2002-2003), Consecrated Ground by George Elroy Boyd (2003-2004), The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke (2006-2007), Black Medea by Wesley Enoch (2008-2009) and Yellowman (2009) by Dael Orlandersmith.

In Nova Scotia, Voices Black Theatre Ensemble, founded in 1990, creates and presents drama and performances that explore and celebrate the Black experience in Nova Scotia. Made up of a core group of ten performers, including actors, musicians, dancers, rap artists, storytellers, singers, writers and technicians, the company has created a number of original performance pieces including Kumbaya: The Black History Month Show, The Detention, Africville, Nova Scotia Suite and Choices in the Skin.

Aboriginal Canadian Theatre

The experience of First Nations became a subject for Canadian theatre in the late 1960s in works such as George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967), Herschel Hardin's Esker Mike and His Wife (1969) and Len Peterson's Almighty Voice (1970).

It wasn't until the mid-1970s, however, that First Nations theatre was able to make serious headway in the development of its own writers, actors and theatres. The Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts (ANDPVA) established the Native Theatre School in 1974. This intensive program exposed promising artists to some of the best professional teachers of voice, movement and text and provided a forum for the exploration of Native culture and performance traditions. Virtually all First Nations theatre artists in Canada have passed through NTS.

In 1980, the first Indigenous Theatre Celebration was held in Toronto, bringing together indigenous artists from all over the world. In 1982, Native Earth Performing Arts was established in Toronto. Under the artistic direction of Tomson Highway, the company quickly developed an impressive production history. From 1982-85, Native Earth experimented with collective creations and in 1986 the company achieved its first big popular success with The Rez Sisters. Written by Highway, directed by Larry Lewis and choreographed by René Highway, The Rez Sisters garnered both the Dora and Chalmers awards for best new play for its account of a group of passionate bingo players who travel down to Toronto in the hopes of making the big win. Humorous and moving, The Rez Sisters toured across the country and was invited to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1988.

In 1989, Tomson Highway, René Highway and Larry Lewis teamed up again on Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, a portrayal of life on a First Nations reserve from the men's perspective as their wives and girlfriends go off to play a hockey game. The play won a second Chalmers award for Highway and 4 Dora awards for best production, best new play, outstanding male performer (Graham Greene) and outstanding female performer in a supporting role (Doris Linklater).

In 1989, Native Earth founded its annual new play development festival Weesageechak Begins to Dance, over the years developing works such as Margo Kane's evocative Moonlodge, Monique Mojica's Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, Drew Hayden Taylor's Bootlegger Blues, Daniel David Moses' Almighty Voice and His Wife and Tina Mason's Diva Ojibway, all of which went on to full production.

Of these writers, one of the most prolific is Daniel David Moses, whose works also include Coyote City (Native Earth, 1988), The Dreaming Beauty (Inner Stage, 1990), Big Buck City (Cahoots, 1991), and The Moon and Dead Indians (Cahoots, 1993). The Dreaming Beauty, an allegory of the renaissance of Aboriginal cultures combining Iroquoian myth and the tale of Sleeping Beauty, won first prize in the 1990 Canadian National Playwriting Competition.

In 2003 Native Earth Performing Arts appointed Yvette Nolan as the company's artistic director. In 2004-2005 the largest Native Earth production in years, The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements, featuring a cast of 13, was selected by Toronto's NOW Magazine as one of the top 10 theatre productions of 2004. Dreary and Izzy (2005-2006) was Tara Beagan's humorous and moving portrait of two sisters navigating life with fetal alcohol syndrome. The season also launched Honouring Theatre, touring three indigenous productions from Australia, New Zealand and Canada to Peterborough, Toronto, Regina and Vancouver.

In Northern Ontario, Manitoulin Island's De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig, founded in 1984, was the first and remains the only professional theatre company located on a First Nations reserve. Their work is dedicated to the vitalization of the Anishinaabeg culture, language and heritage through education and the sharing of original creative expression with Native and non-Native peoples. The company produced Drew Hayden Taylor's Toronto at Dreamer's Rock, earning Taylor a Chalmers Award in 1992. Three boys meet at the sacred dreamer's rock - one from the past, one from the present and another from the future - raising issues of contemporary Aboriginal identity in a humorous and moving play for young audiences. Since its original production, Toronto at Dreamer's Rock has been extensively produced around the country by companies such as Theatre Direct and Magnus. In 2009 De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig expanded with the opening of the Debajehmujig Creation Centre, a 15 000-square-foot multi-disciplinary creation, production and training centre.

Taylor's Bootlegger Blues, originally produced by De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig in 1990, was awarded the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for Best Drama, 1992. In 1994, Taylor was appointed artistic director of Native Earth, launching the 1994-1995 season with Someday, a witty play about a rural First Nations family that is unexpectedly reunited with a long-lost daughter. Like Highway, Taylor's strength is his humour and precision in portraying reserve life.

Inuit theatre expression has long been the subject of Nakai Theatre Ensemble in the Yukon, which focuses on the Northern experience. Young People's Theatre has also explored Inuit issues in its production of Whale (1993), a beautiful epic drama informed by Inuit legend and northern environmental issues. Nakai Theatre has a history of producing theatre that deals with homelessness, poverty, discrimination and cultural appropriation, such as Leonard Linklater and Patti Flather's 60 Below, Yellow on Thursday by Sarah Graefe, and Joseph Tisiga's Late Nite with Grey Owl.

By the early 1990s, many established theatre companies were receptive to Native theatre projects. Productions have toured and been staged at many established mainstage theatres. In 1994, Canadian Stage Company invited Tomson Highway to become playwright-in-residence. Métis playwright Ian Ross won both the John Hirsch Award for most promising Manitoba writer in 1996 and the Governor General's Award for drama in 1997 for his play fareWel, which premiered at Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1996 and was remounted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2001.

Another signal that the community had matured was the move to make the Native Theatre School independent from ANDPVA. The school was renamed the Centre for Indigenous Theatre (CIT). Under the artistic direction of Floyd Favel and Monique Mojica, CIT expanded the school's activities and became a crucible for the development of a First Nations performance culture, which, by the end of the 20th century, had lodged itself firmly in the mainstream of Canadian theatre.

In Saskatoon, the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, founded in 1999 by Gordon Tootoosis, Tantoo Cardinal, Donna Heimbecker, Kennetch Charlette and Dave Pratt, offered programs to youth to encourage them to engage in the arts, while providing professional programming and co-productions with Saskatoon's Persephone Theatre.

In Vancouver, urban ink productions, founded by Métis artist Marie Clements in 2001, has produced many of Clements' plays including Burning Vision (2002) and Copper Thunderbird (2007). Now under the direction of Diane Roberts, the company creates, develops and produces Aboriginal and diverse cultural works of theatre, writing and film.

In Edmonton, Alberta Aboriginal Arts was founded in 2009 to bring together artists of multiple disciplines and Aboriginal traditions.

Asian Canadian Theatre

Asian theatre has its roots in Canada as far back as 1933, when the Chinese United Dramatic Society began performing elaborate Cantonese operas in Toronto. At its height, the company produced two shows annually, featured lavish costumes and brought in professional actors from the United States and Hong Kong to augment the local cast of actors. Similarly, the Korean community, which immigrated to Canada only after 1965, began its activities with Kook-dan All (Theatre All) in the early 1980s, producing large-scale Korean dramas annually for its Toronto audience.

In the Filipino community, Carlos Bulosan Cultural Workshop (CBCW), founded in 1982, focused on immediate issues of life in Canada. Originally formed as the cultural wing of the CAMDI, the North America-wide Coalition Against the Marcos Dictatorship, CBCW was influenced by the tradition of popular theatre in the Philippines. Named in honour of a Filipino-American writer and social activist, CBCW's inaugural production, Carding (1984, 1986), dealt with the life of a Filipino immigrant in North America. Performing in both Tagalog and English, CBCW attempts to bridge the divide between the first- and second-generation members of its community.

Driven by producer Martha Ocampo, writer/director Fely Villasin and playwright Voltaire de Leon, CBCW has produced numerous shows and workshops including: If My Mother Could See Me Now/Inay Kung Alam Mo Lang, about the plight of domestic workers (1989, 1990); Home Sweet Home, about domestic violence in the Filipino community (1993); and Noong Kapanahunan Ko ... Not On My Time, about intergenerational conflict and misunderstanding (1994). CBCW has built links with popular theatre groups Ground Zero and The Company of Sirens, and was one of the few community theatres to achieve the transition to full professionalism.

Outside of the Filipino community, theatre that reflects the Asian experience in Canada has developed in fits and starts. Canasian Artists Group mounted Asian-Canadian Rick Shiomi's Yellow Fever (1983), and David Henry Hwang's Obie Award-winning play F.O.B. (1984). The company then went dormant, resurfacing with a production of one of Hwang's early works, The Dance and the Railroad, in 1993. In Vancouver, the Firehall Theatre has been the centre for Asian-Canadian theatre, mounting several of Rick Shiomi's works including Play Ball, Rosie's Cafe and Yellow Fever, and Wen Jee's Powder Blue Chevy, to receptive audiences. In Winnipeg, Enemy Graces, by Sharon Stearns, dealing sensitively with the Japanese internment, was produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1985.

The best-known Asian-Canadian playwright of the 1980s, Rick Shiomi, was first produced in the United States, then remounted in Canada. Original Asian-Canadian plays mounted were few: Winston Kam's Bachelor Man at Theatre Passe Muraille (1987), Wen Jee's Powder Blue Chevy at the Firehall (1990). Cahoots Theatre Projects mounted The Phoenix Cabaret, two biting political satires by contemporary Chinese writer Xie Min (1986). Sansei North Productions presented Song of the Nisei Fisherman by American writer Philip Kan Gotanda (1987).

In the 1990s, Hwang's Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly received mainstage productions at theatres across the country from 1991-1993. Young People's Theatre invested significantly in Asian talent with Naomi's Road by Joy Kogawa. Adapted to the stage by Paula Wing, Naomi's Road played with great success, receiving four Dora nominations. With the opening of Miss Saigon in 1993, Asian actors were employed in greater numbers than ever before. Miss Saigon, however, raised heated debate within the Asian community. Protests led by the grassroots Asian ReVisions charged that Miss Saigon recycled racial stereotypes.

The development of new Asian-Canadian works and writers was still relatively weak. Nightwood Theatre contributed through the development of works by Beverly Yhap, Betty Quan and Jean Yoon through its Groundswell Festivals. Workman Theatre Projects in Toronto developed and produced Terry Watada's Tale of a Mask, about the isolation, despair and suicide of a Japanese immigrant (1993). The intercultural Cahoots Theatre Projects inaugurated its annual new play development program Lift Off '93! by workshopping several works by Asian playwrights as part of its program. M.J. Kang's Noran Bang: The Yellow Room was presented as part of Cahoots's 3D festival, bringing Korean-Canadian issues to the stage in the fall of 1993.

In Lift Off '94, Cahoots developed two Asian works, Mom, Dad, I'm Living with a White Girl by Edmonton writer Marty Chan, and Mother Tongue by Betty Quan. Mom, Dad was produced in 1995 under the direction of Sally Han. Betty Quan's Mother Tongue, a drama about a family divided by language - Chinese, English and sign language - received a full production at Vancouver's Firehall Theatre in 1995. Quan's other works include Nancy Chew Enters the Dragon, produced by CBC Radio Drama, and The Dragon's Pearl, produced by YPT in the spring of 1995.

While Noran Bang, Mother Tongue and Mom, Dad each reflect different styles and concerns, they all speak to Asian-Canadians who are distanced from their parents by language and personal values. A community of Asian theatre artists - director Sally Han, designer Ange Zhang, choreographer Xing Bang Fu, composer Donald Quan - have risen to the top ranks of their professions. In the 1990s, Asian-Canadian theatre found its voice. In 2002 fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Company was founded in Toronto. Its notable productions include Banana Boys by Leon Aureus (2005), Singkil by Catherine Hernandez (2007) and Lady in the Red Dress by David Yee (2009).

Further Reading

External Links