The history of theatre in Newfoundland and Labrador is long and varied. This rich history was frequently influenced both by time and place; in one community, the "concert" tradition may have dominated, while in another London's West End favourites might have been produced. At one time, amateurs might dominate, at another, professionals. The theatrical landscape ever changes and reshapes itself. However, there are dominant patterns that can be considered in attempting to chart the history of theatre in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Amateur Theatre

Since the late 18th century, amateur theatre has been a fundamental component of dramatic activity. Originally produced by members of the garrison in St. John's, early amateur theatre was used to raise funds to alleviate the suffering of the poor. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, benevolent societies built theatres and produced plays in order to raise funds.

In 1937, with the formation of the St. John's Players, amateur theatre began to move in other directions. By the 1950's, amateur theatre had truly exploded with companies representing most communities annually producing and competing in various drama festivals across the province. Festival fare was varied; frequently the play chosen reflected the dominant characteristics of the home community, and consequently a company can be characterized by its Irish, American or British repertory. Equally strong at this time was the activity of communities who did not do "theatre" as such. Instead, they created and performed concerts, traditionally an evening's entertainment of original skits, songs and recitations. This is certainly not traditional play making but it is equally certainly a very fundamental part of Newfoundland and Labrador performance history.

Festivals were (and are) closely associated with the varied amateur tradition. The Dominion Drama Festival, later the Newfoundland and Labrador Drama Festival, laid the groundwork for other festivals, namely the Newfoundland High School Drama Festival and the Labrador School Festival to name but two. Festivals were also closely related to the professional scene.

Theatre Company Activity

After the highly influential and notable six-year season of the London Theatre Company, 1951-57, almost twenty years passed before there was a burst of activity in the creation of professional companies. CODCO, The Mummers Troupe and The Newfoundland Travelling Company all formed in the early seventies, and on the west coast Maxim Mazumdar started two companies in 1979, Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador and The Stephenville Festival. The professional theatre became firmly established during this creative decade.

London Theatre Company
London Theatre Company
Among its members were Hilary Vernon (centre), Leslie Yeo (third from right), and producer John Gabriel (second from right).
Reproduced by permission of Leslie Yeo. From Leslie Yeo, A Thousand and One First Nights (Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, © 1998) 184.

Companies worked either collectively or with single-authored texts. The Mummers Troupe used the collective process, as did CODCO. When the Resource Centre for the Arts at the LSPU Hall in St. John's became independent of the Mummers Troupe, collectives were mounted alongside single-authored scripts, though collectives tended to dominate. The Newfoundland Travelling Company, the Stephenville Festival and Theatre Newfoundlandand Labrador normally used single-authored plays, while Rising Tide Theatre mixed the genres.

Collective Creations

The collective creations began to wane in the eighties, and professional playwrights began to emerge. While Newfoundland and Labrador had always had playwrights—notably Grace Butt, whose play The Road Through Melton was produced in 1945—a new generation of playwrights moved to centre stage. The groundwork for the writers of the late eighties and nineties was laid by the playwrights Tom Cahill, Michael Cook and Al Pittman, who were dominant in the seventies. The combination of their work and the creative demands of the collective process resulted in a specialized training ground from which emerged a talented and creative new generation of playwrights.

Tom Cahill
Tom Cahill
Cahill was the author of several plays in the 1970's.
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Daily News Photograph Collection 94-081), Memorial University of Newfoundland.

By the late eighties and early nineties, Newfoundland and Labrador was home to several established playwrights. Companies had also been formed with specific mandates such as the Newfoundland Shakespeare Company. But the '90's also saw yet another shift in direction with the emergence of a new generation of play makers. With the formation of Artistic Fraud and First Light Productions, theatre in Newfoundland and Labrador was brought to the national stage once again. In 1998 Jillian Keiley of Artistic Fraud received the Canada Council John Hirsch award for emerging director and two years later Danielle Irvine of First Light Productions received the same award.

With increased funding for the arts from the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, theatre in Newfoundland and Labrador is once again exploding and expanding.

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