Canadian Theatre in the 1990s

I saw my first professional live theatre production in the summer of 1996, and by the summer of 2000 I had brought over half a dozen world premiers to the stage, worked in theatres large and small, and was well on my way to my life’s work and passion. It’s also the time when Canadian theatre began undergoing some profound changes which shaped it, for better or worse, into the form it resembles today.

The 90’s were the beginning of the end of the mega-musical as a theatrical model in Canadian theatre. The excess of the 80’s, coupled with the explosive growth in arts funding that had accompanied the 70’s finally started to wane, and shows like Miss Saigon and Cats began to look out of reach to many medium-sized producers. At the same time though, advances in technology (particularly in audio production, but also to a lesser extent in lighting) brought some hitherto un-stageable plays to smaller venues, schools and community theatres, feeding the already explosive growth in the “little theatre” movement. In my town alone there was just one community theatre company at the beginning of the decade, and half a dozen of them by the end.

Really it was the material that was changing the most, shifting away from the last vestiges of egalitarianism that had dominated Canadian theatre since the end of WWII, towards a theatre more reminiscent of Gorky’s The Lower Depths, or Miller’s Death of a Salesman – a true theatre of “Everyman.” In the spirit of the decade’s catch-phrase “this is the 90’s” we saw playwrights like Robert Lepage, writing plays with such complex technical requirements that only the latest advancements in computers and robotic stage devices could do the scripts justice. We also saw shows like Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, with its shocking title alone being enough to have kept it from the stage even 10 year’s earlier.

Despite these break-throughs, and despite the drive towards a theatre that everyone could be a part of and enjoy, Canadian theatre in the 90’s suffered as much from its own success as anything else. This was where everyone thought they knew the “formula” for producing a hit show which, once found, had to be strictly followed ever after. Thus the interminable string of interchangeable British Farces. In truth, there was no formula to be had, and with only the rarest of exceptions (Dan Needles Wingfield series being about the only one I can think of) there was little to be gained from endless remounts of previously successful shows, or producing one play in the avowed spirit of another.

I think theatre in Canada went and had a little nap during the 1990’s, an important though unimpressive downtime where the industry got a little too comfortable and full of itself.

I was working on the world premiere of Norm Foster’s Jasper Station on 9/11. Rehearsals were cancelled for the day, and I spent the afternoon sitting in a bar with the Technical Director watching the television. As they showed the footage over and over and over again I couldn’t help but remark “This changes everything.” Little did I know how right I was – our company was out of business and I was unemployed within 18 months. Canadian theatre’s sweet dreams of the 1990’s had turned into a nightmare, one from which many of us were unable to awake.